Monthly Archives: June 2008

A Tragic Strip Poker Story

There are more than a few poker players who’ve chosen to take part in a game of strip poker.  Normally the prime reason behind strip poker is guys just using the game to try and get girls naked.  Oftentimes in the end though, the girls do end up losing but refusing to take their clothes off and the game comes to an end.  Rarely though does a game of strip poker end in a person’s death.

Unfortunately for group of British college students, their game did and they will be haunted by it for the rest of their lives.  20 year-old Mark Day was playing a game of poker with some friends from his university.  The venue was the Majorca Beach Hotel in a resort called Magalluf and Day had just lost the poker game they were playing.

After losing, he had to strip off almost all of his clothes and run along the hotel corridor in just his socks and underwear.  Fueled by alcohol, he undertook the task and began running.  His friend ran with him as they were trying to make it to the elevator.  Sadly, he couldn’t stop in time as a pane of glass approached and fell through a fifth floor window which led to his death 40 feet below on the hotel lobby roof.

His sobbing friends called for help and paramedics arrived on the scene right away but there was nothing they could do for Mark as he was pronounced dead at the scene.  His buddies were then left to try and make some sense of the incident to the police there.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t really much sense to be made of the whole thing and all they could do was recount what had happened.        


Is it Possible to be a Great Tournament and Cash Game Player?

One thing that always puzzles me about poker is how it seems that certain people in the game can dominate live cash games and/or online ring games but they can’t find their way off the first couple of tables in a big tournament.  The reverse can be true as well where great tournament players will get taken for all they’re worth in a good cash game.

The reason this puzzles me is because the Texas Hold’em rules don’t change just because there is a tournament or a cash game.  It’s still two hole cards to each player and a board of five cards.  But perhaps the only thing that truly changes is the way that successful players play in each situation.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the majority of of successful cash game players follow the tight/aggressive model that hauls in a decent amount of money.  Obviously some people are better at using the tight/aggressive style than others and thus they bring in more cash while they’re playing.

On the flip side, it often seems that aggressive players who are willing to go all-in at any given point (provided they have at least something in their hand) are the ones who double their stacks in tourneys and find themselves competing for spots at the final tables of a lot of tourneys they enter. 

These same players who compete in cash games will, in many cases, find their loose and reckless style to be detrimental to a bankroll.  At some tables, their loose play may scare super tight players away from pots but they’ll most likely be called with their all-in A-5 bets by someone at sometime.

Oftentimes in a tournament though, this all-in A-5 bet will turn out to be a winner because the tight players don’t want to risk their entire (or a large portion) of their stack by calling this bet.  And it is these tight players (who may excel at cash games) that are rarely ever found at the top of a tournament leaderboard.  They merely try to hang on and, in the process, never try to build their stack till it’s too late.

In my opinion, cash game players looking to play more tournaments and tourney players looking to get in on more cash games can learn something from one another.  It’s best to switch one’s style up when changing games.

Questions answered about Man vs. Machine Poker Challenge

As some people may already know, the second Man vs. Machine Poker Challenge is set to begin at the Rio in a week.  Online pros will be taking on Polaris 2 this time around.  I’ve covered this challenge with a couple of previous posts already in one where I talked about it and another where I responded to some comments by a Polaris programmer named Mike Johanson

Well I had some questions about the actual machine known as Polaris that Phil Laak and Ali Eslami played last year and Mike was kind enough to answer all of the questions that I had about it.  He had some very interesting things to say on the subjects of Polairs and how it is able to compete against human players such as the online pros it will be taking on July 3rd.

Below are my questions and his answers;

Jeremy: I know you’re pretty busy getting things together with the Polaris competition only about a week away but I was wondering if you would have time to answer a few quick questions about it.

Mike: No problem!  We’re in pretty good shape this year.  Last year, we were still figuring out which bots to put in the seat up until the day of the competition.  This time, we’ve had a pretty good idea for the last month.

Part of why we’re well-prepared right now is because this is our second poker competition this summer.  There’s also the AAAI Computer Poker Competition, which is an open, research-oriented poker tournament for bots.  The results are announced at the AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) 
conference each year (mid-July this year), but the bots play for a solid month, starting June 15th.  This year, the bots are playing two Heads-Up Limit events, one Heads-Up No-Limit event, and a 6-player Limit event.  The nice thing about the computer matches is that the bots play millions of hands, so you know down to the millibet (0.001 small bets/hand) how well they do against each other.

The bots we submitted to AAAI are close cousins to the bots we’ll use in the Man-Machine competition, so we’ve been ready to play since the 15th.

Jeremy: I’ve heard Polaris has been upgraded and improved upon from last year when it played Phil Laak and Ali Eslami.  What were the upgrades that your team made to the machine?

Mike: We’ve made a lot of progress in two areas – board texture and adapting.

Last year’s Polaris bot didn’t have a good grasp of the board texture.  It always had a good idea of how likely it was to win a hand, but it had a murky idea of how much potential to improve its hand had (like flush or straight draws) or how easy it was to bluff (or be bluffed) with certain boards.  We’ve made some great progress on that this year.

In matches 1, 2 and 4 of last year’s competition, Polaris didn’t adapt to its opponent at all.  It used exactly the same strategy on hand 1 as on hand 500.  Our bot plays close to a Nash equilibrium strategy, which means it’s tough to beat, but it isn’t able to exploit opponent weaknesses.  If you want to try to win instead of trying to not lose, you need to be able to change what you’re doing to exploit your opponent.

In match 3 last year, we tried an experimental learning bot, but it had some issues.  This year, we have a great system for adapting safely to increase the amount we win from an opponent.  This system is actually the subject of a paper we’re presenting at a conference on July 8th, right after the competition.  A lot of the work we’ve done on poker has led to discoveries that apply outside of poker and outside of games.  We’re doing a lot of good science through this work.

Jeremy: What exactly is Polaris?  Is it an actual machine or computer?

Mike: Polaris is the name we use for the collection of programs we have that play poker.  For example, the bot that’ll play at the Man-Machine match just plays heads-up limit, but when we branch into No-Limit or work on Ring again, we’ll call those bots Polaris, too.

Most of the work in making Polaris is done well before the match on one of the University of Alberta’s clusters.  The program teaches itself how to play poker by playing billions of hands against itself – there’s very little  human knowledge that goes into designing its strategy.  To do that, we use 8 CPUs with 8 gigs of RAM each, and we run it for two to three weeks.  That winds up making a 30 gigabyte program that describes the strategy that bot will use to play poker.

At the match, since the bot has already self-taught itself how to play, it doesn’t need a very powerful compute to actually play.  We can run it on a single off-the-shelf laptop.

So, if anything was the machine behind Polaris, it would be the cluster we use to train the bot, and not the Mac laptop on stage sitting across from the pro.

Jeremy: This is now the second year that Polaris has played some professional poker players.  Do you think that this will become a long standing competition between pro poker players and Polaris?

Mike: We certainly hope so – we learn a lot from the matches, we think the pros do too, and it’s a lot of fun all around.  Eventually, when we’ve gotten as far as we can with Heads-Up Limit, we’d like to branch out to other games.  No-Limit and Ring present their own challenges, and we can learn a lot about the science of AI from asking questions like “What’s different about this game?  What can we reuse, and what’s totally new?”

If we have a convincing win this year, we might try to play No-Limit next year and will probably lose badly.  We can build on that and do better the following year, and so on.

Jeremy: Will you personally be making the trip to the Rio to watch the competition?

Mike: Yep, we’re taking the whole research group this year.  There’s 8 of us graduate students that do the programming, four professors, and hopefully a couple of our past members that still contribute will join us, too.  It’s a big team effort.

Jeremy: Do you have any predictions on the outcome of the competition?

Mike: I think our chances of winning are pretty good.  It was a tight match last year, and while our bot is a lot stronger, we’re also playing against Heads-Up Limit specialists this time.  We’ve been doing a lot of pre-match testing, though, and the experts we’ve been playing against seem really impressed.  When poker pros say after a match that “I’d let it play my chips any time”, we know we’re on the right 
track. attacks WSOP for Questionable Attendees

Anyone who follows poker knows that the World Series of Poker has grown far beyond its humble beginnings of decades ago.  No longer is it the old, strictly American event that got little coverage outside of a page 2 news article.  Now it is played in the lavish Rio amongst thousands of great players that fly from all over the world just to compete in the Mecca of poker. 

But recently, there have been people bashing the WSOP because it doesn’t screen out certain people who choose to buy-in into its events – the most notable being the popular sports blog that goes by the name of and

First the Deadspin, Will Leitch (who also owns the blog), went on a rant about how he didn’t even know the WSOP was going on and that its demise came at the same time Burt Reynolds movies are made about it.  Then he talked about how Ernie Scherer III, who is possibly a suspect in the murders of his parents, is attending the event citing as the source.

Tracing the story over to I found that they not only reported on Scherer III but they also talked about Shahram Sheikhan who was convicted on charges of sexual battery and annoyance or molestation of a child.  There is a move to get him deported back to Iran for his crimes.

Now Sheikhan obviously committed a terrible crime and may be forced to close up his six tattoo parlors en route back to Iran for it (in addition to the jail time he served).  And if Scherer truly murdered his parents, this is a huge travesty that should be punishable by death so there is no problem in reporting on these two’s whereabouts. 

But then tries to make some sort of connection between the morals of the Olympics and the NFL vs. those of the WSOP by using comments from a reporter named Tom Somach.  Somach’s comments are as follows, “Seriously, do you think a guy convicted of child molestation and serving nine months in jail would be allowed to compete in the Olympics or the Super Bowl for that matter?  Or anything of substance?  But he can be in the World Series of Poker and nobody cares.”

One thing that is missing in this whole equation though is that the Olympics and Super Bowl don’t charge buy-ins for the players to participate.  The WSOP does making it totally different from the other two.  Tons of other differences can be made but the bottom line is that the WSOP should not be made into some kind of criminal circus because a 2 of the 50,000+ players have, or may have, committed awful crimes.


Finding the Fish

Amazingly enough, there are quite a few people out there that will play a winning session of poker and not quite comprehend why they’ve done so well.  Some of it could be chalked up to the fact that they’ve improved their skills since the last time they played.  Some of it could be that they’ve just become a great player over night. 

But the most likely explanation though for someone who has good sessions here and there and doesn’t realize why is that they are finding fish to play with.  No matter how much one wants to harp on how great their skills are, a lot of players know that in the end the major money will come from the players who can’t play poker.  Not from amazing duels between two exceptional players.

Just knowing that profitable games come from playing with a lot of really bad players doesn’t help one out though if they don’t know how to find them.  The truth is that fish will be found at every poker room and at every table.  But it’s the quantity of fish that really makes the difference. 

One thing that I do when I go fishing is to examine the player’s money counts as soon as I get in the room.  For example, if I jump in a six-max Pot Limit game and see that three out of the five players that were there before I entered have way over the maximum amount of money you’re allowed to enter with, I know that they’ve been doing something right.  And that something has probably been taking money from bad players.

If this is the case, I usually try and get out of the room if there are plenty of these types in there and go find another room.  In addition to doing this, I also try and play at the peek hours when players who don’t play poker for a living are on.  I find that when it’s late at night or early in the day, the grinders will be playing  to make their living. 

It’s definitely good to avoid these types and stick to the easier players.


Using Hypnosis to become a Great Poker Player?

A popular theme in the poker world today is to enlist the help of professional coaching to become a much better player.  Many websites offer these services to players who desperately want to become better players but can’t get there by themselves.

However, there’s a brand new phenomenon that’s starting to gain a foothold that I never even thought of before.  And that is the use of hypnosis to make people better poker players and it’s being offered by a company called Think Like a Poker Pro.

Now I thought that this was really interesting news because, as I mentioned before, I never really thought about the usage of hypnosis to make one a better poker player.  But hypnosis has made people do some amazing things in the past such as quit smoking, become better athletes, overcome fears, etc.

it has especially helped people in the way of sports as a lot of pro teams utilize hypno-therapists on a consistent basis to enable their athletes to gain confidence and play better.  But therein lies the problem as compared to something like poker: Poker involves a lot less confidence than sports employs and a lot more knowledge of the game.

For example, I’ve seen plenty of 6’10” basketball players who could jump out of the gym never make it in the pros when compared to their less talented counterparts who simply had a much higher level of confidence when taking shots and handling the ball.  Thinking like a pro in this sense does make a huge difference. 

On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how high you can jump or how fast you can run at the poker table.  Just knowing the game, studying players, and making correct plays will help a person greatly in the long run while playing poker.  To me, hypnosis doesn’t stand to make the average player into a Phil Ivey-type clone

Now I can see where it might help one avoid going on tilt or to keep a better poker face in live play but beyond this, I don’t see it making a huge impact otherwise.  I could be wrong though and I’ll be interested to see the results and feedback on this poker hypnosis thing.

Bad Beat or just a Bad Play

I for one don’t like to hear people constantly whining about their bad beats on the Internet.  Everybody has them and it’s not use complaining about and cussing out the person who delivered it.  But I had one play the other night that made wonder whether I had truly received a [[Bad_beat|bad beat]] or just made a bad play.

I was playing a game of No Limit Texas Hold’em and the two hole cards that I was dealt were an A and a 10.  That was good enough for me to call the big blind and everyone else limped in.  The flop hit as A-Q-3 off suited and everybody except for me and one other person folded.

I now had top pair and didn’t really think this person stayed with Q-3 so I bet out a little.  My bet was called and the turn came around as another Q.  So I checked and the other player only placed a small bet which truly made me wonder what was going on.  Did this person have a set of queens and was just slowplaying me or did they truly have nothing and were just representing a queen.

Well I thought my answer came on the river as another queen landed making the board A-Q-3-Q-Q and making me think that there was no way in this six-handed game that the other player happened to have a queen with three of them already on the board.  I mean it’s definitely possible but the odds would really suggest otherwise.

So I put a big bet out there while the other play went all-in.  My chip stack was larger so I called not thinking they were truly holding the queen.  To my surprise though, they were holding a queen and they were also holding a four of a kind at that.

My initial thought was whether this could be declared a bad beat or just a bad play.  Most of the time, the lone player left isn’t going to stay in past the flop with a bigger overpair represented.  But this player had and they were rewarded for it.  I, on the other hand, lost quite a bit of my stack and was wondering what others at the table were thinking of the decision to stay in the hand with top pair.

If the same situation arose again, I think that I’d probably still make the same play to tell the truth.  We’ll see how it turns out when it comes up in the future.

More Great WSOP Moments – Charitable Contributions

A few posts ago, I discussed some of the better moments that the 2008 World Series of Poker has experienced so far.  Well the last one talked about were blown out of the water by the actions of Jimmy Shultz and [[Eric_Brook|Eric Brooks]].

Neither one of these two are really well known among poker fans – especially Brooks who doesn’t have a whole lot of major [[Poker|poker]] experience.  But both came out on top in WSOP events as Shultz won Event #12 while Brooks won Event #14.

That wasn’t what was impressive about the two though as both did something far greater for the game of poker.  Both made huge charitable contributions among the likes that have rarely been seen by poker before.

After winning the 12th event of the WSOP, Shultz decided to donate a fifth of his $257,049 in prize money to the Charleston Fire Department.  He also wore a [[CFD|CFD]] cap throughout the tournament to support the department after they lost nine men in a terrible warehouse fire.  The 50+ grand that Shultz gave them should help out some.

Brooks went even farther in his charity by giving all of his $415,856 to the Decision Education Foundation.  This nonprofit organization is headed by Stanford University and seeks to help children how to make good choices.  Brooks has been a longtime board member of the group.

To me it’s pretty amazing when people can give these types of donations after winning a WSOP.  After all, many players choose to keep all of the money and either invest it or buy fancy things.  I can’t say I blame them either as most people would be inclined to keep that type of money as poker can be a fickle game at times and you never know when the next big win is coming.  That just makes it even more incredible that Brooks and Shultz were able to part ways with significant amounts of cash.

Man vs. Poker Machine follow-up

Last post I talked about how, for the second year in a row, pro poker players will take on the card-playing machine known as Polaris 2 at the Las Vegas Rio on July 3rd.  During the post, I mentioned former World Chess Champion [[Garry_Kasparov|Gary Kasparov]] and how he was beaten the second time he played the chess-playing computer Deep Blue.

I also made a connection to how the professional online poker players who square off against Polaris 2 might want to avoid being beaten by the machine or they’ll be “humiliated” like Kasparov.  Well one of the programmers for [[Polaris_(poker_bot)|Polaris 2]], Mike Johanson, came across the post and wanted to point out that they’re not trying to humiliate anybody with this poker robot.

Instead he says that the Polaris 2 project deals with learning things about AI outside of games, boasting some friendly competition, and having fun in the process.  His comments are pretty insightful and posted below along with my response to him.  And for the record,  I think what the University of Alberta is doing with Polaris 2 is really cool and that’s why I wanted to post about it.

(Mike’s comments)


My name is Mike Johanson – I’m one of the programmers on the Polaris project. I found your blog while I was procrastinating this morning before starting on the day’s bot-coding :^D

I think the attitudes of the competitors play a large role in determining how everyone looks back on the event. The second match between Kasparov and Deep Blue didn’t end well – Kasparov was convinced the IBM team had cheated by having humans intervene during the match. He said Deep Blue had made “human” moves, that only a human (and never a computer) would make. There just isn’t any such thing – and likewise, Grundy is wrong about the psychology of bluffing being a human phenomenon. Bluffing is actually the easiest part for us, because the mathematics of game theory tells you how often to bluff and slowplay.

So, Kasparov insisted that IBM had cheated, and whether it was true or not (and I’m sure it isn’t, but hey – I’m on the computer’s side, right?), it looked like sour grapes. If he was “humiliated”, then that was a big part of it.

Poker has been different so far. The work we’ve done in poker over the last 14 years has turned up a lot of knowledge about the game that humans are able to use to improve their game. I think the pros we’ve played against (Laak, Eslami, Paradis) have learned just as much from the matches as we have. If this improves their game when they play against other humans, then I think it’s a win-win situation.

We’re certainly not out to try to humiliate anyone. By doing this research, we’re learning things about AI that apply outside of Poker and outside of games. The friendly competition we get from playing against poker pros is a) really motivating, b) good for research, and c) awesome and fun. I think the pros feel the same way.

(My response)

Hi Mike,

You make a very good point about the attitudes of the competitors playing a big role in how the event will be perceived later on. Kasparov didn’t have the best attitude after losing and I agree that it’s doubtful IBM had humans intervene (and if they did shouldn’t Kasparov been able to beat them since he was a World Champ?).

By saying “humiliated” I meant that, instead of being recognized as one of the greatest chess champions of all time, he was instead presented through the mainstream media as the chess champ who lost to a computer.

Maybe if Kasparov would have been more gracious in defeat, he wouldn’t have been shown in that light. By accusing IBM of cheating, Kasparov may have brought on plenty more negative attention.  If your poker machine does beat Paradis and the rest of the online pros, hopefully they’ll take defeat a lot better. From the quotes I’ve read by Paradis, he seems to be taking this competition in a friendly manner.

And about Grundy’s comment, I’m sure you know plenty about what Polaris is capable of since you’re one of the programmers and I believe what you say about the bluffing aspect. But, before reading your comments, I would have been in the same boat as Grundy in thinking that a computer wouldn’t be able to handle situational play such as bluffing, slowplaying, and profiling opponents.

Anyways, good luck with the competition and I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

Man vs. Poker Machine

I can still remember back to 1996 when former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov took on an IBM computer by the name of Deep Blue in a famed match that made news headlines everywhere.  Kasparov won the famous chess match 4 games to 2 supposedly proving that no computer could beat a human at the game. 

Unfortunately, the Russian agreed to take IBM up on its offer again in playing the machine a second time.  The upgraded version of Deep Blue (nicknamed Deeper Blue) got revenge for the previous loss and won two games to Kasparov’s one with three games being draws.

What’s this have to do with poker?  Well for the second straight year, the Polaris poker playing machine will be brought out to compete against some of the best poker players in the world.  Last year saw Phil “The Unabomber” Laak and Ali Eslami defeat the 1st version of Polaris two games to one with one game being a tie. 

Now, however, the machine is upgraded and comes with a new name: Polaris 2 (flashbacks to Kasparov and the chess matches?).  And this time the opponents for the computer have changed too as Polaris will be facing off against some of the best online players in the world. 

The online players definitely know what they’re up against too as Bryce Paradis, who cashed for over 3 million dollars last year, had this to say, “Against the current AI in Polaris 2 the average poker player would be completely dominated.  The Polaris 2 team has made incredible improvements since the match last year.” 

Let’s hope that the professional poker players such as Paradis won’t be completely dominated by the machine.  Otherwise, they’ll suffer the same humiliation that Kasparov suffered back in 1997 when he became the first World Champion to lose to a machine.