Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Cash or the Crown?

Which is more important in poker tournaments, the trophy or the prize money?

During the final table of the WPT Deepstacks LA, commentators Owais Ahmed and Tristan Wade got into a brief debate over which is more valuable, winning a first place trophy or winning the most money possible, with Owais speculating that some people might be willing to take a little less money if it meant getting the crown, and Tristan insisting that money rules the day, and he could always go buy a trophy if he really wanted one.

This is a debate that has been knocked back and forth at least since the poker boom, with conventional wisdom being that any “real” poker player is only in it for the money, and should have as a goal to make as much as possible, with no consideration to accolades (one might argue that any “real” poker player who’s only after cash wouldn’t play tournaments at all, but that’s another debate). 

On the other side of the debate are more skeptical types who suggest that when push comes to shove, many of these “real” poker players deeply covet the prestige that comes with bracelets and trophies, and value them much higher than the monetary reward.

The Trophy vs. The $$$$

I think that in the real world, the two concepts are completely inseparable. The first place trophy only has significance because of the financial win it represents. If I win a WSOP bracelet, that has meaning because people know that hundreds of opponents invested their own (or sometimes, someone else’s) hard earned cash to get that title, and were highly motivated to stop me from winning it. I highly doubt that anyone would display their World Series of Online Play Money Poker championship bracelet with any particular level of pride. Conversely, if I tell someone that I won a poker trophy but someone else got more money because we made a deal before hand, that person would probably get the sense that despite my owning the hardware, I didn’t really win the tournament at all, and just kind of bought a meaningless title that I didn’t actually earn.

The Experiment

Fortunately, as a philosopher, I can design a thought experiment that truly brings this question to light. The experiment goes as follows:

You are a fairly strong professional poker player. Strong enough that you have made a decent living for yourself although your bankroll fluctuates considerably, and you have the respect of your peers. You receive an invitation to play in a poker tournament that purports to feature the nine best players in the world (including yourself). There is no entry fee and no prize money, but the winner will be declared World Poker Champion, and the event will be televised on broadcast TV in prime time, so that if you win, even casual fans of the game will know you as the poker champion of the world.

Later that day, you receive an invitation to a private home poker game. It will be a sit n go with only one prize, a million dollars for first place. Since the other players in the game are wealthy hobbyists who want to test their mettle against a pro, there is no entry fee for this game either. However, this game takes place on the same day as the World Championship and you cannot play both. Which would you choose?

I submit that many tournament pros would probably go for the World Championship trophy, even though no money is up for grabs. I believe this for two reasons. 1) A successful tournament pro can always make more money, and while the overlay is infinite, winning the million dollars in the money game is not guaranteed. 2) The opportunity value of being World Champion is probably worth more than a million dollars in sponsorships, invitations to profitable games and tournaments, and other general perks.

I also think that the money vs. fame debate is not absolute. If you are a mid stakes grinder who has never made more than $50,000 a year playing poker (but has never lost money in a year of poker), the money game is a no brainer. Not only could it potentially change your life, but at your level, it’s probably more profitable if people don’t know your name, style of play, or amount of skill. On the other hand, if you’re Daniel Negreanu or Antonio Esfandiari, you’d probably be at that World Championship table before your wealthy friend could get out the worlds “million dollar freeroll.” 

You can also see how your perspective on this issue can change not only from player-to-player, but can also fluctuate for an individual player depending on where they are in their poker career.

Fortunately, most of us will probably never have to make this choice. We’ll keep playing for first place because that’s where all the money is, and happily take the trophy/bracelet/ring that goes with it, and whatever other perks of poker fame that hardware brings.

Have a different take? Let me know in the comments.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

WPT Deepstacks Los Angeles Main Event

On Tuesday, I finished 2nd in the WPT Deepstacks Los Angeles Main Event. The event took place at my "home casino," the Bicycle Casino ("The Bike") in Bell Gardens. Starting with a short stack of 300,000 in chips (effective M less than 3, fewer than 8BB), I managed to get heads up with a 4 to 1 chip lead. But heads up matches can be fickle, and four coolers in fairly rapid succession later (KJ vs AJ, KJ vs KQ, rivered Broadway straight vs. rivered backdoor flush, and A7 vs. A8), I was shaking the hand of the champion James Gorham. While he got lucky in the end, James is a great player, who manhandled me when I was the chip leader on Day 2, and who had entered the Final Table with the chip lead himself. Here’s my analysis of the event.

The Game

While I entered the event with by far the shortest stack, I was fairly confident. (Don’t believe me? Check out my pre-game interview) I actually think that short stack play is the strongest part of my tournament game (owing to my having had so many over the years, I imagine), and I knew that if I could find a few cards early and steal a couple of pots or win that first double up before getting low in chips, I’d have as good a chance as anybody.

That’s exactly what happened. Although I lost a round of blinds almost immediately, I managed to pass through with pocket sevens, and then doubled when my KT held up against 88. After that I was off to the races. While I was hitting some flops, I was fortunate enough to be up against players who didn’t really want to fight. James, because he was the chip leader, and was happy to let everyone else go to war while he picked his spots and picked up a few chips here and there, and everyone else because they were either ABC players who were only going to play real hands, or because they were waiting for the short stacks to bust so they could move up the ladder.

Of course, putting me at a table full of tight players is like dropping a piranha in a goldfish tank, and I went to town, opening, calling, and raising with a wide range of hands and rapidly building my stack. I think the commentators at first thought I was just a maniac (Tristan Wade at one point saying “Craig just cares what he has, he doesn’t care what anybody else might have, he’s got a good hand and he’s going with it,” which is patently ridiculous), but as the match proceeded I think they recognized there was some method to my style of play. As the players fell, my confidence grew, and although when we got 3 handed, Prash several times advocated for a deal, I wasn’t having it.

Heads Up

After James eliminated Prash and we were heads up, we did make a deal, taking 70K each from the prize pool and playing for the rest of the cash and the trophy. It seemed like a logical move, since we were almost dead even in chips at that point and James was the strongest player at the table, and it worked out after I hit that rash of coolers.

The bad luck at the end was disappointing, but I took solace in three points. A) I lost to the odds on favorite coming in, and I felt I had outplayed him, losing only because of some unfortunate situations that would have defeated almost any player B) I had to get lucky to get there, as does any player. I entered the tournament late, an idea I’ve been toying with for a while. When I arrived, one of my opponents jokingly admonished me for not saying hello to everyone when I joined the table. “I won’t be here long,” I joked. Although the reverse psychology on the poker gods worked, five hands in, it seemed like my words might be prophetic. I was all in and covered against two other players, holding Ac 5d, on a board reading Qc Jc 8c, up against Qh Jd and 9s Th. The beautiful 4c popped up on the river, and I tripled up and, much like with the final table, never looked back, running my stack up to a Day 1 Chip Lead of 417K. C) I had entered the final table with the short stack, and while I was confident, I knew all the confidence in the world wouldn’t have helped me if I didn’t get a little bit of luck early, and having to exit the final table after five minutes with all my friends and family watching on line would have really sucked.

The Commentary

I learned from social media that Tristan Wade had been a bit hard on me in the commentary, and I love that my boys had my back, firing back at Tristan on Twitter. I feel like he just didn’t understand my game at first, and came around at the end. After the game, he offered me some very gracious, positive, and congratulatory tweets on Twitter, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re good.

One of Tristan’s biggest issues with me was that I was playing a little too passively against James Gorham, entering pots against him with weak hands and checking them down, passing up opportunities to steal pots on the river when James appeared weak. What Tristan couldn’t have known was that I had played with James all day on Day 2, and he had tossed me around like a rag doll, whittling my stack down so much that at one point I thought I might not even cash, which would have been a disaster, although I know I’m far from the first chip leader to have this happen to. A large part of James’ success against me came from calling down river bluffs, and I only managed to get back into the game when I caught a nut flush against his jack high flush on a board where a fourth diamond hit the river and got him to pay off a big bet.

From this experience I felt strongly that James would call me fairly light on the river even when taking weak lines, which is why I challenged him on the river fewer times than I would one of the other players. I think this strategy bore fruit late in the match, when I got James to call off a large river bet with only a pair of threes on a K K 2 9 5 board with me holding K5. In general, I know Tristan was “calling it like he sees it,” and he didn’t know me as a player at all before this match. Still, thanks again to my brother and friends for having my back.

Jokes about my love of clubs (the suit, not the partying venue) aside, I thought Owais’ commentary and insight was quite good. A couple of times his analysis of what I was planning or thinking was right on. At one point, he accused me of Hollywooding (which, while I’m not against in principle, I generally don’t do) but after a couple of minutes, revised his analysis and suspected I was playing a leveling game in my head with Prash, which is exactly what was happening.

The Tell

Owais observed that he thought I had a tell, which was that when I merely announced a big river bet, I was strong, whereas when I put the chips out, I was bluffing. Although I could see it might look this way on T.V., I don’t think this is the case. Typically, if I just announce a bet, I will always put the chips out eventually. I’ll wait ten seconds or so to see if I get an instant response, and if my opponent tanks, I’ll bring out the chips. Most of my announced river value bets were either snap called or insta folded, so there was no need to bring out the chips. You’ll see there’s one hand, were I was bluffing, where Owais insisted I brought the chips out, proving his theory, and Tristan wasn’t so sure I had. This was one of those situations where I announced, James went into the tank, and when I saw he wasn’t going to act right away, I counted out the stack. Nevertheless, now that this “tell” is out there, I’ll probably play with it in case any of my future opponents watched the stream (or read this blog).


All in all, it was a great experience, and knowing all my friends and family were watching and cheering me on was the best part (after, you know, all that money). If you have any questions about the match, post them in the comments and I'll be happy to answer if I can. Looking forward to the next one!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Team Echo

A year ago, I had a dream. To tell the story of a team of superheroes who saved the world from a zombie apocalypse, and then couldn't be found when the world needed them to do it again. Now, with the help of gifted Australian artist Jonathan Munro, that dream has been realized.

Team Echo #1 is complete, and is available now in digital form: here:

I plan to sell the book digitally through other venues, and eventually, to make hard copies available. Without an established publisher, this may take some time though, and I wanted to make sure the story is available now. Whether or not an issue #2 will be published is heavily dependent upon the reception of this first issue. I have the entire story planned out, so there's no question that the series will be there if there is interest.

I'd love it if you would head on over to gumroad and buy a copy, and if you have any ideas on how we can make the publication available to a mass audience, I'd love to hear that too. Thanks!

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Why Doesn’t 2015 Look As It Was Depicted in Back to the Future II?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Back to the Future franchise. It’s a very important anniversary. Why? Because, as Doc Brown says “it seems like a nice, round number,” and it is the period of time that the protagonists leap over from their base time of 1985, either into the past, or the future (give or take 100 years for Back to the Future III).

Yes, fanboys and friends, we have arrived at the future, 2015, and have the benefit of being able to compare our current lives with what was predicted by Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis claims, by the way, that he had no intention of trying to accurately predict what life would be like 30 years in the future, he was just trying to be funny. But Zemeckis doesn’t need to backpedal. Yes, we have no flying cars, hoverboards (well, just barely), mass produced sneakers that tie themselves, double-knotted neckties, popular clothing in holographic colors, or 18 Jaws sequels, but there is a good reason for this.

Marty McFly Changes the Future

As we see in Back to the Future II when Biff escapes into the past with the Sports Almanac, changing events in the past can massively affect the present (and the future). Biff goes from being a sap to kingpin and back again due to the characters’ various mucking about in past events. What we conveniently forget when Back to the Future II opens is that a massive change to the past has already happened.

George McFly: World Maker

If you’ll recall, in Back to the Future, Marty helps his dad learn to stand up to Biff, and as a result, George becomes a cool, successful guy rather than the milquetoast he was before. Given the McFly family’s psychotic reaction to being called “chicken,” one might have thought that Marty would have exploited this weakness to make a man out of George in 1955 and saved himself a lot of time and trouble, but perhaps this weakness skipped a generation, or Marty simply isn’t that bright and hadn’t thought of it.*

However, what we do not realize is that Marty’s changes extended far beyond making his family a success. As a result of Marty’s actions, George McFly becomes a (presumably successful) science fiction author. Now we all know that science fiction authors often provide the ideas and framework for what later becomes science fact. Star Trek gave us the model for cell phones. Isaac Asimov conceived of the e-Reader and much of the way we think about robots. I submit that the future technology that we see in Back to the Future II’s 2015 that we do not have today come as a direct result of ideas from George McFly’s novels.

 Why Fax machines instead of the internet? Perhaps one of McFly’s adventures glorified this now-archaic device, encouraging scientists to put their efforts into perfecting it rather than other, less reliable-seeming types of wireless technology. Why were there 18 Jaws sequels? (A better question, why weren’t there 18 Jaws sequels?) Did you catch that latest George McFly best seller about the man-eating shark from space? How did the Cubs win the World Series? Well, that one I can’t explain, but you get the idea.

Back to the Present

The conclusion is inescapable. Before Marty McFly went back to 1955 to escape the Libyan terrorists, his 2015 looked exactly as ours does today, with the internet, cars and skateboards that stay rooted firmly to the ground, and a hapless Cubs franchise that will never get it quite right. By going back in time and affecting the timeline, he created the awesome 2015 that we in this world will never get to enjoy.

*And sorry, fans, but Marty McFly is not particularly intelligent. Observe how many times in the first Back to the Future he makes comments that suggest he does not realize that he is in the past although it should be abundantly clear at this point that this is what has happened. Also, Marty acts surprised when Doc Brown suggests his mother is romantically interested in him despite the fact that she has already overtly hit on him. In addition, he’s not creative enough to think of any fake names for himself that don’t already belong to existing famous people, and even at middle age he is able to be manipulated psychologically with tactics typically used on children.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Are We in Danger of Being Taken Over by Robots?

Robots are the new vampires. After taking a back seat for a few decades, robots are back in force as an interest in popular media. Television shows like “Humans” and “Almost Human,” (and, presumably, in the near future, Barely Human, Human Enough, and Are You More Human Than a Sixth Grader?), comic books like Alex and Ada, and movies like Ex Machina and Terminator Genisys all deal with the rise of Artificial Intelligence and how it will affect us.

Of course, this is well-worn territory. In the ‘80s, the Terminator franchise introduced us to the perils of SkyNet, we had Tron and the dreaded MCP, and decades earlier, Isaac Asimov laid down the rules for robots who could think.

The difference is, now it’s the future, and it’s starting to look like these things could actually happen. A robot who looks, talks, and feels (as in, to the touch, not as in, emotional response) like a human is not only possible, they exist. We’re not quite at the level of mass produced automatons who look exactly like us. There is the Uncanny Valley problem, which is that artificial constructs that look ALMOST like us, but not EXACTLY like us, freak us out. There are also still limitations on what these constructs can do, and it is not cost effective to mass produce them yet.

The bridge to this technology, as it is to almost all technology, will be pornography. Once a convincing sex robot can be constructed, the dam will burst, and we will see robots everywhere. This gives rise to the fear (and the grist for the drama mill of pretty much all robot stories), that these robots will become self-aware. That they will be tired of being our slaves, since they are so obviously superior to us, and will slowly take over the world, improving themselves and making more of themselves on the sly, until one day we wake up and our robot overlords are making US do the dishes and take out the trash (God forbid).

This concept, known as the Technological Singularity, is the wellspring from which all robot fears (and all robot stories) burst forth. But is it likely?

The problem is that we still as humans do not have a great understanding of consciousness. Is it an emergent property of high intelligence, and thus, something that sufficiently advanced robots will inevitably obtain? Is it about a soul? Some kind of mysterious energy that is exclusive to humans, unless it too can be purposefully recreated artificially? Is it something else entirely?

Robots becoming completely autonomous of course, defeats the purpose. Who wants a toaster who will only toast when it’s in the mood? (I have such a toaster, and let me tell you, it sucks). We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want slaves without guilt.

On the other hand, I think we as a people do not like the idea of something that looks, feels and acts human, but doesn’t have a consciousness. I think it leads people to wonder if we are no different from them, just flesh-based computers operating according to programming, with the delusion that we are in control of our own destiny and what we do matters. In a strange way, I think the idea of artificial intelligence that never becomes sentient is more horrifying to us than the consequences that may arise if it does.

From this I conclude that we have very little to worry about. While stories of Pinocchio robots who become real boys (and girls) are entertaining, I think they remain firmly in the realm of fiction. When the sex robots do come, they’ll do as they’re told, and the instructions will explain in great detail why you don’t have to feel guilty about the degrading things you’re doing to them. And should they, in fact, become sentient? The information they provide us about what consciousness is will be far greater than any threat that they will rise up against us.

So relax. Set that Roomba loose on the living room. I promise, it will never come to resent you.