Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Flopping of Sets and the Problem of the Lifetime Heater

Back in high school my friends and I would play NFL Blitz all the time, and my buddy "Asian Seth" (at the time he was just Seth, but the group added a Jewish Seth after they went to college, and hence the distinction had to be made) would always cry out "Just call the interception play!" whenever somebody was down 52 - 48 or something with less than a minute left. Sometimes when you're playing limit hold'em, it's really that easy. Just flop a set and go from there.

There are several basic ways to flop a set in limit hold 'em. You've got the "I'm the preflop raiser and I just flopped top set sweet merciful jeebus please let them all have a pair" flopping of a set. This is probably the least exciting way of flopping a set, and would be the equivalent of taking your own girlfriend home with you from a bar. Yes, it's a good result, but honestly about what you were hoping for anyway with a pair of kings. If the pot is huge (or girlfriend is incredibly hot), flopping this type of set obviously becomes more fun, but in all honesty you feel entitled. Your previous good decisions led you to this point, and it's not surprising that the best hand held up or that your girlfriend didn't leave with somebody else. Then you've got your "I limped in with this little pair and nobody raised, the pot is kind of tiny I guess I should just fold the flop no wait I flopped yahtzee quickly whom can I check raise" flopping of a set. This set of 4s or some such is like going to a bar with your buddies on a guys night out, yet somehow ending up with the hottest girl in the room. As a tight and monogamous player, this second case is pretty rare for me, but still fun nonetheless. The third basic way to flop a set is the "holy cow this pot is humongous I wonder if my tens are even any good yahoo I have the nuts let's put in 15 bets each" flopping of a set. Your session, hell, your week, results are dominated by your ability to flop sets in these situations. Every so often you find yourself in a 20 bet pot preflop not knowing where you stand, sort of like thinking the girl across the room just made eye contact but being cautiously aware that your buddy next to you is 4 inches taller and better dressed. She could have just been looking at him. Then boom, out of the blue she walks over and talks to you, completely ignoring your friend. Sometimes it ends in disaster. With 5 opponents chasing you (or the girl) victory is far from assured. But more often than not, despite the way it feels, starting out with that kind of edge results in you taking home the chips.

A quick bit of math on flopping a set; it's hard. Very hard. On average you receive one pocket pair every 17 hands you get dealt, and of those you flop a set once every 8.5 times you see a flop. So assuming you see every single flop where you have a pocket pair (not unreasonable for many players, but far from optimal strategy), you should flop a set once every 4-5 hours of live play. Last week at Bay 101 I saw a man take his big blind, flop top set of 6s and drag the pot with top full house, flop kings full in the small blind, then flop middle set of nines on the button, all in a 3-hand 7 minute period during which he won approximately 2 racks of chips. This guy flopped 14 hours worth of sets in 7 minutes! Imagine the possibilities to run good that exist in this weird mathematical space. On top of all this, hand range estimation makes it very hard to give your opponent credit for a set. On a flop of Q72 when you are holding kings, there are 12 possible ways your opponent could hold AQ (3 remaining queens times 4 remaining aces), but only 9 total ways he could have flopped a set (3 pairs of queens, 3 pairs of 7s, and 3 pairs of 2s). In short, even if his range is AQ and the sets, you're a 4:3 favorite to currently have the best hand. Folding is out of the question!

Last Friday I rolled up to The Oaks just before the 1pm kickoff of the 30/60 game, but sadly was 13th on the list and therefore not guaranteed a seat (you can sign up for this game 7 days in advance, so ever being outside of the top 10 is just a failure at life on my part). So I took a 15/30 seat, played 2 orbits at a shortish table (it always gets short when they are calling down the 30) in about 15 minutes, flopped two sets, won $350, then took my seat in the 30/60 since 4 other players failed to show up. Right now it occurs to me that I cannot recall even sitting in that game, let alone dragging 12 big bets worth of profit in 15 minutes. The reason? I flopped a couple of sets, bet the ba-jesus out of them, and my opponents mucked the river quietly instead of executing the donk of death with some ridiculous runner runner straight. The set is a deadly weapon, the power of which cannot be under-estimated.

I sat in the 30/60 game for a total of 1 hour and 45 minutes, which was probably about an hour and a half too long. The lineup, while certainly not full of experts, was about as bad as I've ever seen it. Basically the regular game is usually built from a group of about 20 or so regulars, and the bottom 5 or so players simply were not there. The resident alpha lag? Nope. The loose passive Persian guys? Nope. What about the maniac? In the low ball game. In this game I also had the good fortune to flop two sets (one with queens on a Q73 board and one with kings where I actually flopped a boat on the KJJ board), but in both hands both of my opponents simply folded the flop. Not even $30 did I collect. In short, I left the bar with the girl, but didn't get invited upstairs. So I did something I've never done at The Oaks before; I moved down to the 15/30 game. An old friend of mine (Batman) from college was in the game, and it actually looked pretty decent. The combination of having someone to bullshit with and figuring to be almost as big of an absolute winner with about half the variance was all I needed. Not getting paid off with my sets was just the cherry on top.

Batman and I were catching up and playing in some ridiculous pots, with me mostly treading water and him steadily winning, then losing, then winning again. His fortunes turned back for the best when I sweated him for a hand in a humongous pot. 5 or 6 players limped in and the player in the cutoff raised. Batman called two cold on the button next in, usually a no-no but with a pot of this magnitude brewing completely acceptable with a wide range of crappy hands. I folded an utter cheeseball in the small blind and quickly leaned over for sweat patrol duties. He peeled back his cards and revealed to me a pair of 5s, just as the last few limpers were slinging their now good money after bad into the pot. Just as he put his cards back down the dealer placed the three cards face up on the board and BANG, right there in the window was a beautiful 5 of spades (when the dealer spreads the flop (s)he typically puts all three cards face up in a pile and spreads them. The first one you can see, on top of the pile of 3, is the window card). I don't remember the details of the pot, just that Batman did not opt for an expert slow play and STILL managed to get in a raise on the turn and collect calls in a couple of spots, eventually dragging a pot well in excess of 600 American Dollars. And there was much rejoicing, followed by the suggestion that he and I move down one more notch to 6/12 and have a few beers (15/30 is a fairly casual affair for me, but it's the biggest game he plays regularly).

He was called first and took his seat at table 17, while I waited a few more minutes to get called to the table right next to our 15/30 game. I sat down with a preposterous sum of money for the game (something in the $1200 range) and asked the chip runner to change my first two racks of yellow to hundred dollar chips and leave me with a rack of gray ($2 chips, the currency of this play money game I was about to engage in). I asked the dealer if I had to post and got some quizzical looks (in some casinos you don't have to post into smaller games) and a "Yes sir", so I dutifully placed $6 in the pot in the cutoff position, flopped Q65 and happened to be holding 65, raised immediately on the flop and still had 2 or 3 callers on the river at which point my hand was good. Up nearly a rack already, I managed to ask the floor woman to put me up for a change to Batman's table so the real business at hand (finishing the keg of Hefeweizen) could begin before flopping top pair top kicker and taking down another small pot. I got called to Batman's table and ambled over with two racks of gray chips, wishing I'd bought more than one rack to start so I could set about building a chip tower for the ages.

For 2 hours Batman and I dualed at the 6/12 table, him in the 9 seat and me in the 10, 3-betting him mercilessly. First with pocket twos, with which I flopped the aforementioned "not sure where you stand" set and raked him over the coals for several bets (it should be noted that somehow the big blind capped this pot with A7s, the flop was seven high, and the fact that I know what she had is a good indication that she paid quite a bit to see my hand). Again, this time with a real hand, that produced the aforementioned "I was supposed to win this pot anyway" set of queens. Again, with AJ (that one lost), and again with KQ (sweet victory). Soon thereafter I flopped another set of deuces, this time in a very, very multiway, and upon dragging it was up over two racks in the game and something like $700 for the day. It was time to go home, as the hour was late and Danielle and I were due for a match of Wii Mariokart, but on the way home I got to thinking a bit about the "Lifetime Heater" problem and how it is exacerbated by the flopping of sets.

In many disciplines I believe it is possibly to go on (or be on) what I can only describe as a "Lifetime Heater." In live limit hold 'em, this is particularly true, and Pete and I have had several discussion about it. We've even nick-named one opponent "Lifetime Heater Guy", since as far as we can tell he isn't very good yet always, always, always cashes out 5+ racks of chips. Online experts (trader, stox) claim that variations of up to 3 big bets per 100 hands played can be seen in back to back 50,000 hand sample. Personally I find this almost impossible to believe for a few reasons. First of all, it's hard to believe that the game you're playing in won't change over the course of 100,000 hands. Second of all, anybody who has the discipline to play 100,000 hands probably has the discipline to change his game, probably for good but possibly for worse. So I guess I believe such a drastic change can occur, but don't buy that you can pin said difference 100% on running good or bad. Nonetheless, even if you use a much smaller figure, say, 10,000 hands, it is possible to see an opponent run strikingly good or bad for a strikingly long amount of time in live limit hold 'em. Even at 40 hands per hour, in a 40 hour work week you would only play 1600 hands, and therefore it would take two months to play even 10,000 hands yourself. If you then filtered out only the hands you played with a random regular, it could take literally years to play 10,000 hands with him. Therefore, the lifetime heater is possible. Why though? Because he always flops a freakin' set, that's why.

The owner of a Lifetime Heater cannot be a truly awful player; if he were, even truly epic run good wouldn't be enough to overcome the constant tsunami of negative expectation he was swimming around it. More often than not he is at least somewhat aggressive, which allows him to win sizable pots with his big holdings, and he is a bit too loose, allowing his run good to bloom fully. I have seen several opponents that I believe to be on Lifetime Heaters (at least from my perspective....I guess there are two forms of Lifetime Heater. An absolute Lifetime Heater, which is where a player just wins inexplicably for his entire limit hold 'em career, and a POV Lifetime Heater, which is where I observe a player win inexplicably every time I play with him), and they seem to fit this description. One thing they all definitely have in common is that they cold-call too much with pocket pairs, probably because from their point of view flopping a set is super easy because they do it every single time I'm in a pot. This is just like that guy you know who made a fortune in real estate despite being seemingly functionally retarded. Every time he bought something it went up, he randomly sold at the right times, and nothing horrendous happened to any of his buildings, and all of a sudden he's retired to some beach house in La Jolla and you're wondering why your home is worth $200,000 less than you paid for it. From his point of view, real estate is easy, and everyone who doesn't make a fortune in it is either lazy or stupid. From your point of view, he's just a lucky son of a bitch. Only one of you is right. Lifetime Heater. This is just like the guy who graduated with a CS degree 3 years before the crash and sold out his stock options at just the right moment and then somehow joined a start up that didn't go bust and for some reason now makes $200,000 a year and has his house completely paid for despite really not knowing anything more than you do. Lifetime Heater. In short, this is the New England Patriots.

Now before all you Boston people get your panties in a bunch, let me explain. The Patriots fit most of my requirements for being on a POV Lifetime Heater (that is to say that from my POV as an adult football fan, which started in the year 2000, they have won at a mathematically unexplainable rate). First of all, they are good. As I explained, at a bare minimum you have to not suck in order to run well enough to get on either type of Lifetime Heater. And the Pats, even I must admit, are good. But I tonight's game against the Bills really sums up one smooth, fluid, idiotic play why I believe they are on a Lifetime Heater. Two minutes and six seconds left, and they are down by 5 points. They elect to kick the ball off, which to me is just inexplicable. Why would they do this? Even with all three timeouts you really need to go onside kick here. Because they are on a lifetime heater and always win in these situations. Just like the guy who cold-calls you first in with pocket threes then flops J73 against your queens like it's his job, the Patriots have unreasonable (and incorrect) expectations about the probability that they will be able to execute a comeback from such dire circumstances. The Bills player received the ball 6 yards deep in the end zone and (gasp) did the right thing by electing to bring the ball out of the end zone. You see, had he just taken a knee, the Pats would have been able to keep an extra clock stoppage (the two minute warning) in their pockets. By running it out, even if a few yards of field position were lost, they were traded for an entire Patriots time out or, better yet, 40 seconds of clock. But then what did he do? He fumbled the ball, something that happens on kick off returns like literally once a season for the average team, Tom Brady threw his second touchdown of the game (and the last 45 seconds) and somehow the Pats are 1-0. Sure, sure, sure, in this case the opponent made a mistake and the Pats were just fortunate enough to be there. But that's all part of it. Lifetime Heater. Tuck rule? Lifetime Heater. Vinitieri makes every single one of those field goals? Lifetime Heater. Illegally taping opposing teams' signals and not getting caught for years? Lifetime Heater.

"But wait!" I hear you saying. "The Pats lost Tom Brady for the season last year, went 11-5, and still missed the playoffs! That has to be unlucky!" Ah, and there is the last component of the Lifetime Heater, taking high-visibility, seemingly horrendous beats that in actuality don't cost you that much. Guys on Lifetime Heaters who have flopped dozens more sets than they should have in the last 100 hours of live play don't have a clue just how lucky they've gotten. Their brains can, however, comprehend that their opponent just flopped a pair and runner-runnered a gut shot straight to steal an 8 big bet pot away from their aces, and think this must be the most unfair turn of events the Gods of Poker have let unfold in weeks. Yet this very event likely occurred with me as the victim sometime within the last 2 hours, and I didn't say a word. The Chiefs missed the playoffs at 11-5 just 4 years ago. In that same year, the Steelers lost their starting quarterback for the entire season and yet somehow won the Superbowl. So are these events truly rare? Or do they just seem rare because they had never happened to the Patriots before? I'm no expert, but my opinion is clear and concise. Lifetime Heater.


Tom said...

Maybe it's just because it's at the intersection of poker and football, but this is one of the best things you've written. Nice job.

dlgilbert4 said...


Steve said...

In response to:

"He fumbled the ball, something that happens on kick off returns like literally once a season for the average team..."

I agree that the Pats got lucky on the play as they were huge underdogs for the game going in. I must highlight though that McKelvin was stripped by Pats players who had trained for this exact situation (whereas it was obvious that the Bills players were clueless). Meriweather pushed him sideways and held him up as Pierre Woods went for the ball. Yes the Pats got lucky and converted on a play that was only 5% to work. However, if the situations had been reversed, the Bills players would not have been prepared and would have been 0% to make the play.

Captain R said...

An hour after I read this post, I get to play with Lifetime Heater Guy (of course) at Bay 101.

He has a mountain of chips in front of him as I sit down and 20 min. later has too many and has to color-up 6 of his 8 racks of chips ($3000!) because they're taking up too much space.

Lifetime heater indeed.

jesse8888 said...

So Steve, I don't buy that that play was any different than a regular kickoff when it comes to players trying to strip the ball. NFL players go for the strip on almost any play. Now perhaps the Pats knew it would be easier to execute this with the entire blocking wedge missing (as those guys had been replaced by extra "hands" guys up front), and for that I give them credit, but nonetheless, pinning your hopes on your ability to force a fumble is insane.

mikeca said...

You played for what, 4 or 5 hours, and by my count you flopped 6 sets! I played 3 hours last Saturday and flopped 0 sets.

Now who is on a life time heater?