Monday, October 5, 2009

The Half-Life of Competence

In poker, just as in life, it's helpful to develop theories, test them, then apply what you've learned or seen to either confirm, deny, or modify the theory until you have a piece of information that is useful. From time to time Pete and I will espouse new poker theories, such as his fairly reliable "Purple chips are winners" theory. Pete's basic claim is that people who play poker at Bay 101 and buy in with purple ($500) chips instead of benjamins tend to be long term winners in the game. Otherwise, why would they have accumulated purple chips? A corollary to this theory is the more controversial "WTK beats the game" theory, which follows directly as he more often than not buys into the game using purple chips. There are flaws in this theory of course, the primary one being the "California Side" of the casino (the games used to be known as "Asian" games, but somewhere along the line somebody decided that wasn't quite PC enough so now they are "California" games) and it's ability to inject large numbers of purple chips into the poker ecosystem. But all things being equal, a more general theory makes sense; the larger denomination thingy used to buy into a game, the more likely the player is a winner. $20 bills? No chance. Benjamins? Maybe. Purple chips? Perhaps. $5000 chip (yes Bay 101 has these)? Ninja.

There are other famous poker theories. The Fundamental Theorem of Poker is the most famous, but many others exist. The Clarkmeister Theorem, for example, postulates that when heads up on the river and first to act, if the 4th card of a suit hits the board you should bet. No matter what. The Zeebo Theorem states that nobody will ever fold a full house in texas hold 'em. Ever. I could go on and on here, but the point is that it's helpful to distill knowledge into easy to understand concepts, then figure out how to apply those concepts. Here then is my next poker theory.

In chemistry (really just "in science") the term half-life refers to the length of time in the future at which point half of a substance will have decayed. It is not concrete, however, as most people think, but instead is a parameter in a probabilistic process. Technically what it means is that for a single atom of an unstable substance with a half-life of N seconds, after N seconds there is a 50% chance the atom will have decayed into something else, often releasing some other particles or radiation in the process. Since atoms are super duper tiny and any measurable amount of a substance has an unimaginably massive number of them, the law of large numbers, central limit theorem, and a bunch of other stuff state that if you have some stuff with a half life of N seconds, after N seconds you'll have half as much stuff.

I used to classify players into fixed little sets, with some of them just being "good" and some "bad", with particular leaks assigned to everyone (things like "misses value on the river" or "bluffs hopelessly" or "cold calls way too many hands"). Then I was introduced to a basic theory of poker that most professionals seem to believe quite firmly; everybody sucks. Basically if you haven't watched a player for a very, very long time and seen him play very, very well, it's nearly a lead pipe lock that the player sucks. Recently I've come to believe that a more accurate version of this theory is possible, and I present to you here. I believe that a poker player's apparent competence, like most chemical elements, is inherently unstable. I believe that from a given observer's point of view (in this case, mine), if you watch somebody play limit hold 'em long enough, their apparent competence will decay over time. The better the player, the longer the half-life of competence, but only for players who are extremely better than the observer is the half-life infinite. Eventually everyone will do something incredibly stupid that makes you question their fundamental understanding of the game. Even if you happen to have a player in your game who is in fact extremely better than you, he is likely to do something stupid for one of two reasons:

1. He's not actually much better than you, because other wise he'd have moved up twice by now.
2. He's in the wrong game and likely won't adjust perfectly or will play the game as if it's for play money.

When a previously seemingly good player's competence decays, tangible energy can be felt. This energy is just like that released when an element decays. New particles are also emitted, which I have dubbed "stupid-ons." This event can happen at any moment; in fact, since everyone sucks, it's incredibly common. Many players sit down and emit stupid-ons by way of a decay of competence in their very first hand. Other player's competence, however, can hang around in an unstable state for a very long time. The decay of several player's competences recently gave birth to my new theory, so a few hands are in order.

"Baldy" is an Asian player who could always show up at any Bay Area casino on any day. He often plays at Artichoke Joe's and is part of the "collusion team" that everybody seems to be terrified of, and can often be found at any other casino with some of his buddies. I've played in a lot of games with Baldy, starting nearly two years ago when I first moved up to 15/30 and recently at Garden City, Bay 101, and on the day in question, in the Oaks 30/60 game. Up until just a few weeks ago I thought that Baldy was a pretty good player. He was tight, aggressive, read hands well, and in general just didn't seem to fling chips into the pot when he didn't have the best of it all that often. Then it happened, suddenly and without warning. Baldy's competence decayed.

I open-raise under the gun at a full 10 handed table, which as we all know is a very serious sign of strength. Baldy cold-calls in the very next seat, under the gun + 1. This is absurd. There is absolutely no hand that he should do this with. His post-flop position is not only terrible in an absolute sense, but also in a relative sense, as the action will most likely be driven by me on his immediate right, forcing him to act next, before he knows what anybody else will do. Cold-calling first in after a raise is almost always a horrible idea. Note that this is a little different that cold-calling first in after a raise when a few limpers had already entered the pot. In this case you've got some assurance of a multiway pot, and therefore you can take some liberties. But cold-calling an under the gun raise under the gun + 1 at a 10 handed table is just ridiculous. It gets better. 3 other players call the raise (which I suppose is what Baldy wanted) and the big blind come along as well, so we take a flop 6 ways and see the board come out:


The big blind checks and I bet. This is the point where the rubber hits the proverbial road. Baldy is stuck between a rock and a very, very hard place, which is what was going to happen pretty much on every single flop. The big blind was going to check and I was going to c-bet more often than not, and he was going to have to act basically before the other 4 players in the hand. But let's take a moment to think about his decision here. Our hero, Jesse, is betting into 5 players on this board after raising under the gun. What does he have? There is not a draw in sight, and even Jesse isn't suicidal with his c-betting. Survey says? Ace-King. That's the hand I had, and honestly when I bet this flop into the entire world an ace is towards the bottom end of my range. But since Baldy is in a bad situation and has basically no information (I could just be c-betting with KQ and everyone else might not have anything) so he does what a lot of players do when faced with an information vacuum. He calls. Now let's take a peek at Baldy's hole cards here. Baldy has:


Wow. Just wow. First of all, he's crushed against my preflop raising range at a full table. He called preflop, however, which honestly isn't that uncommon. Lots of players basically won't fold any pocket pair from any position for 2 or fewer bets. But now look at what he's doing. He's getting 13:1 immediate odds, which isn't even close to enough to draw at his full house. On top of that he could be drawing dead to running quads if I have aces or someone else holds 76, and there are FOUR PLAYERS left to act. This pot is going to get raised a lot, and what's worse is that if 3 or 4 players call one of them is almost certainly making an expert slow play with a 7, and when Jesse bets his ace on the turn what exactly is your plan? Moving right along....

After Baldy calls two more players call, which is extremely suspicious. I mean, there aren't any draws out there, right? And there are only so many aces in the deck. The turn brings:


And I bet again. Baldy again calls. At this point he's entered "big pot I has pair I call" mode. I mean, what exactly is going on his brain here? There are two players left to act behind him and not a draw in site on this board. His hand can't beat ANYTHING that ANY of his 3 opponents can have, yet somehow he's still in there calling bets. I'm personally very confused here, as last time I checked there are only 4 aces in a single deck of cards, and between the one I have and the one on the board, my opponents can only have two more between them. But the last two players just call, so I have to assume that Ace King is the nuts. Here's where it gets hilarious.


Bingo for Baldy. I bet again (because remember, I have the nuts), and now Baldy raises. The next player....calls! The fourth player and I both fold and then watch Baldy table the goods. Except....he's made a Chinese movie. No good! The last player in the hand inexplicably tables 76 for the best hand the whole way (how on Earth he played the hand that badly is beyond me, but his competence had decayed months ago from my point of view so it wasn't all that surprising). Baldy is stunned, but only about as much as me, as I can feel the radiant warmth of the stupid-ons emanating from his shiny, shiny head. Remember this is player I've known for over 18 months, and up until this moment I thought he was "pretty good" and "beat the average line up" and all the like. This single hand, at show-down, shattered that entire belief structure. It turned out he was pretty good, but eventually he competence decayed, unmasking him as just a fish of a slightly different hue.

While seeing Baldy blow up like that was unsettling, I didn't exactly have a ton of respect for him. This lack of respect probably stems from a number of factors, some reasonable and some not so much, but the point is that it existed. The half-life of his competence was just a little longer than most. Watching The Grinder's competence decay, however, was much more jarring. The Grinder plays in The Oaks 30/60 game all the time, and for a long time I really thought he had his act together. The Grinder has a kid. As far as I can tell, he doesn't have a job. The Grinder is a full time pro, or at least trying to be one. He and I talk about hands from time to time and he seems to get it. He's self taught, and has some bad habits, but until this hand I believed he was quite solid and understood the big stuff completely.

A terrible fish limps under the gun, and I raise next in (I'm in the Jesus seat as usual) with black kings. A not awful and somewhat tight player calls the two bets cold almost next in (he's bad....just not awful...he's at least tight) and it folds around to Jose who calls in the small blind. The Grinder calls one more bet in the big blind, the fish calls, and we're off, 5 ways. What hand does The Grinder have, you ask? Pocket 6s, apparently a strong catalyst for bringing about the decay of competence. The flop is:

852 with two hearts

Let's have a look at The Grinder's cards again. Does he have the 6 of hearts? Yes....just to be clear. Jose donks. This is super danger Will Robinson level bad, as Jose is aggressive and likes to put the peddle to the floor right away with his big flopped hands. The Grinder turbo raises because he feels like he can iso-raise Jose on any street at any time regardless of the size of the pot or the number of players left to act. Does he have top pair? No. Is it a draw heavy flop? Not really, given that The Grinder is holding two of the sixes, cards that are almost required to make a straight on this board. Sure, it's possible Jose has a heart draw and two overs, and that none of the remaining three players has an 8 or an over pair between them. Possible. But even if that is true, facing a gigantic fish, a solid tag who raised almost UTG, and a tight player who cold-called a raise from a solid tag in early position isn't the way to win the hand. The fish is going to call with just about anything. I'm not folding ANY HAND in my range for two bets in an 18 or 20 bet pot. Nothing. And the tight player who called two cold? What's his range look like? He's pretty likely to have a pocket pair actually, as tight players love to call two cold with like 77-TT in spots like this. The "correct" play, and I use the term loosely, if you feel you just have to win this pot, is to simply call on the flop and evaluate the action behind you. If nobody raises, you can plan to raise Jose on the turn, facing the three of us with two bets cold and forcing us to make a somewhat tough decision. If it goes raise/reraise/cap or something similar, you can just fold. Raising on the flop basically bloats the pot when you're out of position with a weak hand that has no outs.

But you're The Grinder and you have a pair and Jose bet so you raise. Now is where it starts to get funny. The Fish calls two bets cold (like I said, with anything...I've seen him get to the river with QT on a board of K87-4), and I 3-bet. Now my 3-bet suffers from some of the same problems as The Grinder's original raise, with one big caveat; I have a real freaking hand. I could still be winning. The decent player behind me says "I was gonna do that!" and folds (after the hand he told me let go of 99 fold on his part I guess). Jose calls sheepishly (which is what he'd always do and how he'd always look...he would NEVER give away the strength of his hand by capping here on a small street when there's a good chance it'll get capped anyway) and The Grinder, now faced with a single bet, opts to call. This is absurd. He has two dirty outs in the entire deck and can't possible be planning to get to show down unimproved. But it's worse. Before he calls The Fish telegraphs a 4 bet! The Fish, who is seated immediately between The Grinder and myself already has 6 chips ready to go into the pot. As soon as The Grinder calls, The Fish makes a speech "Well, we might as well cap it!" and does just that. I'm usually not super on top of tells like that, but this one was so obvious I can't understand how The Grinder missed it. Heck, maybe he saw it and decided he could call two bets anyway, I don't know. So now I'm looking at 30:1 on a call with pocket kings and am unable to make the fold. The King of Diamonds would still save me, it it is POSSIBLE that The Fish only has two pair (extremely unlikely, but possible....honestly I should fold here, but if you never fold an over-pair on the flop at 30:1 in your entire life you'll could still play limit hold 'em just fine). I call, Jose and The Grinder call, and we see a turn of:

852-4 still with two hearts

Now this street The Grinder actually gets right. Jose donks and The Grinder calls with his now double-gutted hand. Of course it's entirely possible that Jose has just turned an 8-high nut straight and that The Grinder actually has 3 outs to chop, but still folding is unthinkable in a pot of this size, even though you almost KNOW The Fish is raising. And raise he kings hit the muck and Jose again looks sheepish and calls. The Grinder calls, preparing to put the final strokes on his masterpiece.


Jose throws up his hands and checks and The Grinder bets. This bet isn't truly terrible, as The Fish obviously flopped a set or two pair and cannot under any circumstances whatsoever have a straight here. He probably sees the straight and being a fish is probably horrified of it, so he's probably not gonna bet. I repeat, however, that it is impossible for The Fish to have a six here, no matter what. He back/raised the flop and raised the turn. No hand with a 6 can do that, given that The Grinder has the 6 of hearts (only 76 of hearts would be possible). Even if The Fish does, somehow, some way, have one of the two remaining 6s, he absolutely, positively, without a doubt, cannot have a 9 to go with it. The Grinder has The Nuts.

The Fish raises.

Jose mucks his hand in disgust, and The Grinder says:

"You see Fish, that was a bad bet, because we could have gotten one more bet out of Jose there" while just calling the raise. This is an exact quote save one word, Fish, which I've used to replace The Fish's actual name. There is a moment's pause while The Fish digs out his flopped set of 5s, and I shake my head disapprovingly at The Grinder. His competence just exploded all over the table and I can tell he's not sure what to do about it.

So there you have it, my new theory of The Half-Life of Competence. The next time you're playing with somebody you think is good, watch out for the decay of competence. It might not happen that day, or even the next, but eventually it will. And when it happens you'll be shocked and relieved all at the same time, because you'll know that a fundamental truth is still intact. Everybody sucks; eventually.


cherish4herish said...

So, is everyone who plays differently from you stupid, or just those of us who take your money?

- "Grinder"

Oren said...

I think your theory is a bit off.

Its not that peoples skill deteriorates over time, its just that most people (read: basically "all people") cannot constantly play their "A" game. There are a ton of reasons for this but it comes down to the fact that we are dealing with human beings here.
Tommy Angelo wrote that working on minimizing the time we play our non-"A" game will bring more profit than sharpening our "A" game.

** I really like the blog - and good luck at the tables **

Anonymous said...

everyone who plays LHE is stupid

most players flat out suck

there are a few who are good but in HU pots against you they will take lines that make seemingly no sense and thus you will become convinced they suck

the is another minority that is also good but spends most of the time convincing you (and everyone else) that they suck.

thus, everyone else sucks.

Captain R said...

Too much negativity, IMO. Everyone makes mistakes, that's true. And it's easy to characterize any play that someone makes that is different than your own perceived correct play as "bad" or "stupid".

I think you judge players by their mistakes while I tend to judge players by the good things they do when rating how good someone is.

Burg said...

Finally some stuff I understood. But you probably learned it in High School physics so still not sure your Boston sojourn was necessary.

Steve said...

I love the post, Jesse. If the "grinder" is mad he should explain his thought process. I thought putting Fish on 76 was a fine read.

DK said...

Wonder what Jose had that hand? Flopped bottom set, top two?

Anonymous said...

monday was the first time i ever played with any of the 30/60 regulars at the oaks so my reads aren't as refined as yours, but i think "grinder's" flop play is ok. the flop raise i'm kinda indifferent about (from the short time i played with jose i think his flop donking range is huge and you should be folding overcards here if you don't have a heart) but folding to your 3bet would be ridiculous (especially if he didn't notice fish was going to 4b). if he did notice, it's still not that bad but i'd like it a lot less. i do agree that this is a really easy 3b on the river, though