Tag Archives: poker

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.

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17 writers on poker: He Played for His Wife and Other Stories

11 Dec

he-played-for-his-wife-and-other-stories-9781471162299_hrThere can’t be many poker players, at least of a certain age, who haven’t read Anthony Holden’s 2002 classic Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. It’s a rare pleasure to read about poker from one who is not merely a skilled player, but a skilled writer, too. At least I thought it was rare, until I went to the recent launch evening for He Played for his Wife and Other Stories at the Hippodrome Casino.

The book, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, features a preface by Al Alvarez and stories by 17 different writers – all of them good, some of them great. One is Barny Boatman, who was at the launch. I told him I hadn’t realised he was a writer as well as a player, and that I’d greatly enjoyed his story, a character study of a born loser with a supernatural twist, which had just been serialised in Bluff magazine.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve written quite a few things, actually. This one took me bloody ages. I rewrote it and rewrote it. So I’m glad it hit the spot. Someone did change a couple of words, but…” Barny smiled. Anyone who’s seen him play will know he wouldn’t fold easily. “…I got it changed back again.”

Anthony Holden sadly could not be at the Hippodrome launch, for health reasons. But there was a bevy of poker-playing actors, including Neil Pearson (who contributed a story), Dougie Henshall and the wildly entertaining Naoko Mori, as well as the playwright Patrick Marber.

I have some history with Marber – he was Time Out’s columnist for a while when I was Editor, so we reminisced about that rather than poker. But it was poker that put him on the road to success that would take him to Hollywood and an Oscar nomination: his first play, which opened at the National Theatre in 1995 and won an Evening Standard award, was Dealer’s Choice, the second part of which takes place entirely around a poker table. Marber’s slice-of-life story in the book, The Old Card Room, is a paean to a vanished era of poker where men with nicknames like The Doc or The Chauffeur played in smoky back rooms and the chosen game was seven-card stud rather than Hold ‘Em.

There are so many strong stories in He Played for his Wife… that it feels invidious to pick out any individual ones. Nevertheless, I did particularly love David Flusfeder’s Heads Up, which imagines a game of heads-up poker in which the antes never go up, between two players so evenly matched that they end up playing forever; a sinister high-stakes story by Michael Craig, author of one of my favourite poker books, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King; and Jennifer Tilly’s Once More Into the Abyss!, which, as the title suggests, is clear-eyed and mildly self-loathing about the dark side of the game.

But the real high-wire writing comes from D.B.C. Pierre in Five Tables. Take this on how he got hooked on poker as a kid, in a family home game:

“Then the table sloughed its salt and pepper and cloth to become a vortex, a court of miracles where the laws of maths spun dust-devils through our hands. I didn’t know at the time how unlikely it is in the history of the world that a deck of cards has ever shuffled into the same order twice, nor how remote the chance is that it ever will; but you could feel the maths swirling. It was a voltage. And there was violence in it.”

After rather too many drinks at the launch to be thinking straight, we all played a tournament, organised by Shelley Rubenstein, who contributes another of the better stories in the book. Shelley’s not afraid to think big. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but in Shelley’s story, He does play poker.

Who won the tournament? I know only that my Aces got cracked by 10-J and I took my leave early. My fault for trying to be too clever: with the blinds high, I let the button in by flat-calling Natalie Galustian’s raise. I figured she and everyone behind me would fold to a 3-bet as I’d been playing tight; also I’d need two players’ chips to stand a chance of winning the tournament. The flop, naturally, had a 10 and a Jack in it to give the button a lucky two pair. Ah, that court of miracles, that violent vortex of maths.

He Played for his Wife and Other Stories, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99

Verdict just in: top poker player Phil Ivey “cleared” of cheating casino out of £7.7m

22 Oct
phil-ivey

Phil Ivey, the man you least want to sit to the right of at a poker tournament

Last night, Phil Ivey, commonly regarded as the world’s best poker player, was sensationally cleared of cheating a London casino out of £7.7 million by a court – of public opinion. After hearing arguments for and against by a distinguished panel that included a casino security expert and a barrister specialising in gaming law, the hundred-strong audience of LSE students voted overwhelmingly to acquit Ivey of the charge, overturning a “verdict” set last year in a civil court, and due to be formally challenged later this year at appeal.

The story of how Ivey won £7.7m in just two days could come straight out of Oceans 11, and the case is a fascinating one, in that both Ivey and the casino told the same story: the facts are not in dispute, merely the interpretation of whether they constituted cheating.

In August 2012, Phil turned up at Crockfords casino in Mayfair, asking to play punto banco at high stakes. Nothing so unusual about that: Ivey is known to bet millions of his considerable poker winnings at casino table games.

A little stranger was that he was accompanied by a Chinese woman called Miss Sun, and that he insisted on a variety of conditions he claimed were “lucky” for him: he wore his baseball cap backwards; demanded to keep a particular deck of cards, and that they were shuffled by machine and not human hand; and occasionally Miss Sun would declare a particular card lucky and ask the croupier to rotate it 180 degrees before returning it to the deck.

“The casino went along with all of this,” says barrister Zubair Ahmed, “thinking he was just a superstitious fool and they were going to take his money. They even let him keep the same cards the next day, after he’d already won millions.”

In fact, Ivey was using a technique called “edge-sorting”. “It is almost impossible to print entirely symmetrical decks of cards,” explains David Mills, MD of Casa Security, who acted as an expert witness for Crockfords in the real trial last year. “These cards weren’t actually defective, they were within the manufacturing tolerance for error of 0.3mm, and to the naked eye a normal person would not notice anything different about them.”

Miss Sun, however, had particularly acute vision: she, unusually, could spot the difference between one edge of the card and another when it was sitting in the “shoe” waiting to be dealt. When she came across favourable cards, she would ask for them to be rotated. Because, at Ivey’s insistence, they were shuffled mechanically, they remained that way round throughout the game; thus Miss Sun could tell when they were about to come up again. This was enough to turn the usual house edge into an edge in Ivey’s favour of between 6 and 20 per cent – enough to win £7.7 million in two days, betting up to £100,000 per hand.

Is that illegal? Ivey clearly felt himself that he was not cheating: “It’s not in my nature to cheat,” he said in court, “and I would never do anything to risk my reputation.” The judge also ruled that Ivey was a truthful witness who truly believed he had not cheated. The legal definition of cheating in this case rests on a single line: that there should be no actual or attempted deception or interference with the game. The judge last year ruled that there was deception – Ivey pretended to make his peculiar demands to get “lucky”, rather than because he was edge-sorting the cards – and that he interfered with the normal course of the game by asking the dealer to rotate certain cards. The LSE students disagreed: as one pointed out in the Q&A, footballers dive and poker players bluff, but that’s just part of the game; as to interference, he asked the casino to rotate the cards and they agreed – he didn’t do it when the croupier’s back was turned.

The panel was organised by Dan Cullen of the LSESU Poker Society, under the question, “Is it possible to beat a casino?”, so talk span off into other areas. Card-counting in blackjack (and “shuffle tracking”, which is keeping an eye on which cards get shuffled to where) will get you banned from a casino if they spot it, but it’s not actually illegal per se, as the judge in the Ivey case specifically ruled, unless deception and collusion are used. Another way to win is to wait until a slot machine is “ready” to pay out a huge prize and play it non-stop till it does. Poker raconteur Neil Channing, also in the panel, knew of some people who had made a fortune from online roulette, by writing an algorithm to spot imperfections in particular machines. These are all ways to subtly adjust the house edge in your favour.

To me, Ivey’s edge-sorting move is just an advantage play, exploiting the casino’s gullibility and greed at the prospect of landing a big “whale”, and Crockfords should have manned up and paid out. After all, it’s well known that if a famously canny gambler comes to you with a “prop bet”, that is a wager on something apparently stupid and random such as which snail can go faster, you don’t take the bet: they’ve probably fixed it somehow.

Channing told a great example connected with Ivey: “I had these friends who played golf against him many times, when he was still learning the game, gambling for hundreds of thousands, and he basically did his nuts. They were boasting about how he was an idiot, he was their money tree. They didn’t see him for six months, played him again, and he beat them for a million. In the meantime he had got lessons, a great caddie, learned the course and practised every day.”

What Ivey did to Crockfords seems little different. He exploited a weakness, without revealing his own strength. Casinos always have the odds stacked in their favour. If someone manages to turn the tables, temporarily, then good on them.

Either way, the debate is set to run and run. As well as the pending appeal in the Crockfords case, Phil Ivey and the Borgata casino in the US are counter-suing each other over a similar incident in which Ivey won $9.6 million at baccarat.

How I became a superhero

30 May
Me at the UKIPT with my superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Me at the UKIPT, wearing my new superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Yesterday I became a superhero. Yes, with a superhero costume and a superpower and everything.

Let me explain how.

They say poker is all about probabilities and odds, and they are right, it is; but only up to a point. Live poker at least is more about masks and secret identities. In real life you might be a banker or a lawyer, a gangster or a millionaire, a cab driver or a student; but at the poker table you are whoever you choose to represent yourself as. It’s your job as a live player to see behind your opponents’ masks: to decide this person’s raise means AQ or better; that person’s raise includes low-to-medium pairs; that person’s includes any suited cards. The wider your own range, and the harder it is to read, the more formidable you are as a player.

That’s why nicknames in poker are so common: they are your opponents’ way of categorising what sort of a superhero (or super-villain) you are. I’ve had several given to me. Devilfish himself named me “No-Tells Wells” many years back. Since then I have been called the Professor, the Dom-inator, the Silent Assassin and Paul Smith (because of my sharp jackets), all facets of my different playing styles, my own inner superhero team of the poker felt.

And yesterday I was finally given an actual superhero costume to wear: the black, white and red arm-badge of a sponsored player for PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino, with a buy-in to the £275 two-day UKIPT tournament. It’s in that tournament that I discovered my superpower:

I can dodge bullets.

I had several unlucky hands early on that took me down from a 20k starting stack to just 4k, before I built it back up. Any one of them might have knocked out another player. Here’s how to survive in order to fight a better spot when the hand turns against you:

I flop a flush! But I don’t blow my stack.

I call a raise to 300 (BB is 100) with 6-8 of clubs. The blinds are tiny, I can afford a speculative hand I could chip up with. Baseball cap makes it 800, initial raiser calls with his pocket pair or high cards, I call too.

And the flop is all clubs, up to the 9.

Even better, baseball cap leads out 2k with his probable pocket over-pair. Initial raiser calls, either with a lower pocket pair, or a high club. I don’t want to slow-play and let one catch up with a high club if another club comes; so I play safe by raising to 6k, expecting folds. Baseball cap folds, the other guy calls. Hm. Strange. A high club, then?

The turn is a second 9. And the guy shoves all-in. Oh sh**. In a previous hand that was checked to the river, he’d been open-ended on the turn and didn’t raise. There is no way he is shoving all-in without the nuts. 100% he has a house. I don’t even dwell: I insta-fold, showing my flush. He shows pocket 2s for a set on the flop and a house on the turn.

7k down the drain already, but I could easily have been knocked out. Dodged a bullet there.

Finally a real hand! AK suited.

The flop is no help, sadly – 78Q – but there’s hardly any betting till the river so I stay in. Brilliant! The river brings an Ace: baseball cap shakes his head at it sadly.

My spider-senses tingle. He’s surely too experienced a player to let negative emotion show. Now I’m worried. The turn was a 4: could he have 56 for a straight? If I check, and he bets, I’ll feel I have to call even a pot-sized bet (now over 3k). Whereas if he checks, and really does have a lower pair as he’s pretending, I’ve lost money.

My best option therefore is to bet, but really small. I put in 1.5, less than half the pot. He sighs and shakes his head again. Then pushes in 7k. Ha! His blatant Hollywooding just made it easier for me. I fold, showing my AK to induce him to show in return, which he does: he did have a straight. Dodged another bullet there.

Pocket 10s

An easy bullet to dodge. Pocket 10s, A on flop, he bets, I fold. He shows the Ace, too.

Pocket 9s

A tricky one. I get pocket 9s. Despite winning or stealing a few small pots, including by repping a flush I don’t have when a fourth club comes, I’m down to 7k by this stage. There’s a raise to 600, but I’m in too early a position to go all-in, so I call to set-mine. Tight pro in glasses raises to 2k. Damn. That’s bad. AK perhaps, more probably a high pair. Initial raiser calls, though, so now I stand to triple up if I hit. It’s a big dent in my stack, but 1.4k to have an eighth chance of winning up to 21k is a good bet. I call.

The flop is as good as it could be, short of giving me a 9: 568, so I have an overpair and a gutshot. BUT glasses leads out 3k. I am certain now he has a high overpair, not AK. Even though the other guy calls, and I’m down to just 5k, I’m so sure of my read I fold. Glasses bets the turn of a 3, and the river of a 5, at which the other guy bows out, saying: “You got Kings?”

This makes him show: he does indeed have pocket Kings. Dodged another bullet there.

Double up!

Down to 5k. I’ve seen many players shove in desperation in those situations, but I’m still 20x BB. Doubling up is easy, I just need the right hand. I want a cigarette, but can’t afford to miss a single hand now, so I stay put. Good thing, too: I get pocket Qs. It’s an insta-all-in, hoping for one caller – which I get from BB with pocket 8s. Brilliant. I double up.

All-in

On this hand I do finally go all-in, inducing someone to fold the better hand:

I have AJ of spades in the BB. Three limps; I’m sure I have the highest hand, so I raise big, 1.5k on BB 300; big enough that I can rep an overpair if need be. One caller – it’s the guy who had a house on me before, the guy I folded a made flush to. That’s important for what follows:

The flop comes 9 high, with two spades. I don’t have to think too hard about my course of action. I’ve been cautious when need be: now is not the time for caution. I can’t check and call, or I may leak chips to the river. I can’t check-raise, as if I let him bet he’ll be committed to call at my stack size. I have to shove all-in to gain fold equity.

But first, I lay the groundwork for this particular superhero identity: the identity of a guy with a big over-pair. I look at him. He looks back at me quizzically. I can tell he’s got a little something – he’s either hit a pair on the board, or has a pocket pair. “Just trying to work out if you’ve hit a set again,” I say to him, as I look into his eyes. This reminds him that I’m the guy who was tight enough to lay down a flush. It also suggests that I have an overpair to the board.

Now I nod as though satisfied, and shove all-in. I’m pretty sure he’ll now fold any pair. And if he finds the balls to call, I still have my one-third chance of doubling up with the nut flush. He dwells, then folds, showing the 9 for top pair on the board. “Good fold,” I say, without showing. Dodged another bullet there, and now I’m back to a playable 12k.

Back in the game

I gradually build it back to 35k – average stack now it’s late in the day; not bad when I was down to 4k. Along the way, there’s a graphic reminder of what happens when you don’t even try to dodge bullets. A short-stack somehow ends up all-in with pocket deuces against a guy with AQ on a Q-high flop. As he leaves the table, he shrugs and says rhetorically, “What can you do?”

I have an answer for that. DON’T GO ALL-IN WITH DEUCES, YOU INCREDIBLE IDIOT. Another short-stack check-raises all-in when I hit my top pair on the flop. I have to put him on a flush draw, not two pair, or he’d have bet first, so I call. He had bottom pair, and goes out. Again, he just lost the will the find the right spot to fight.

A tight spot with AK

I have a strange hand with AK. I raise in the SB, and am called by the BB, a woman who’s recently been moved to my left. Flop is A-6-10, with two spades. Couldn’t be better. I bet 3k, and she shoves all-in for 11k. That’s bad. Very bad. Any other player I could put on a flush draw, or AJ or AQ. But I remember her from the last tournament. I think she’s stronger than that.

I dwell for ages. This is my one hand written up on the PokerStars blog, and it must seem strange that I dwelt so long after flopping an Ace with AK: surely an insta-call, when 8k stands to win me twice that, and it doesn’t even cripple my stack. But I know her enough to put her on A10 for two pair… maybe even a set. Finally, I make the call, and I’m relieved rather than disappointed when she has AK as well for a chop.

Going out fighting

In the end, I do go out after losing some key hands. It’s not because I stop being able to dodge bullets through my reads, but because I still lack the best super-power of all: the ability to hit.

For instance, I call an all-in button shove with A7 on the BB, knowing he has air: he has J5 – but somehow still gets a straight. Later I re-raise to 6k in late position with pocket 8s, but glasses re-re-raises to 16k: definitely a bigger pair, so I fold. I end up short-stacked again, and have to button-shove with K7 suited; called by pocket 8s; I don’t hit.

So I go out, nearly at the end of the day, in 45th place out of 119 runners. Disappointing, but not a bad result when at one stage I was down to just 4k within the first two hours. And I outlast another PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino pro at my table, who weirdly sat with his starting stack of 20k intact, not playing a single hand for two hours, then suddenly shoved all-in against a 1k raise. I say to myself, no one will possibly call him with anything less than Kings here, when this is the first hand he’s played since sitting down, and so it proves: the initial raiser calls him with Aces, he mournfully shows AK, and he’s out.

As a poker superhero, I’d rather die fighting.

I then take myself off upstairs to the PokerStars LIVE balcony, and positively crush the cash table until 3am.

The Hippodrome poker classic: 5 tips on reaching the final table with terrible hands

17 Feb
Hippodrome classic final table

The final table at the PokerStars/Hippodrome Winter Classic tournament.

On Sunday I came seventh in the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome Winter Classic tournament for £1,600. Not as good as last year’s, in which I came third for £5,250, but I’m prouder of this result, because I really made the best of some marginal hands.

It was a two-day tournament, so I should by rights have been dealt every possible starting hand: Aces at least once (they should come every eight hours or so), AK three times. But no – my best pocket pair was Kings, just once, and the next best tens, just once. My highest Ace was AQ, just once.

So how did I go deep? This is the kind of creative play I’ve learned from playing cash at the PokerStars Live Lounge at the Hippodrome – I’m sharing in the hope that poker-playing readers will pick up some strategy tips:

  1. Sniffing out a bluff

I have 78 of clubs. The blinds are still low (500 on a starting stack of 25k), so I can afford to call a 1.5k raise. We’re four-handed when a scare flop comes 99Q with two spades and a diamond. Nothing there for me. It’s checked round. The turn is an 8, bringing a second diamond, and a pair for me. We all check to the initial button raiser, who bets 5k. The others fold, and I call with my bottom pair.

This is where it gets interesting. When I check the river of a 5 of diamonds, hoping I’ll be ahead on the showdown with my humble pair but knowing he may well have a pair of Queens, a higher pocket pair or even slow-played trips, the raiser makes it 12.5k.

Some people would fold automatically, but instead I think it through. The 5 of diamonds is actually a key card here, because it completes a backdoor flush and a 5-9 straight: both are hands I might have been drawing to when I called the turn. If he has a pair, or even if he was slow-playing trip 9s, there’s no way he’d value-bet that river. Why bet when he’s only getting called by a bigger hand? So he either has a monster – a house or at minimum a backdoor flush – or else he’s bluffing.

That’s what they call a “polarised” range. From listening to the guy talking to his neighbour, I know he’s a pro; therefore he is capable of bluffing for pretty nearly his whole stack. And he doesn’t “feel” strong.

If I call and get it wrong, I’m down to 7k – crippled. But if I get it right, I’ve nearly doubled up. I make the call. He had KJ for a failed gutshot, and the whole table gasps when I show just a pair of 8s.

Your take-home: if they are a pro player and you put them on a failed draw, you can call a river bet with a small pair. I’ve even done so with Queen high.

  1. Turning a draw into a bluff

I make one bluff early on when I float a tiny flop bet with air and a third suited card comes on the turn. I’ve been playing tight, so when I bet it, both players fold. Easy stuff. But there’s a more interesting bluff, as it relies strongly on a read:

I have Q8 of clubs in the small blind. There’s one limp, I call, and the big blind checks. The flop comes  Ace high, with two clubs for a flush draw. So of course I bet. The big blind calls.

The turn is a second Ace. I bet again. The big blind calls again. Weird. What’s he calling with? The flush draw maybe? In that case, mine is bigger. Has he hit a small pair? What gives me strength is that I know for sure he hasn’t got an Ace. And I know this, even though he has only just sat down at the table, simply because he has a card protector in front of him that says “Online Turbo Tournament Champion”. There is no way in hell that a guy like that with any kind of Ace in the big blind would not have raised pre-flop.

Yet another Ace comes on the river. Three Aces on the board! Any kind of pair now has made a house. Any Ace has now got quads. I only have Q high. I may even be ahead, though I still need to push him off a possible small pair. I bet convincingly small, less than half the pot. He folds, and everyone congratulates me on my “quad Aces”.  The big blind later admitted he was calling with 8 high, intending to bluff me later, but you can’t bluff a man who so obviously “has” quads!

Your take-home: Conversely, you can easily turn your own failed draw into a bluff, if you have a read that your opponent is weak.

  1. Turning bad position into good position

It’s day two of the tournament, and there’s a loose big-stack raising so often that he can’t have a hand each time. That kind of person you have to re-raise, never call. So when he raises my blind to 6.5k and I have AJ, I re-raise to 15k. He calls. Impulsively, I check in the dark. Why? Because he has position over me, and he’s an aggressive player. If I have to make a continuation bet on the flop, he can re-raise if he hits, or fold or float or bluff if he doesn’t, and I won’t know where I am. I want to keep the initiative, and keep him confused. It works. He frowns, baffled and off-balance.

The flop comes King high, all clubs, and he… checks. For all he knows, I have a flush, or AK; even an aggressive player would struggle to bluff that flop in the dark. Blissfully, the turn is a fourth club. I have none of this flop, but it doesn’t matter. Even with no information, I know he is less than 50% to hold a club in his two hole cards (less than 50%, because there are only 9 clubs left out of 46 unknown cards). But I do have information: he checked the all-club flop. Whereas I checked in the dark, so he learned nothing. So I am safe to bet here as though I have a club, and see him fold. That’s just what happens.

Your take-home: If there are four suited cards on the board, make a small river bet. Unless you are known as an aggressive, bluffing player, a bet of half or even a third of the pot gives you a greater than 50% chance of forcing a fold.

  1. Value-betting and bluffing at the same time

I have KJ unsuited in early position. Not a wonderful tournament hand in early position when the blinds are dangerously high, but one of the best I’ve seen all day, so I raise, and get two callers. The flop comes K high. Good. But when I bet, I get one call. There is a flush draw out there, but it doesn’t “feel” like he has one, it “feels” like he has a King. But what’s his kicker? It ought to be at least KJ, maybe KQ, to call a tight player raising from early position. The turn is a second 3. I check, he bets. I could give up now, but hell, I have top pair with a decent kicker. But I won’t raise, because he’s likely only folding with a worse kicker than mine. So I call. See what happens on the river.

The river is an Ace. Brilliant. If I’m right that he has a King, I can be sure he hasn’t got an Ace. This guy is wearing a baseball cap; he would definitely have re-raised AK pre-flop. So I instantly grasp that I can bet the Ace safely. And the fascinating thing about this bet is that it is at the same time a bluff and a value bet.

It’s a bluff because if he has KQ, I’m losing, and with KJ we’re chopping, but I have a good chance of pushing him off the hand by representing the Ace. It will make total sense to him that I should have one:  I raised pre-flop, made a continuation bet on the flop, check-called the turn when he showed strength, and then raised the river when the Ace came. So “of course” I spiked an Ace.

But it’s also a value bet, because if he has K10, or K9, which is possible for a guy wearing a baseball cap especially if they were suited, and he does somehow summon up the courage for a hero call, then I make extra money. He dwells ages, so I know he had some kind of King, before folding, cursing the river.

Your take-home: Always be prepared to change your tactics to adjust to new cards on each street.

  1. When all else fails, you do need a little luck!

My second best hand in the whole tournament is AQ, shortly after the bubble bursts. So when I finally get it, you’re damn right I re-raise it. Following a bet of 10k and one call, I make it 25k. They both call. The flop comes Queen high, with a 5 and a 4, no flush draw. Hallelujah! I bet 45k, and get one fold, and one very slow call from the shorter stack. He’s either very strong, with trips, and slow-playing it – a real possibility, though at least I can rule out two pairs – or he has a weaker Queen. Hard to tell from the betting action, but it no longer matters: he has only 65k left, with 170k already in the pot. I can’t fold.

So I’m jamming the turn whatever comes (it’s a 2), at which he snap-calls. Yep, he has pocket 5s for trips. Even a third Queen won’t help me, as it would give him a house. I’ll still have 100k left from the stack I’ve painstakingly built, but this sucks. And just then… a genuine miracle from the Poker Gods. The river is a 3, giving me a runner-runner straight.

I like to think this is karmic payback for my bad starting hands this weekend, or for all the times my Aces have been cracked by Kings or Queens in tournaments past. But really, it’s just the glorious, infuriating, crazy, random thing about poker. You can concentrate hard and make great reads and play your best game, but you’ll usually need some shot of dumb good luck, somewhere along the line, to reach the final table. It’s why we love poker and get furious with poker but keep coming back to it: it’s unpredictable and ever-changeable, with no two hands the same.

And what did I do to celebrate my eventual £1,600 final-table win, you might ask?

Well duh. I went straight back up to the PokerStars Live Lounge balcony to play for cash.

Dusk Till Dawn in Nottingham at the Hotel That Time Forgot

19 Nov

Stage Hotel

The news today that a couple had been fined £100 by the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool for leaving a bad TripAdvisor review reminds me of my own worst hotel experience. Here’s a review I wrote at the time:

I can think of just three reasons to stay at the Stage Hotel in Nottingham: if you are stupid, desperate, or crazy. I stayed there for a weekend poker tournament at Dusk Till Dawn. I began as stupid, since I didn’t read the mostly one-star TripAdvisor reviews before booking (sample headlines: “Disgusting”; “Waste of money, filthy”; “Dirty, noisy, smelly”, “Good grief”). I passed swiftly to desperate, and would have ended up crazy if I hadn’t moved out early.

I arrived exhausted at 1.30am, but couldn’t sleep because of the noisy clock directly above the bed. The clock had lost its hands – this literally is the Hotel That Time Forgot – so there was no purpose to its pitilessly loud ticking, except perhaps to remind sleepless residents of the ultimate futility of existence as their lives tick away second by second towards the ineluctable void.

I finally discovered that if you hold a button down, the ticking stops. Fine, but you can’t sleep while holding down a button. Eventually I chewed some gum; stuck it to a coin; stuck that on the button; got some sellotape from reception; taped the coin against the button. Success! Pausing only to hurt my arm on something broken inside the mattress, I finally fell asleep…

Only to be woken again at 4.50am. “Listen, raht, listen, will you listen raht, listen, LISTEN!” This phrase was shouted every five minutes during the couple’s argument across the hall. The whole corridor’s listening, dear, I wanted to shout back; the walls are paper-thin. Finally, nearly an hour later, the argument calmed down, in anger if not in volume: “You know what I WANT, raht, what I REALLY WANT?

“What do you want?” answered the long-suffering unseen boyfriend, for once not using the F-word.

“I want you to be my man, and me to be your girl.”

Aaaah, how sweet. EXCEPT AT 5.40 IN THE MORNING.

What I wanted, what I really wanted, raht, was to phone reception to get them to have a word, but there are no phones in the rooms. There were no towels in the bathroom, either – you have to go and ask for that luxury – nor even a mirror (though the hooks were still there), which made shaving a challenge. Perhaps the absence of a mirror was actually a rare thoughtful courtesy, saving residents from gazing into their hideously bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes as they contemplate the aforementioned futility of their existence ticking down to the ineluctable void.

Near 6am I decided that, British or no, I was going to Make A Fuss. I trudged down to reception in my pyjamas, hoping they would do something about the commotion. Offer me another room, perhaps; or go ask the couple to calm down. Nope. “Well I’m going to knock on their door then,” I said. “Hope I don’t get stabbed,” I added, when no reply was forthcoming. “All right, then, good night,” said the receptionist.

The argument had got heated and sweary again by the time I got back to the corridor, so I thought I’d leave it a few minutes. Bad idea. Somehow they transitioned abruptly into make-up sex. “Oh bay-BEH! Oh bay-BEH! BabyiloveYOU!” shrieked the woman. “Eurgh! Wurgh! Ooogh!” groaned the man.

As a small blessing, he lasted only four minutes… after which the arguing started up all over again.

I gave up, got dressed, and went to sit in reception, Googling other hotels to stay in (there was no Wi-fi in the room, of course), until 7am breakfast – which, for the sake of fairness, I should point out was perfectly good. The other plus is that I convinced the manager to give me a partial refund, which other reviewers have failed to do – not for the night I’d stayed, admittedly, but for the next night I had pre-booked. We settled on 50%, to account for taxes, fees to Bookings.com etc.

I’d booked the hotel online at just £35 per night, including breakfast and free parking. That sounded like good value. Not so. As David Byrne once sang, I wouldn’t stay here if you paid me.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel rolls the dice, and…

7 Aug

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Poster-Art1

Playing poker, like making films, is all about taking calculated risks. Last night I called a £200 re-raise with just a pair, to someone who was representing a straight, because I sensed he might be bluffing. I was right, and doubled up.

Hollywood seems to know all about the calculation, but has forgotten about the risk. This summer’s blockbusters are, yet again, all franchise sequels (22 Jump Street, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Expendables 3) or properties with existing brand recognition (Hercules). So when a new film by a relatively untried but hugely talented director (James Gunn) gets a mammoth budget, forgive us jaded viewers if we go a bit ga-ga.

Guardians of the Galaxy, currently scoring 8.8 on IMDB, is every bit as fun as people say it is: brash, colourful, irreverent, risky, and both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. As a tiny example, Stan Lee gets a Hitchcockian cameo in every Marvel movie. Usually it’s something pretty innocuous, but here the revered 91-year-old founder of Marvel is shown talking to a pretty girl young enough to be his great-granddaughter, at which a wise-cracking alien raccoon comments: “What a Class-A Pre-vert.” Or this: the climactic battle scene turns on a moving plea from the roguish leader of the Guardians: “I am an A-hole but I’m not 100% a dick.” If Shakespeare were alive today – and smoking a lot of dope – he could surely do no better.

Yes, there are spectacular action scenes and spaceships and explosions and aliens and strange new worlds. But it’s the left-field dialogue and characters that really sing. The closest comparison might be Avengers Assemble, also brilliantly scripted. But that was based on established, well known superheroes who had already been set up over the course of multiple movies. Guardians was not a comic many people read or knew about; the film seems to have come out of nowhere.

All credit, then, to Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios. In 2008, I interviewed Feige for The Times on the eve of the biggest gamble of his career. Instead of licensing their comics to studios who barely understood them in return for a fee, he reckoned Marvel could do better. So he bet the company’s future on a $550 million loan to fund an initial three movies. It worked. The first, Iron Man, took over half a billion dollars worldwide; Avengers Assemble, which in 2012 brought all their different superhero movies together, made over $1.5 billion.

With figures like these, it would be tempting to stick with a sure thing. But Feige rolled the dice once again, pitting the full might of Marvel behind a much quirkier, edgier, cultish sort of film. It’s paid off in spades: Guardians of the Galaxy had by far the biggest August opening in Hollywood history, taking $172 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

So c’mon, execs. Lighten up a little. Take some risks. Give us something fresh. And who knows? You might just get another franchise to milk out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already slated for summer 2017.

See also: how I “discovered” the young James Gunn