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ales of Team Carborundum
We’re halfway through the 2004 World Series of Poker, and it’s time for a state of the game address. This World Series has gone strange, and the results mean something. I play very little poker these days, I wasn’t a very good player at the best of times, and now many technicalities of the game are beyond my reach. But I’m an observer, and over the past few years and especially the past few weeks, I’m seeing things that don’t fit the mold. I think poker has changed, and there are many who are unwilling to accept it. Consider this.

    7th May 2004
Jesse May
Jesse May, multiple author in the gambling field and sometimes dubded the "voice of poker", writes a regular column.
Most people know Jesse as "the voice of poker" from his colourful commentary in CH4's late Night Poker. Jesse is also the author of the widely respected novel, Shut Up And Deal, which looks deep into the poker playing life. Its the hard faced 21st Century Cincinnati Kid.

Jesse is also the creator of The Gambler's Guide to the World, an insiders look at the action and games around the world.
The game of poker today is large field tournament poker. This game is less than three years old, and it bears little or no relation to the poker that has come before. It has long been said that cash game play and tournament play are two different animals, but the extremes have become so pronounced as to make each of them closer to Parcheesi than each other.

There is a curious concept regarding scientific theory postulated in Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You can read it for yourself, and as he spends a good one hundred pages in its discussion, my two sentence summation should be taken with a grain of salt. The matter is whether or not scientific discoveries and advancements get us closer to ultimate scientific truth. When Einstein discovered relativity, did it mean that Newton was wrong? Pirsig’s answer is that they were both right during their time. Scientific truth is not absolute, he claims, it changes.

I’m thinking about this concept in relation to poker, because we have reached a watershed in the evolution of the theory of the game. We have reached a point where many of the truths that have long been held about how to win at this game have ceased to exist. The poker theorists and players of the last twenty years were not necessarily wrong, but the truth has changed, and now there are a good many people who all of the sudden don’t know what the hell is going on. They seek to explain the present away with talk of luck and coincidence and closed up minds, but I can’t do it. I don’t know exactly what the new truth is, but there are too many anomalies in poker today that need new answers. I say take the old books, and burn them. Just consider. Don’t try to explain, just consider.

Daniel Negreanu makes twenty-seven rebuys in a No Limit Hold’em event and comes third. When making his twenty-fifth rebuy, he had no chips. According to everything that I know about poker, this is a man on blown out tilt. To call this smart tournament poker makes a mockery of previous poker theory. But it’s not the first time he’s done it. And there are others, guys like Layne Flack, who play this way and succeed. And if you watched Negreanu that day, he wasn’t behaving as a man out of control. He believes this is a profitable method for winning rebuy tournaments.

He’s done it before, he keeps records, and when I asked him about the tournament, his only response was, “I was very happy about the way I played.” Is he smart, or an idiot?

There was an interesting last longer bet offered by a sportsbook for the WPT championship, Mel Judah vs. Huck Seed. There was general agreement in the poker world on two things. While Huck Seed was a big favorite over Mel Judah in terms of odds to win the tournament, Mel was a big a favorite in terms of a last longer bet. Many have said that poker is similar to golf, but in golf you would never have a situation where a player is a favorite in a match-up but shorter in terms of win odds. And the important question regarding Mel and Huck is, who is the favorite to make more money in the long run, over the course of a thousand tournaments?

David Sklansky has long been considered a leader in a field entitled game theory, theories based mostly on numbers and his cards, yet his tournament results over the past few years indicate that he has absolutely no chance whatsoever to win a large field event. Chris Ferguson, on the other hand, is also an expert in game theory, but of a far different sort. When Ferguson won a No Limit event in California a few months ago, he made a comment in a post match interview that was simply, “I made a decision that I needed to loosen up at the final table.” Why?

There is not a poker book in the world that would tell you to play more hands than you fold at a full table. Yet if you watch a certain group of successful players, I’m thinking Phil Ivey and Gus Hansen and Huck Seed and Layne Flack for example, not only do they play nearly every hand, but they often bring it in with a call, no less. Which part of current poker theory explains this? And how can it be further explained that there’s an entire other group of successful players, like Dan Harrington and Hasan Habib and Howard Lederer and TJ Cloutier, who play tighter but more aggressive? Will one strategy eventually prove more successful?

Everyone says that televised poker is making the game easier to learn, but as long as televised tournaments are aired on an edited basis, viewers are getting only one half of a champion’s story. You see the hands that they play, but rarely the hands that they fold. What kind of bizarre folds are going on behind the scenes? I bring this up after being told by a very successful player that he folded pocket kings on Day 1 of last years WSOP while absolutely positive that the player who had raised all-in in front of him had ace-king. And he was absolutely convinced that this was the correct play. And there are some who would agree, and many who would call him crazy.

Finally, If you don’t believe me then consider Howard Lederer. Howard is smart – if he opens his mouth, just shut up and listen. Lederer wrote a spellbinding account of his experiences at the 2003 WSOP main event. Read again his comments concerning Men the Master’s play on Day 4. Men made a fold, he said, that went against math, physics, and the laws of gravity. Later on, Howard writes, he’s really not sure. There may be a method to Men’s madness, there may be something there. Those plays appear in no book, but Men has trained loads of players and between David Pham, Minh Nguyen, Young Phan, and Men Nguyen himself, you are talking results.

Three bracelets at the 2004 WSOP have been won by players twenty-three years of age. Young guns, they are called, the new breed. But these young guns, in some sense, may be the most experienced players out there. What experienced old timer has played 8000 large field tournaments on the Internet? The Internet is ruled by 20-year old Scandinavians, 22-year old freaks, and 23-year old players who have been locked up playing ten tournaments daily for the last five years and have none of poker’s past to cloud their minds. Who really is better? Who really knows about truth?

If you’ve been playing poker successfully for the last fifteen years, the hardest thing to do is to accept you know nothing. Many successful cash game players enter tournaments with the idea that they should sit down and just play cards. All evidence points to the fact that nothing could be farther from the truth. In cash game poker, your first consideration is the cards that you hold. In large field tournament poker today, the cards that you hold should be your last consideration. How many times do you hear someone coming out of a tournament with a bad beat story, and the story always begins with the cards he was dealt? Too many times. In today’s game, a tournament story should always begin with, “I had X chips, the blinds were Y, and there were Z players left.” Or something like that.

I was having a conversation with two poker players the other night, and it got me thinking. They had both played a large number of WSOP events this year without success. One of them had missed the frame seven times running, but had made the dinner break at every event. “You’re fine,” I said, “don’t worry.” The other player had been knocked out early every day. To him I was thinking, “You’ve got problems.” Now the second player is no mug, to be sure. He’s a very experienced poker player, one of the top cash game players in the game today, but what he thinks he knows about poker may very well be holding him back. He needs to throw everything out of the window, and start from scratch.

What’s going on today has no relation to the past. There may be books explaining the game of poker, but there is nothing out there which deals with what is happening now. The very basic treatises which divide a tournament into early middle and late stages don’t do justice to what poker tournaments are now, large field affairs which take some luck and whole different skill sets. Tournament No Limit Hold’em is still the most skilled form of poker. Loosen your brain.

I’m not prepared to call all of the young guns lucky. I’m not prepared to dismiss Thunder Kelly, Scott Fischman, Martin Deknijff, and all of Sweden as inexperienced. I’m watching them and trying to figure out what they’re doing. Because right now, it may just be smart.

Editor's note
In slight contradiction, the editor can say that Golf has become a game of equal contrasts in that there are now some match bets of, more likely to win/less likely to stay, in existance. This is due to the youth and the money. When the 23 year olds have money in the bank they are only interested in winning and so go all out for the first 2 rounds. If they can't make it to the top 10 by Saturday, they can't be bothered to play the weekend. E.g. Chad Campbell, John Daly, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, etc.