02/07/2009

Please don’t Feed the Fish

Alex Rousso

Alone, in a room, miles from anyone, a man is glued to his computer screen. Two screens, actually. He is feverishly typing away at his keyboard, and if we look closely, we can see gritted teeth. Look at the screen – the things he types appear there:

“****ing muppet”
“how the **** can you call with that?”

The man is playing online poker. The site at which he’s playing doesn’t have resizeable windows, so in order to have three tables open at once, he needs to have two large screens.

The man is in the process of putting the world to rights by telling the guy who just outdrew him what a bad player he is, and how he will keep on losing money. The outdrawer protests his innocence the only way he knows how: “but I won” he claims; “how can what I did be wrong?” Somehow, this seems to make the man even more angry.

Is the outdrawer trying to wind him up, or is he really that naïve? That’s not important. Somewhat more pressing is the news from another table. The break-even call the man made on the turn with his Broadway wrap (he’s playing Omaha) has hit on the river. His opponent there, not suspecting that the man has hit the nuts, has bet out on the river. The timer ticks... but our hero is not watching.

Nope, he’s too busy teaching the guy on the other table how to play poker. The clock keeps ticking. Suddenly, awoken from his red mist, our hero remembers that there are other tables playing. He sees that he has the nuts on the other table, and what’s more, his opponent has bet into to him – bingo! But time is running out ... he must get to the- DEAL ME IN.

So no happy ending there, then. Unless of course, you believe in money making poker, in which case, maybe this man just learned a valuable lesson. It’s written in virtually all the books, it’s derivable from first principles, and it may as well be written in stone: telling an opponent off for bad play is counterproductive for money making poker.

Agreed, it is difficult sometimes. Some players are capable of the most monumentally bad calls and when fate smiles on them, it goes against everything we’ve learned from the supposedly meritocratic society that we live in. We’ve grown up thinking that there should be redress, and there should be punishment for bad deeds. When we see a player “get away with it”, it’s natural that it boils our blood.

To counter that frustration, keep in mind the golden rule of poker: luck evens out in the long run, and if players continue to make bad calls, eventually they will lose their money. Maybe not to you, but to someone else. If that makes it seem worse, remember that some other bad player will lose their money to you – it’s just a question of playing enough to let the luck even out over the long run. This is the cornerstone of Sklansky’s theory of poker: every time a player puts money in the pot when they do not have the odds to do so, they are losing money in the long run.

Abstaining from chatting not only saves frayed nerves, it also avoids the most obvious and destructive malaise affecting good players who just can’t resist “playing teacher”: if you don’t correct them, they don’t improve; and if they don’t improve, you make more money out of them.

I call this “not feeding the fish”. This simple economic principle is so obvious and so universally true in poker, it beggars belief that so many good players violate it. Clearly, the urge to demonstrate that we know better is a strong one. I advise that the best way to circumvent the problem is to turn off your chat facility altogether.

Quite apart from anything else, it’s rude to harangue these players. Please remember that people play poker for many different reasons. Some play to gamble, some to blow off some steam (and perhaps cash in the process), some play just for fun. If you spend enough time with real players in real live situations, you’ll be reminded of just how little most of the players you’re sitting down with know about poker. Some of them have to be reminded of the correct hand order, let alone what an inside straight draw is or what implied odds are.

It’s quite a wake up call for these players to find out that there’s an entire science behind them losing their money, and that most of the players sat with them are not new found friends hanging out with them and chewing the fat. They are in fact sharks waiting to gobble up the stack they have in front of them. Many, many times I’ve seen players get castigated for a bad call and, because they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable by the loser, get up from the table with his (and the loser’s) money a few hands later. In other words, quite apart from it being appalling manners to get angry with these people because of the mistakes they make, it’s a stupid business move.

True, there are players out there who play online for the social aspect of it. Staring at a screen for hours on end can be alienating. But if you’re a serious poker player and want people contact, go to a poker room. Better still, go out for a drink with your mates. The best tonic against the idiotic protestations of poor players defending their shabby play is not to hear it at all in the first place. Turn off the chat, and please, please don’t feed the fish.