Leading from the front, getting it in behind

Experience has taught me at least one thing: it always take me a while to re-adjust to playing live in Ireland after Vegas.

Doke's PocketFives Poker Player Profile

Click image above to check out my PocketFives player profile

Do you wanna be in my gang, my gang?

As you may have read elsewhere, I've been appointed the new Team Irish Eyes Poker captain. Click image above to find out more.

The end of the dream.....for now

Maybe I should stop writing mid tournament blogs as it never seems to end well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bunny boilers

Most UK and Irish poker players have very fond memories of the PokerStars UKIPT tour. Myself included. What many may not remember, either because it was before their time or they have simply forgotten, is that the first season was a pretty dismal failure. Satellites didn't run, it struggled for numbers, and failed to appeal to both recreationals and pros alike with small prize pools and tiny side events.

I gave up on the tour a few stops in after a particularly grim stop in Coventry. When the highlight of your week is almost getting stabbed in an underpass, it seems like a good time to call time on following the tour. I shared a cab to the airport with a Stars employee who was in charge of the tour. He admitted frankly the tour was failing and grilled me for my thoughts on why and what could be done. I answered honestly and made some suggestions, specifically that bigger side events were needed to encourage more serious players to travel, and if they allowed multiple seat and packages to be won players like me would grind satellites and provide more liquidity to ensure they ran.

Back then, players like me and Stars staff both felt like we were on the same team, so when I was asked for input, I didn't just say what was in my own interest but what I genuinely felt was best for everyone. Stars encouraged and fostered a relationship with high volume grinders. Myself and David Lappin were invited to a get together with other grinders and Stars staff in Galway where they plied us with food and booze, solicited our feedback and ideas, and wrote it all down. It was there I first met other grinders I played against every night for the first time like Timmy and Hefs. At the Isle of Man stop we were invited to meet live events staff looking for further feedback. I'm not saying the subsequent success of the tour was all down to this, but it surely didn't hurt. David suggested new formats for satellites that proved popular, and I put forward the idea of a leaderboard which encouraged people to grind satellites and side events with new vigour. UKIPTs were always a pleasure to attend because you ran into a wide range of recreational players only some of whom complained about bad beats at the hands of SlowDoke and PHISHINBOY, and Stars staff who were always friendly, solicitous and expressed admiration for our results and work ethic.

After the tour took off, it seemed our feedback was no longer needed or heeded. The first major mistake Stars made was moving the buyin up to over 1k. That proved a step too far, moving even the satellites out of the reach of recs. The satellites became less attractive for everyone, and there were some I played only because I was chasing the leaderboard. Stars staff starting joking that I was to blame for the overlays. As the satellites got smaller and smaller with more regs, many smart recs began to realise they were a heavily losing proposition for them. Internally in Stars, it seemed that people needed scapegoats, and instead of putting their hands up and saying "We messed up increasing the buyin", it was more prudent to blame the satellite grinders. "Those guys are stopping recs from qualifying" Never mind the fact that they were still heavily incentivising us to play the satellites with an expanded leaderboard prize pool and other perks.

This spin started to percolate out to recreationals. It was essentially a PR own goal: "No point playing satellites any more, they're full of sharks" This was even before the Stars brand started to turn toxic after the Amaya takeover. Cuts across the board made UKIPT stops less glamorous more miserable affairs. That exarcerbated the decline of the tour, sending it into a death spiral.

The Amaya strategy was quickly revealed to be to squeeze as much profit as possible from everywhere, accompanied by propaganda that this was in the best interest of recreationals (more rake is better) and that anything that was bad for pros was good for them. The vast majority of recreationals are far smarter than the spin merchants gave them credit for and saw through this nonsense, and the cancer that had killed the smaller Stars regional tours spread to their flagship EPT brand. Contempt for the customers and their experience plumbed new depths in Barcelona last year, and continued into Prague.

After Prague I (and most of my friends) just gave up on AmayaStars live events. I haven't played a Stars satellite this year and don't intend to. This made the recent oddly worded PR statement from Stars on their reasons for restricting multiple seat and package winners all the more bizarre.

To be fair to the Amaya propaganda machine, they have managed to ram the idea in that grinders like me were killing their satellites so effectively that immediately after releasing this latest propaganda piece, a number of players tweeted to the effect that it meant I was scouring Situations Vacant for a new profession. The reality of course is that I had already found one, at the start of this year, when I announced that because I would no longer be playing many satellites (nor any on Stars), I was finally willing to share the secrets of my success in a course* I was developing. I simply shifted my volume to other sites and normal mtts, and at time of writing I am having my best year online since 2013. in truth I wish I'd stopped grinding Stars satellites years ago.

After Barcelona last year I compared what was going on in Stars to my local shop when I was a child which went into terminal decline under new management. Right now, it seems like Stars response to dwindling numbers and increased customer dissatisfaction is to simply change the name of the shop, and when sales still continue to decline, to blame it on ex clients who had already moved our business elsewhere.

Let's clear something up though. I understand that Amaya is a business. I understand they have a fiduciary responsibility to make as much money as they can for their shareholders. I don't think we have a right to expect that "the good of poker" (whatever that might be) be their objective. If they came clean and said "look we paid too much for Stars and we need to increase profits to get our money back" I'd say good luck to them. What irks me is that instead of saying that when they increase rake, reduce benefits and make the customer experience worse for everyone, they lie and they misdirect and they try to distract us with chests and they insult their customers. They insult those of us who paid them millions in rake down the years and provided much needed liquidity by suggesting we did something underhand profiting at the expense of recreational players. They insult the intelligence of recreationals peddling this nonsense.

I totally accept that they have the right to change their satellite policy without regard to how it affects me and my kind (which it doesn't since we moved our business elsewhere already). I even accept that it might work as a long term strategy to encourage more recreationals back to the pool. But I have my doubts. I wonder where the liquidity will come from. It's not just me and my kind who have dropped out of the satellites: now any recreational is forced out of the pool after they lock up their first seat. And let's make something else clear: it wasn't just pros who benefited from being able to win multiples. Many good recreational players enjoyed the chance to make money in satellites, and cleaned up in them too. As a direct comparison, the first stop after Stars announced their policy change (London) really struggled for satellite liquidity and they ended up qualifying LESS unique players than last year. You can't blame me and David Docherty for that overlay, guys.

Talal Shakerchi pointed out in a recent Thinking Poker podcast interview just how much the general view on Stars has shifted in the last five years. Five years ago they were the good guys. If you went on 2+2 and started a thread complaining about Stars, almost all the feedback would be pro Stars. Now they are your psycho ex, blaming all their current woes on a former lover long since departed. A lover they courted vigorously and seductively, and then turned bunny boiler on us when we wouldn't just lie down and agree that more rake is better.

Stars may have changed the shop name (and rumours suggest they are about to change it back to EPT), but until they stop blaming ex customers and start focusing on providing better service to existing ones, the decline will continue, and we can expect it to get ugly.

* I naively assumed when I announced I was developing this satellite course that it would take a few weeks for me to develop. It ended up taking 6 months and as announced here I recently delivered it as a webinar. The reaction has been overwhelming, I sold out 4 sessions and could go on doing more but endlessly repeating the same material isn't appealing to me, so instead I recorded the last webinar and it is available to buy at $75. Send me the money (Stars (SlowDoke), Party (okearney), ACR (Doked), Paypal, Skrill, Neteller or bank transfer (details on request)) and an email confirming you've done so at dokepokercoaching@gmail.com and it's yours.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Leaving Las Vegas (for now)

It's a Wednesday afternoon in Vegas. I'm sat at a poker table playing my last event of the WSOP, the Little One Drop. Late the previous day I bust the Main event, and sulked off home. I know from past experience that it's not a good idea to play something else the day I bust the main, but I wake up ready to get on with life the next day.

After I fold my latest garbage, I look down at my IPad to read the latest updates from the main on the WSOP blog. I read that the WSOP's favourite pantomime villain, Will Kassouf has just bust the main much to the delight not just of his own table but pretty much the whole room, who stood and applauded his demise. I know Will quite well (we even had him on the Chip Race) and have almost found him friendly and likable so I'm thinking "Kinda harsh", when I hear a familiar chirping voice above me.

"Well look who it is! Mahvellous. Now we've got a game"

I look up and do a double take as I find myself looking at the same face from my IPad. Will, obviously made of sterner stuff from me, has gone straight from having his demise greeted by a standing ovation to late regging the Little One Drop. The next few hours, I'm treated to the Will Kassouf show, essentially a rerun I've seen many times already, with little or no new material. 9 high like a boss. Good fold. Save your money, I know I'm ahead. You've only got one out if you call, the door. Coconuts. But a handful of fans on the rail lap it up like the greatest hits of a declining lounge nostalgia act.

I'm card dead through it all, until I find a good spot on the button. 17 big blinds, ace queen suited, a late position raise, I'm all in.

Will has the chips ready to call the open but stops in his tracks when I shove. He starts the speechplay, designed to figure out where I am on my range. I say nothing. He rabbits on, looking for a reaction. I'm now certain I'm ahead or at worst in a flip. Any better hand has called by now, and probably had to at least think about three betting the open rather than preparing to snap call. So I try to look nervous to get the hands I dominate in.

Eventually he does call, and it is a hand I dominate, ace two suited. I'm quite surprised to see this hand. I figured I could get some worse aces in, but not all the way down to ace two. But I know from past experience that while Will has a lot of strengths, basic understanding of preflop equities and short stack play is not one of them. This is a pretty common leak a lot of live pros have. I know that Will doesn't really grind online, so despite having live results stretching back a decade (at time of writing, he's averaged roughly 7 live cashes a year over his career according to Hendon Mob so he also hasn't a ton of experience deep in big tournaments), he doesn't find himself in these spots as often as your typical online grinder who plays twenty thousands tournaments a year. He's also never played headsup (except his match with Stacy Matuson last year in Rozvadov where he was roundly trounced and surprised viewers by how weak he played), which is where a lot of grinders build their short stack shove/fold range muscles.

An online grinder probably finds himself in this spot a few hundred times a year, so he quickly learns A2s is an awful call. The problem is you are just dominated so much, but even against an any two card shove, A2s isn't much better than a flip such as queens against ace king. Against my actual range in this spot, A2s is more than a two to one underdog, because it's dominated so often.

As I prepared to table my hand, Will made another comment that suggested he doesn't understand preflop equities: "Just don't show me an ace". Apart from the fact that any ace I have dominates him, so do all my pairs, which should also worry him. Against my hand, he has only 29% equity, but even if I roll over pockets fives, he's still worse than a two to one dog.

Online players quickly learn this the hard way if necessary, but live the sample is never big enough. You don't find yourself in the spot often enough to have a huge incentive to go off and study the exact equities. You make the call once, and you might even get lucky and win and think you made the right call.

Which is what happened on this occasion. He flopped two pair, turned a house, and as I shook hands and wished him continued good luck he said something to the effect that he was sad to see me go as I'm a nice guy.

Hopefully he still thinks that.

Last chance salon

I fired another bullet at the Little One Drop the following day. There's not much to say about it except that it ended appropriately enough in another lost flip near the close of play. A ten on the river brought down the curtain on a pretty miserable WSOP campaign for me.

I've compared a long WSOP campaign to a typical Sunday online in the past, but there are some crucial differences. In point of fact I actually play at least twice as many tournaments in a Sunday as I did in my 6 weeks in the desert. The WSOP tournaments are also obviously a lot bigger and more prestigious, and take longer, so it's harder not to get emotionally invested when it's the thing your entire day is based around, and the highlight of your year, rather than just another box on the screen to be quickly replaced if you bust.

Another key difference I only became aware of as the barren summer went on was how much harder it is to keep perspective on the big picture when you're showing up day after day to do your job as well as possible, and not only are you watching it end every time in a bad beat or a lost flip, but all around you players who put a lot less hard work into their preparation and honing their skills are luck boxing their ways to big stacks and scores. It is of course the height of silliness and futility to envy the success of others in poker (unless they are better than you and your jealousy drives you to work hard to emulate them), but it's also human nature. Entitlement tilt and a sense of injustice is very hard to shake off when a little voice in your head is saying "You worked harder than anyone preparing for this, you've logged tens of thousands of hours of study to get to this point, you've whipped yourself into better physical shape than most guys half your age, only to show up here, lose all the key flips, and go home poorer". But that's poker, and if it weren't so it wouldn't be long term profitable, because the weaker players pouring alcohol into themselves at the table while they splash around making bad play after bad play wouldn't keep playing if it wasn't possible for positive variance to paper over all their flaws in the short term.

In the long term, I've been amply rewarded for my efforts in poker. I've made millions online, chopped a WSOP event, a Super Tuesday, a European Deepstack, come close to winning an EMOP a UKIPT a WPT and a GPPT, won two majors and six online Triple Crowns, and a few weeks before I headed to Vegas final tabled a SCOOP. This year's WSOP is but a  fraction of 1% dip in a career graph that has trended up and up over a decade. I've been a bit spoiled by my last three campaigns which each included a deep run (2nd, 9th, 13th) to the point that this campaign feels a lot worse than it actually was. Five cashes, but only one day two.  But if I'd won even my fair share of flips I'd almost certainly be looking back on this campaign as a latest career highlight, and patting myself on the back for having executed so well. I take a lot of consolation from the fact that as bad as it felt to run that bad, I never let it affect my actual play. I went the entire series without a single major mistake, and kept the minor ones to a  handful. I found some very good folds, calls and raises at times when I could have just let myself think "What does it matter? I'm still going to lose the key flip or get a bad beat".

As I left the house where I had spent the previous six weeks, I could still feel the disappointment at how it had all gone down, a painful contrast to the buoyant optimist who walked into the house looking forward to spending the summer with Andrew and Carlos. When I got to the airport, the contrast switched to one with the feeling of accomplishment I felt leaving Vegas in recent years after successful campaigns. But then I remembered my first two departure lounge experiences in McCarran airport. Back then, I felt not just disappointment, but fear. Fear that I wasn't good enough to make it ever in this game. Fear that my livelihood was under existential threat. Fear that I would be one of the ones who wouldn't be back the following year. Fear that I left as a loser, and a loser I would remain.

This year I leave a loser (in the sense that I lost money this year in Vegas), but a winner in another sense. Knowing that I've made enough money in my career to allow me to keep coming back every year for as long as I want on my own terms, without having to beg for a stake or worry that my losses could threaten my financial wellbeing or that of my family. Knowing that I'm still good enough to compete with the best. Knowing that I still want it enough to keep working as hard if not harder than ever before.

Several years ago, I wrote that every year in Vegas there are players having their last Vegas without realising it.

I feel pretty confident that I was not one of those players this year.

Unless I die.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A tale of two Dokes

"You worked harder and prepared as well as anyone and better than most for this year's WSOP, only to lose every flip and get nowhere. You'd have been better off staying at home printing online at the softest time of the year and saved yourself the ordeal of watching guys who put in less than 10% of the effort flip donk and dog their way to success"

I know from past experience that I always come back from Vegas drained, both mentally and physically. If my preparation has gone well, the version of me that gets on the plane to vegas is the fittest and healthiest all year. Irrespective of how it's gone, the version that gets off the plane in Dublin at the end of summer is always the unfittest and unhealthiest. The only questions are exactly how unfit tired and run down, and how long it will take to recover.

A few days after flying back from Vegas this year, via Manchester where I spent a tired eight hours waiting for a one hour flight to Dublin, I found myself back in Manchester, playing poker at the MPN stop there. Somebody at the table asked when I'd gotten back from Vegas.

After opening my mouth to answer, I realised I didn't know the answer. After another minute of wracking my brain, I was forced to admit I still didn't.

That's how tired I was after Vegas this year.

A few days later I found myself in Malta at the Unibet Deepstack Open there, still very much unrecovered from Vegas, still battling with jetlag, and still looking forward to getting home to what Tommy Angelo calls "real food". The happy fit optimistic version of me from just two months earlier that set off for Vegas off the back of a Powerfest win and my best ever SCOOP didn't just seem like a distant memory: it seemed like a whole different person.

I pride myself on having a strong mental game, without having to work particularly hard at it. One thing that pleased me from the WSOP was despite running almost as bad as is possible, I kept plugging away and playing my A game. But I was a little ashamed to find myself listening to an inner voice expressing the injustice tilt contained in the first paragraph of this piece.

Then I remembered that
(a) that's not how poker works
(b) the work I put in and the benefits reaped in terms of improving my game didn't expire like lammers at the end of the WSOP

So back to the online grind.

The fact that I basically picked up where I left off back in May is more than heartening. I may have forgotten how to win flips in Vegas, but I still remember how to play the game. The final tables and profit started to flow again, and I chopped the Party major for over 23K wiping out the losses of Vegas in a night, if not quite the memories.

It's good to be back.

The Chip Race

With the Chip Race on hiatus for a few weeks, it's worth reflecting on how that particular comeback is going. We'd be the first to concede we got off to a somewhat shaky start when we came back earlier this year after a couple of years away, but the first half of season three has seen us go from strength to strength, both in terms of listener numbers and our own satisfaction with the show. For this, a lot of credit goes to a lot of people (Unibet, technical people behind the scenes, guests, contributors, helpers, supporters, listeners, retweeters, critics) but most of the credit goes to one person: my cohost David Lappin who works and frets tirelessly over every episode, and whose vision we largely follow. What started as an Irish poker podcast has now grown into something that must hold the attention of poker fans outside of Ireland, and we are grateful to have that new audience. Most podcasts vlogs and blogs see their number dwindle rapidly once the novelty wears off, but we are thankfully moving in the upward direction. We have a number of exciting guests already lined up for the second half of season three, the most special of whom we will be interviewing in london on our way to UKPT Nottingham.

If you enjoy the podcast, please take a minute to rate and review us on iTunes as this greatly helps promote it there, which makes it easier for us to continue getting great guests, and encourages us to continue.

Strategy Newsletter

Every so often I get a random request for coaching. I generally know even before writing back that the rate I charge is too much for this person, and even though I have to charge a reasonable rate both to compensate for my time and making the games I play in tougher, I always feel a little guilty.

So my objective in starting a free strategy newsletter (which will remain totally free for as long as I keep it going, with no hidden catch) is to offer a helping hand to people who either can't afford to pay for coaching, or for whom it doesn't make much sense to do so (because they don't play high volume or whatever). The good news is there has never been a better time to learn poker for free with a wealth of good online content out there. The bad news is that there is also a glut of really bad content and for people at the start of their poker journey it can be daunting sifting through it all and deciding what's good and bad. Learning bad habits can be very detrimental to a player's development as they have to be unlearned before you can learn the good stuff.

The main focus will be to direct people to good free content (my own primarily, I am not a modest person on this front, but will also throw in shoutouts to content from other guys I think you could find useful), but from time to time I hope to provide some free articles or videos I make exclusive to newsletter subscribers. And I'll include one MAILBAG response per newsletter that is content that won't be available elsewhere.

In the latest newsletter that went out last Friday, I included a secret I guarded closely for years even from my closest friends and players I staked (and if I  had to guess I'd say it netted me close to six figures of profit online).

You can sign up to the newsletter by sending me an email with SUBSCRIBE as the subject at dokepokercoaching@gmail.com

Satellite course

Almost six months ago I announced I was developing a course on advanced satellite strategy which I would deliver as a webinar. Yes, it's taken me that long, as I wanted to run all the sims I felt were needed and written all the materials.

The webinar will be delivered next Thursday (August 17) and again on Saturday (August 19) at 8 PM GMT (9 PM CET, 3 PM EDT, Noon PDT). I have no idea how long it will take but I'd guess somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours.

I'm capping the participants both days to a dozen or so to reduce the risk of technical issues and allow audience participation, on a first come first served basis. To attend you will need:
(1) Send me an email at dokepokercoaching@gmail.com saying which day you want to attend (the same material will be covered both days)
(2) Ship $100 to me on Stars (SlowDoke), Party (okearney), ACR (Doked), Paypal, Skrill, Neteller or bank transfer (details on request)
(3) Skype. Send me your Skype ID so I can add you (mine is dara.o.kearney)
(4) TeamViewer. Download latest version at www.teamviewer.com

All participants will receive a recorded video of the webinar afterwards.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

I guess I better take this

"OK, whose thing is beeping?"

I'm on a Skype call with my fellow Unibet ambassadors David Lappin and Daiva Byrne, recording some material for The Chip Race, the podcast I cohost with David. One of our computers or devices starts making the ringing noise. I'm about to scold whoever didn't turn off their phone or mute notifications when I realise it's my computer. Someone is trying to ring me on Messenger.

I look at my screen to see who is calling, then say to the guys:

"John Hesp is trying to call me. I guess I better take this"

The previous week, I'd sent a message to the man who had gone from obscurity to the most celebrated man in poker in less than a week, saying we'd love to have him on the show. He responded saying he'd love to come on once he had time to recover from his recent exploits, and jetlag.

Earlier that day, I sent another message saying we'd love to have him on the next show before we went on hiatus, but if that wasn't possible, then in September when we came back.

After quickly hanging up on David and Daiva, I spoke to John, and he said he could give us 20-30 minutes. At the time I assumed that was due to tiredness or other commitments, but the reason turned out to be different (more on that later). I arranged to ring him back in ten minutes, which gave us ten minutes to brainstorm some questions. Kudos to Daiva who outperstormed the two of us on this front.

Ten minutes later, David is grappling with technology trying to figure out how to transfer the Messenger group call between me, him and John to his phone (he eventually gave up and stuck with his phone). With John on his IPad making me the only one on a computer with recording software, I crossed my fingers and toes that the connection and sound quality would hold as I started to chat with a man I had never heard of two weeks ago, but wanted to talk to right now more than any other person in the world right now.

Daiva started her recent Vegas memoir blog with the observation that watching a new WSOP main event champion is a bittersweet affair. We all roll into town in June or July dreaming that this will be our year. By the time the final table is formed, we are generally not only out of the tournament, but out of town, watching the final table of a tournament we played from another town. You have to be an optimist to plump up ten thousand dollars to play a tournament with 8000 runners, but as professionals we are realists too. We know the chances of victory are thousands to one, and the chances of even final tabling hundreds to one.

So we think, well even if I don't make it, I hope someone I swapped with or bought a piece of does. And if not that, then a friend, or even just someone I know vaguely. We all think that if that happens, we'll cheer for that person, and if it doesn't, we will cheer for nobody.

This year changed all that. By the time the final table started, I was in Manchester, cheering for a man I'd never even heard of before. John Hesp. A 64 year old charmer from Hull, who had taken the tournament and poker world by storm with his swashbuckling unorthodox style both of play and dress sense. I could never really have imagined myself cheering for a recreational player I'd never heard of before this summer let alone knew, yet here we were.

I'd gone into Vegas on a high on many fronts, happy with how my year was shaping up. In March I was very happy to sign a deal with Unibet, a company whose vision of bringing the fun back into poker I very much believe in, to represent them as an ambassador. Part of that deal was the return of The Chip Race, the podcast I'd hosted with David Lappin which had folded after one season, not due to lack of popularity or listenership, but due to legal difficulties after the company who commissioned the podcast went into liquidation. In April I did livestream and TV commentary alongside Padraig Parkinson on the Irish Open final table. I enjoyed a fair degree of online success in May, culminating with winning a Powerfest series event and my best ever SCOOP series, where one fourth place finish provided my biggest online score in years. I went into Vegas as healthy and fit as I'd ever been, my weekly long run on Wednesdays having reached 36 miles, at the end of which I felt remarkably fresh.

That optimism, health and fitness gradually waned and drained away over the course of 6 weeks of losing almost all the crucial flips in the desert, eating good food but not as good as the food I eat at home, and getting out to run for a few miles a few times a week. I came back from Vegas demoralised and a little depressed at how my summer had gone, figuring it would take a couple of months to shake the blues. As it was, it took a lot less than that, helped in no small measure by Mr Hesp's performance both at the tables and in front of the media, a timely reminder that poker even when it's your job is a game, and supposed to be fun.

With so little time to prepare scripted questions, the interview which ended up being longer than the 20-30 minutes we were pledged was by necessity the most spontaneous we ever conducted, and the most fun. John was every bit as charming as I imagined, as he told us the story of how he made playing the main event go from his bucket list to reality, before the battery on his Ipad ran out. Ever the consummate professional on this front, he gave us as three minute warning so we could wrap the chat up inabruptly.

We asked him what his remaining ambitions in poker were, and he answered with characteristic modesty and generosity that he didn't want to become a professional (as he felt that would suck a lot of the fun out of the game for him) but would welcome the opportunity to play 6 to 8 events for fun a year. He added that he'd also like to see a big poker event in his home town of Bridlington, which has been heavily affected by recession. It would be great to see some site or operator step in to make the modest ambitions a reality. In a time when there's a lack of poker personalities and heroes who can carry themselves in front of the media, John Hesp is more than a breath of fresh air, he's a potential new lease of life. He's a much needed reminder to those of us who have lost sight of the fact that poker should always be fun, and a clarion call to those who haven't yet given it a try to do so.

The full interview is available now in the current Chip Race episode

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

WSOP main event, day 2

My day 2 table could have been a lot better, but also a lot worse. I did have to contend with one of the best players in the world, Adrian Mateos, and two other decent regs, one of whom (Jamie Risen) I knew was staked at one time by Chris Moorman. This was confirmed when I tweeted for information on my opponents, and got this typically restrained Firaldo response.

My day got off to a shaky start when Jamie defended his big blind against my button raise, called a turn bet with a bare gutshot, and got there on the river. It could have been worse though as he elected to check the nuts to me on the river, and smelling a rat I checked back two pair.


A few hands later I found myself allin for the first time, anxiously waiting to see if I was drawing dead. The hand started with the third reg on the table opening hijack. I elected to call on the button with KQcc, and Jamie defended his big blind. I was pretty happy to see an all club J84 flop. When the opener cbet, I flatted, and Jamie check raised big. The opener quickly folded and I again called, hoping to keep his bluffs in, and hoping not to see another club on the turn (since a lot of his bluffs would contain the ace of clubs). The turn was an offsuit king which was as good as I could hope for (I was also hoping the board wouldn't pair obviously), Jamie shoved all in, and I quickly called. While it's possible I'm drawing dead against the nut flush, he has too many other hands that could play this way (sets, ace high flush draws, lower flushes) for me to seriously consider folding, so I called, tabled my hand, and hoped not to see the Ace high flush. As it was he had a hand that had outs, or rather one out against me, 56cc, but I managed to dodge the one outer to get the full double back up to almost 100k.

Unfortunately that was as good as it got. The rest of my day 2 was remarkably reminiscent of my day one, with long periods of card death punctuated by losing a pot with the second best hand. Late in the day I found myself down to 12 big blinds. I doubled (kings versus queens) but another lost race saw me short again and I got my last twelve bigs in with jacks against ATs. A ten on the flop and another on the turn brought down the curtain on my main event for another year.

That busting feeling

In other years, busting the main has hurt so much that I've stumbled out of the Rio back to wherever I'm staying in a mental daze. Maybe it gets easier with time, or maybe it was easier this year because I ran so bad for so long that I had more time to come to terms with the fact it wasn't destined to be my year, but for whatever reason I was able to pick myself up to hang around to offer moral support to my friends who were still in. Daiva was clinging gamely to her tournament life, as was Elena. Daiva managed to scrape through with not much more than half of starting stack, but Elena lost her battle in a flurry of lost flips.

As I reflected on my main event, while utterly disappointed at the outcome I took some heart from the fact that I had played my best. I remember Alex Fitzgerald saying after he bust day one last year that he felt anyone in that seat would also have bust, and I had a similar feeling.

Bubbling the rungood ticket

The day before day 1, I'd queued with Daiva to register. She started behind me in the queue, but by the time we got to the head of the queue was ahead of me, so I let her on ahead. Afterwards I wondered which of us got the seat that would run the better. As it was Daiva pulled out an amazing performance to squeak into the money. There's no guarantee I could have done the same in her seat as it really was a top notch gritty performance, but I do feel there is nobody in the world who could have cashed from the seat I ended up in.

I was delighted and proud for Daiva on her tremendous performance and result. She's one of the loveliest people I've ever met, and one of the most naturally talented poker players I know. She never panics or gets flustered so even when she had barely half a starting stack at the start of day 3 I'd have backed her to cash. On the bubble I tweeted she was the least likely person In the whole room to do something stupid.

At the end of my Vegas one of the few consolations I could find was that despite running as bad as it gets I kept plugging away and didn't let it affect my play. I patted myself on the back for that, but looking back much of the credit really belongs to my friends for their support and help keeping my spirits up, and none more so than Daiva. You'll never be stuck for people to come to your celebration dinners, but your real friends are the ones willing to provide company and emotional support and hugs when you are at your grumpiest and most down in the dumps. Having friends to support you in these times and be willing to put up with your moaning about variance and general frustration is vital.

Getting by with a little help...

The nature of tournament poker is that if two people are friends, then a lot of the time both of them will be running bad. It's vital to be able to keep each other's spirits and standards up when this is what's happening rather than getting sucked into a downward spiral of negative feedback and self defeating habits and attitudes. And as vital as that is, it's even more vital when one of you is running well and the other not so much that the person running well doesn't rub salt into the wounds or trivialise how bad it feels to be on the flip side of variance. The third possibility, that you both run well at the same time, is a rare thing indeed, so almost all of the time at least one of you is running bad and needs a sympathetic ear from someone willing to accept moaning, whining and the expression of negative emotions. I'm a grin and bear it put on a brave face type at the best of times, and try not to drag my friends down, but it is always good to have someone like Daiva around who can not only see through the brave face as quickly as she can sniff out a bluff at the table, but is willing to indulge me at my most pathetic.

Daiva came into Vegas on a very bad run herself not having cashed live this year, but kept working and smiling and showed great determination and grit to grind out a really good Vegas. Besides cashing the main, she cashed her first three events in the Wynn.

Also massive congrats to World of Warcraft legend Alan Widmann who hasn't been playing poker for very long but is showing early signs of beastliness. He played two events in his first WSOP, and put on a tremendous amount of work and preparation in the run up. He was rewarded with a cash in his very first event, and he was unlucky to bust about 100 from the money in the main having built a stack several times. Alan is as lovely as guy as I have ever met, and is someone with tremendous talent when it comes to games. Alan has reached the top 1% of every game he's ever taken seriously. I expect poker to become just the latest example of that, if he wants it.

For once I swapped and bought well in the main event this year. Apart from Daiva and Alan, I also had pieces of Smidge, Andy Hills and Kevin Williams, all of whom cashed and did their best to get me out for the summer.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

WSOP main event, Day 1b

As I walked through the Rio on day 1b of the WSOP main event with two of my friends on my way to play my ninth ever main event, I told them there was really no need to get involved early without a big hand. Sit back, get the lie of the land, get your reads on your opponents, and learn everything you can about them before getting involved in your first big hand.

Twenty minutes later, I reflected wryly how little I'd heeded my own advice, as I raked in a large pot won with a flop threebet having put in 125 big blinds with ace high. One quarter of my stack. It's all well and good going in with a plan, but you have to be flexible enough to change it in running sometimes.

The hand in question started with an elderly gentlemen (not me) opening in early position to three big blinds, as he had done quite a lot already. Another guy playing almost every hand called, as did a young guy who looked like he had identified the opener and the caller as the two fish at the table. Around to me in the small blind with ace queen, and I figured myself to usually be in good shape against three very wide ranges. Playing the hand out of position against three players didn't seem too appealing however, so I decided to go for a play I use sparingly, the big squeeze.  I bumped it up to 2300, expecting to pick up the 1000 in the middle most of the time. The opener grudgingly folded, the second guy unexpectedly called, and the third guy quickly folded. Not quite the result I was most hoping for, but a very good second choice, as I found myself headsup against a single opponent who it was difficult to imagine was holding a premium hand. My optimism grew when we saw a JJ6 flop, one where it was difficult to imagine my opponent had many hands that improved. I cbet small, 2200, again expecting to win the pot there and then, and was again surprised when my opponent not only did not fold but actually raised.

A year ago in this spot, with ace high facing this kind of aggression, I'm pretty sure I'd just have hoisted the white flag and surrendered the pot. A lot of the study I've done in the last year has been in these deep stack spots, and I've come to realise that your range is far more important than your actual hand. When I stood back and looked at the hand from this perspective, it was still difficult to believe my opponent had much of a hand. If he had a monster, surely he would just call and let me keep firing? Even if he just had a jack, wouldn't he just call? And how many jacks could he actually have?

In a previous hand , he'd called preflop, and when the flop came eight high, raised the opener in a five way pot, and shown 66 like it was the nuts when everyone folded. After that hand, I pegged him as a raise for information see where I am kind of guy. Given this read, I figured his most likely hand in this pot against me was a weakish single pair hand that wanted to win the pot without further resistance and wouldn't be able to withstand much heat.

So I decided to bring the heat. Raising to 9500, I sat there impassively while my opponent looked pained. He eventually decided he wasn't willing to put any more chips into the pot with pocket sevens or whatever he had and folded. As I stacked the chips, I had reasons to be cheerful.

A couple of hours later, I was even more cheerful, having continued a great start to chiplead my table with 85k. I found myself in a flip against a shortest stack to get close to 100k. Given how I'd been flipping this summer (1/18) I wasn't feeling too optimistic, and wasn't too surprised to lose the flip and find myself back around the 70k mark. Still a great start, but for the rest of the day I was totally card dead.

A few hours into this, I arose from my folding slumber to threebet light with a good hand to do it with (A2s) and a good target to do it against (a very good Dutch online pro who was opening a lot). I didn't get the preflop fold I was rooting for, but got a good looking flop (Jack high, bottom pair, backdoor flush and straight draws). So I bet when checked to, again expecting to win the pot there and then most of the time. Unfortunately on this occasion I got check raised and folded, concluding I'd run into a hand.

After the great start, it was a bit disappointing to find myself bagging up less then starting stack, but on the other hand 48k wasn't exactly a disaster, and meant coming back for day 2 with a very playable 80 big blinds

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Torpedoes and lifeboats

David Lappin asked me once what the hardest part of a 24 hour race was. After some thought, I gave an answer that wasn't intended to be funny, even if he seemed to find it hilarious. The hardest part of a 24 hour race comes about 6 hours in, because you've already run farther than you ever do in training, so you're very tired, and you know you're only one quarter of the way there. It's not the 6 hours you've been running that sap the energy from you, it's the 18 hours you know you still have to keep running for.

There's an equivalence here to poker. Peak poker performance is about being able to play your best at all times. That's pretty easy when you're fresh, optimistic and positive because everything is going well. It's not quite so easy when you're downswinging, losing every flip, tired and frustrated because it seems everything is going wrong. But that's what separates the pros from the boys.

Most online pros experience this every week. Or, more specifically, every Sunday. You find yourself starting the day full of optimism this is the day you ship a major and/or make six figures. Then you lose a few flips, take a bad beat in the Kickoff, get crippled in the Warmup, and you have to keep focused on optimal decision making as you hit your maximum number of tables. The beats and bustouts keep coming thick and fast, and before you know it, 14 hours after you started, you're one tabling a $10 rebuy, 56/70, and you're down more in buyins for the day than first place pays. Now comes the real test: can you keep playing your best, or do you just punt your stack?

The nearest equivalent to an online Sunday live is a WSOP where you are bricking everything. The bad thing is that it goes on for so much longer, six weeks as opposed to 16 hours. This is also the good thing. You have time to sleep it off every time you bust, and mentally reset and focus the next day before you start. With experience, you get better at this. The first time you do a long series, and it goes bad, I guarantee you will be feeling punch drunk by the end. But every year it gets a little bit easier. Another good thing is that at the WSOP you don't end up one tabling the $10 rebuy: you end up one tabling the biggest best structured event of the year. And of course, this can also be a bad thing...

I walked by one of the original and more durable online beasts in the corridors of the Rio the other day. He was on the phone, and from the snippet I overheard, I assume his series is not going great either.

"I'm just focused on not being results oriented, on being totally indifferent to outcomes"

Most pros know they have to do this. Most recreational players will never understand why it's so necessary. They look at a guy who just won a big score who looks about the same amount of happy as a small child about to undergo a dental extraction and wonder "What's wrong with him? Why can't he rejoice in his success?" But to stay afloat in this game where there are more torpedos than lifeboats, you have to learn to dampen your emotions. Even if the emotional flatline may not be achievable (or even desirable), at the very least you have to look for the positives when things are going bad, and the pitfalls in times of success.

I go into this year's main event off the back of a series which if not disastrous is lackluster at best. 3 small cashes in bracelet events, two other small cashes in non bracelet events, no truly deep runs. Most of my tournaments have followed the same script: I chip up to roughly double starting stack in the early going, and then I lose the first flip. The positives I take from that is I'm doing well in the bits that are at least to some degree within my control, and not so well to those that are beyond my control (1/19 in major flips). My deepest run came in the Marathon, the best structured event I played so far, so that's also a positive to take into the best structured event of the year. My mood has remained positive and despite the lack of poker success I've enjoyed my time here this year more than any other previous Vegas trip. My housemates are good people to be around, and I've met lots of old friends and made some new ones.

Mistakes, I've made a few, but then again, too few to mention. I've learned what I can from then and moved on to the next one. Much of the work I've done in the last year with my study buddy has been with the solvers and game theory, designed to adjust the one glaring weakness in my game. Like most tournament players who didn't serve an apprenticeship in cash, I have often been a bit at sea against better players in the early stages when everyone is deepstacked. My approach in game was to cut my losses by playing a lot tighter than optimal so as to have fewer tricky decisions. Away from the table, I ran spots by the best deepstack cash player in my circle of friends. The advent of the solvers have allowed a more systematic and reliable approach to study: in fact, my buddy joked to me recently "I just realised that I used to be your PIO before PIO".

Before the series started, I wrote about the power of pessimism. This was to prepare myself for exactly the situation I find myself in now: facing into the biggest tournament of the year off the back of a long, lackluster and potentially demoralizing campaign. As I wrote then, you have to prepare mentally for bad outcomes, so they don't destroy you psychologically when they do come.

My running coach used to say that the best approach to a 24 hour race was to start as slow as possible, and then slow down. Because no matter how slow you go at the start, you will slow down. The key is if you start slow, you'll have to slow down less. I believe I prospered in ultra marathons because when we all lined up at the start, I was one of the most negative thinkers there, with a strong sense of dread as to what was about to happen. This stopped me from going off too fast, and meant as the race progressed and the end came closer, the dread lifted and put an extra bounce in my step. Twenty four hours races usually start at midday. By 4 AM, the field is generally looking the most demoralized and drained you'll ever see (at least until you find yourself in the Rio towards the end of the WSOP when everyone is both under it and over it). What used to look like a race now looks like a tortuous death march of tired injuried bodies that want to be sleeping forcing themselves to keep shuffling one foot in front of the other.

Then the sun comes up, the end is now only 3 or 4 hours away, and the zombies come back to life. Bodies that could barely shuffle four miles an hour in the wee small hours suddenly have a pep in their step. With the end in sight, most people cover the most distance they have in an hour in the last hour than they've done since the first hour.

This is the mindset I take into the main event. There is no longer a need for pessimism, to prepare mentally for failure, because this is the final sprint and what's the worst thing that can happen? I bust, it hurts, but it's over, and I get on with my life. I can allow myself a period to recuperate before I have to face into my next big challenge. So for now, all I have to do is clear my mind, and be ready to try to play my best as I have all summer when I hear those magic words:

"Shuffle up and deal"


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