Friday, October 24, 2014

Mind sports and minefields in the Isle of Man

I've recently started back into distance running training a bit more seriously than in recent years. I quit competitive running a few years ago because I found it too difficult to balance the training (or more precisely the recovery) with long hours at the table or in front of a screen. It hasn't gotten any easier to balance the two, particularly on trips away. So while the poker didn't exactly go to plan on my trip to UKIPT Isle of Man, at least it meant there was time for me to squeeze in a run most days.

The highlight of every run came after I had run along the promenade and up the hill at the end of it. I would stop for a minute or two to look out across the bay and admire the view. Unknown to me until Dan Wilson who availed of the office tour Stars offered told me, the imposing but unassuming building that quite literally towers over the promenade that I was standing in front of when I did this is the Pokerstars corporate HQ (no garish logos or any other indication of what lay within). I feel like I have already spent too much of my life in corporate offices to want to take a tour of another one, even the Stars one. Jason Tompkins hilariously tweeted the view that taking a toured guide of the Stars HQ would be a bit like being shown round the house of your rapist.

My view of Stars is a lot more benign. Coming from the technology sector, I have a natural distrust of monopolies. In niche after niche, I saw the same story time and again. As a new niche emerged, different players emerged to duke it out for market supremacy. The winner was rarely the most innovative or creative but rather the best organised and most adaptable. Once one clear market leader emerged, the others tended to wither away and die, creating an effective monopoly situation. At that point, the consumer was screwed. When you have no competition, there's no reason not to mark your prices up at 100, 200 or even 1000% from costs.  Not only that, but there's also no incentive to provide decent customer support or to continue innovating. The game changes from how do we get more people to buy our products to how do we get the same saps to pay more and more for less and less.

Stars emerged as the "winner" of the online poker niche because they were simply the best. Best at attracting new clients, best at keeping existing clients happy. My natural sympathy is for the underdog, but the underdogs of the poker world have a nasty habit of biting players in the ass. Whether it's running off with our money or treating us like sex offenders rather than valued clients (hello Full Tilt), the name of online poker has been sullied and besmirched by some unscrupulous operators. My natural suspicion of monopolies has to be put to one side when I acknowledge that most of what is good about online poker is a direct result of Pokerstars and a corporate culture that treats employees and customers with respect.

Stars is now under new ownership. Hopefully the new owners will see the merits in maintaining the impeccable standards that made them the best.

In truth, there's not a lot to do on the Isle of Man, so I did a lot of what I was there to do: play poker. I remarked ruefully to my Firm colleagues on the flight over that I have a remarkable record of almost always making day 2 of UKIPT main events when they aren't reentry, but have never made a day two when there was a reentry option. So it proved again: I fired two bullets. The first was a long hard struggle that ended just before the end of the day when I got in with queens versus ak for a big stack, flopped a queen, but lost to a rivered straight. The second was maybe the worst I've played live all year: I started badly and just seemed to get every close decision wrong. A mistimed triple barrel bluff did a lot of damage, and while my exit was unlucky (overpair loses), I just didn't play very well. I never really got going in any of the sides and seemed to lose every flip.

The weather wasn't great while we were there, which is unfortunate, as Mrs Doke is badly affected by bad weather so she was pretty depressed for most of the trip. She wasn't the only depressed Frenchwoman on the island, as my favourite chess/poker phenom Almira Skripchenko was there to play the chess poker event (and the pure chess event), and also finding the weather quite grim. Almira's one of the most charismatic players I've ever shared tables with and is basically my hero(ine).

It's almost 30 years since I played over the board chess seriously (and over 25 years since I represented Great Britain in correspondence chess) so I was somewhat apprehensive about the chess component of the chess/poker combined event. I quit chess once I realized I'd gone as far as my limited talent and major shortcomings could take me. I learnt the game too late to be truly fluent like all the great players are, and was handicapped by a remarkable ability to blunder catastrophically in winning positions. Time after time I'd gradually build a winning position through sound strategical play, only to blow it all in one tactical blunder. On the rare occasions when I went through a tournament without doing this, I'd win the tournament (although it has to be said that being Leinster Chess Champion was no big thing back in my day when Ireland lacked even a single International Master, let alone Grandmaster), but usually I left the stage seething in self loathing after a bad blunder.

I gave my Firm mates Daragh Davey and David Lappin (who were both chasing leaderboard points) a crash course in the runup to the trip (unfortunately neither of them ended up playing). Lappin asked me what our chances were of upsetting the actual chess players. I told him if we played them 500 times, we would win precisely zero. Unlike poker, the less skilled player generally has zero chance in chess (which is why weak chess players generally won't play stronger ones for money). However, on the flip side, I was optimistic that I would win any chess game against pure poker players, and so it proved. In the first round I was on a hiding to nothing as I was drawn against Almira's husband Laurent, one of the strongest players in the world in this format (and coach to Carlsen, the current world champion), and offered no more than token resistance as he gradually crushed me. I lost my two other games against the real chess players (one was actually pretty close and I probably had a theoretically winning position until, you guessed it, I blundered), but won against two poker players, so pretty much as good as I could have hoped for. It all came to nought in the poker, as despite a good start, the push or fold stage came fast (it was basically a live hyper) and my first two pushes ran into Duncan McLellan's aces (both times - who knew Duncan always has aces!).

Still, it was an interesting and enjoyable event, ably hosted by Stars Mind Games ambassador Jen Shahade. There's a drive at the moment to have poker accepted as a mind sport and presumably that was the impetus behind the joint chess/poker event. Poker hopes to gain some sort of the respectability that chess enjoys, and I guess chess pros are hoping for some of the financial rewards that poker players take for granted. While the rewards at the very pinnacle of chess are high (Carlsen reportedly won a million when he became world champion) it doesn't seem to filter down to the same degree as poker. Where there are probably thousands of poker players who comfortably make 6 figures a year from poker, the reward for their chess equivalents are a lot more meagre. When we went out for tea with Almira, one of the poker players asked her how much first prize was in the main 9 day chess tournament she and Laurent were taking part in. Her answer (less than first prize in many of the side events we were playing and less than 10% of first prize in the main event) surprised all the poker players, none of whom would ever commit to a 9 day poker event for that purse. While it's true that unlike poker (usually), chess is a positive sum game for its participants as they play for a share of sponsorship money, it's also true that only the very top chess pros can make anything like the hourly a normal journeyman poker pro can achieve. As Almira pointed out though, chess is not just about money. Poker, on the other hand, is pretty much all about the money. If you don't believe that, try playing it for no money some time and see how much fun that is.

Jen Shahade made some interesting comments on the similarities but also the differences between chess and poker on the livestream which, given that she is top class in both games, are well worth a listen for those interested in the topic. Jen did a great job hosting the event and is an inspired choice by Stars to be their Mind Sport ambassador. Simultaneously charming and tough, as Devilfish apparently found to his cost when he ran some old school sexism by her in London, only to be told "If you must be sexist, at least be funny".

Chess was the first game I ever took seriously. Having failed to make it to the upper echelons, I have enormous respect for those who did. This sometimes translates into an inferiority complex in other areas unrelated to chess, but of course the reality is that just because someone is good at chess doesn't make them smarter or automatically good at something else. Immediately after chess, I took up bridge after a Malaysian international class player I knew decided to train me as his partner. On one of our first competitive outings I found myself up battling my inferiority complex against a 6 time national chess champion who had quit chess some years earlier to concentrate on bridge. To my surprise, he didn't seem anything special at bridge, something I commented on to my partner as we walked home. His response was quite scathing: "He's been playing 5 years and he's just not very good. You've been playing 5 days and you're already better than he is".

It was similarly something of an eye opener to see how many of the chess grandmasters were absolute fish at poker. While many like Jen and Almira excel at both games, even more of the chess players are just plain awful at poker :)

I got sucked into playing a lot of side events chasing overall UKIPT Leaderboard points. At the start of the season I decided to just play main events, but after a run of cashes found myself in the top 10 on the leaderboard, so after Dublin I started chasing points in side events. I went into the Isle of Man stop 4th on the leaderboard, with a decent shot of breaking into the prize spots (top 3) and an outside shot of claiming the top spot. After Marbella with Daragh Davey topping the leaderboard, and Lappin in 5th just behind me, we decided as group to do our best to have two of us make the top three and one of us win it (we set a similar objective for the Online leaderboard). My brickage in Isle of Man saw me slip to 5th behind Lappin (who cashed the main and final tabled the PLO), and Daragh slipped to second after Max Silver won a 100 quid turbo (Daragh then closed the gap to a whisker by winning the PLO side event). The upshot of all that was it was still close enough for the three of us to commit to the full UKIPT London schedule (which will be covered in my next blog).

Before I sign off this blog, I just want to thank the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people who took the time and trouble to respond supportively to my last blog about my autistic son Oisin. I was genuinely overwhelmed by the reaction. Things are looking much brighter for all of us now with Oisin happily settled in his new place. I've never seen him happier which is a massive relief to Mireille and I.

Also, a big thank you to everyone who said how much they liked my tribute to Liam Flood in Bluff.


Another great blog Dara keep them coming. Chess is a great strategy game, but very unappreciated by many.


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