KKing David's Poker Blog

MGM Hates Poker Players - This is How We Know

As promised in my prior post, a review of the MGM National Harbor poker room, I'm going to hate on MGM's poker comps system.  They deserve it.

Last week I played poker nearly every day at this new poker room.  Overall, it is excellent - spacious, comfortable, lots of action, competent staff.

At a comp rate of $2/hour, I earned some decent meal money.  Every so often, I get hungry.  When I get hungry, I want to eat.  The casino has an excellent variety of food options, all at resort prices.  To offset MGM's resort prices, I want to use the comp dollars as much as possible.  

Seems simple, right?

If you order food at the table, to eat while still playing poker, it goes like this... Realizing you are hungry, you ask a server for a food menu.  The server explains that there are separate food servers, and the beverage servers do not handle food.  Look for a server with a purple shirt and black vest.  Not seeing any, you ask the dealer if they can help locate a server.  No problem says the dealer, and he pressed a button on his control panel beneath the letter F (representing a special 4-letter "F-word," of course I'm talking about Food) and a light goes on.  That should do it.  About 20 or 30 minutes later, a food server appears, looking sharp in a purple shirt and black vest.  The food menu is limited to a few options from each of the places in a food court, which includes a seafood vendor, fried chicken and donuts vendor, pizza, mexican, sushi, deli, Asian, ice cream shop, and Shake Shack.  Except not the Shake Shack or the ice cream shop.  And not everything at the other places, just 3 or 4 options from each.

I decide to go with the spring rolls from the Asian place.  I give the food server my mLife card (MGM's customer rewards program is called mLife) and show my ID, and all is good.  40 minutes later, the server returns and asks me if I ordered spring rolls.  "Why yes I most certainly did, and I'm really looking forward to them."  "Sorry, they're out of them.  Would you like to see the menu again?"  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I go for the chicken tenders. Another 40 minutes later it is now nearly 2 full hours after the first hunger pains, my chicken tenders and fries arrive and I don't really care how they taste.  My comps paid for it, and the server returns my mLife card.

OK for dining at the table.  Better if you start the process at least an hour before you will be hungry.

But maybe you don't want to eat at the table.  Maybe you want something that isn't on the limited table service menu, or want to dine at one of the fancier restaurants and not the food court.  

In that case, you have to go to the poker check-in desk and ask the staff to transfer a portion of your comps balance, which is tracked on your mLife card, to a different category or bin or account which is also tracked on the same mLife card, in order to be able to use it at the food court or any of the fancy restaurants.  With a line of people growing behind you, the conversation goes like this:

Poker staff:  Where you are going to eat?

Me:  I'm not sure... I'm going to walk down to the food court and see what looks good.

Poker staff:  OK, that's called The District.  I can do that, as long as you aren't going to the Shake Shack.  If you plan to eat at the Shake Shack, I have to do it one way, because Shake Shack isn't owned by the casino.  For the rest of The District, I have to do it another way.  

Me:  For real?

Poker staff:  Yes, that's how we have to do it.

Me:  Out of curiosity, what if I wanted to eat at one of the fancy restaurants, like Jose Andres' place?

Poker staff:  Then I have to specify which restaurant, just let me know and I can handle it.

Me:  I guess I'll eat at the food court, excluding the Shake Shack.  I hear the Shake Shack is really good, but I haven't been there yet and haven't even looked at their menu.

Poker staff:  How many dollars do you want transferred?

Me:  I don't know... I'm still not sure what I'm going to get.  Does it matter?  If you transfer extra, the unused balance will be available to use later, right?

Poker staff:  Wrong.  Let's say I transfer $20.  This is only good for one transaction.  If you only use $15, the $5 unused portion of your comps is forfeited.

Me:  For real?

Poker staff:  Yes, for real.  So if you know what you are going to get and how much it will cost, you can transfer the exact amount.  Or you can guess and probably want to guess on the low side.

Me:  [glance over my shoulder, line is getting longer]  Uh... I guess transfer ten bucks and I'll figure it out.  The food court is a couple hundred yards away, and I don't want to walk down there just to plan my meal so I can walk back over here and wait in line to do this again so I can walk back over there to eat.

Poker staff:  You got it, my man.  Give me just a few seconds.  [He swipes my mLife card through a card reader, enters about the same number of keystrokes as a Hertz car rental agent setting up a new reservation, then swipes my mLife card through a different card reader, a few more keystrokes, a fake smile and off I go.]

It's clear that the poker room management didn't design this system themselves.  I feel sorry for them.  Not every customer is as delightful to deal with as me.  Some display their irritation.  Others get downright angry.  The line moves slowly, including mostly players who just want to sign up to get on a waiting list.  

The next day, while walking to a restroom, I pass by a glass door with a sign that says Casino Host & Credit.  On the way back, I decide to go inside and see if that would be the proper place to provide a little customer feedback.  There is a management looking guy standing by the door, wearing a suit and MGM nametag.  He looks very official.  For purposes of this blog entry, I'll refer to him as "Vlad."

I ask Vlad if the casino is interested in hearing feedback from customers about their experience there.  Yes, he says.  I ask where I should go to provide some, and Vlad says "you can talk to me."  We are not inside the office, but outside the office near slot machines and other gaming.  With head-thumping music blaring.  Vlad does not invite me into a quieter place to talk.

Trying to explain that I feel sorry for the poker room staff who have to deal with this cumbersome system and resulting angry customers, and empathy for many poker players, including myself, who are highly frustrated by the lack of integration of the poker comps system with the rest of the casino, I lay out my case.  I probably look highly agitated.  Partly because there is a very high base noise level and I practically have to shout just to be heard.  Partly because I am highly agitated.

When I reach a pause, Vlad responds.  First he explains that he has no involvement in running the poker room.  He knows their comp system is separate, but doesn't know how it works, the rate at which comps are earned or any other details whatsoever.  But it's that way because the poker room isn't profitable and doesn't make any money for the casino.  Then he explains that if it were up to him - and Vlad wants me to know that he's worked in the casino industry in Atlantic City for over 25 years - there would be no poker room at all.  In Vlad's opinion, poker is a waste of valuable casino space that could make a lot of money if it was used differently.

Translation:  Dear customer, if it was up to me, you would not be our customer!  So it is OK with me that the part of our business that you patronize is systematically pissing you off.

We actually chat for about 20 more minutes.  Vlad isn't unpleasant; he just knows where he stands and isn't shy about it.  

My points goes like this:

  • If it was up to Vlad, there would be no poker room, right?  [Vlad:  right.]
  • But there is a poker room, so that means somebody other than you decided there should be one, right?  [Vlad:  right.]
  • And that makes the poker players in that poker room a subset of all of the customers of this glorious MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino, right?  [Vlad:  right.]
  • The poker room provides comp credits to its players, right?  Whatever the formula is, it is a non-zero amount.  [Vlad:  right.]
  • So if you are going to have a poker room and give the players comp dollars, why - when spending $1.2 billion dollars to build this place - would you design a comps system that systematically frustrates the poker room staff as it also systematically pisses off that subset of MGM's customers?  [Vlad:  uh...]

Vlad gives me a long explanation of comps, how some comp dollars are automatically generated as a by-product of each game based on the amount of time and stakes played, and other comps are awarded at management discretion so he can give some extra meal money to a player who loses a lot of money really fast.  All of which applies only to the non-poker parts of the casino.

As for the poker room, Vlad maintains that he doesn't have anything to do with it, doesn't know how it operates, but a different system is justified based on the bad economics of poker rooms for casinos.

By the way, using poker room comps at other MGM properties is very similar.  At the Aria or Bellagio, however, you have to go to a different desk and not the player check-in desk, and get a paper voucher for the amount of comp dollars you want to use (or lose).  And poker comps earned at one MGM property can only be used at that property - you cannot use Aria poker comps to buy food at Bellagio or MGM Grand and vice versa.  It is equally maddening for the players, although not quite as bad as forcing the check-in desk to handle the comps too.

Given MGM's otherwise strong commitment to poker, with large and active poker rooms in many of their properties (Bellagio and Aria are among the top poker rooms in Las Vegas; MGM National Harbor is now one of the largest poker rooms on the east coast), it is beyond my comprehension that they don't integrate the poker comps with the rest of the gaming areas.  Maryland Live! does.  Caesar's/Harrah's/Horseshoe does.  Other casinos do.

Comments welcome below...


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MGM National Harbor Poker Room Review

Last week I ventured for the first time into the poker room at the new, $1.2 billion MGM National Harbor casino, just across the Potomac River from our nation's capital.

Much has been written already about the casino.  It's a big, beautiful, upscale destination.  A quick google search will provide lots of information.  Heck, there is even a SJP Shoe Store.  I learn stuff every day.

Despite my passion for high-priced, high-heeled shoes, I'm going to focus on the poker room, including a number of comparison's to the poker room at Maryland Live! casino, where I have also spent a lot of time lately.  Overall, I give the MGM poker room a very positive rating.  Let's go with 4 stars.  The comps system is infuriating (saving this for last) and crowd control is difficult at busy times; most everything else is good.

Crowd Control

Despite the size of the room, crowd control is a major challenge, as the demand far outpaces supply at busy times.  On Saturday night, there were over 100 players on the waiting list for a seat at the most popular game of $1/3 no limit Texas Hold'em, and over 200 more players in total on lists for various other games.  Everyone checks in through a central desk and I didn't see any kiosk that allows players to add themselves to a list without interaction with the poker room staff (which they have at Maryland Live!, Harrah's Cherokee, and other poker rooms).  There is no seating or waiting area for players on the list, so many are standing around near the desk, blocking the aisle leading to other gaming areas.

Despite the long waiting lists, there is a time lag in filling empty seats.  They don't want players jumping ahead of the line into empty seats, so the dealers have to get the attention of a floor supervisor when a seat opens up, to give the supervisor a seat card showing the table number.  Then the supervisor has to get the card to the check-in desk.  Then the desk staff have to page the next player on the list.  And page again.  And wait to see if the player actually shows up.  With such a long list, a lot of players leave the poker area (and therefore don't hear their name called), or give up entirely and decide to lose their money elsewhere.  If a player doesn't show up after 3 or 4 pages, the desk starts paging the next name... who might not show up either.  Meanwhile, the seat remains empty.  Because of no-shows, the list isn't really as long as it looks, but the whole process has the staff nearly overwhelmed at times.


MGM's poker room has 39 tables.  The tables are just a bit larger than most other poker rooms.  I know this because at Maryland Live! (and others) it seems like every time you sit down and scoot your chair forward, the wheels on the chair bump into the wheels on the chairs of players sitting on either side of you.  Not so at MGM.  The aisles are wider too, with very few spots in the room where it is inevitable that you will be constantly bumped from behind in seats 4, 5, 6 or 7 when players in the corresponding seats at the table behind you are coming and going.

Big TV's

There are two very large, 4-panel TV screens on one wall, with additional TVs everywhere.  If there is a game on that you want to watch, getting a seat with a good view of the 4-panel screens is awesome.

Taking a Break

Officially you can only leave your seat for 30 minutes at one time.  At Maryland Live! the limit is 60 minutes.  MGM does not enforce the 30 minutes limit - I was gone over 45 minutes once and saw numerous other players gone even longer with nary a complaint - nor did I hear a single reference (in six days of play) to the "third man walking" rule that is brought up constantly at Maryland Live!  (For the uninitiated, this rule says that if two players are absent from the table, and a third player gets up, the "third man walking" can only be gone for 10 minutes before being faced with having his chips picked up.  Bathroom... OK.  Dinner... Not OK.  The reality is their bark is much worse than their bite; I've heard many announcements at Maryland Live! that players must return to a table that has a third man walking immediately or their chips will be picked up so others on the waiting list may have a seat, but the actual picking up of chips to vacate a seat is extremely rare.)

One interesting policy at MGM is a 90 minute dinner break rule.  If you don't want to eat at the table, you can have the dealer call a supervisor over.  He will count your chips and put your name on a separate dinner break list.  If you return within 90 minutes, you are moved immediately to the top of the waiting list for the next open seat at the game your were playing, provided that you must put at least the same amount of chips in play as you had at the prior table.  Nice touch.

Deeper Stacks, but Tighter Play

Buy-ins are deep.  At $1/3 no limit Texas Hold'em, the maximum buy-in is $500.  At $2/5, the maximum is $1,000.  By comparison, Maryland Live! has a $1/2 game with a maximum of $300; at $2/5 the max is $600.  

The players seem a bit tighter at MGM, with smaller initial raises and fewer multiway flops that I've been seeing at Maryland Live!  I'm not sure if this is a tightening up due to the deeper stacks, or a lot of new players in the player pool, or just my imagination.

Waitresses with Purses

I thought it odd when I noticed a waitress had her purse slung over her shoulder while working the poker room.  Then I notice other waitresses with matching purses. It turns out that is how they carry money and tips, although these plain black purses bumping against their hips with long, thin shoulder straps doesn't seem like the most secure way to carry money around.  Then again, I've never worked as a poker room waitress and don't own a purse.


It's warmer in there.  At Maryland Live!, my standard getup includes four layers of long-sleeves - compression undershirt, turtleneck, long-sleeve t-shirt, and fleece pullover or hoodie, often complemented with fleece-lined pants and wool socks.  And often I'm STILL COLD!  At MGM I could actually remove one layer, and when the room was packed on Friday and Saturday nights, I could even remove a second layer.  I know... don't go crazy!  But I did hear numerous other players commenting on the more comfortable temperature setting.

Hoodies Down

No hoodies!  Not pulled up over your head, that is.  MGM's poker room has a specific policy on this.  According to a supervisor, banning the hood from being use for its designed purpose is standard at poker rooms with facial recognition technology in their security cameras.  Who knew?  The dealers don't seem to care and enforcement is lax.  But if you want to try to tilt a hoodie wearer, you can call the supervisor over and ask for enforcement.  Meanwhile, I'm trying to think of some situations for which the facial recognition technology will make a difference... perhaps if a player has been banned from the room and tries to sneak in anyway they will be more easily caught.  Perhaps if a player has fallen behind on his child support obligations, his ex can call the poker room and demand to know if the sonofabitch is in there again.  It's not my nature to think like a criminal nor like a cop, so I would appreciate comments on other ways that facial recognition technology in a poker room is worth the investment.

One Chip, Two Chips, Red Chips, Blue Chips

Maryland Live! use both white $1 chips and blue $2 chips as its lower denominations, at both the $1/2 and $2/5 games.  Otherwise, red $5 chips are dominant at $1/2 and also constitute the majority of the money on the $2/5 tables.  At MGM, there is a higher ratio of green $25 chips on the table, with fewer reds.  When new players are assigned to a table, the poker room neither asks nor insists that they purchase chips from the cashier before taking their seat.  This would be a good policy to have, as it slows down the  pace of play when dealers have to manage the initial buy-ins and later need more frequent refills of the dealers' banks.  The dealers' banks are heavily weighted towards white $1 chips for making change and taking the rake, and green $25 chips to handle new player buy-ins and losing player add-ons.  Without the blue $2 chips, more whites are needed, taking up more space and squeezing out room for reds.  I happen to like having green chips, as it makes it much easier to get larger bets into play.

Where are my Sisters? 

The first three days, not a single woman played at any of my tables.  None.  While women make up less than 10% of the poker player pool almost everywhere, the Y chromosome seems even more dominant here.  Why so much Y? I do not know...

The Comp System is Idiotic

The comps system is a disaster.  This is MGM's achilles heal when it comes to poker room operations.  As is the case at MGM casinos in Las Vegas (MGM Grand, Bellagio, Aria, Monte Carlo), the poker room comps are not integrated with the rest of the gaming areas.  Here we earn $2/hour, which is better than at Maryland Live!  But at Maryland Live!, to use the comps (i.e, to buy food, the most common usage) all you have to do is present your player card and ID at any of the food spots within the casino (with some extra effort to at The Cheesecake Factory).  Poker room comp dollars go into the same pot as comps earned from slot machine play, roulette, craps, blackjack, and other games.  MGM, however, despite spending $1,200,000,000 to build this place, insists on keeping the poker room comps separate from all of the other gaming areas.  You earn the comps, but to use them requires both the player and a poker room staffer to go though an electronic obstacle course together, which can only be done at the same desk that is dealing with player check-ins and crowd control.  It is so idiotic that I'm going to dedicate a separate blog post to trolling MGM's comps system.  


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Tilting in My Favor

I don't like getting bluffed at the poker table, and hate it when the villain shows the bluff.  But that's what happened on Monday at the Maryland Live poker room, which led to a chain reaction much like dominoes falling on each other.

I was grinding away at a $2/5 no limit hold'em cash game, with about $685 in my stack.  The player UTG posts a $10 straddle.  This is the first domino, as it raises the stakes for this hand.  Two players call, including a very loose, aggressive Asian player.  For purposes of this blog, I'll refer to him as "Jun."  With KQo, I raise to $45.  Without the straddle, I would only raise to $30 here.  If the only thing that happens is everybody folds, I'll be happy to take the $37 in the pot (rake-free), tip the dealer and move on.  If I get called or re-raised, we'll play poker.

The straddler calls, and Jun also calls.  Second domino.

Flop ($140):  622 rainbow.  This doesn't improve my hand at all, but is a good flop for me to make a continuation bet bluff.  As the pre-flop raiser, my range is uncapped.  I can have AA, KK, QQ, etc.  They cannot, and are much more likely to have hands like AQ, AJ, AT, suited connectors and gappers, and pocket pairs TT & under.  Without going through detailed range construction and combinatorics, I know this flop misses most of their ranges, and that I can represent a big pair with a confident continuation bet.  They both check and I bet $100.  Third domino.  The straddler folds, but Jun calls. Fourth domino.

Now I think he is more likely to have any pocket pair, a pair of 6's (A6, 76s, 65s), or two high cards.

Turn ($340):  3.  This should be a good card for me if I want to continue barreling, representing that I have a big pair.  With my image as generally on the tight side, middle-aged white guy, another strong bet would look somewhat like turning a big pair face up.  But this time Jun leads out with a bet of $125.  Fifth domino.


The size of his bet and the action of calling the flop then leading into the aggressor make no sense whatsoever.

I have a little bit of history with Jun.  The first hand I ever played with him, a few days earlier, I had 77 and the flop was 722.  Yahtzee!  I called Jun's flop bet and checked back on the turn.  When a river K came out, he shoved all-in, and looked quite surprised when I snap-called and flipped over a full house. Since then I've noted him to be an action player, raising and calling a lot pre-flop (but not many re-raises), and a willingness to make big bluffs post-flop.  Despite my first impression, he isn't a total maniac.

Back to our hand.  Jun's bet of $125 into a pot of $340, leading into the aggressor, makes no sense.  It feels like a strange bluff.  What can he really have that would limp/call pre-flop, check/call the flop, and now decide to lead out?  I'm tempted to raise to around $325-350, although this would be a total naked bluff.  All I have is King-high.  And no draws.  Heck, I can't even beat Ace-high.  I've seen Jun make some pretty light calls.  Players like him who bluff a lot tend to assume that other players also bluff a lot and will pay off a lot of strong value hands.  Do I really want to get into a re-bluffing war when I don't have a good read, just a nebulous feel?


So I fold.  Sixth domino.  It gets weird when a player not involved in the hand remarks that Jun flashed his cards to the player next to him (which Jun did rather often if the next player had folded) and asks if he can see them also.  Jun denies that he flashed his cards and then somebody asks the player on Jun's right if he saw Jun's cards - which are face down on the table but not commingled in the muck pile yet.  This puts an innocent guy on the spot.  A lot of players would tell a white lie, denying that they saw Jun's cards, rationalizing that the player asking to see his hand is slowing down the game and has no business demanding extra information when he wasn't involved in the action at all.  The white lie is "for the good of the game."  Other players are just straightforward and honest.  "Did you see that?"  "Yes, I did."  And that's what happened here.  After some protest from Jun, the dealer turns over Jun's cards for everyone at the table to see... Jack-Ten offsuit.  Seventh domino.

WTF!  My flop read and betting line was spot on, but Jun's inexplicable float / smallish bet bluff on the turn somehow worked.  My turn read was also spot on, but I chickened out of the bluffing war since I had no showdown value or backup equity.

Had I raised on the turn, Jun must fold.  I would win the pot and my stack would have grown to approximately $1,000.

That's when I tilted.  It took seven dominoes, but the last one - showing the bluff more than the bluff itself - got to me.  I wasn't the one asking to see Jun's hand, and didn't want to see it.  If he bluffed me, congratulations.  Seeing it, however, put me on a mini-tilt.

Which leads to the very next hand.  This time, Jun raises to $20 and I'm in a middle position with 5s2s.  This is an easy fold, 100% of the time when I'm playing my "A game."  There are at least 4-5 players still to act who could re-raise.

So I call.  Eighth domino.  Only because Jun is the raiser.  Knowing this is the kind of situation where being on tilt can cost you a small fortune.  The button also calls as does the big blind.  Does anything good ever happen here?

Flop ($80): As 4s 8h.  This is good and terrible for me.  Good that I picked up a flush draw and gutshot wheel draw.  Bad that I'm going to put more money in the pot, and my flush would get destroyed by any other flushes.  But we're playing poker, so let's play.  Jun makes a continuation bet of $45.  I call and the button calls, then the BB folds.  Jun's range is really wide, and the button could have a better flush draw or an Ace  (probably not with K as kicker, which usually would re-raise pre-flop on the button).

Turn ($205): 9h.  Now we add a heart draw, making one of my straight outs (3h) suspect as it could give somebody else a flush.  This is unlikely, unless the button called the flop with a hand like AhQh, AhJh, AhTh.  Jun is first and checks.  With this drawy board, he would bet again with a strong value hand.  Here I am, on tilt, involved in a hand that I would normally fold pre-flop, and it's time to make my move.  I bet $125.  Ninth domino.  In hindsight, I think this should have been more like $150-160.

While I'm sneaking a peek at Jun to see if he signals whether he will fold, the button raises to $275.  10th domino.  Holy oversight, Batman!  After a short acting job, Jun folds.  

Now there is $605 in the pot and it will cost me $150 to call, with an additional $200 behind.  The button's raise sizing begs for a call.  This - in addition to my other reads on him - tells me he isn't on a flush draw.  Raising with a draw on the turn isn't his style.  So he has to have a 2-pair plus type of hand.  A9, A8, A4s, 88, 44 are all possible, along with the occasional 98.  That means any spade that pairs the board might make me a flush while also making him a full house.  So I have seven clean flush outs.  It also means he does not have a heart draw either, so all of the 3's that make me a straight should be clean outs too.  If the 3c or 3d comes, my straight will be well concealed and I'm likely to get paid on a river shove.  I don't know if he will pay off a flush.  

The math is this:  $150 to call with $605 in the pot.  My equity needs to be at least 150 / (150 + 605), or 19.9% or better to justify a call.

With 10 outs, my equity should be a little over 22%.  After the fact, putting this range into my handy-dandy Poker Cruncher app (A9, A8, A4s, 88, 44, 98), I come up with equity of 23.9%, so calling is correct.


Somewhere I think there is a quote that says math is for people who are bad at poker.  I can't find it right now.  While calling $150 more is mathematically correct, I'm not happy about this at all.  Let's review why.  On the previous hand I lost $145 when I got bluffed.  Had I re-bluffed, which I seriously considered, I would have gained over $300.  The bluffer, Jun, was forced to show his bluff - not by me, but by another player who wasn't even involved in the hand.  This put me on tilt.

In the next hand, I have garbage that I should fold pre-flop without a second thought, but called in the unrealistic hope that I might spring some kind of trap on Jun.  Now I'm about to put $150 more, for a total of $340 into this pot, with 5-high and a combo draw. The distance between what my stack could have been after the previous hand and what my stack is probably going to be after this hand is $800.  

Why am I here?  What am I doing?  When are we going to have fun?

I call.  11th domino.

River ($755):  3s.  Holy Magic Lantern, Batman!  And cue some heavenly music.  It's like the 12th domino is spring-loaded, and snaps back to flip dominoes 11 all the way through #1 over in the opposite direction.

Now I know why I am here!  I know what I am doing.  I'm having fun, right freaking now!

I shove, and the button says "Well if you have a flush, good for you" and calls, showing a set of 8's.

My stack is now approx. $1150... $150 more than it would have been if I had followed my read on the previous hand, which would have led to folding this one.

As a side note (yes, I know this post is rather long), this poker room was paying high hand bonuses all month every day other than Friday's and President's Day.  Any other day and my straight flush would have brought me an additional $525 windfall.  Not bitchin' just sayin'.


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Stoic Philosophy is Perfect for Poker

I just finished reading Nolan Dalla's blog post, 55 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Me, written upon the occasion of his 55th birthday.  As expected, it's well written and entertaining.

So here is one thing you probably don't know about KKing David:  In college, I majored in philosophy.

Every once in awhile, I'll look to one group of philosophers or another for guidance about life's mysteries.  Recently, the Stoics have been the object of some attention, and for good reason.  Ancient Stoic philosophy is perfect for poker players.  Let me explain...

But first, I must digress, to explain how Stoicism got onto my radar.  Please bear with me.  A couple months ago, my daughters gave me as a gift a book they found in the philosophy section of our local independent bookseller... Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James.  The author is a philosophy professor at UC Irvine.  It was a NY Times bestseller, and my daughter's thought I would enjoyed reading it, and indeed I did.  Last spring, James published a sequel of sorts... Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump.  I haven't read the sequel yet, but the title makes sense to me.

In the latter section of the book (first one, not the sequel), James offers suggestions to the reader on how to deal with assholes.  One of the consequences of assholery is that we, as the victims, often find ourselves reacting with far stronger emotions than are warranted by the actual harm done.  For example, when I see some asshole park in a handicapped space and then sprint inside the store, there is no actual physical harm or property damage to me - I'm not handicapped and don't need that parking space - to match the rage that I feel.

James cites the Stoic philosophers, particularly Epictetus, who used their system for living a virtuous life to separate their emotional reaction to events that are beyond their control from the events themselves.  Once you become consumed with emotional suffering in reaction to the asshole's assholery, the asshole wins.

"According to a Stoic principle, one must always accept what is given. One can hope for good things and work toward them, but one should not strive for what is not within one's power.  As the wise Epictetus explains, 'If [a way things appear] concerns anything outside of your control, train yourself not to worry about it.'

Among things not within one's control Epictetus explicitly includes the recognition or lack of recognition by others.  He writes:  'It is only after you have ... learned to distinguish between what you can and can't control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible ... Such things as ... how we are regarded by others  ... are externals and therefore not our concern.'

It's good advice.  The key is that you have to train yourself.  Inner tranquility doesn't suddenly happen when an elementary school teacher instructs a bullied kid to say "stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me!"

What does Stoicism have to do with poker?  When it comes to emotional control ("tiltlessness" in the words of Tommy Angelo), everything!

Consider here a few quotes from Epictetus (who lived from approx. 60 -138 C.E., and also Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor from 161 - 180 C.E.  Imagine that instead of writing near two thousands years ago, they were coaching contemporary poker players...

Epictetus quotes:

  • "What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason."
  • "What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature."
  • "Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap."
  • "For what does reason purport to do? 'Establish what is true, eliminate what is false and suspend judgement in doubtful cases.' ... What else does reason prescribe? 'To accept the consequence of what has been admitted to be correct.'”
  • "You can process in your intellect and senses a wealth of thoughts and impressions simultaneously. There are impressions that you assent to, others that you reject; sometimes you suspend judgement altogether."
  • "When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval."
  • "The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish."
  • For tournament players:  "I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it."
  • "‘But we must stick with a decision.’ For heaven’s sake, man, that rule only
    applies to sound decisions."
  • "If you don’t want to be cantankerous, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get mad."
  • "You’re subject to sorrow, fear, jealousy, anger and inconsistency. That’s the real reason you should admit that you are not wise."

Marcus Aurelius quotes:

  • "From Sextus [I learned] to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form
    opinions without consideration."
  • "Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. ... I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him."
  • "Even the smallest thing should be done with reference to an end."
  • "Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others ... for you lose the opportunity of doing something else when you have such thoughts as these."
  • "Things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; so our perturbations come only from our inner opinions."
  • “'I am unhappy, because this has happened to me.' Not so: say, 'I am happy, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.'”

The recurring themes are that life (and poker) is full of indignities (and assholes), making it mandatory that we train ourselves not to suffer needlessly (tilt).  We must use our reasoning abilities to make better decisions (fold/call/raise), while being prepared to accept that negative outcomes (bad beats) are going to happen according to nature.  And life is short, so don't be full of shit.

Easy, right?


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PART ONE (PART TWO is later in this blog post):

The villain in this hand - played this week at Maryland Live! casino - is an attractive Asian women.  For purposes of this blog, I'll call her "Jackie."   She is part of a group of players here who are staked and coached for cash games by two top local players.  In a couple previous sessions of play with her, she has gotten the best of me several times.

Playing blinds of $2/$5, she raises to $15 and there is one caller.  In late position with AQ (or FAQ as I'm fond of saying), I re-raise to $65.  I know Jackie is opening with a fairly wide range, and also know that her small opening raises size does not necessarily telegraph a weak hand.  I'm trying to move past the many issues I've had with FAQ.  I'll be happy to take down a small pot now, and will have both position and the initiative if called.  Jackie calls, and the other player folds.

Flop ($145):  KJ3 rainbow.  Sigh.  Here we go again.  Now I remember why I hate FAQ so much, as documented in prior blog posts such as here.  While I did pick up a gutshot straight draw, it seems like FAQ is almost a guaranteed King magnet.  Plus, a large part of her range for calling my 3-bet is AK and JJ and this flop hits both of those.  Jackie checks.  I don't want to pour more money into this pot, plus she's offered me a free draw.  I'll take it, and check back.

Turn:  9.  Sign again.  Jackie bets $60.  Calling here seems like a losing proposition.  If the strongest part of her range is AK and JJ, there is a less than 10% chance of improving to a winning hand, and a near 0% chance of making a successful bluff.

I call anyway, knowing it's a rather bad play.

River ($265):  Bink.  The dealer delivers the Ts.  There are no more than two cards of any suit.  Holy crap... I have the nuts.  Jackie is first to act, and announces a bet of $225.  I only have $400 behind, so I cannot even make a full raise, which also means it will be nearly impossible for her to fold when I do raise given the pot size.  I raise and she calls, then looks like she's going to be physically ill when I flip over my cards.  Jackie says "I had Jack-Jack."

Happiness is hitting an inside straight draw and getting paid.  By Jackie.  I'm really happy!

PART TWO (the following day):

I'll skip to the end, then add a quick post script.

A few minutes after this hand, I took a short break.  On my way to the restroom, I saw the victim sitting alone at a slot machine.  For purposes of this blog, I'll call him "Tim."  I walk over to Tim just to say "Hey, I know that was brutal."  He doesn't seem too upset.  Tim explains that he had earned $10 of free slot play from the casino and decided to use it to kill a few minutes after the bad beat at the poker table.  "Look!" he says, gesturing to the meter on the slot machine.  It shows a balance of $601 that he has won using his free slot spins.  

I ask if I should get a commission on that, based on my role in getting him to leave the poker room.  Tim just smiles.

Happiness is turning quads after flopping set under set.  I'm really happy!


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