Thursday, November 17, 2011

by popular request: handicapping (sorta) ElkY vs RaSZi

I guess since I am now perceived as some sort of fight expert by the poker community (spoiler: I'm not), people keep asking me my opinion about the ElkY vs RaSZi* kickboxing match next week. So in this post I'll concede to trying to break down a fight with very incomplete knowledge. I've trained with ElkY, but I've never seen Lex train, fight, or do anything more physically active than reaching for chips. Moreover, because I trained with ElkY, I'm biased; I want him to win.

But ElkY has been training hard. I sparred with him a little bit at EPT Madrid in April when he first started out with his Lincon, his current trainer, and I also sparred with him a little last month in Cannes. Unsurprisingly, the difference was very significant. He's able to put strikes together, move forward, and counterpunch now. More importantly, he never seemed to mind getting hit. In Madrid he was very inexperienced and we were going light, but even then he didn't mind being hit and kept coming forward. But in Cannes, I definitely cracked him a couple of times and he had no problem with it. Amongst novice fighters, the willingness to be hit and keep moving forward makes a big difference.

According to Lex's blog, Lex had 18 months of boxing training when he was a teenager. That's of some value but not a lot, since he's now 27. It seems like his training has also been hampered by injuries up until a few months ago when he finally got healthy two months ago. Since then, he has been training "a few times a week."

If one could be assured that Lex is telling the full truth and not underselling himself, I definitely like ElkY's side given this information. Lincon has ElkY training virtually every morning and has him eating well. Over a 5-round fight, I really have to think ElkY has a major cardio advantage, although Lex being more experienced in fights means he'll be a little less likely to adrenaline dump. But as far as I can tell, ElkY has been training consistently for six months and Lex has been training off and on for two months.

Lex points out in the blog that Elky's "coordination seems a bit bad and I don't think he is a natural athlete." To this, I will admit that yes, I've seen him in the ring and he's not going to dazzle with Muhammad Ali footwork. But he is very well trained. Lincon is a very good, technical trainer with a great attitude. So I know ElkY knows his fundamentals. He doesn't have to look great. All he really has to do is tuck his chin, keep his hands up, and throw strikes, and I think he's going to do that. Athleticism is often what separates guys at the elite level, but we're talking about two very raw guys. And when we're talking about two such guys, I favour the guy who has been working harder and has gotten consistent, professional training. Maybe Lex is a better natural athlete. Maybe if he weren't playing Starcraft and poker he'd be greater than Ernesto Hoost and Peter Aerts combined. I'm not denying the importance of athleticism, and maybe I'm biased because I'm not athletically gifted myself, but I'll favour the uncoordinated guy with six months of training over the athletic guy with two.

I feel there's one last advantage that ElkY has, and that is surprising toughness. As I said, even when he was very unskilled, he didn't mind getting hit and continued staying aggressive. The rules of the fight dictate that if no one is KOd or TKOd or quits, then the fight is a draw. I think ElkY is tough enough that this makes it a partial freeroll. Neither guy likely has enough power at this stage to KO the other unless someone really gets their hands low and chin up. And I don't think ElkY will quit because of the toughness I've mentioned. So his only path to losing is that he is taking so much damage that the ref is forced to stop the fight. And unless Lex lands some serious bombs early, it seems unlikely he has the gas tank to accrue that level of damage.

I'd be very surprised if Lex hasn't undersold himself just a little bit and he's probably a bit more trained than he's let on. Not because he wants to hustle bettors (the bet with ElkY is already very big), but just to manage expectations. Normally I don't buy into anything fighters say about how their training is going, but with less experienced guys and guys who aren't super-serious fighters, I think there is less bravado, posturing, and "I'm in the best shape of my life!!!!111" talk.

So yeah, I've put down my $1000 down on ElkY. Mostly just a bet for fun, and to show a bit of support, but I do think there's some edge. In any case I just hope it's a good fight and that they'll continue to train, improve themselves and find as much joy as I've found in the combat sports.

Official Prediction: ElkY by 4th round TKO

And with that, I'm off to my own gym!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Almost-Live Televised Poker and Play Clocks - A Match Made in Heaven?

There's been a lot of buzz about the "almost-live" WSOP final table and what came out of it. Personally, I was fascinated by it, and probably most hardcore fans and poker players were too. It did, however, go on for a very long time, and that led a lot of pundits to talk about the viability of such broadcasts going forward. In this week's 2+2 Pokercast, we talked about whether a casual fan of poker would have enjoyed the show or turned it off because they felt it was too long or slow-paced. Indeed it seems to be a common sentiment on Twitter that the broadcast was perhaps too dry for casual viewers, especially those used to seeing fast-paced, slickly-edited poker productions.

My aggressive, maybe even slightly insane solution? 60-second play clock on all postflop actions, and 30-second play clock on all preflop actions. The clock starts running from the time you're informed by the dealer of the bet size. Players would get one or more timeouts, maybe even as many as one per level, to tank on really monumental decisions or to draw out a read from an opponent.

Does it change the game quite dramatically? Yes, but obviously that ship has sailed long ago with both the creation of the November Nine a few years back and now every hand revealed on a 15-minute delay. This would be a less-significant strategy change than the revealed hole cards by a substantial margin.

And honestly, I think the majority of players -- and by this I mean across all players, not just pros -- would enjoy the pace of the game. Imagine if you never had to watch another guy tank for 4 minutes in a pot that doesn't involve you at all, ever again? I'd love it!

Let me hear your thoughts in the poll below or in the comments.

Would you support going to a play clock for major poker tournaments?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mixed Emotions: Sweating the WSOP Final Table

I love watching championship moments. I'll watch the finals of a sport I don't even like, only to get bored and stop paying attention. But I'll always watch the last few seconds on the clock, or the game-winning score, or however it is the game ends. I love watching the absolute unbridled joy of the winner when he realizes his dream. He can't believe it's happening. It's not real...but it is! It's such a great moment and I always get a little bit choked up, even when I have no emotional investment in the player or the team (or even the sport).

Poker is no exception. From what I've heard, Pius Heinz is a really nice, humble kid who is a deserving winner, and so it was great to see him over the moon and jumping into his rail when the harmless river card fell. I love watching moments like that. But in some sense it's harder in poker. I've known for pretty much my entire life that I will never hoist the Stanley Cup or win an NBA title or a World Cup, or even a UFC title. But I am a poker player. I've been playing poker for over 12 years; it's been my entire adult life. It's what I do. I'm pretty good at it, I've achieved a lot of success in it, and made lots of money doing it. Yet I know that realistically, when it comes to the WSOP main event all I can really do is daydream about winning it. Even if I play great and run tremendously good, it almost certainly won't happen. I'll never know what that final river card hitting feels like; I can only imagine it.

And that kind of leaves me with a sad feeling inside. I think most of the time I'm at peace with the thought of never winning the main event (ever since the 2004 WSOP, this has been obvious to anyone who can do basic math). Maybe I'm a little extra emotionally vulnerable since I bricked yet another big buy-in live tournament today. Or maybe it was even the fact that I watched the Heinz-Martin Staszko heads-up battle with nine other top-notch, highly successful poker pros, analyzing their every move and talking about how much better we could have played those hands. To be sure, we have egos, and our comments were borne of a genuine belief that we could play certain hands better than they did. But not a single one of us wasn't at least a little bit jealous, hoping against hope that we'll have the chance to be there one day.

I guess that's what keeps people coming back to poker. It's what puts 6,865 people putting up $10,000 in the wake of both Black Friday and the big economic recession of the late 2000s. Because even the most cynical of poker pros who say we "have to play the main" because "it's sooooo much value" are, at least a little bit, dreamers too.

Congrats to Pius Heinz, the new world champion of our game. I hope you enjoy every bit of it, Pius, because 6,864 of us wish it were us.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Poker's 1% walks into a bar

The poker tournament is in town.

I feel like saying "the poker tournament" oversells the matter. The BC Poker Championships is the biggest tournament of the year in Western Canada. Its main event is a $3000 buy-in, certainly not an amount to sneeze at, but in an age where $10000+ main events are the norm, it's not the sort that attracts international attention from media or high-stakes pros.  Typically during the BCPC, I am among the short list of best-known or most successful players in the field. But something unique has happened to Vancouver's poker population in the post-Black Friday world.  Dozens of the best American poker players have come north in the past few months to continue earning a living.  And that is why at midnight on a Friday night, at a dive bar called the Atlantic Trap and Gill, I found myself flanked by five self-made poker millionaires: Brian Hastings, Mike McDonald, Mike Watson, Tom Marchese and a fifth guy named Matt that I'd not met before.

Adding to the incongruity of tens of millions of dollars in poker winnings hunkering down and squeezing on to a crowded bar bench over $13 pitchers of beer were the half-dozen or so non-poker players in our group.  Some were old friends of the poker pros, but the others were actually just randoms who were nice enough to share their table with us. By engaging us in conversation they suddenly found themselves knee-deep in a world they had not even considered or fathomed.

"I'll lay 8-to-1 that Brian left that on the table," declared Mike McDonald, upon returning from the washroom.

The EPT champion and 3-time final tablist pointed at the crisp $100 bill sitting by itself in the middle of the table.  No one had asked to settle the tab, but Brian was in fact the person who had left the C-note before heading out the door.  A couple minutes earlier, Brian, apparently having made progress with the attractive young woman who'd showed up just a few minutes earlier, had made the decision to move to a (presumably nicer) bar.  He'd only been around 20 minutes and had one, maybe two beers at best before casually tossing the $100 on the table.

I told Timex how I'd even offered to break the $100 for Brian, but that Brian simply shrugged his shoulders, said "it's fine", and casually left.  Timex found the situation hilarious and exuberantly started explaining to one of the puzzled non-poker randoms that even in this collection of highly successful poker players, Brian stood an echelon above us.

"So this guy that was here and left that $100 bill, well basically, all of us here have won a bunch of money playing poker, but he's won more money in one day than any of us have won in our careers. He holds the world record for most money won playing poker in a single day.  So basically he just bought us all drinks because he's baller like that."  (Tom Marchese then pointed out that his lifetime earnings are in fact greater than Brian's legendary $5 million walloping of Viktor Blom.)

After the hubbub of the $100 bill died down, the topic shifted to poker players and the public perception of how much they win playing poker versus their actual results.  Eventually the topic of Andy Beal came up and I wondered out loud at what limit I would be willing to play him if I had all of my action.

Timex, true to his nature, quickly jumped in with his opinion: that assuming I am worth about a million dollars, that I should definitely be willing to at least take a shot with $300,000 and play him at $3000/$6000, estimating that I have an 80% chance of losing those 50 big bets but a 20% chance of winning some obscene amount like $30,000,000 (assuming he would go that deep).  Mike then punctuated his story, drawing images of me in some Caribbean island with dozens of models on my arm, a sort of 30-year-old Hugh Hefner being waited on hand-and-foot on a tropical paradise.

It was at this point our random turned to his friends and said "I can't believe the conversations that are going on this end of the table."  I think that while there are certainly many groups of successful poker players who are incapable of judging when it is socially acceptable to discuss huge sums of money in varied company, that the social intelligence of this particular group in that respect is actually above average.  But here we were, clearly blowing minds simply by talking candidly amongst ourselves.  At one point I reached into my inside jacket pocket in search of my phone and instead grabbed a small wad of $100 bills. I turned to Timex and Tom and said, "Sweet! Found money; I love when that happens!"  Needless to say, I had not considered the potential reaction of Jess, the red-haired girl on my right whose bewildered expression seemed to indicate that she had not, in fact, experienced the feeling of randomly finding $600 that she'd forgotten she'd had.

Last call came and went, unnoticed by us since our party still had a completely full pitcher on the table.  Our waitress brought us the bill. Actually, she brought us several bills.  I suppose in a bar like this, waitresses are used to splitting bills among large parties of 20somethings, but when we added up all the pitchers, the sum of all the various bills was just $75 and thus well-covered by Mr. Hastings' gesture of generosity.  Jess suggested that we should figure out Brian's share and give him back the rest of the money tomorrow. I assured her that while this would indeed be the fairest thing to do, that it was beyond unnecessary.

One of the randoms, a very pleasant and sociable girl named Andrea, went to leave, but before doing so, made sure to get our attention to tell us how nice it was to have met us, and we returned the sentiment.  I do wonder whether she meant it was nice to meet us in the traditional sense, or in the "I feel like I've just witnessed things that I'll never see again" sense.  I still can't help but shake the feeling that a half-dozen regular folk encountering a half-dozen millionaire poker players simply being themselves was only slightly less strange than meeting an alien species which happened to speak English.

Timex received a text from Brian, and he and Tom decided to head for the bar where Brian had left some time earlier.  I decided it was best for me to head home.  We bid farewell to the remaining randoms, as well as Mike Watson, who seemed engaged with the young woman seated next to him.  The waitress was appreciative of her $25 tip.  We opened the door to find it was raining outside, hard.  Timex and Tom quickly flagged down a cab.  Living only two blocks away, I simply put my head down and ran for home.

The young kids, they can enjoy their late-night drinking and partying.  I'm an old man and even before I was even an old man I was an old soul, so I'll just tap away at the keys and make some words appear on the computer screen for an hour.  But despite where we differ, I am still clearly one of them.

And if you read this story and thought, "nothing about this seems that out of the ordinary," well, then you're one of us too.