Bow Down to Sargon!
I read a lot about poker, obviously, and a common topic of discussion is how unlucky the writer is. How unlucky to lose this particular hand, against this particular moron, how the luck never evens out, etc. Writing can be cathartic when you're frustrated, goodness knows. Even I've vented about an especially galling hand, once or twice.
I got knocked out of an SNG the other day when a dude with AJ went runner-runner to make a straight and beat my AK. He needed one of the 3 remaining kings on the river and got it, and so instead of being in 2nd chip position and looking for another nice score I was out on the rail and out of the money. I was pretty pissed.
But for just a moment. Because a few days ago I DID win a nice SNG, and in that tournament I got very lucky twice. I was unlucky to find 10-10 on the button and run into JJ in the big blind, but I sucked out with a flush. I got trapped by a guy again holding jacks against my bottom pair, but I made two pair on the turn and a boat on the river to best him. Lucky me.
If you asked me if, overall, I've been lucky or unlucky playing poker, I'd have to say that it's broken almost exactly even. Which is perhaps the most boring answer possible. What kind of milquetoast would say, "Ehh, I guess I get lucky and unlucky in nearly equal proportions"? Bah. It's far sexier to say that you're one of those few and fortunate souls into whose ear Lady Luck has decided to stick her tongue. Or to stand defiant on a exposed outcropping of rock as the malevolent forces of the cosmos rain down the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Me, I just shrug and say it's about 50-50.
But is it? Am I lucky or unlucky? Let's narrow the focus exclusively to poker--I'll leave the rest of it to my eventual biographers. Wouldn't it be nice--or, wouldn't it be disturbing--if there was a "LUCK" tab in PokerTracker? Perhaps there already is a feature like this (Iggy? Hank?), but what if you could push a button and the program would go into every hand you played, calculated the odds of your winning or losing the hand, crunched those numbers into a palatable mathematical shape, and then spit out a number ranging in value from -1 to 1. The negative numbers mean bad luck, the positive good.
What would it do to your psyche if you knew EXACTLY how lucky you were? Would it have any effect at all? The rational sort doesn't believe in luck--well, what if you have cold, objective proof to show otherwise? Would this number, in face, BE cold, objective proof, or just a tough run of cards? How big would the sample size have to be before you got spooked and either started avoiding black cats or searching your house for a stowaway leprauchaun?
What got me thinking about this was when I used to play chess as a kid. I was at the library yesterday and as I browsed I found myself looking at some old chess books that I probably checked out 25 years ago. Just as I read a lot about poker now, I read about chess then, though I don't seem to have much talent at either game. But I love reading about the eccentric characters, the drama that accompanies games played for high stakes, the undeniable evidence that there are people who possess talent that is beyond normal comprehension.
I played chess on my computer (starting with an Atari Chess game, believe it or not), and the game I remember most was Sargon (I think I had Sargon III). You could play at different skill settings, and it came with an interesting feature--you could press a command and the game would tell you who it thought was winning. I got in the habit of making a move and then checking to see if the program though I'd increased my advantage.
In one game I recall I felt I had the game well in hand. My pawn structure was sound, I controlled the center of the board, and his bishops were bottled up while mine were both fianchettoed. With every move I constricted his movements while opening up new avenues for attack. I was in control.
And then he made an odd move with his knight, moving it to the edge of the board, which is something of a no-no with your horsie. For kicks I checked to see how the computer valued that move, and I got a rude shock. Where before the computer rated my advantage at -4.0 (I think the scale was -25 to 25, something like that) it now stood at a positive 15.0. What? I looked at his move, looked at the board, and I pondered for a long time. I didn't have a clue.
My mind, I think, created a blind spot toward the threat, and it was a two or three minutes before I figured out that I was dead. My queen was stuck behind those two bishops, and my king, thought safe after castling, was vulnerable to a knight. On the next move that knight was going to place me in check while forking my queen. And there was nothing I could do about it. The only spot I could move my queen would allow the knight to gobble it right then, and if I moved my king the knight would fork my queen and a rook, and after moving my queen taking the knight would take my rook and again fork my king and queen.
Rather than give my 8MB opponent the satisfaction I turned off the computer. Odd, I don't think I played chess seriously much after that. What I think turned me off for good was when I went to a high school chess tournament my sophomore year or so. It was held at a rival high school (meaning we got out of class for the day) and as I walked into the library and saw the collection of nerds, geeks, dweebs, twerps, and spazzes gathered around the boards I realized these guys weren't likely to set cheerleaders' hearts a-thrumming. I decided to leave chess behind, and focus on more athletic pursuits--namely, tennis.
Yeah, I know. Right idea, wrong execution. Story of my life.