Saturday, January 07, 2006

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

AS I WRITE THIS, I am playing a play-money poker tournament on PokerRoom. You may have seen the amusing ad they're running, in which two knights are wailing on each other with medieval weapons, until one warrior starts and brandishes a chainsaw, whereupon his opponent cowers and says, "I fold!" To this former Dungeons & Dragons player and current poker (and chainsaw) aficionado, it's a hilarious clip.

One major difference between myself and the other players in my regular game is that I don't play for real money online. In fact, I might be the only one who doesn't. My options would be limited if I decided to take the plunge, as the majority of the poker sites run on Windows. PokerRoom and a few others owned by its parent company run in Java, which lets Mac users play there. I have read about some Mac users running the Windows poker software via VirtualPC, but others describe it as slow or unstable — and the last thing I need when there is real cash on the line is a flaky connection.

Another factor that has restrained my dive into the world of online poker is the possibility of collusion. Three or four guys playing on the same table with cellphones and headsets could clobber any hapless clowns who sat down. The major sites all claim to have software algorithms that can detect betting patterns suggestive of collusion. The other players in my game have no worries about this. Most of them either play low-limit cash games like our Thursday gathering or large, multi-table tournaments with scores or hundreds of players, at which collusion would only be a factor if two or more acquainted players lucked out by getting seated at the final table. Not likely.

I can tell that I am missing out on a lot of experience, relative to the other players, by only playing in meatspace. I play about once per week in the regular game. I don't go to Atlantic City more than about once every two or three months (especially not this autumn, with gas hitting $3.25 per gallon!). Vegas is only twice a year. I do notice, however, that when I play every day, as I do in Vegas, I get perceptibly better over time — particularly when I play often in the same poker room. Playing online a couple of days a week would help me see more hands and continue to build my skill between the usual Thursday study groups in applied probability.

Although it's tough to judge how I might do from play-money performance, I have run the $1,000 in fugazy cash that PokerRoom starts you with up past $10,000 by playing in single-table tournaments. Called sit 'n' goes or SnGs in poker lingo — when 10 players fill the table, the tourney begins — they feature rapidly escalating blinds and a distribution of prize money ranging from winner takes all to 50%/30%/20%. So anywhere from seven to nine players get bupkis. These also can be found with low entry fees, starting at $5 to play with an extra charge to the house of 50¢. Some players will play four or six SnGs at once, hoping to hit the money spots in a couple each time they do so. (The computer setups for these multitable players tend to look like daytrading desks or air traffic control stations, sometimes with just as much stress.)

At fake-money SnGs, the first question usually is how many players will go all in on the first hand. Because it costs nothing to lose, you'll often see two, three, or even six players at these tables push all of their cyber-chips into the center to rack up a huge early lead. Usually only one of these loons will start with a pair. I've only ever joined in this salmon-spawn once, with two Aces in the hole, which — as will happen when you take pocket rockets up against five or six other hands — went down in flames.

Once the dust settles from this display of plumage, I play basic, ABC poker, following a strategy sheet I snagged from the Two Plus Two poker forums (Two Plus Two publishes seminal poker texts.) This sheet was composed by a habitué of the bulletin board specifically devoted to SnG play. Whether it's a measure of my opponents' caliber, the fact that it's free to play, or the method I follow, I find I get close to or into the pay spots fairly frequently. I do find that the battle once in the payout structure does get fierce, in contrast to the goofy all-in fest at the outset.

Some months ago, I set myself a goal that if I were able to win six SnGs in a row, I would consider depositing some money and playing with real moolah. I hit that goal almost immediately after I set it. Not trusting my sample size, I decided to see if I could hit $10,000 without busting out and reloading my fake-cash account. I crossed that threshold last month. So now I really have to wonder: Do I want an immediate form of financial gratification and entertainment to be this near and accessible?

I am trying to maintain a solid workout schedule. To succeed, I need to eat right and sleep at least 8 hours a night. I do not want poker to intrude on any of these activities. I have occasionally pulled late nights on Thursdays — I define a poker night that runs past midnight as "late" — and either my play or the subsequent workday has suffered as a result. If I skip a week of poker to attend to real life, I don't feel like I am losing money, which is a recurrent complaint among some folks who actually play online poker as a living. When they fold laundry for an hour, they think to themselves, "That's $40 I lost while doing that." You didn't lose anything, fool; you lived your life, the only one you'll ever have!! I've never been that sort of player, and I would hate to have any job, to say nothing of a hobby like poker, be so dominant a factor in my life that I feel guilty attending to other activities instead. In sum, I am trying to figure out whether the benefits in money and experience can justify the reallocation of time.

From what I hear about the quality of poker play online, I might be thinking about this more deeply than anyone in the short history of online gambling.

(P.S. I took third prize in the aforementioned tourney. Hmmmmm. . . .)

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