Cat Hulbert: How I got rich beating men at their own game
December 7, 2016 9:44 PM   Subscribe

Cat Hulbert: How I got rich beating men at their own game In her own words, Cat Hulbert describes how she got rich beating male opponents - and the casinos - and explains why in her view women are innately better at poker than men.
posted by jouke (61 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great stuff.

There's also the UK's Victoria Coren - TV presenter, writer and only two time winner of the European Poker Tour.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:02 PM on December 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


By definition, gamblers as a whole don't make money. Is there reason to think that individual gamblers make money at a rate greater than chance?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:16 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


I read this yesterday. It's a fascinating look at a world I'll never be a part of but which I find intellectually intriguing. I was particularly interested in the Czechoslovakians, the card-counting team Hulbert joined. I had never heard of such teams.

Hulbert also shows us the invariable extra difficulties of being a woman in a traditionally male profession. (Tl;dr: men can be pigs. Sorry, pigs.)
posted by bryon at 11:21 PM on December 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


The article was very interesting and way better than the nonsense subheading about men and women, which A) was a side comment partway through and B) was more of the nonsense that one typically sees in gender essentialist stuff, where socialized behavior (monitoring mood of romantic partner more closely) is treated as innate.

Anyway, I don't fault Cat for not having a full sociological and anthropological background in understanding actual observed differences in behavior, which almost no one would argue are indeed present. She made a living being a keen observer of behavior, not investigating root causes and whatnot. It annoys me that the article's presentation decided to focus on this instead of on "Hey, here's an autobiographical essay by a person who led a really interesting life in a lot of ways."
posted by Scattercat at 11:43 PM on December 7, 2016 [20 favorites]


By definition, gamblers as a whole don't make money. Is there reason to think that individual gamblers make money at a rate greater than chance?

At that level, poker isn't "gambling." It's a game of skill with a small component of chance.
posted by dersins at 11:47 PM on December 7, 2016 [28 favorites]


In addition to it being a mixture of skill and chance you're also playing other people, not against "the house" like you are with roulette or slot machines or day trading or whatever. I don't have any idea how many pros there are who actually make a good consistent living, though.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:52 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


By definition, gamblers as a whole don't make money. Is there reason to think that individual gamblers make money at a rate greater than chance?

Gamblers as an aggregate don't make money. However, to keep people playing, the odds need to occasionally pay out - and professional gamblers have figured out how to play in a way that maximizes the odds in their favor.

In many casinos, this is considered cheating. Using your own memory to keep track of the cards played in blackjack is grounds for getting evicted. (So, as she mentioned, pro players find tricks to avoid being noticed.)

Poker, unlike many of the "house" games, allows for a lot more winnings because the stakes are set by the other players. And while the cards are chance-based, the game is not: aside from knowing the odds of where the cards are likely to be, making a profit isn't based on "having the best hand" but finessing the other players to bet high when your hand is good, and making sure you've bet low when your hand is bad.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:02 AM on December 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


This bit jumped out at me:
I do believe we are innately better players than men. We are more reflective and intuitive, and seem to have more guises at our disposal.

Maybe it's because we've always grown up to think, "Oh what's my boyfriend thinking? Why isn't he calling?" Men don't think that way.
She recognized women's disproportionate share of emotional labor, and she figured out how to weaponize it. Bad.ass.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 12:46 AM on December 8, 2016 [64 favorites]


Maybe it's because we've always grown up to think, "Oh what's my boyfriend thinking? Why isn't he calling?" Men don't think that way.

He isn't calling because he has an inside straight draw.
posted by ill3 at 12:48 AM on December 8, 2016 [89 favorites]


What an amazing life. I loved all her random moments of self-reflection, and how they inevitably related — thoughts on beauty, ageing, disguise, shopping, deception, single living, addiction, glamour, "unmentionable" cancer, pride and approval. This was a wonderful read.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:57 AM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


Interesting article. A lot of poker players would consider the blackjack piece either a) cheating or b) a major leak, but it certainly adds up to an interesting life and harkens back to a bygone era that doesn't really exist any more.

Poker has become a much more professional endeavour since her heyday. It's no longer a question for almost anyone of just "figure out how to make money in a casino environment" - any game played against the house is inherently stacked against the player and -EV by definition.

As far as women in poker are concerned, it is still the great hope of a huge number of people that this "final frontier" be breached and that women enter the game in sufficient numbers to bring about a new "boom". Most of the antisocial behaviours she notes by men in the past would get people turfed out of the poker room, and there's no question that women have the ability to play at a very high level.

That being said, there are very few women at the highest levels of the game. Jennifer Harman is among very few women who have consistently played in the biggest cash games in the world. There are proportionally few women at the top of the tournament scene as well, but those who are there - Vanessa Selbst in particular - are very well respected for their amazing skill.

There seems to be a very solid new generation of tournament player coming along as well - very skilled women who are perennial competitors in huge events. Maria Ho is among the more established of these, but there are many many more who are taking their rightful place in the game. Just last month I saw a local woman dominate the penultimate day of a WPT event utterly and completely, playing a solid style of game that even a decade ago "acceptable" sexist rhetoric would have suggested was impossible - and it was both wonderful to watch and completely accepted.
posted by mikel at 2:30 AM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the title is click-bait for sure, it is absolutely *way* more than just a story of a woman beating men at their own game. Which she didn't do, unless the cards fell right. Really a great read, story of an interesting life told well.

I wondered as I read if she has manic depression, and sure enough, it came out.

She re-iterated what my brother told me years ago -- if you stand at the table, your cards will fall. Your cards are in that deck, and they are coming your way. Your job is to stand at the table. He learned that playing poker and used it when he got into a sales gig, buying glad rags and fine shoes when he was about broke but to sell he had to dress the part, and every day he went out on cold calls. Many, many door shut in his face, then gut up and go to the next door and say "Hello." and wondering if this will be the door where the cards would fall first. One of my best friends got into a sales gig, and I told him again and again: Stand at the table. Your cards will fall. Your job is to stand at the table. Matthew literally wore holes in the soles of some shoes as he paraded around Houston, one door after the next. He stood, the cards have fallen, fifteen years later many of those first accounts are still his and many of them have grown as their company has grown and my friend reaps what he sowed. All of his shoes are in a fine way now.

Fun factoid: Richard Nixon won $6000 in two months, when he served in the navy in WW2. He used that money to fund his first political run. His face never showed a thing.

I've read somewhere online that Thursday and Friday evenings and nights are great for playing poker online -- the people you're playing against just got paid, they're drinking a few. I'm not a poker player so I don't know but it seems like it could be a thing.

I sure do like Hulbert. A very cool human being. Be fun to go to coffee with her, shoot the breeze on a sunny afternoon.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:39 AM on December 8, 2016 [12 favorites]


making a profit isn't based on "having the best hand" but finessing the other players to bet high when your hand is good, and making sure you've bet low when your hand is bad

OK, but at these upper levels where we can assume everyone has an equal amount of technical ability, is there any evidence that some players do better than others at levels that cannot be explained by chance? Or is it just hot and cold streaks that get explained away as greater or lesser degrees of being able to read/influence other players?

It seems to me that many gamblers' experiences are like Cat's: they have a streak of luck (or inside knowledge, or both) that makes them a lot of easy money, and then their streak finishes. They thought it was skill, but it was just the sort of random fluctuation you'd expect.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:45 AM on December 8, 2016


I think it's hard to appreciate the mind games that go on in poker. Some people are genuinely better at dealing with the mental aspect of bluff and double bluff, of reading peoples tells and making the right decision.

Even among the group of people that are good at this there is some aspect of rock paper scissors, in that some people can read certain other people better than others.

The people that can read a higher percentage of the people are normally the ones that do better. It also helps that there are a lot of people (normally men) that like the idea of being a poker player and making money. I think it appeals to the male dominance meme for a lot of them. Problem is that a lot of them are not as good as they hope.
posted by trif at 3:03 AM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's a game of skill with a small component of chance.

Or a big component of chance, like that poker tournament in Futurama where Fry can read minds and Bender has the lucky robot's foot:

Fry: Aren't you going to look at your cards?
Bender: Looking at one's cards is a crutch for players who rely on skill.
posted by kersplunk at 3:07 AM on December 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


> Looking at one's cards is a crutch for players who rely on skill.

"Read 'em and weep. And then tell me what they are."
posted by qntm at 3:30 AM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


there is a significant amount of empirical evidence that woman make better money managers and traders as well. The issue with the data set though is survivor bias. I.e. - its so much harder for woman to make it to the top, that the reason why woman tend to outperform once they get there is because they had to be better to begin with.

The logical argument I've heard is that woman are less likely to bet on skew - i.e. a small likelihood of a very positive outcome.
posted by JPD at 4:42 AM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


One paragraph in and i already know who this shmuck who smells like blue cheese is lollll... ace article thanks for posting.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:43 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


It also helps that there are a lot of people (normally men) that like the idea of being a poker player and making money. I think it appeals to the male dominance meme for a lot of them. Problem is that a lot of them are not as good as they hope.

Specifically, for some players I have known, it appeals to a fantasy of intellectual superiority - being able to get rich, or at least to make a living, by out-witting both the system of school and credentials and work, and also outwitting others who would like to do that. I see it as a similar mentality to the day trading craze back in the first tech boom.
posted by thelonius at 4:49 AM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


OK, but at these upper levels where we can assume everyone has an equal amount of technical ability, is there any evidence that some players do better than others at levels that cannot be explained by chance? Or is it just hot and cold streaks that get explained away as greater or lesser degrees of being able to read/influence other players?

In poker, there is considerable evidence that more skilled players perform substantially better than others and to an extent that can not be explained by chance. Furthermore, it's a complicated enough game that even at the highest levels you can't assume that everyone has "an equal amount of technical ability". There are many gradations of skill in the game and a constant interplay between skill and variance over the short term.

In addition, the development of the theory of poker is at a historic high point right now. There are more "good" players out there than ever before - but even so there is enough range of skill out there that no result is a foregone conclusion and the interplay between short-term variance and skill remains consistently interesting.
posted by mikel at 4:59 AM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


I have a friend (well, acquaintance, I don't know if very well) who is a professional gambler and poker player.

There is a world of difference between what he does day to day compared to someone who occasionally puts a bet on. It's fascinating, from a mathematical and organisational perspective and I wish I had more detail to share with you. There is a lot of arbitrage, of expecting (or encouraging) odds to shift in certain ways so you can match against them and arb the difference.
There is a lot of inside information, a lot of study and a lot of analysis of the value offered from various outlets.
It's definitely a full time job.

I think a lot of people like to see the big show downs and the million dollar pots and the crazy accumulator wins, but I get the feeling that the day to day of it is more like betting thousands and thousands of pounds on lots of bets to make a guaranteed outcome of a few hundred.
Or playing the small hands to make a little bit here and a little bit there.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:06 AM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


OK, but at these upper levels where we can assume everyone has an equal amount of technical ability

Mikal already called this out. You can't make this assumption.

Also, "professional" gamblers don't tend to make their daily wage beating other pros. They make their money from the tourists and other dead money at the table.
posted by bitdamaged at 5:16 AM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Specifically, for some players I have known, it appeals to a fantasy of intellectual superiority

I should add that I'm thinking of amateurs who rushed into the online poker fad counting on easy money, not actual pros. "Dead money" as said above.
posted by thelonius at 5:26 AM on December 8, 2016


I just listened to Hidden Brain on Annie Duke using gender stereotypes to beat male players. It's fantastic, and they talk about it in context of stereotype threat and stereotype tax- rather than gender essentialism. Smart lady; and now I feel compelled to see how many men in my daily life fall into the three types she identifies in poker. I'm a bit afraid of the answer, though.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:30 AM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


There's a great chapter in Nate Silver's book, The Signal and the Noise, about the relationship between skill and luck in online poker (where records for millions of games are available). His conclusion is that skilled players do have a statistically significant edge, but a small one relative to luck -- skill comes to consistently outweigh luck only across tens of thousands of hands. Here's a chart of the expected range of outcomes for very skilled players -- only after 100,000 hands is the outcome for almost all skilled players likely to be above $0.

So here's what's really cool about this: while some players are skilled enough to make money and most are not, almost all poker players don't know which group they belong to. From that link: "The Bayesian method described in the book The Mathematics of Poker, for instance, would suggest that a player who had made $30,000 in his first 10,000 hands at a $100/$200 limit hold ’em game was nevertheless more likely than not to be a long-term loser."

And by the time you've played enough hands to know if you're winning so far -- say, 50,000 -- it's been long enough that the game might have changed. The whales might be gone, the sharks might be hungrier. So you can never really know if you're good enough to make money on the next 50,000.

(This all assumes you're drawing opponents at random, of course. If you have a way of consistently playing the 10% worst players, I bet skill dominates luck a lot faster -- that might be the more realistic scenario for people who actually make a lot of money from poker.)
posted by john hadron collider at 6:43 AM on December 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


In games like that the advantage pros tend to have is on understanding staking rather than pure win rate - precisely because variance is so high.

This also means tho that most successful pros are those who got lucky enough early in their career so that their capital is large enough that a moderate roi is enough to live on.
posted by JPD at 6:56 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


And by the time you've played enough hands to know if you're winning so far -- say, 50,000 -- it's been long enough that the game might have changed. The whales might be gone, the sharks might be hungrier. So you can never really know if you're good enough to make money on the next 50,000.

This has been playing itself out in real time online in the past year or 2. Since "Black Friday" when the grey market poker sites were shut down in the US, there has been an important trend that the games are getting significantly harder, which is due to a combination of an absolute increase in the number of good players, but also the fact that only good players from the US have opted to leave the country to play on a regular basis.

Add to that, however, that PokerStars - still by far the largest provider - recently changed their bonus and rake back system to balance more towards the recreational player and less to the "online pro" playing a ton of volume - and the shrieks have been heard around the world.

It turns out that there were a significant number of "pro" players who it seems couldn't necessarily beat the game - but they were highly profitable due to their bonuses. So they thought of themselves as "winning players" when the only real wins were bonus-based.

The effect that both trends have had is significant - players now go to whatever game they can to find an edge. It used to be that at the lower levels the game was very beatable, populated by total rec players who could easily be beaten - but now those tables are squatted by pros who play very low limits - but play 20 tables at a time. The game online has gotten very very difficult, and just to stay alive you have to develop some pretty decent skills.
posted by mikel at 6:58 AM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


I think it's hard to appreciate the mind games that go on in poker. Some people are genuinely better at dealing with the mental aspect of bluff and double bluff, of reading peoples tells and making the right decision.

Even among the group of people that are good at this there is some aspect of rock paper scissors, in that some people can read certain other people better than others.


Jon Bois did a very interesting video on this.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:09 AM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Edges are bigger irl for a lot of reasons for reasons like the players are more manipulateable. Tho also variance is higher.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:41 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


My poker story, as a woman. I've only casually played poker either "penny games" or no money at all for funnsies.

I don't play often AT ALL. The last time I played, it was probably a decade from the previous time. It was at a company party, no money (not even prizes). So when I sat down, I asked the dealer for a refresher on the rules, because it had been a looong time. The other players at the table were men. The first couple hands, I'm struggling to remember what's a good hand or not, what a flush looks like. There were times I knew I had card that were something but not what and not necessarily knowing what it would beat. This is all to set the stage for how not great a poker player I am.

The table when I sat down was all men, all people I didn't know. One guy had been mopping the floor (table?). So I'm here trying to figure out if I even have a hand, never mind worrying about what hands other people have. And certainly not bluffing, cuz I don't know what I'm doing!

But I start to win. And win a lot. I started playing earnestly, but because I wasn't quite confident in what I was doing, I would fold quicker, make smaller bets. I would only call. But I started to realize that I had perplexed the men at the table. They were clearly frustrated. Especially the guy who had been owning the table. They would assuming I was bluffing and wasn't. As I got more confident and my memory of the game, I quickly realized I could throw bluffing in now. I did, but judiciously. And I'd raise, since I was starting to get a better handle on what I was doing. But, without knowing shit about tells, I could generally get a good sense of who was bluffing and who had a good hand. This seemed particularly true of the guy who had been on a winning streak. And the more I took his "money", the more determined he was to beat me, the more obvious his plays. All I tried to do was keep as neutral of body language as I could.

I eventually won if not all, then most of his money through one of those dramatic two people show downs. He told me and the rest of the table that I must have been "sharking" when I asked for help at the beginning. Though it was never said directly, there was a strong undercurrent that he felt I must have been something untoward happening in some way for a girl to beat him. When in reality, being at a company function with no-stakes poker meant we both were probably not great players, and his ego got the best of him.

The other thing of note? Later, the one person I had trouble bluffing to was the other woman who sat down towards the end of my time playing.

(Man, I this makes me want to play now. That was the last game I played and that was 6 or 7 years ago.)

I still carry one of the "$5000" chips for good luck.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 7:49 AM on December 8, 2016 [21 favorites]


But I started to realize that I had perplexed the men at the table. They were clearly frustrated. Especially the guy who had been owning the table. They would assuming I was bluffing and wasn't.

Well, part of the way you narrow down what your opponent might be holding is through their betting. There are general consensuses on how to bet certain hands in certain circumstances, especially right at the beginning--the way that gives the highest EV. If you were betting differently, you were providing misleading information to them. Add a little luck, and voila, a newbie can beat a more experienced player. For a while.
posted by praemunire at 8:04 AM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


The World Series of Poker and other high-profile events do basically boil down to luck for the very good players, in part because tournament poker rules require you to bet overly-aggressively to accumulate the stack needed to compete later in the day, and in part because the competition once you're a few tables in starts to negate the skill factor.

But professional poker players don't make their money that way. They make their money sitting at high stakes private games and high-roller back-room casino games where very rich people who are good, but not great, poker players GLADLY expect to lose their money to the pros just for the fun of it. A guy who cleans up in the cardroom at his country club gets to sit for an evening with a world-class player AND gets a few awesome hands on the way to losing the very fat stack he walked in with. Totally worth it to him. A pro I know has basically taken the gambling out of this -- a few people in Miami run games and pay him a flat $5,000 a night to show up and play. His fee is paid to him before he sits down and he plays only with the house's money all night long, and gives the house back whatever he has at the end of the night.
posted by MattD at 8:26 AM on December 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


pro I know has basically taken the gambling out of this -- a few people in Miami run games and pay him a flat $5,000 a night to show up and play. His fee is paid to him before he sits down and he plays only with the house's money all night long, and gives the house back whatever he has

That's insane lol. Why on earth would anyone else ever sit in that game haha. This had better be Chris Moneymaker or something.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:59 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


"Why on earth would anyone else ever sit in that game haha."

If you got a chance to play horse against Steph Curry, wouldn't you do it? I would! I'd easily pay whatever I could afford (and if I were a rich banker sort, I'd be able to afford quite a bit).

There are some things that I enjoy doing (and that I think I'm "pretty good at, for an amateur") that I would happily take the opportunity to test my skills against a pro I admire. I'd lose. Every time. But so what, it'd be worth it.

And on the off chance that I hit a bizarre shot by pure luck that Curry then misses? Shiiiiiiiiiiiit. That's a story I'll be telling for the rest of my life (even if that's the only shot I made the whole game!).
posted by oddman at 9:11 AM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


Fish, fish, are you doing your duty?: She recognized women's disproportionate share of emotional labor, and she figured out how to weaponize it. Bad.ass.

Yep. But eventually she found out that weaponizing everything is not good for the soul, as satisfying as it might be at the time:
When you sit down at the poker table the first thing you do is assess each opponent's weakness. But this is not good for the soul, to be always evaluating people in a how-can-I-hurt-them-if-they-hurt-me-first way.
posted by clawsoon at 9:17 AM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


oddman: There are some things that I enjoy doing (and that I think I'm "pretty good at, for an amateur") that I would happily take the opportunity to test my skills against a pro I admire. I'd lose. Every time. But so what, it'd be worth it.

Like the cringe-worthy Romney vs. Holyfield?
posted by clawsoon at 9:19 AM on December 8, 2016


The World Series of Poker and other high-profile events do basically boil down to luck for the very good players, in part because tournament poker rules require you to bet overly-aggressively to accumulate the stack needed to compete later in the day,

I get the impression from interviews that many pros now look at the bigger events at the WSOP as basically self-promotion, because the format requires such aggressive play to survive the early rounds that it nearly reverts to being a game of chance. That's why you end up with the occasional near-complete piker in the final 11--they bet overly aggressively at the beginning because that's what some (especially male) inexperienced players do and just happen to have good luck with it over the short time period involved. Similarly, the format encourages primarily online players, because they are used to playing wildly aggressively in 20 hands at once against goofballs. This strategy is not correct over time or for any given player, but over a very short period of time, if many people adopt the strategy, one of them has a good chance to win through.
posted by praemunire at 9:26 AM on December 8, 2016


Poker, unlike many of the "house" games, allows for a lot more winnings because the stakes are set by the other players.

So this goes for craps as well, I met a professional gambler once who took me to a casino and I stood back in awe as he made big bucks, not by betting on the roll of the dice, but by betting on how other people would bet.

So when someone is on a hot streak, for example, knowing when to bet with or against them is how you make money, not against the house.
posted by jeremias at 9:57 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


More edge but more variance almost certainly means more variance...
posted by JPD at 10:14 AM on December 8, 2016


By definition, gamblers as a whole don't make money. Is there reason to think that individual gamblers make money at a rate greater than chance?

I have a coworker who gambles a great deal, as does his girlfriend. She's kind of into gambling for gambling's sake, but he's the one that interests me. He realizes that a casino is a system for removing money from you, and a lot of very, very smart people have spent a lot of time figuring out how to make sure you don't take their money, and they get as much out of you as possible (including having the occasional big winner to keep all the other losers dreaming and playing).

But this isn't all they do. Casinos also have hotels, restaurants, shows. These make money in their own right, but they also use these amenities to get people in and gambling. Again, this includes giving a little to get a lot. The casino industry has a long tradition of comping rooms and shows and so on to certain people because they know they're going to make it back and more on the floor. And, as you'd expect, they use the same big data methods to study everything you do in their casino and optimize how effectively they use those comps to get money back.

So my colleague isn't there to play blackjack and slots, and he's not there to win cash because he knows the system's designed to keep him from doing that. He's playing their data analytics, figuring out how to tickle the casinos' algorithms into giving him as much free stuff as he can get, while spending as little as possible on gambling. When he's up a hundred bucks in blackjack, he takes that money over to the slot machines and blows it. Then he goes to the bar and watches college football or something. The gambling isn't the point for him, it's a tool.

Apparently he's gotten pretty good at this. He told me a couple weeks ago that he added up his net from gambling for the year, and he's down about $70. He and his girlfriend were getting ready to take a charter flight to the Gulf Coast to spend a weekend at a casino there, all comped from the flight down to the flight back. This was the fourth one of these trips they'd been given this year, and they've got one more in Atlantic City over Christmas.
posted by Naberius at 10:21 AM on December 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


I once met a professional gambler on the train. He finished my whiskey, said something about knowing what to keep, and died.
posted by dr_dank at 10:22 AM on December 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


I haven't thought about Cat in ages. She was tremendous fun to play with, always had the best stories. In the days when we all played 7 card stud pretty much exclusively, she was a terror. One of the most disciplined, mathematically-oriented players of the old school. I guess she has been vindicated these days, now that everyone is a game-theory-optimal number cruncher. I loved her David Sklansky anecdote at the outset and I'd bet my house that she named and shamed him but the newspaper made her drop his name from the article. I'm a bit skeptical about the pros getting paid to be in games in Miami with rich whales and giving back their chips at the end of the night. The usual deal is that you have to pay them to get into those kind of games. I know of many big feuds that revolve around who gets into some of those games. There is a big fight going on right now about a game in a public casino where they stuff the wait list with names of people who aren't even in town to keep people they don't want from coming in and taking the easy money. If you are a rich guy who wants to play with people you've seen on TV, drop me a note -- it could be arranged in a minute. Or you know, just show up in Vegas and they will find you very quickly.
posted by Lame_username at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2016 [14 favorites]


Like the cringe-worthy Romney vs. Holyfield ?

Sure! Romney looked like he was really enjoying himself. (That was for charity and filmed, so not exactly what I meant w/r/t testing your skills against a pro.)
posted by oddman at 11:29 AM on December 8, 2016


I read this yesterday. It's a fascinating look at a world I'll never be a part of but which I find intellectually intriguing. I was particularly interested in the Czechoslovakians, the card-counting team Hulbert joined. I had never heard of such teams.
There have been a few books published about the Czechs and Ken Uston's team. Legends of Blackjack and Bringing Down The House, which was also a movie. The MIT team was sort of the tail-end of the phenomenon and the Czechs and Uston the vanguard. There were a lot more people who just learned the math and made some free money before they changed the rules and put up a ton of obstacles.
posted by Lame_username at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


clawsoon: Yep. But eventually she found out that weaponizing everything is not good for the soul, as satisfying as it might be at the time:
When you sit down at the poker table the first thing you do is assess each opponent's weakness. But this is not good for the soul, to be always evaluating people in a how-can-I-hurt-them-if-they-hurt-me-first way.
You make a valid point. As someone who learned the hard way to think like this to move safely in public spaces, I can confirm that the mindset is crap for the soul. But I still find it gratifying that Cat Hulbert included it in her arsenal, even if she ultimately found this flavor of combat not to her taste.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 11:47 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Joe in Australia: "By definition, gamblers as a whole don't make money. Is there reason to think that individual gamblers make money at a rate greater than chance?"

Depends on the type of gambling. Too many people tend to jump on things like races and gambling machines, where it is all in the realm of randomness. I imagine, at least from some small personal experience, playing games like poker which feature risk management and strategies such as playing your opponents makes all the difference.
posted by Samizdata at 11:56 AM on December 8, 2016


I'm intrigued by her statement that casino owners are superstitious. "The Black Swan" had me convinced that they're all science and calculation.
posted by clawsoon at 12:16 PM on December 8, 2016


Also, I am an asshole to play poker with. I walk in with a stake in my pocket. When that is gone, I am done. Anything over and above said stake goes in the other pocket, and only comes out to help make change for other players.

Lovely article. Quite fascinating, and I do imagine Cat would be a hoot and a half to spend a day hanging out with. Luckily (not sure why), dogs tend to like me, so that problem's solved too.
posted by Samizdata at 12:19 PM on December 8, 2016


OK, but at these upper levels where we can assume everyone has an equal amount of technical ability, is there any evidence that some players do better than others at levels that cannot be explained by chance? Or is it just hot and cold streaks that get explained away as greater or lesser degrees of being able to read/influence other players?
I love the way you think. At any given time, there are many players at every level who are deluded about the role of skill and luck in their results. In fact, the beauty of poker is the degree to which it promotes a false conviction about the role of luck -- otherwise many of the losers would have stopped playing long ago. I don't play at the very highest levels, but I have many friends who do and I'm convinced that everyone does not have an equal amount of technical ability. The best proof is probably sustained win rates over thousands of hours that are outside the range of 3 standard deviations of break even. Even then, the game is always changing and new mathematical concepts introduced. Many of my contemporaries who won for decades started to lose in the last few years and have had to reluctantly conclude that the game at the top levels has passed them by. The smartest players keep meticulous records and have the cold-eyed self-knowledge to recognize when they no longer have the best of it. Others lose everything they have won and are reduced to borrowing from friends to stay in much lower stakes games. It is a brutal way to make a living.
I'm intrigued by her statement that casino owners are superstitious. "The Black Swan" had me convinced that they're all science and calculation.
The casino owners she was talking about have long since been replaced by spreadsheet wielding corporate types.
posted by Lame_username at 12:26 PM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


That's why you end up with the occasional near-complete piker in the final 11--they bet overly aggressively at the beginning because that's what some (especially male) inexperienced players do and just happen to have good luck with it over the short time period involved.

I think it's more often that the final table consists of 9 (not 11) nobodies, at least over the last few years. I've scanned the final tables for the Main Event at the WSOP and the most recent one that I found with a serious, big name player was 2009, with Phil Ivey. Most of the time the people at the final table will have making it to the final table as their biggest accomplishment.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:51 PM on December 8, 2016


So when someone is on a hot streak, for example, knowing when to bet with or against them is how you make money, not against the house.


Hate being that guy but this isn't the case. Every dice throw is random and hot streaks always end. There's no way to win at craps in the long run. Of course it is fun as a blazing jet ski when it's going good, especially when the whole table is rocking and rolling so don't let me stop yah.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:04 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think jeremias was saying that hot streaks aren't actually a thing except in people's minds, but you can exploit other people's irrational betting behavior to win money?
posted by en forme de poire at 5:28 PM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


But you can't. That's not how craps works. It's just you vs the dice.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:16 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I don't know if this ever actually happens, but if I am betting against someone who believes in hot streaks on someone else playing craps, over time, I will win. They'll be betting that under certain circumstances (the "streak"), the less likely outcome (winning) will occur.
posted by praemunire at 7:42 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah I also wanted to mention that that's not how craps works... all of your bets are against the house, and they're only about the upcoming dice throws. The payout for a bet doesn't change based on the players' behaviors; that kind of feedback isn't there. You can bet that the shooter will win, or lose, but it's a bet against the house either way. And then there are a bunch of sucker bets you can take too :)

To above: Sure (took me a sec to get what you were saying), but at that point you're not playing craps, you're betting against your buddy about someone else playing craps.
posted by teatime at 7:45 PM on December 8, 2016


all of your bets are against the house, and they're only about the upcoming dice throws

Well, I mean, can they stop you from placing a side bet with the dude next to you?
posted by praemunire at 7:48 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I just mean, it's more like blackjack or slots than poker.
posted by teatime at 7:50 PM on December 8, 2016


Except in blackjack you can count cards ;)
posted by en forme de poire at 8:12 PM on December 8, 2016


Fair point :)
posted by teatime at 8:22 PM on December 8, 2016


Thanks for posting this. It was a great read. I enjoyed its rambling, lightly edited style.
posted by great_radio at 11:13 PM on December 8, 2016


I think it's more often that the final table consists of 9 (not 11) nobodies, at least over the last few years. I've scanned the final tables for the Main Event at the WSOP and the most recent one that I found with a serious, big name player was 2009, with Phil Ivey. Most of the time the people at the final table will have making it to the final table as their biggest accomplishment.

This is a big issue in poker right now, but this characterization is exactly backwards dating back to about 2012. WSOP Main Event Final Tables since then have been just stacked with talent. This is what I was describing earlier - players are a LOT better then they used to be - but there are so many good players out there that it's natural that no one has ever heard of them.

Most people's impression of "big names in poker" was formed by poker on TV and if you just look at one program, Poker After Dark, it's very telling. Almost everyone on that show was at least nominally among the "very good or better" group of players when it aired - but fast forward a few years and maybe only 3-4 of the whole population of that show's players are even close to being "top" players. Meanwhile, there are probably at LEAST 5,000 players who have completely outstripped them in skill, theoretical understanding of the game, and ability to do well over the long term.

That 5,000 player group (a guess - it may be larger than this) is the pool from which the WSOP ME final table usually comes, and while it's natural that no one has ever heard of most of them, that's not to say they're just lucky pikers who binked a big win.

Turn it around - take any WSOP ME final table before 2002. If you go to ANY casino in the world and play a ~$200 daily tournament, I can almost guarantee that there are at least 5% of that field who are FAR better players than anyone on an old WSOP ME FT. That's how much better fields are today than in the past. Play a >$1K tournament and pretty much every single player in the field, including the so-called "fish", is a far stronger player than anyone in the game in 2002 save the top 2-3 players.
posted by mikel at 5:34 AM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


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