March 2009
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Math is not idiotic

Math – or, if you prefer, maths – is not idiotic, despite what Barry Greenstein might say.

I’m referring to an incident on last week’s episode of High Stakes Poker.  In a nutshell: Greenstein sucked out on Tom Dwan’s pocket aces in a hand he played horribly, then made a meal of spitting out his supposed new catchphrase: "Math is idiotic".

A couple of years ago, posters on the 2+2 poker forums pledged money to Greenstein’s charity if he’d say "lol donkaments" on TV.  He did it – and made over fifty grand for Children Incorporated.

For an encore, he decided to go again this year.  But this time, instead of a ubiquitous internet poker phrase he plumped for something more obscure, which his son came up with.  It’s a phrase that hardly anybody outside of the Greenstein family’s own poker site seems to have heard of, is not funny and doesn’t even make sense.

Nothing against his charity work, it’s a fine cause, but seriously – that’s the best he could do?

Here we have one of the best and most respected players in the game saying not to worry about whether you’re in a good spot or have sufficient pot-odds to draw to your hand, just go with it if you have a feeling.

I know the luck vs skill debate will run and run, but there can’t be many viewers of High Stakes Poker who would actually think they are watching a programme that showcases the world’s best guessers pitting their gut feelings against each other for hundreds of thousands of dollars?

The way this hand played out has rather spoiled High Stakes Poker for me.  I find it very difficult to believe that Barry would gamble $240,000 in such a poor spot (actually a 3-1 underdog after the flop, which is about as good as he could hope for) just in case a miracle happened so he would get to crowbar in his new catchphrase in order to try to raise a few pennies for the kids.

His EV on this hand is roughly -$200,000.  The charity would make, hopefully – and if the economy wasn’t shot to buggery – another $50,000.

The subsequent clip (which, notably, wasn’t necessary two years ago to explain "lol donkaments") with Greenstein talking about his charity and his lucky feather and how we know math is idiotic while Dwan can’t keep a straight face just makes me more sceptical that there must have been some funky off-camera shenanigans and the whole thing is just a set-up the magic of television.

Anyway, as if I needed to prove it, here is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen that maths is indeed anything but idiotic.  This is taken from a book that Claire bought yesterday, under the guise of being something she can use in class.

The book is "A Passion for Mathematics" by Clifford A. Pickover, and its main selling point was that the author appears to have been on acid when he wrote it.  Questions include "how many digits of pi can you display using a deck of cards?" and "could Jesus multiply two numbers"?

The protagonists in his problems are often rabbits, robots or aliens.  Or robotic alien rabbits.  He writes very colourfully, setting them in scenarios that have little or nothing to do with – frankly – anything at all, and frequently embellishing with oblique conjecture and unnecessary levels of irrelevant detail.

This one, despite being relatively down-to-earth, was my favourite:

You work for a computer company.  Suppose that about 2 percent of the people in your company have AIDS.  A nurse named Julia tests all of the people in your company for AIDS, using a test with the following characteristics.

The test is 98 percent accurate, which we define as follows.  If the individual has AIDS, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if the person doesn’t have AIDS, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time.

You are tested, and, sadly, the test turns out positive.  You lose your health insurance.  Would you conclude from this that you are highly likely to have AIDS?

The significance of the nurse’s name, the type of company you work for or the response of the insurer?  Who cares?

It’s almost certainly the most outrageously tasteless probability exercise ever to grace an actual maths book, yet it still has a grounding in (an albeit grim) reality and shows how mathematics can be applied even in a horrifying life-changing situation.

The answer (look away now if you want to work this one out yourself):






It’s a coinflip.  Precisely 50-50 whether you have it or you don’t, given the criteria in the question.

You can read the explanation in full here:  It’s answer 5.30 on page 365 of the book (page 381 of the document).

Anything but idiotic, I hope you’ll agree.

Here, have a dollar. In fact no, brother man, here have $1.50

A couple of days ago I was kicked off the iPoker network while playing on two tables.  I knew it wasn’t a problem with my internet because I was still connected to PokerStars at the time, and carried on playing without incident.

A similar thing had happened earlier the same day, when I wasn’t playing at the time, just datamining.  However the second time I had (carefully chosen) seats on two tables and by the time I reconnected (which took less than 30 seconds) I’d been booted and someone else was sitting to the left of my good buddies, SirFishio and McDonkalot.

This happening twice so close together seemed a bit weird.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but I wrote to support on the offchance that they could use the information to help find a problem, which I suspected was coming from the network itself.

The result, basically, is that I think they tipped me.

Chris, please be informed that it been determined that you were in fact
disconnected from the table "Hastinapur" (1509348483) as a result of temporary connection problems with the card room.  As a result, a refund of $1.50 will be credited to your poker account shortly.

I didn’t expect any compensation.  As far as I know, I didn’t lose anything through being timed out.  I wasn’t involved in a hand and I’m pretty sure from the hand histories that survived that I’d not posted a blind recently.  So I missed out on playing a few free hands, out of position, and even if I could put a value on this, it wouldn’t be much.

So, a buck fifty?  Kinda random, but thanks I guess.

They went on:

However, your connection problem from the "Agartala" (509182411) was not due to any connection problems on the side of the card room.

So while they acknowledged that one was a connection problem with the card room, the other one – at exactly the same time – apparently was not.  Riiiiiiiiiight.

This makes my head hurt, but I guess I’m $1.50 up on the deal…

Old school bookies

Just been looking through some of the pictures I took at Cheltenham last week.

Although the majority of bookmakers have embraced technology…

… running a portable, electronic operation with a laptop hooked up to an LED sign board…

… with a small printer, and a big wad of cash …

… there’s still a few guys who prefer to kick it old school.

The man with the flip-chart is pretty brave – there’s no easy way to update his prices as the money comes in.  Tippex required, probably.  If you want your market to be able to move, dry-wipe is worth the investment. 

And if you want an eye-catching sign to alert punters which race is up next, you definitely need some clamps.

Some of them even still do tic-tac

… but apparently there are some things you just can’t say by waving your arms about.


Freerolls and one-outers

It’s apparently over a year since my last royal flush.  I broke that dry spell last night.

Royals are always pretty, but even more so when you get there against an otherwise identical hand.

We both flopped a broadway straight and we capped the flop.  He led the turn and just called my raise, and I was delighted that he decided to pay off my river bet after I made The Best Hand In Poker with four to a flush on board.

It’s not quite as long since I last had quads, but they have never looked prettier than when I managed to hit that last remaining card in the deck to win a massive pot.

$56 is massive for $1/$2.  He’d raised pre-flop and I called from the small blind with a couple of other players involved.  I put in 4 small bets on the flop when I was behind, then won 4 big bets on the turn and 4 more on the river after I sucked out.

It’s the first time for literaly years that I can remember hating the four-bet cap in online poker.  Even with a possible flush out there, I’m sure this one was going to the felt if only they’d have let us!

Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby

I learned two things at the races today.

First, my dad explained to me the difference between a hurdle and steeplechase.  I wasn’t sure if it was a daft question, so I’m glad it wasn’t.

Hurdle: all the jumps are the same height.  Steeplechase: fences vary and usually include a water hazard.

In my head, sharks with frickin laser beams are a possibility.

Second, I learned the name of jockey Ruby Walsh, who the crowd loved and chanted "Roo-Bee" at any availably opportunity.

The only name from the racecard I actually recognised was The Queen (obviously an owner, not a rider).

See, I really wasn’t kidding before when I said I was clueless about horse racing.

Walsh rode two of the winning horses.  This one is American Trilogy:

My sister backed this at 20/1, which meant she won enough to pay me back for the ticket.  So I felt like a winner too.

This is Kauto Star:

Everybody in the world seemed just keep on piling money on him, despite horribly unattractive odds of 2/1 or lower (I saw it as low as 13/8 with some bookmakers).

Perhaps if I’d bet on "Kay-tow" (as it was pronounced, but somehow with at least three syllables, by hundreds of Brummies on my train) instead of the three-legged beasts I actually picked by pretty much sticking a pin into my computer screen, I’d be able to afford a faster zoom lens with funky image stabilisation that would have turned this blurry photo into the triumphant shot that it should have been. 

Squint a bit, it helps slightly. Maybe there’s enough detail to use some clever "watercolour" filter in Photoshop and make it look intentionally like a painting.  Worth a go, I guess.

Horse meet

I’m going to the Cheltenham Festival next Friday for the Gold Cup.

I’ll admit this isn’t my usual scene, but it’s for my Dad’s birthday present and, really, what kind of son would I be if I didn’t tag along?

I’ve been to the races exactly one time before and I did enjoy it, but I’ll openly admit to being totally clueless where horses are concerned.  Here’s what I know: the ones with the best names probably run the fastest.

I’ve studied the form guide and I think Snoopy Loopy is a dead cert.  Get a bet on now at 66-1 before everyone realises.

The only other tip I have so far is for getting there by train.  It looks like there’s no such thing as a day return to Cheltenham Spa.  I guess it’s just not a popular enough destination the 51 weeks of the year that it doesn’t have a racing festival to warrant such a thing.

However, you can get a day return to Birmingham from almost anywhere – and if you’re travelling from the North or East, there’s a good chance you’d have to change trains there anyway.

For my dad, a return ticket from Leicester straight through to Cheltenham Spa costs £34.50.  However, a day return to Birmingham New Street is £9.40, and then he can go from Birmingham to Cheltenham for £19.40.  Total: £28.80.

That’s a saving of more than five quid over doing it the "proper" way.  As there’s no direct route from Leicester, he’d always have to change in Birmingham so it’s a no-brainer.

For me, Stoke to Birmingham costs £12.20.  A ticket straight through would be £42.50, so I save £10.90 by splitting the journey.

Admittedly, there are some direct trains from Stoke to Cheltenham, but the time difference is only 5 minutes (1:44 vs 1:39) and on this occasion I’d choose to meet my family in Birmingham anyway.

As far as I can tell, these are all flexible tickets with no commitment to travel on a specific train.  The Birmingham-Cheltenham leg is good anytime after 9.30am and although the other tickets can’t be used between 3.30pm and 6pm, that’s not going to a problem with the last race at 5.15pm.

I can stick the tenner I’ve saved on a long shot, but as it’s Friday 13th I will accept there is a small chance it might not win.

Spot the difference

See if you can spot the subtle (but quite valuable) difference between these two invitations from the Wynn that Claire and I both received in the mail today.

You can click to enlarge the whole flyer, but to make things a little easier I’ve zoomed in on the relevant section.

I can’t believe I’m complaining about three free nights at the Wynn.  Well, I’m not really, because I should actually be able to use these offers next month.

But why does Claire get $200 in free slot play and I don’t?  We’ve both exploited the same signup offer, and nothing more.  That room is a serious freebie for someone who has never given them any real action, but another $200 on top is incredible.

PokerStars VIP club changes are worth more than $2

In a marketing email randomly signed by Daniel Negreanu, PokerStars have announced that you now don’t have to be quite as important to become a VIP.

It seems to be great news for the player.  Instead of having to earn 1,500 player points in a month to be crowned SilverStar, you only need 1,200.  The price of GoldStar has also been slashed from 4,000 monthly FPPs to 3,000, and PlatinumStar from 10,00 FPPs to 7,500.

So what’s it actually worth?

If you currently have no VIP status with PokerStars (they call it BronzeStar, but it means NoStar) then by reaching the SilverStar level 300 points sooner you can use the 1.5x multiplier on points 1,200 to 1,499 this month.  That’s a potential 150 more points than you would have got last month, and in real money (1 FPP = 1.6c) it’s worth $2.40.

Then because you reach GoldStar 1,000 points sooner than before, you’ll be earning 2x on points 3,000 to 3,999 instead of 1.5x.  Get over 4000 points this month and get 500 FPPs more than you would have done last month.  That’s another $8.

Shoot for PlatinumStar and you will be earning a 2.5x bonus on points 7,500 to 9,999 instead of 2x.  That’s 1,250 more FPPs than previously, worth $20.

The revised point thresholds are only a quantifiable perk if you are moving up a level in any given month.  There’s a little value in being able to retain your status by playing less poker, but how much that’s worth all depends on how much you play the following month.

Not really worth getting excited about then.

About even

Here’s an impressive looking graph from my limit hold’em play last month.

Sadly, it only tells half the story.  I really needed that big upswing to get back even.

The yellow lines on this graph show the end of each month that I’ve been playing $2/$4 and $3/$6 on the iPoker network. 

Things did not start well, so "about even" is not only a good result relative to how I’d begun, but it also seems to be a very good result in this game.  The tables are overrun by rock-tight bonus-grinders, many of whom play little more than 10% of the hands they’re dealt.

As that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do, it would be hypocritical to call them nits.  Hyponitical, perhaps.

I have to assume that the regulars I see all the time and assume to be professionals are all well-compensated for their efforts because among the familiar names – all of whom are all logging tens of thousands of hands every month – almost nobody is actually making money at the tables.

For me, the extra money I get is 25% rakeback and a $10 bonus for every 1,000 player points.  So while Poker Tracker says that I’m about even, my balance says that I’m actually $766 up from where I started.

I’m also getting close to being able to cash in my player points for an ipod nano.  I don’t want it, but their store has a fairly limited selection and it’ll sell on ebay.  Call it another $100 in added value, because I should get there in a week or so.

So in total that’s $866, and Poker Tracker tells me that I’ve paid $1460 in rake over nearly 16,000 hands.  Overall, that’s equivalent to nearly 60% rakeback, which ain’t bad at all.  I’d get a slightly better deal if I played more, too.

With this level of payback, you could sustain a loss rate of 1 big bet per 100 hands and still break even (the actual figure is -$5.41 per hundred, based on my data at $2/$4 and $3/$6).  So if you are able to lose money no quicker than that, there’s a clear profit potential from playing poker under these conditions.

Until recently, I was losing a little faster than that: 1.25BB/100.

So, given my sudden change in fortune this month, is is possible that I suddenly started doing something right?

I really can’t say for sure, it’s much too early to know whether I’m simply on a nice long hot streak.  I’m still finding it hard to believe that I have actually won it all back, and given that I can’t recall seeing more than two long-term winning players in this game the whole time I’ve played it, I’m a long way away from even thinking that I could be the third.

But I did make one change to the way I played this game, which was to adhere to strict criteria about not only which tables I played at, but also the seat I sat in.

In fact my rule is pretty crude: A player makes my buddy list by playing more than 30% of hands, and if I can’t sit within two seats to the left of a buddy, I don’t sit down.

30% of hands might not sound excessively loose, but the typical range for strong players in this game is more like 15% so looking for anyone playing at twice as many hands as this, and then making sure I had position on them for the majority of the hands I would play, seemed like a good place to start.

That’s it.  I hoped that improving my game selection would help me lose less quickly so that I could grind out a little profit from bonuses and rakeback.  If it can actually turn me into a winning player, that would be simply stunning.

It could all turn around again this month though.  Watch this space, graph fans…