June 2009
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Live poker returns to Excalibur just for me

It’s getting close enough to my next Las Vegas trip (T-20!) that I can start to get excited about stuff I hear about that’s changing over there that will might actually still be same when I arrive.

And, you never know, some of the new stuff might even still be there when I leave – five weeks later 🙂

I’m not even kidding.  You just can’t plan that far ahead with Vegas.  One of the highest profile examples is at Planet Hollywood, where in April they were getting ready to unveil a new show featuring Mel B off of the Spice Girls.  She came and did her turn, but she’ll be a distant memory by the time I arrive in town.

In other news, the impending demise and susbsequent reincarnation of the Excalibur Poker Room is definitely something I can get excited about.  Only days after I left last summer, they ripped apart the live poker room, fired most of the dealers and replaced them with Pokertek electronic tables.

Now, just days before I arrive, they’re going to be putting the humans back.

This story was broken last weekend by All Vegas Poker, and I couldn’t be more pleased about it.

The Excalibur was about the closest thing I had to being my local cardroom.  I use the term very loosely as I play a nomadic style of poker, often sitting in three or four different games in an evening.  However, last summer it was the easiest place to get to from our rented house and a perfect place to begin a poker crawl on the Strip.

Even though the journey straight along Hacienda Ave drops you virtually inside Mandalay Bay, I preferred to swing down one of the back roads to the Excalibur’s garage, which was right by the doors nearest to the poker room.  With loud enough music in the car, I could be there, parked and seated in less than ten minutes.

So I’d start at Excalibur, win a bit (of course – it’s impossible not to, isn’t it?) and move on.  Going South there’s Luxor and Mandalay Bay – either via the tram or using the indoor moving walkways.  Although, as so many people seem to think that the walkways are some kind of free ride (hold tight, this one goes up to 2mph) it’s often quicker to walk on the carpet instead.

Or you can head in the other direction.  Sadly, the Tropicana no longer has poker which takes away one possible stop (although not one I made very often) but there’s always plenty of action at the MGM Grand, and if you want to move on from there it’s not too far to Monte Carlo or Planet Hollywood.

Whichever route I decided on, the Excalibur was a crucial hub of the entire operation.  Taking it out of the picture makes dotting between games at that end of the Strip a much less attractive proposition.  The trek from Luxor to MGM Grand is probably going to take you 20 minutes, even if you get the travelators all to yourself.

I have to confess I never actually played on the Pokertek tables.  I walked past several times.  I stopped, stared and kept trying to convince myself they were really not that bad.  But even though they’d kept the “spin the wheel” promotion, which I love (it almost always pays $20 when you hit quads or better or have aces cracked, but there’s a bit of excitement, and the chance of $30 or more) I just wasn’t buying it.

Excalibur is actually  the only place I’ve ever limped in with pocket aces in a super-loose $2/$4 limit game, and it’s because of the wheel factor.  However, after 6 other players called and then one raised I had no reason to keep slowplaying.  I didn’t get to spin the wheel, but I took down a pretty nice pot!

The best thing about playing at Excalibur, though, is the Krispy Kreme upstairs, serving donuts 24 hours a day.  Because what I really need to help me wind down after an intense night of poker… is an extreme sugar rush.

This summer we’re staying in the same house as last year and the Excalibur’s triumpant return to live poker is extremely welcome.

Graphical proof that cheats do not prosper

I’m always delighted when a reader crawls out of the woodwork and says “hi”, even if it is to set me some maths homework.  Kevin Stevens, author of the blog Flipyouforit (check out his brilliant Online Rounders parody) swelled my known audience last week to as many as five, and wrote:

I was wondering if I had a partner playing the HUP 4 man games on stars and we split the profit, would playing as a team give us any additional mathematical advantage?

Now I also know that at least two of my readers are maths teachers (that’s, what, 60% of them?) so I may be getting graded on this but here goes…

I’m assuming that you already feel you have an edge over the field, and therefore the question is whether a double entry will improve your edge, although it will also be interesting to see if this strategy affects a losing player or a break-even player.

Let’s say your probability of winning any given heads-up game is p (and therefore the probability of losing is 1-p).  For simplicity, I’m assuming that both members of the team are equally skilled – or that one person is playing under two different accounts on two PCs.

The 4-man tournaments in question are two round, heads up shootouts with just one prize to be won.  I’m going to assume a 10% entry fee on all buy-ins.  So let’s say the buy-in amount is b, making the amount you pay to enter 1.1b and the prize pool 4b.

If you enter the tournament alone, your expected return is 4bp2 – the prize pool multiplied by the probability of winning both rounds.

We can use this value to find out what it takes to be a winning player.  Your ER must be greater than the amount it costs to play, so with the 10% rake structure this is:

     4bp2 > 1.1b
=>    p2 > 1.1/4
=>     p > 0.524

So to be a winner in this format, you have to win – on average – more than 52.4% of your games.

However, to be able to compare to the other strategy, which has several scenarios to consider, a more useful number to remember is the EV per dollar played, which is 4bp2/1.1b = 3.636p2

Let’s ignore the obvious ethical issues and say Bill and Ted are on the same team and Evil Bill and Evil Ted are your opponents on any given sit-and-go.

Statistically, the first round draw will throw up Bill vs Ted one-third of the time.  When you’re playing against your partner, all that happens is you pay double to guarantee a seat in the final. 

If you have an edge over the field, you’re losing out by not being able to play a meaningful game in this round.  As one of the two players will always progress to the final, exactly 50% of your team will win. Therefore if you normally expect to win, say, 60% of heads-up encounters, this draw has reduced your variance but it’s also reduced your overall edge.

As you don’t need to play poker, you could spend the time studying the other two players which might give you some useful information to use in round two (or, if you think they are watching you, you could throw off some wonderful false information).

However, in terms of probabilities, your ER from the tournament when you draw your partner in round 1 is simply 4bp (prize pool multiplied by probablity of winning one round).

The other two-thirds of the time it wil be good vs evil in round 1, and this is where it gets interesting.  One of three things can happen:

1. Good triumphs.  Bill and Ted both win round 1 and you’re guaranteed to take all the money in the final.

Just like when you play each other in round 1, you’d rather be playing the final with an edge than splitting the money 50/50.  However, when you’re both winning players you are each more likely to get to be in this situation than the evil robot dudes.

This part of your ER is 4bp2 (prize pool multiplied by probability both players of winning round one).

2. We only have one bodacious hero in the final.  This part of your ER is 8bp2 – 8bp3.

Cubed probabilities, wtf?  OK, let’s check it with Bully…

The probability of Bill winning and Ted losing in round 1 is p(1-p).  We end up in the same situation if Ted wins and Bill loses so overall we’re looking at a probability of 2p(1-p) that we have just one hero in the final.  When we get there the probability is p that we will win prize money of 4b

Multiply it all together

      2p(1-p) x p x 4b
=> 8bp2(1-p)
=> 8bp2 – 8bp3

I think.

3. Evil Bill and Ted both prevail and you’re boned.

This happens the rest of the time, and we win nothing so we don’t care.

Right so time to stick it all together.

Overall, your ER is

1/3(4bp) + 2/3(8bp2 – 8bp3)

Yuck.  And don’t forget that this strategy costs 2.2b to play, so we need to divide by that to get the EV per dollar. 

As we now have some expressions that are verging on the horrible (and, certainly, they’re horrible to type) it’s at this point I give up on the algebra and hand over to Mr Graph.

Excel hasn’t rendered the graph very smoothly, but you should get the idea.  Unless you’re a particularly awful player, entering the tournament as a team reduces your overall edge.  Not only that, but the better you are, the more dramatic the impact is.

For really large values of p, this stands to reason.  If you could win every single game without fail, why would you ever play with a partner when you could scoop the prize money by paying just one buy-in instead of two.

However, what’s significant is that even if are an “average” player and win precisely half your games (p=0.5) you are better off going it alone than playing as a team.

It’s not that clear on the graph, but for low values of p, you’re slightly better off playing with a partner.  It doesn’t turn you into a winner, but dollar-for-dollar you lose money a little less quickly.  (You’ll spew more slowly with two entries in  $5 tournament than you do with one entry in a $10).

You can just about see this if you zoom in really close.

The magic number – the likelihood of winning which is good enough that you’re better off not playing with a partner – is 0.25.  If you win 25% of encounters, it makes no difference whether or not you play yourself in round one and win a quarter of the finals, or if you just roll the metaphorical dice and win a quarter of all your games.

Let’s be honest though – if you can’t win one heads up game in four on average, you’d be better off playing roulette than trying to cheat at poker.

EDIT: Already found one error with my graphs.  The “magic number” should be 0.5 not 0.25, although this does not affect the conclusion that this is a bad strategy.

I really want to be able to use this coupon


A trip to San Diego isn’t out of the question this summer.  It might just happen!

Mmmmm.  Mexican bread.

Ed Miller is the new Ticketmaster

I wasn’t aware of this until I just noticed this blog post announcing today is the last day for pre-orders of a new poker book by Ed Miller called “Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em”.

Immediately all the right ingredients seem to be there for this to be a great title.  There’s no doubt that Miller is an excellent writer and seeing his name on a book makes me pay attention.

In particular, “Small Stakes Hold’em” is the definitive text on loose fixed-limit poker games and his contribution to “No Limit Hold’em Theory and Practice”, co-authored with David Sklansky, is no doubt the reason that this is the only Sklansky book that I’ve read that didn’t feel like a chore.

So with all this potential, I clicked through to learn more.

It turns out this title is a self-published e-book.

I’m familiar with the format.  Usually it’s used to distribute manuals that tell you how to make a fortune buying televisions on eBay for a couple of quid, or how to earn thousands of dollars every week for filling in surveys.  The same way the author does, who generously chooses to share his secret with anyone who has a credit card.

Personally I love the irony of the ones that tell you how to make a career out of selling ebooks.

Miller explains this unusual decision by saying: “E-books are the new wave in poker training”.

I was not aware of this.  However a quick Google search did throw up such gems as an online poker “algorithm tracker” that can have a decent guess at what’s going to be dealt next, or an unashamed “cheating system” which claims to show you other players’ hole cards.  Both these notions, of course, are preposterous.

So if this product is genuine – and I highly doubt that self-proclaimed Noted Poker Authority Ed Miller would put his name to a scam – what’s so good about making it an e-book?

Does having to read it on-screen on your computer, rather than at your convenience on a train, in bed or on the toilet make the material somehow superior?

I guess you could read it while playing online poker without having to move your head to look between the screen and a book. That’s marginally +eCalories, but those small edges do all add up.

Here’s the kicker though.  The book’s tag line is “The affordable poker book”.

Because all those $20-$30 books out there are just a pipedream for anyone who doesn’t already play for nosebleed stakes. 

So how much is this one?  It’s $39.95.

If you pre-order today.

If you wait until tomorrow, the price will be $99.95.

As I’ve been told that my potty mouth often causes this blog to get blocked when people are reading it at work, I won’t repeat my first reaction – but you can take a pretty good guess.

It really does say $99.95.  As if $39.95 wasn’t already taking the wee wee for a book that you have to print yourself if you want to read it on the tube.

Miller’s prevous books, published by Two Plus Two with all the overheads that come with producing and distributing products made out of dead trees, are priced between $24.95 and $29.95.  Even the cash cow Harrington on Cash Games only weighs in at $69.90 for both halves of the book.

The Internet has been responsible for helping to drive down the cost of all kinds of stuff.  If you can sell it online, it’s cheaper than having a shop.  If you can distribute it electronically, it’s cheaper than sticking it in the mail.  As a result, those savings are usually passed on to consumers.  There are very few exceptions.

I have issues with the price of music at iTunes compared to the cost of CDs, but at least it’s no more expensive and you’re not committed to buying a full album if you only want a few songs.  It’s really only Ticketmaster that has such flagrant disrespect for its customers that it charges you a “convenience fee” when they have a monopoly on an event, and then charges you again for the privilege of printing your own tickets.

(Obligatory Ticketbastard rant: I just bought two $15 tickets for The Donnas in Las Vegas next month – yes, really, they rock and you know they do – and the total was $48.50.  That’s more than the cost of an extra ticket in fees!).

And then there’s this book.

Miller also doesn’t mention whether Two Plus Two wanted to publish this book.  Surely if they did but he’d made the decision to do it independently, this in itself would be a great testamonial to the quality of the work.  When you’ve had 150,000 units shipped through this channel in the past, it’s a big leap of faith to go it alone.

If they didn’t want it, why not?  And what – apart from the fact that you’ll only have to sell a few dozen copies to make the same amount of money as you would from the royalties from thousands of printed books – makes it worth nearly a hundred dollars?

Unfortunately, I can’t feel anything other than cynicism towards this book’s launch and, regrettably, I will be looking for a free copy on thepokerbay tomorrow.

If I can find it, I’ll send Ed Miller $20 and a link to this post.

EDIT: Publisher Mason Malmuth comments on the price compared what it would have been through 2+2 here:

This month’s casino offers

What better way to start the weekend than with a batch of casino mail to wade through?

I know some of the stuff is a couple of weeks out of date by the time it arrives but having a big parcel of offers forwarded from a mailbox whenever it fills up is surely more exciting than just having odd flyers arrive every few days.

It’s still a little early to be getting offers I can use when it’s 5 weeks until my trip begins, but there’s starting to be some that will be useful.

Claire and I both got letters for a summer-long offer at Harrah’s Laughlin.  Hers said:

However mine was considerably better:

Free nights in Laughlin aren’t hard to come by (Claire’s “calendar rates” on the back of the letter show free for almost any weeknight).  But cold, hard cash and free food just for turning up is always very nice.

Actually the $50 food credit is not quite what it seems as it’s a one-time use coupon – even though it comes with a three-night stay.  So if you just use if for a buffet for two, you blow about $30 of value.  Then again, you’re not going to feed two people at the Range Steakhouse for $50 (here’s the menu).

Still, it’s worth the drive just for this, and we’re likely to get other Laughlin offers too.  Today’s mail contained June offers for River Palms (2 free nights and $5 free play) and Colorado Belle (2 x 3 free nights and $10 free play).

Back in Las Vegas there’s still some deals.  This time Claire had the upper hand at Gold Coast with this:

Compared to my measly offer:

To be honest I can’t complain at this as I haven’t played at Gold Coast on my card at all recently, whereas we still have about $600 of unused comp on Claire’s card after caning the Super Times Pay machines (99.8% payback) on a 6x points day (1% added value).

Chances are we’ll be booking Claire’s offer but not using the room, just to get the $20 free play and at least one free meal at Ping Pang Pong.

The other Boyd properties had a little something to give too.  Claire got another good offer from Sam’s Town:

In fact, make that two offers.  This mailer had the same coupons twice, once for July and once for August.  However, it’s not clear whether the free food is for one person or two.  Usually it’s two, but that information is notably absent from these coupons.

Whereas I got a freebie from the Fremont, which isn’t bad when the only action they’ve ever had from us was one session on Pick’em Poker:

As the food credit is listed as “$20 in FREE dining certificates” – plural – I suspect it will be a couple of dollars here and $5 there.  If I could be sure there’d be something for Dunkin’ Donuts I’d be all over this one, but I just don’t feel it.  So as we don’t need the room, I think we’ll pass on this one and hope it comes again when it’s actually worthwhile staying there.

The final one was a bit of a surprise.  Green Valley Ranch apparently wants me to come and stay for free:

I can’t remember the last time we went to GVR.  It must have been for a promotion of some kind, maybe a blackjack matchplay or some kind of swipe-and-win.  I remember being there, and vaguely recognising some of the places from American Casino, but I know that of all the Station Casinos this one is probably the one we’ve played at least.

Not sure if I’ll use this.  As absolutely-not-VIPs at a hotel that thinks it’s something special, there must be a catch.  My guess is that they would still want to charge Station’s usual “resort fee” stealth tax on this comped stay.  How much?  Only $24.99 per night (see the very bottom of this page).  Probably not worth it just to use the pool…


The brightest man-made place you can see from space?  The answer is unquestionable when it’s a factoid on Steve Wright in the Afternoon

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“Think America”… “Is it Paris?”.  Well I guess it actually could be…

Swine flu linked to Imperial Palace hotel and casino

Imperial Palace, the Asian-decorated Las Vegas hotel which hosts a regular Hawaiian Luau, dresses its dealers to look a bit like random American superstars and whose only themed restaurant is Italian, might be able to add one more culture to its haphazardly cosmopolitan theming.

Maybe – just maybe – the IP gives you The Swine Flu.  So I guess that just about ticks the “Mexican” box.

It’s not clear from this regional BBC News story whether they think Las Vegas is to blame for a group of British tourists getting infected, but there are two notable details reported.

First is the fact that the group stayed at the “Imperial” hotel (apparently not worthy of being called a Palace any more).  I’m not sure whether this detail is just colour added by the reporter, or if the implication is that the winner of Harrah’s “Would Most Like to Implode” award is in fact a disease-ridden hell hole.

Insert your own IP gag here.  Come on, it’s an easy target.  My attempt would probably include the word fluertainers.  Or dealerfectious.

Secondly, this was a group of 17 who were in Las Vegas for a stag week.  Who’s to say they didn’t actually take the party bus down to Tijuana (it’s only about 6 hours away) and either swore that what happened there wouldn’t even make it back to Vegas, or they simply don’t even remember.

Insert TJ Hooker gag here?


MBNA “disappointing” – official!

At last I got a final decision from the Financial Ombudsman Service in response to my complaint about MBNA trying to stiff me on a refund for flights I lost after Maxjet went busto, which I wrote about in this post.

I can live with FOS being somewhat on the slow side to get things done (it’s nearly 15 months since I complained and 6 months since MBNA rejected their first adjudication) when they make great decisions like this.

The ombudsman said MBNA’s handling of the matter with regard to, like, you know, the law and stuff was “disappointing”, and that they now have to pay me:

– The £1649.48 difference in the cost of the replacement flights with BMI – something I probably wouldn’t have realised I was entitled to if they’d just refunded me like they were supposed to.

– Interest on the above at a stunning 8% per year from 31/12/2007 to the date of payment.  Take your time please, it’s already about £200.

– Another £200 for the inconvenience.  Although I like to think of this as a fine for being arseholes.

The ruling is binding if I accept it.  Are you kidding me?  I snap call.

Full copy of the FOS letter is below.  Click a page to enlarge.



The nuts in May

A quick summary of my poker results for May, if you’ll allow me to indulge.  Shall we let the graph speak?

What on earth is that meant to tell me?  I started off poorly, then had an awesome recovery followed by a massive tilt-off, then ran hotter then fire and gradually dribbled money away for the second half of the month.

In case you didn’t bother to count it, there’s a swing of $700 in less than 2,000 hands.  Variance is a bitch.

One thing I do know is that I had better luck at $3/$6 than I did at $2/4, which has to be a significant part of the reason for the net win.

I hardly even touched no limit this month.  The loss was mostly down to one big hand where I flopped a nut flush draw with an inside straight draw and there were three all-ins in front of me.  I’d quite like to have run that one twice like on TV but what can you do?

Are these numbers good?  Who knows… but it’s better than a breakeven month, which is all I need to make money.

In addition to the $304 win, I cleared $250 of bonus and received $169 of straight rakeback.  The 25,000 points I earned are worth roughly another $50 when you spend them on stuff and sell that stuff straight away on ebay.  I also won $50 in the VIP freeroll.  So overall, $519 back from the $670.80 I paid in rake, which is equivalent to 76% rackback.  I still love this deal!

So not a bad month at all really I guess 🙂

When casinos go broken

What’s wrong with this picture?  I’ve taken the liberty of enlarging the relevant text (or you can click to view the full original screenshot).

Balance £3.  Which means I have insufficient funds to place a £2 bet.

Let me try to take a stab at explaining what kind of logic is needed to come to this absurd conclusion.

Three Card Poker requires you to place an additional bet equal to your ante if you want to play the hand.  You can fold and forfeit the ante – but if giving up without a chance is only option you wouldn’t start the hand in the first place.  So in fact this £2 bet (including a £1 “pair plus” prop bet) actually needs me to have £3 in my balance to play it.

Which, it appears, I do.

[Side note: This is different to blackjack, where the game will never stop you from dealing a hand if you don’t have enough money to double down or split a pair.  You are at least able to complete the hand and stand a chance of winning something without using these options.]

However we already know that Gala suffers from fraction-of-a-penny rounding errors.  It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that their bodgeroonie of a cashier system actually thinks my balance is very slightly below £3, but close enough to it that it is rounded up when displayed.

It’ll be some number like £2.999999995673, so that when asked “does he have at least £3?” then answer will be “ooooooh not quite”.

I see this kind of rounding error fairly often when working with decimal numbers.  It’s because computers suck at fractions.  Everything has to be stored internally as some representation of a power of 2, so only fractions with a denominator of 2, 4, 8, 16, etc can be stored exactly.

When working in hundredths, that’s just 4% of all numbers: those ending in .00, .25, .50 or .75; everything else is going to be converted to a (fairly long) decimal approximation; close, but not precise.  However, if you know that it happens, it’s not that hard to deal with.

Notably in the poker and casino operator APIs I’ve worked with, you don’t need to worry about this.  They have always stored and returned the player balance numbers as a whole number of pence or cents.  It makes it pretty easy to accidentally conjure money out of thin air – you just have to forget to divide by 100 one time – but it means that there are never any fractions of a penny floating around the system to go wrong.

In fact, some poker networks even store and return your player points balance as a whole number of hundredths of a point.  I guess they really don’t want to give much away!

My assumption is that Gala’s cashier system stores the casino balances as pounds and pence – a design decision that has side effects they either don’t know about or don’t care about.  For a system that handles real money transactions this is, frankly, a bit poo.

And if anyone from Gala actually reads this: yes, I could do (and have done) better.  Let’s talk.

Anyway, there’s more.  I really can’t begin to explain what the hell is going on this time.  The dealer’s cards were dealt, briefly flashing face up – but too quickly for me to remember what it showed.  They flipped over as soon as they were dealt, and then the game announced the apparent straight flush for the dealer you (don’t) see here.  Like I’m just meant to believe that?

NaN” means “not a number”.  Or, in English, “something fucked up”.

Isn’t it great to know that when the game software has a glitch, the default behaviour is to give the dealer the very best hand possible?