Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Baseball and Poker: The Same Approach

Tonight is the telecast of the final table of the 2008 World Series of Poker, and mine will be among the estimated 3-4 million households tuned in to the action. Advertised as "live," the final table action was actually filmed yesterday, so an edited version will be televised tonight, culminating two months of weekly telecasts of the main event in which the champion will win $9,152,416.

The main event began way back on July 3 with 6,844 contestants entered at $10,000 a pop. On July 14, the field was narrowed to the final nine players. Before this year, the final table would have been played the next day, but the WSOP has followed in the footsteps of major league baseball and other big-time sports by letting television dictate its schedule. The folks at ESPN, dismayed by a drop in ratings during the 2007 WSOP, persuaded tournament officials to delay the final table until November, letting the intervening telecasts build suspense and an audience for the eventual showdown amongst the so-called "November Nine." Apparently the strategy worked, as ratings for the last two October telecasts exceeded the audience for the 2007 final table.

When the decision to delay the final table was announced, my gut reaction was that it did the players a disservice, and I still feel that way. There are two factors involved. First, I'm sure all of the players who made the final table said at the time that "I've been on the rush of my life." Over the course of a dozen days in July, they had to catch a lot of cards not merely to survive but to build their chip counts to a point where they could endure some tough losses and still have enough ammunition to contend. From what the telecasts show us, recent champions have caught lots and lots of big hands; the last two winners, Jerry Yang and Jamie Gold, even admitted on camera that they were what the players call "cardracks" over the course of the tournament, hot beyond reason and expectation.

How would like to be one of the "November Nine," on the rush of your life, and have to wait four months for the showdown and a shot at $9 million? You know what happens to poker players over an average four-month period? They blow hot and cold. Rushes come and rushes go. The adrenalin surge of holding hot cards in July dissipates, and anything could happen in November. It might be that all nine finalists went through the usual whirlwind of poker fortune over the past four months and landed in a positive cycle as this week's action rolled around, but I wouldn't bet on it. At least a couple of these guys have cooled off, and the loss of continuity caused by the WSOP selling out to ESPN will be responsible for their bad showing with the money on the line.

Look at it this way. Suppose you took baseball's World Series, did things the way they're done now, with two earlier rounds of playoffs narrowing the field, then jumping right in to the Series action (even though we don't exactly "jump right in" now with several days of inactivity dictated by television) -- onto to stop play when one team wins three games. Tell the players that the fourth World Series win, the clincher, will take place during the week between Christmas and New Year's, a slow week for sports competition during which baseball will gain its biggest possible audience for the last game of the Series. It won't matter if one team is ahead 3-0 or 3-2 in the Series; we might get as many as four games between Christmas and New Year's (played in a domed stadium, of course, making it weather-proof), each one building the suspense. It's ridiculous, isn't it? Don't hold your breath. ESPN has done it this year with poker.

My other objection is related to what happens during the delay between reaching the final table and playing it. The better poker players are those who learn quickly in the heat of the battle just what their opponents are thinking and doing. During the course of the tournament, those who made the final table had to make constant adjustments to the changing lineups at their table, studying new and unfamiliar players to detect their strengths and weaknesses, devising strategies to conquer them, and taking advantage of their sharper instincts. Many of those nine finalists did battle against each other during the tournament, but some did not face each other. Somewhere at the final table, there was a pairing of players who did not play against each other, and back in July they would have faced the challenge of learning about each through direct contact, with the better player gaining an advantage.

Instead, they've spent the last four months doing what the rest of us have been doing -- watching the telecasts and studying their opponents. They've had the advantage, while watching, of knowing which eight players to study, and the benefit of seeing their hole cards during the hand. Let's say I'm Dennis Phillips, ending the July action with the chip lead. I have a very good read on every other final table player, because I played against them, studied them, and have confidence that I know when they're strong and when they're bluffing. I know that Player A likes to ask questions when he's facing an all-in bet, and that when he gets a certain kind of answer he's more likely to call or to fold. I can use that knowledge. Player B did not face Player A in July, but in September and October he watched Player A on the telecasts, and he picked up the same "verbal tell" that I gained on my own. There goes my advantage. Everybody at the final table should know everything they need to know about the other players, from having studied the same televised hands. Yes, I might know something extra from a hand that wasn't televised, but my advantage won't be nearly as extensive as it should be over anybody who didn't face Player A in July.

In 1993, when I was dealing at the World Series of Poker, a group of players asked me to introduce them to baseball. Three Irish players and two British players had heard a lot about the game while playing with the Yanks, and they wanted to see for themselves. The minor-league Las Vegas Stars were at home, so we went to a game. On the drive to Cashman Field, I explained to them why the game they'd be seeing closely resembled the no-limit hold'em games they had just left back at the Horseshoe. Here's what I told them:

"The key to baseball is the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter, just like the showdowns you face in a no-limit game. When you sit down to play and look at the other nine players facing you, it's the same as the pitcher looking over the other team's nine-man lineup. You determine who the most dangerous players are, the ones with the most talent, the ones who are on the hottest streak, and you make up your mind to avoid letting those players beat you. That's exactly what the pitcher does: he thinks, 'that's the guy I won't let beat me, the one I won't challenge with the game on the line.'

"You see who the weak players are, the ones you can run over and intimidate, the ones you can deceive and fool. Every time a pitcher and batter face each other, they build upon the past history of their showdowns and way you build on pots you've played against that player. You guys remember sequences of bets you made against each other many years ago, and baseball players--the top ones--can remember sequences of pitches ten or twenty years later. Within each game, a pitcher faces a particular batter every thirty or forty minutes, about as often as you might play a pot against a certain player. These confrontations escalate during a game. A pitch the pitcher throws in the first inning might be designed to set up a different pitch he intends to throw to that batter in the late innings when the game is on the line, just as you might bet a hand the first pot you play with someone today so that when you play a key pot later on, you can check-raise him instead and win a bigger pot.

"A pitcher has a repertoire of pitches--fastball, curve, slider, change-of-pace, and so on. You have the bet, raise, re-raise, and check-raise. These are weapons you use to maximize your opportunities to win. It's the same game, the same psychological battle. And the outcome also depends on luck. The pitcher can make that perfect pitch in the key spot and get the batter to hit a weak fly ball, but if a gust of wind blows it away from the fielder, the batter will get a hit anyway. You can make a brilliant play and get your opponent drawing to one card in the deck, but that card will sometimes come up and you'll still lose that pot. It's a mixture of skill, strategy, and chance.

"They're the same game: hold'em has four betting rounds, and an at-bat has an average of four pitches. You elevate it by studying every tendency of your opponent. You know that a certain player is more likely to fold if you bet the first chance you have. A pitcher knows a hitter doesn't like to swing at the first pitch, and he acts accordingly. When you face someone you've never seen before, you size him up as quickly as you can, try strategies that have worked against players of that type, and if you don't succeed you make adjustments the next time you face him. Those adjustments are constant, building on your experience and analysis. That's why the game is always fascinating. It's infinite variety within set parameters."

My five hold'em aces grasped these principles before we arrived at the park. Once there, I took them down to the bullpen to watch the starting pitcher warm up. They saw the difference between a fastball (a big bet on the flop), a curveball (a check-raise on the turn), and a change-up (slow-playing the best hand until the river). During the game, I pointed out how the pitcher and batter might adjust depending on what the batter did in his first at-bat. They relished every battle between pitchers and hitters. On the other hand, they had no clue what running bases was all about, and I had no ready analogy to help them on that. In poker terms, they were drawing dead to understand the infield fly rule. But they knew what mattered in baseball.

That's what bothers me about waiting four months to play the final table. The hot players lose their momentum, the sharper players lose the advantage of what they've figured out on their own, and everybody loses the continuity of uninterrupted competition. Do you think the Tampa Bay Rays would have fared better against Cole Hamels in Game 5 of this year's World Series if they had had four months to park themselves in front of videotape machines to study every single pitch he threw during the regular season? I do. Do you think Shane Victorino would have had a chance to cool off in the interim? I do. Do you think the rest of us would be outraged at having to wait two more months to see the final game, just because the television moguls predicted a bigger audience? I do.

That's why you have to be sure not to send any television executive the link to this blog, lest they get any more bright ideas.

No comments: