43. Tales from the Poker Tables

Check-Raising Tourists

The subtitle is a reference to the famous poker movie Rounders. Now, to "real" poker players, there are just a tonne of flaws in the realism of the movie (the underground clubs are somewhat accurate; the betting patterns in the key hands are not), but with that said, it's still a favourite. Only a few friends and colleagues know that I played poker professionally for six years. I started at the end of my undergraduate degree, through my masters, full-time for two years between my MA and PhD, and then for the first year and a bit of my PhD. This post is about some of the differences I noticed at the poker table when I finally played again for the first time after transitioning.

woman playing pokerFor most of the years that I played, it was either my only or primary source of income. Thankfully, in Canada, poker winnings are tax-free, and I made very good money, especially considering that I typically only "worked" for about 3hrs/day. Of course, in order to do well, in a game that changes rapidly, one has to spend a few hours/day studying and thinking about strategy and analyzing one's play (we have software that helps us with this). So I typically worked 4-5hrs/day, but it was still pretty cushy. In my years between graduate degrees, a typical day would have me play from 10am – 12pm, and then go golfing.

Now, this isn't to say that it was always rosy. Although in six years I never had a losing month, there were some rather large swings day to day, and even within a day. I played 95%+ of my poker online, and at my peak I was playing 10-12 tables at a time (and about 1000 hands/hr). To put that in perspective, the typical number of hands/hr one can play at a casino (or "live" game, as we call them) is around 20. And while my win rate (measured in number of big blinds per 100 hands) was much higher live, my hourly rate, since I could play 50x hands/hr, was much higher online. So I mostly played online.

However, I loved live play. Online, there isn't much psychology. Sure, there's learning the patterns and tendencies of different people — recognizable by screen name, and with the help of our tracking software — but there isn't the same ability to see and talk to your opponent, and really get inside their head. I was a real student of poker, and especially the psychology of it, so going to play live poker was a treat that I really enjoyed. (The problem is that most live games run from 10pm – 6am, which isn't conducive for a rich home life.) and I only played live every once in a while.

There are a couple tricks that I picked up on how to manipulate people in their decision making. Don't worry! I don't use them day-to-day any more. I got good at, for example, realizing when someone had made a decision (whether, say, to fold on the river when I want them to call), and making them re-start their thought process hopefully coming to the decision that I wanted them to make.

Now, I quit — full stop — about 4 years ago. I threw a little celebration when I was able to quit. It got too stressful, and it was becoming too difficult to focus both on staying current on poker developments while also doing my PhD coursework. So as soon as I was making enough money from research and teaching, I quit. And because at that point it was such a job, I didn't enjoy it any more, so there wasn't any desire to pick it up again.

That changed back in March, when it came out in conversation that I'd like to play poker (live, just once) sometime, and my my best friend suddenly suggested we go to the casino (approximately a 1.5hr drive away) to play poker. I was game, and so we both got dolled up and went. This would be my first time playing poker — let alone live poker — since the transition. So I was curious if and how it might be different.

It was definitely different!

Before, if you start winning a few hands, and it's not clear that you got incredibly lucky in doing so, then there's this default respect that you get if you're a guy (or at least perceived to be one!). In fact, there's some default competence assumed just for being a guy. That's not true for women. Even after I was winning for hours — and winning a lot — I still noticed less respect for my bets as a woman than when I was perceived as a guy. I got called down more often — which makes it harder to bluff.

Another thing I noticed is that if I won a pot, the guys at the table were often out to get me: they didn't want to give up a chance to get their money back from me, so they often re-bought (usually after I busted them!) more times than I think they otherwise would have. I think this had to do with their (unconscious, perhaps) refusal to extend me credit for, oh I don't know, having any skill at this game.

Having been someone who did this for a living for years, the level of game that we were playing in — a casino 1/2 no limit hold 'em game — is really easy for me. I often refer to it as "whiffle ball." There was very little chance of me losing in that game, even with some bad luck. There are a few things that skill let one do in a poker game against less skilled players. For example, I can play a wider range of hands: I can call a raise with 73 suited, which is an automatic fold normally. I can raise in late position (close to the button) with K3 suited, which is also normally an automatic fold. A consequence of *this* and being able to play the hands well post-flop is that I often showed up with the best hand on the river, and they had *no idea* what I had. They didn't think I'd call a raise, for example, with 73 suited.

Another thing I can do better than these sorts of players is to manipulate my bet sizes. If I have a vulnerable hand (say, top pair, top kicker), and I think they're on a draw, I can bet hard to make them pay to draw. But if I have a speculative hand — maybe a draw myself — I can bet small to prevent them from betting more and making me have a tough decision. And if I hit my hand, I can bet big and get paid off. This means that my good (winning) hands tend to have big pots, and my losing hands tend to have small pots. But they never notice this!

Instead, what they see is this girl, who calls raises with garbage hands like 73 suited, and raises with K3 suited winning pot after pot after pot. And so when I get a very big hand (like three of a kind on the flop), I take all their money. And then they re-buy for revenge. …and then they lose it again. And even though my stack of chips ($950 in a $200 buy-in game, at the end) was triple the next biggest stack, I never got respect for being a good player. They'd continue to call, when pre-transition, people were more likely to fold. And I'm *fine* with that! If they respect me, it's harder to get good hands paid off. So their lack of respect made me more money.

Thanks boys. *smile*

And, of course, my acquisition of skill wasn't particularly gendered (although my inclusion in poker communities may have been), but the perception of my skill sure is.

By the end, it got to the point where it was really obvious that they just had no idea how to handle me. They tried betting into me, and I'd raise, and they'd fold, because they were bluffing or had a weak hand. (And I should note that I can often tell when they're making this play, so I can bluff raise them, and I did a couple times. I pick my spots, though.) They tried calling (instead of folding or raising), and then I'd win with the best hand. They threw everything at me, and just ended up losing faster. They were completely confused: not only did they not know what I'd have, but they didn't know what to do at pretty much every stage of every hand that I played. I've never felt that before. It was a good feeling, because when you have your opponents that confused, you win. (As a side note, because of the skill disparity, I made sure never to put myself in a position where I had to make a tough decision — not one! But I put them in plenty.)

One final thing, while walking from the table (which was at the back) to the cage to cash out, I had over two racks of chips (a *tonne* for a 1/2 NL game) and a guy at one of the other tables excitedly asked "Hey, where'd you get all those?!" while (my friend tells me) checking me out. I said, "Over there," pointing at my table, and he said, "Wow, they must be giving them away!" I smiled and walked away. A little casual sexism, you know, just to cap the night.

Yours truly,