Thursday, February 23, 2017

Karmic EV

Early last year, I played in a top heavy $80 buy-in tournament at my local riverboat casino. This tourney is a weekly ritual that commences every Friday at midnight. It has the dual benefit of being +EV and keeping me out of trouble. The obvious drawback is the late start, meaning that I'm often pretty drained and unfocused upon arrival, especially following a forty minute drive.

I'll spare the details and fast forward to the final table. Even though it's now approaching 3:30 AM, the atmosphere among the nine remaining is jovial- everyone has been getting along, chatting it up, joking, and having an overall good time. Of course, every man there wants to win, but no one is really rooting against the guy next to him, either. With each player that drops, there's a round-table discussion about cutting a deal, yet each time the subject comes up, there's always at least one player sitting on a stack large enough that he politely decline the offer with little thought.

Fast forward another hour and it's now 4:30 AM. There are five of us remaining and I've just knocked out the sixth. I'm now leading with a stack of just over 300k with blinds of 15k/30k and an ante of 3,000. I (humbly, mind you) admit to having a large skill advantage over my obviously recreational opponents, even in this late stage of the tournament. Despite being effectively short stacked at this point with limited maneuverability, I'm in my zone as a short stack specialist. I'm getting a bit tired, but I'm comfortable in this situation and more than happy to keep playing.

As has become a ritual at this point, the guy to my right immediately calls for a deal. Here at the Horseshoe Indiana, deals involving multiple players in small buy-in events are traditionally not settled by chip equity. Serious players of the game are advised to stop reading here and move on to the next article, as the following text is likely to make you physically ill.

Given the friendly atmosphere and recreational culture of this tourney, a deal is an even split of the remaining prize pool, regardless of stack size. Even though I'm leading by a fairly significant margin with regards to chip EV, should I agree to a deal and request a bigger cut, in their eyes I would be, for lack of a better word, a complete dick.

Everyone present is more or less aware of this technical unfairness, so the question isn't whether or not one or more players have an advantage, chip-wise. It's whether or not it's anyone's game at this point, or more importantly, if the deal proposer is insulting anyone's intelligence by asking for a chop when he is practically busto.

In this particular instance, the deal advocate was a guy who had a consistent stack for the last several blind levels and had been sitting next to me at two of the last three tables. He was friendly, funny, and was rooting for me in every all in pot that he wasn't involved in. At this juncture he had the smallest stack, but was still sitting on about 100k or so and still had a reasonable shot to win it.

Everyone else has been more or less amenable to a chop until this point. However, up until now, there was always a dominating stack that vetoed the deal. Shorthanded with an M of about 9, with blinds scheduled to rise in about 5 minutes, I broke two Cardinal rules of professional poker:

  1. Admitting to myself that the money at stake was important to me, and finishing last would be a hit to my presently pathetic liferoll.
  2. Giving up a proportionally sizable amount of chip EV, especially when the request came from the shortest stack.

I had already passed on a chop during an earlier blind level myself when the seventh player busted and no one objected. This time, however, the situation was very different. With higher blinds, the average stack was considerably smaller, and the remaining players were all happy to end it. They all looked over to me expectantly with the implicit understanding that I had the undisputed power to kill the deal.

I didn't feel any pressure to buckle, but it was really late and everyone was tired and eager to pack it in for the night, including myself. In the act of dreading the long drive home, my professional instincts quickly seized my remaining higher cognitive functions and started calculating what I would be giving up if I accepted the deal, but then a new and unfamiliar feeling started to flow through me: magnanimity.

It was perfectly within my rights to bring in the tournament director to divvy up the prize pool according to classic chip EV. However, the prize distribution was really top heavy and an even chop meant that we would all leave with just under second place money. That's not too shabby. I could have been the aforementioned dick and argued for an extra hundred bucks or so, but that rather insignificant amount of money might cost me in terms of goodwill amongst my new acquaintances.

I know it makes me sound soft, but everyone was enjoying each other's company and I liked everyone who was present. I was faced with a choice: waiting around while the prize pool is appropriately cut up and take the extra money for short term gain, or essentially swap out my additional share in exchange for four new friends. Four new friends who could leave on equal terms with each other and go home to their wives or girlfriends and proudly tell them they won the tournament. With this thought in mind and before I could think about it long enough to second guess the decision, I approved the deal and we ended the tournament.

What's the practical value of four new friends? To put it in terms that poker pros understand and perhaps even feel comfortable with, it's quite simple: a feeling of indebtedness that can pay off in the future in unexpected ways...with my odds of unexpected payoff multiplied by four. That's not nearly as cynical as it sounds. A grateful new friend is now the guy who might give you a few bucks for the vending machine when all you have are chips and no cash, the guy that might give you a lift home if your car breaks down, even though he's in a rush to get somewhere, the guy who might fold his small blind to you with a borderline hand when you have just a few big blinds on the bubble, and of course, the guy who will cut you a break and give you a chop when you find yourself as the smallest stack in the same scenario. 

Taking my fair share of the prize pool certainly isn't a bad thing and says nothing about my character. Likewise, sharing my tournament equity is also morally neutral and says nothing about whether or not I am a decent human being, particularly in light of the fact that I did it for vague strategic reasons that are admittedly unlikely to pay off. Yet it doesn't change the fact that option one sends a negative vibe as per the rules of the local culture, which almost always supersede concepts of fair play as understood by online poker professionals who have yet to gain a solid grasp on the social (human) elements of the game. Option two, crudely put, allows for everyone to leave happy on my dime. I'll take option two every time!

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