Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Too Much Of A Good Thing

I am extremely fortunate. I don’t have to work hard if I don’t want to, at least not right now. I have never worked hard at things in which I wasn’t overflowing with passion, not in school and not since. I am aware that this lazy approach may come back to haunt me down the road, but I usually choose a path with less (though not least) resistance.

I have gone overboard with it recently. Two things I am passionate about, football and board games, have been too dominant. Football is awesome of course, the greatest sport there has ever been, the ultimate combination of strategy and athleticism. But it’s not my job, it probably can never be my job, and it doesn’t have enough redeeming value for how many hours it has been consuming. Less can be more with football – I can still enjoy the games, probably even more so, without watching every play of every game, followed by re-watching every play of every game on DirecTV’s Short Cuts every week.

The board games du jour are Agricola and Dominion. These games are about efficiency - ironically for me, about maximizing limited time and resources. The great thing about both games is that each individual game you play is different. Each iteration requires a different path for optimization. After a few trials of Dominion I thought I had it figured out, but I had only discovered the most basic strategy. After a couple eye-opening beatings at the hands of different opponents, I realized there is no one way to consistently win at the game. The best players adapt to each permutation and are constantly formulating original strategy.

I started thinking about poker. I have not been open-minded enough with my approach to tournament poker. At some point I became convinced that playing a small-ball, flat-calling, trapping style was both THE right way to play as well as my own preferred style.

But the best don’t just play one way, they are constantly adapting their game to the infinite permutations of poker. I remember this David Singer interview on one of the infinite permutations of PokerRoad Radio where he was talking about the heads up tournament he had just won. He referenced Bruce Lee talking about water.

I was way behind watching the 2010 WSOP, so I went on a binge the week before the November Nine reconvened. I thought this might have been the most entertaining WSOP ESPN has broadcast since the monumental Moneymaker 2003 lipstick camera premiere. ESPN expanded the coverage quite a bit this year, so you really got a feel for how the tournament played out in its latter stages, how chip leads were obtained and lost, how each of the November Nine navigated his way to the final.

The most striking thing about the coverage was the overall quality of play. In the past there have always been meltdowns, blowups, glaring mistakes, and other sorts of buffoonery. This year ESPN struggled to find anything of the sort. Jonathan Duhamel’s infamous suckout on Matt Affleck was the most controversial hand of the tournament; it was a questionably played hand but nothing horrific. Soi Nguyen was the chosen “rank amateur” they focused on, but he obviously knew what he was doing. He went with top pair against Theo Jorgensen’s nut flush draw in a spot where most pros would probably “look for a better spot.” Those two hands, standard just a couple years ago, were the closest thing to mistakes I can remember watching over the last several episodes of coverage.

The last four tables of the main event were loaded with tough pros. Looking at the results it's staggering how many known players got so deep in this event.

As usual, I knew some of the players skilled and fortunate enough to contend for the title. I have played multiple times with many of these guys, as have most of the circuit regulars. Hasan Habib was one of the first “famous” pros I ever met: he stunned me at Foxwoods by offering a percentage swap after playing on my left for a few hours in a 2005 WPT. Ronnie Bardah was there from the beginning, though I struggle to recall any specific memories. Anyone who has logged some time in the higher stakes online MTTs has run across Bryn Kenny. Anyone who has logged some time playing the live MTTs has run across David Baker, Scott Clements, and John Racener. Adam Levy is one of the most popular players in tournament poker – he knows everyone. I played with him in his first big buy-in way back in December 2005 at the Bellagio, and he has been nice to me ever since.

Duy Le was one of my most common, maybe even the most common, opponent when I played $10-20 NL on Bodog in ’07 and ’08. Duy was always strong competition, and we wound up chatting some on AIM. He was the one I was rooting for as the tournament wound down and the pressure ratcheted up.

I started making a list of “The Twenty Players Most Likely To Win The Main Event” in 2007. 2010 was the first year I left Michael Mizrachi off the list, mostly because I played with him in a SCOOP 4-max tournament in which he was outplayed by the respected online player cdbr. Interestingly enough, ESPN showed some table chatter late in the Main Event where the Grinder was joking about his poor, distracted play online. I have written on this blog that the Grinder is the greatest player I have ever played against. His camouflage of hands is unmatched. You never have a clue what he has. Though the rest of the world has made up some ground, the Grinder proved this year that he is still one of the game’s top players.

The final table was the toughest in the history of the Main Event. Mizrachi was the big-name pro, but he seemed like just another player at that table. Eight pros and an amateur. There are so many pros now. The pros are so much better than they were even two years ago. Weaknesses, though they still exist, are so minute compared to what they used to be. Going in I predicted – based on chip position and their general ability to accumulate chips just a little more forcefully than some of their counterparts – that Joseph Cheong or John Dolan would emerge as the champion.

Momentum was with Cheong after Dolan paid him off on the river in one of those “I know he knows what I have” situations, and stayed with him until the largest pot in the history of the WSOP. I thought it was fitting that this great tournament came down to eight young pros, that its deciding hand was a six-bet bluff, that Racener came in second, that it was won by an aggressive 23-year old Canadian pro.

I have been playing very little poker, even for me, over the last few months. Football has been more compelling. But I did play a few of the FTOPS, as well as a couple heads-up tournaments. I feel great about my game, even if the universe has become harder to navigate. These board games have widened my eyes. I am closer to a liquid state.


Blogger Ryan Wanger said...

Great post Tom. I've been thinking about Dominion a lot lately...especially Nate's comment that "there is too much luck".

Really, it's just like poker. At first you just keep looking at the cards in your hand, and seeing if they are good enough to win. Then you start looking for an optimal strategy. When you think you've found it, along comes someone else playing differently, and you get crushed. Eventually...you start playing the game situationally based on the gaps left by your opponents.

I had a conversation with someone recently who was complaining that 80% of the time, the player who took family growth first would win Agricola. The problem of course isn't the game, it's that everyone in his group believes there is one optimal path to victory - and they all chase it simultaneously.

You probably noticed last night, but the person who won was the last to take family growth.

Seems like there are probably a lot of people out there having a frustrating experience with board games, poker, and life because they don't know how to be like water.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Nice post. I was actually really disappointed in your blog this summer during WSOP time because you suggested that your mindset about tournament poker in general had changed forever during your WSOP run, but then you never really followed up with any explanation or expansion of that, which I had really been looking forward to.

Am I to understand this notion of small ball and trapping being the key is what you were referring to back then? Any chance you would elaborate a bit more now on that with some time to reflect?

I've never heard of Dominion. Or Agricola. How have I never heard of these games?

9:05 PM  
Blogger Ryan Wanger said...

Hoyazo, this is all you need to know:

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Nerg said...

I will bring home Agricola expansion for winter break. Much better game. Much easier to be fluid with your strategy. Much fun will be had.

12:00 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

Maybe your liquidity will allow you to recognize the Atlanta Falcons as the most ballinous team in the NFL!

12:50 AM  
Blogger JordiTorre said...

Hi just discovered your web
I add you on my list of blogs
if you can do the same

8:23 AM  

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