Beaty in Poker

    • dexon303
      Joined: 23.03.2010 Posts: 6
      Beauty in Poker

      Picasso once said, “Beauty?... To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to.” Beauty is a difficult word to define, and it has no single definitive characteristic. It can manifest itself in various forms. There can be beauty in a flower, beauty in a waterfall, beauty in a woman, beauty in a newborn baby. But there are other forms of beauty that are less basic to our perception. We can imagine finding beauty in the movement of dance, beauty in the richness of music, beauty in the rhythm of poetry.And yet we can go further, to beauty that departs from this placid sense of the word. We can find beauty in the construction of mathematical proofs, beauty in the handling of a basketball, beauty in a chess strategem, and indeed, beauty in a hand of poker.

      In what sense can a hand of poker be beautiful? It certainly isn’t beautiful in any purely aesthetic sense (that is, in its appeal to our senses): a hand of poker will never be sensually stimulating, and in that way it is more like the beauty in a mathematical derivation than in visual beauty. In order to understand what makes a hand of poker beautiful, I think we must first decide how we ought to appropriate the concept. If there is beauty in poker, then it seems to me that there must be some experience in common between observing a beautiful hand of poker and anything else that is beautiful. The first step then is to probe the experience itself. What’s it like to experience a beautiful hand of poker?

      Looking to the Source

      To discover if beauty existed in poker, I looked to the source, poker players. I picked a few poker players I knew and interviewed them. Of course, I only wanted to choose poker players who I thought were particularly reflective and intelligent, and I wanted to be sure that I phrased my questions carefully to try to extract as much of their own thoughts as possible, without biasing them toward my own opinions. Although I won't name the poker players I interviewed, they were very established high stakes regulars (and for what it’s worth, these interviews took place several months prior to my writing this).

      What I found was that there was a surprising unanimity among them as to the existence of beauty in poker, and what constituted that beauty. For all three players I interviewed, I began in the same way - "can you name some hand or event in the context of poker that you would describe as beautiful?" All three of them provided one hand that they felt fit this criterion. After that, I probed their reasoning about why they thought the particular hand was beautiful, what made it beautiful, and what it shared in common with other hands they thought were beautiful.

      The first person told me, "I think anytime I make a 'perfect bet,' as in one with a certain timing or amount to make my opponent do exactly what I want, that's beautiful." The second person described a beautiful poker hand as "manipulating [one's] opponents in an artistic way." The third person described beauty in poker as "finding an eloquent, unexpected solution." The sentiment seemed slightly different among the three poker players, but when I questioned them further, I found that they actually could be distilled to the same essential component – mastery.

      Mastery is beautiful. It’s making perfect bets, making your opponent do exactly what you want. It’s manipulating your opponent in an artistic way. It’s finding that eloquent, unexpected solution. Mastery is beautiful, and so we must explore what mastery is to explore what is beautiful about poker.

      What is Mastery?

      If you imagine the world from an undifferentiated, “objective” perspective, there is no such thing as mastery. There are various ways of making sense of this statement, such as saying “everything is just particles mashing about chaotically” or “if an alien came to earth and watched humans playing a game of basketball, they would see nothing but animals romping around with a ball,” and of course you could invent infinitely many variations on this theme. Essentially, all you have to do to deny the existence of mastery is to deconstruct some element of the cultural frame that we share. Mastery does not exist objectively; it exists once you set parameters on what experiences are meaningful, and what goals can be set for human endeavors.

      The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre aptly separates the human sphere thus: the widest sphere, which we can just call the human community, recognizes a limited number of forms of mastery. These are generally limited to the basic virtues that everyone acknowledges as worthwhile: moral goodness, industriousness, courage, et cetera. It is only when we narrow our scope to looking within what he calls a practice, that more variegated and interesting goals of human effort can become meaningful (he calls these “internal goods” – goods or goals that are meaningful within a certain practice, but not outside it). A practice is any subsection of the human experience in which people are pursuing a more specific set of goals than those which are pursued by the larger human community. Practices can be simply understood as crafts or arts, like carpentry or basketball or cardplaying.

      So in order to understand mastery in poker, we have to understand that outside of the practice of poker, there is no meaning or intrinsic value in the mastery of poker, and hence it could not possibly translate into beauty. You must first acknowledge poker as a worthwhile practice, and you must then understand poker to enough of an extent that you can recognize mastery. If there is beauty in poker, it is entrenched behind these two layers which are difficult to cut through for the undifferentiated person. In the same way, I may be told that a mathematical proof is beautiful, but even though I have some rudimentary understanding of mathematics and I respect mathematics as a practice, I don’t have anywhere near the understanding of the practice to recognize mastery, and hence beauty. Show me two potential proofs of the Poincaré conjecture, and setting aside which proof is beautiful and which isn’t, I wouldn’t even be able to tell which one were a proof and which was garbled nonsense.

      So if there is beauty in poker, then this beauty can only exist within the practice, and can only be recognized among those who have sufficient understanding of the practice. You might even go so far as to say that within every practice that is sufficiently complex and understood, there exists some form of beauty (hence, it shouldn’t puzzle you to hear a CEO talk about a beautiful deal, or a boxer talk about a beautiful round, or even a scammer talk about a beautiful scam). So we should have no apprehensions with talking about beauty in poker so long as we understand how we are constraining the possibility of acknowledging this beauty.

      So, that being said, what constitutes mastery? The dictionary will tell you that mastery is “the possession of consummate skill.” This is easy enough to understand, but it falls short of providing the clear picture of what we’re trying to resolve. If you think about mastery in terms of poker, it seems as though mastery can be defined as the ability to make the most +EV set of actions over the widest possible window of time (assuming, of course, imperfect information). So to recognize mastery, we must be able to recognize what is the most +EV action to take at any point in time, or in other words, we must know what “the right play” is. If you have no idea what the right play is while looking at all possible options, then you will not be able to perceive mastery, and hence aren’t qualified to make an aesthetic judgment about a hand.

      Now, this definition actually gets a little tricky here, because defining mastery as simply “making the right play,” seems to be overly inclusive. For example, folding 39o preflop UTG in a full ring game is absolutely the right play each and every time. And yet, if we had the hole card cam on Phil Ivey folding 39o UTG, we would not be impressed. This would not strike us beautiful. The notion of mastery would not even enter our thoughts. Why is this? Think of this analogy – in a game of basketball, when there is a turnover, the opposing team has to inbound the ball from out of bounds. There is a 5 second window for the player to pass the ball, and if he doesn’t inbound the ball in time, then there is an automatic turnover and his team loses possession. Well clearly, it is always going to be bad for the team if the passer waits longer than 5 seconds. 100% of times in 100% of games, waiting longer than 5 seconds is the wrong play. Since it’s always the right play to pass the ball before 5 seconds pass, then this must be a demonstration of mastery, and hence it must be beautiful. And yet this is absurd, because this is the most trivial and unimpressive part of any ball possession, calling this beautiful is silly. We should infer then that there are some things which are optimal (“the right play”), but which are not beautiful.

      How is this line drawn? How are some things which are optimal beautiful, and others trivial? I think the first reaction is to look for the purely aesthetic element – i.e., a dunk is more visually impressive than inbounding a ball, so that’s why a great dunk will be more beautiful than a great inbound pass. But I don’t think that this is enough. I think a better way to understand this problem is to think about the difference between structure and “gameplay.” I choose the word gameplay because the analogies that I’m using here are games like chess, basketball, and poker, but this all still applies to a practice which is not a game, such as mathematics or carpentry or whatever.

      Structure and Gameplay

      In all of human experience, there is an essential duality that defines our interaction with the world. This duality is the opposition between the conscious and the unconscious; foreground and background; substructure and superstructure. All of experience is predicated upon this fundamental, yet in a sense invisible distinction. In any experience of the external world, the unconscious filters out what is unimportant, otherwise it would be impossible for your brain to extract patterns from such enormous quantities of information (all of the visual, aural, and tactile stimulation that your nerves are transmitting at every moment of your life). If you are exposed to any stimulus long enough, it congeals into a simplified entity, subsumed into the background of your mind, and ceases to be an object of direct perception. This is obvious with things like putting on pants or wearing sunglasses– at first, it is an object of experience, but as it the experience is repeated (the feeling of having your leg press against denim or seeing an object shaded darker than it usually is) it becomes filtered out and you no longer notice it. In a way, this is what happens in games like poker as well.

      The initial way in which this manifests itself is in understanding the most basic structure of the game. When two hands get to showdown and the players turn up their cards, if you had no idea how poker was played, looking at their hands would be completely meaningless to you. You don’t know the structure of the game – you don’t know the rules. How do you decide who wins? Well, it turns out that poker has a complicated set of rules about how to combine certain cards of certain suits together in order to create different types of hands, some of which beat others. This is the structure of the game on the simplest level. Once you understand how to evaluate showdowns, then this becomes subsumed into your understanding of the structure of the game. At that point, you understand the rules. You can’t break these rules. You can’t take the pot if you have a straight and your opponent has a flush; the structure of the game determines that the person who has the flush will win no matter what.

      Well, we can actually go further than that. The structure of the game is simply what is constant to your perception – there’s no reason why it has to be limited to the most explicit rules of the game. Once you understand the rules of poker, you don’t have to consult a hand chart every time you get to showdown to figure out who wins. The way showdowns work becomes incorporated into your perception of the game. Now, once you go further than that and have learned basic preflop hand requirements, then you know that raising 39o UTG is definitely a bad play, so you fold it every time. In fact, everybody else folds 39o UTG as well. When you fold 39o UTG, you no longer have to mentally consult a preflop raising chart to see whether that falls into the range of hands you can play around with, it is simply a fold. Folding 39o preflop becomes a mental constant, you stop perceiving it or thinking about it as a decision in your poker game. Folding 39o becomes a rule of the game. You effectively can’t break this rule, in the same way that you can’t take the pot if you have a straight against a flush. It becomes subsumed into the structure of the game.

      So structure becomes more and more developed as one moves closer to mastery of any practice. In poker, many things start to become relegated to structure, such as continuation betting, raising the river with the nuts, 3-betting AK preflop, etc. If anything is obviously the correct play and is constantly repeated, it eventually becomes incorporated into structure, because it ceases to be a point of gameplay. Gameplay, then, can be defined as that which is not constant – gameplay is whatever we need to think about, it’s what’s dynamic in any instance of the game that we play. In a 10/20 6-max round, nobody is ever going to raise 39o UTG; that is simply not a part of gameplay, which is effectively the same as saying that it’s not allowed or that it’s an illegal move. However, 3-betting an UTG raiser with 67s IS a legal move. People know that this is a viable play, but they also know that it’s not a mandatory play. Hence, 3-betting an UTG raiser with 67s counts as gameplay.

      The conclusion of this short detour is that mastery will only be appreciated by somebody within a practice if it occurs within the gameplay, not within the structure. Anybody who follows the structure of a game has, in a sense, some basic level of mastery. Neither an amateur nor a professional basketball player will try to travel to the other side of the court without dribbling the ball, and so they both are obeying the structure of the game, but we don’t find this to be indicative of mastery. It simply means that if they don’t do this, then they haven’t outright broken the rules yet. It takes gameplay to demonstrate how close one is to mastery.

      Delineating Structure

      To properly separate structure from gameplay, one must first understand structure on the level similar to that of a master. If an amateur were to watch a professional chess match, he might marvel at the thoughtfulness displayed in the first four or five opening moves. But for masters of chess, gameplay doesn’t begin until their respective “opening lines” begin to interact. The first few opening moves are all structure, because they are determined by each player before the match began and are not particularly dynamic.

      Thinking about structure in high level poker is quite similar. When amateur poker players observe a high level match, very often what they tend to do is ascribe elements of gameplay to what is actually structure. When railbirds see a preflop 3-bet or a flop check/raise, they tend to say things like “Oh, he’s fighting back!” Or if they see somebody call a jam with a hand like 99, they might say something like “He’s taking a stand, he won’t be pushed around!” In reality, the gameplay in a high level match is occurring on the battlefield of ranges – the individual hands usually are of minimal importance. Individual flop checkraises and preflop 3-bets create the structure of the match, and the adjustments and frequencies that each player adopts are what constitute the actual gameplay. This is difficult to see for those not privy to how high stakes matches are played, which is again what makes it impossible for amateurs to evaluate what’s actually going on in these matches.

      In spite of the fact that little gameplay occurs within individual hands, there seem to be some hands which can be described as genuinely beautiful. If most gameplay is actually taking place within the interplay of ranges and large scale adjustments, then it seems to be impossible for there to be such a thing as a hand that demonstrates extraordinary gameplay, but the fact is that hands like this do occasionally come about, although they are rare.

      I think what it is that defines beauty in poker is not just gameplay within structure, but gameplay that challenges structure. Structure, as I defined it, is anything that fails to be perceived as within the field of gameplay. But there are times when inspiration strikes a player to see beyond structure, and to harness some tool or technique that seems to be structurally disallowed. These are the moments that we see as beautiful—the beauty is in the breaking of the rules that we then see were never really rules. It’s the eloquent, unexpected solution.

      An Eloquent Unexpected Solution

      When I conducted those interviews with the high stakes players, it was around the time that the QT hand that Durrrr played on High Stakes Poker had just aired. It caused quite a stir among poker aficionados, and two of the players I interviewed actually mentioned it as an example of a beautiful hand of poker. Here it is:

      Eastgate and Durrrr are 500k deep, and Barry is 200k deep. The blinds are 400/800 with a 200 ante, and Barry Greenstein opens under the gun for 2500 with AA. Durrrr who is immediately to his left calls with QTs, six other players behind him call, including Peter Eastgate in the small blind with 42s. The flop comes down 22T. Peter checks, and Barry leads out the flop for 10k. Durrrr makes it 37k, Peter overcalls, and Barry calls as well. The turn comes down an 8 and they both check to Durrrr, who bets 104k. Peter Eastgate folds quickly, and Barry folds after some thinking.

      The vast majority of people who commentated on this hand had a poor understanding of what was actually going on in this hand. When Barry’s bet comes around to Durrrr, the standard play is going to be to fold (Barry is betting here into 8 players, so he almost certainly has something after raising UTG). The way that full ring players are conditioned to react to a spot where there are 8 players in the pot and UTG bets into them is to realize that a lot of strength is being represented here by this action, and so they fold all but the strongest of hands. The structure of the action (the positions, board texture, and amount of players in the pot) are supposed to create a situation where Durrrr has to play straightforwardly. But instead of obeying this schema, he goes the other way – he exploits the structure of the action and the fact that he has a ten, which blocks the most likely nuts (TT), and he decides to strong-arm the structure of the hand and use it to his advantage. When UTG+1 raises the UTG player with 7 players left to act in a pot with 9 players on a board where UTG obviously has something, it represents enormous strength and an indifference as to what action occurs behind.

      When he makes the raise, Peter Eastgate overcalls from the small blind, and Barry calls as well, and the turn comes down a blank. Durrrr bets the turn a big size – one that seems to tell Eastgate that he’s looking to get all-in, and one that has Barry completely covered. Once Peter Eastgate overcalls the flop, it’s very obvious that his range includes some 2’s, TT, and 22. The structure has become again intensified because all players in the hand know that every other player acknowledges this structure, and so when Durrrr bets the turn big even when he knows what is meant by Eastgate’s overcall, Eastgate’s decision must reflect this fact. He knows that Durrrr is not stupid, and so he’s going to play his hand value relative to what is dictated by the structure of the hand and everybody’s perceived ranges. Now, of course if Eastgate had had 22, Durrrr would have not looked so spectacular, but it was a risk that he took and I’m sure he was not going to beat himself up for it if Eastgate turned out to have had quads. It wasn’t just the fearlessness that Durrrr demonstrated or the fact that he bluffed for such an enormous pot, or even that he bluffed Eastgate off of trips and Barry off of aces up. What’s beautiful about the hand is how Durrrr managed to find an eloquent solution that challenges the basic structure of the hand.

      Ascending the Ladder

      Now, I won’t get carried away here. I won’t say that this bluff that Durrrr made was a sudden spark of creativity or some kind of eureka moment that broke full ring poker wide open. The bluff itself is actually fairly basic, and I’m sure Durrrr makes these kinds of bluffs with some regularity when the opportunity presents itself. If you wanted to, you could just call it something as simple as balance (i.e., since Durrrr is bluffing here so rarely, he has to include the occasional bluff, and if you look at the situation holistically QT is the best hand to do it with). High caliber full ring players make this kind of bluff all the time I’m sure – if they didn’t, then it’d be far too easy to play in these situations, and they’d be missing out on too much bluffing EV since they usually get credit for having hands. The hand is beautiful because it demonstrates mastery, as Durrrr certainly understood everything that was going on (he basically called both of their hands when the hand was over), and its defiance of structure. But in spite of that, there are many other hands like it that could be summoned, which moves it closer and closer to being structurally sound (something like “standard”).

      Ultimately, the higher and higher you go on the ladder of poker prowess, the more difficult it is to find hands that an expert player will consider beautiful. If a hand is demonstrative of mastery, then the highest caliber poker players understand the inherent concepts and employ them whenever they can in their games. If you asked somebody like Durrrr or LarsLuzak for an example of a beautiful hand, they’d have much more difficulty producing an example than a mid to low level player would. This is because of all of the possibilities that are available in poker, players like Durrrr and Lars have explored so many of them and can see every inch of gameplay that is possible (that is, they are not obstructed by false structure), and so there is very little that appears to them as genuinely novel or beautiful. The situation would either have to be very rare for it to seem beautiful (because it would come about so rarely, they could appreciate that moment of discovering a solution), or it would have to manifest itself not in a hand but in the higher level gameplay of adjustments and counteradjustments.

      Poker is all about possibilities, and I think it is the moment of discovering a new possibility that is the sweetest moment for a poker player. For a lower level player you might imagine that they’d find the most mundane of poker dogma, such as deciding to fold offsuit ace rags from out of position, as a beautiful solution to a difficult problem. And as we move up the ladder, we start to see players appreciating more fine and creative solutions to different problems, slowly uncovering more and more of the field of gameplay. Experienced players often speak of “aha” moments, at which point their understanding of poker suddenly jumps up to another level, or some concept which they once didn’t really grasp is suddenly elucidated. I think these are the moments in poker we all are looking for. The moment when we emerge out of the cave of ignorance, and the light that we never knew was there shines upon our eyes… it is then that the field of possibilities unfurls itself upon our vision. And it’s true. It is a thing of beauty.
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