February 03, 2012

Poker Player's Cheatsheet for Surviving the Super Bowl

”Cards are war, in disguise of a sport."

~Charles Lamb, "Essays of Elia" (1832)

Vinny Gambini:  You stick out like a sore thumb around here.
Mona Lisa Vito:  Me? What about you?
Vinny Gambini:   I fit in better than you. At least I'm wearing cowboy boots.
Mona Lisa Vito:   Oh yeah, you blend.

~My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Saturday night, I played a four hour session at the Meadows ATM. I managed a tidy profit playing ABC poker. I picked off a couple of bluffs from the table maniac, and had big pocket pairs hold up against overplayed top pair hands. It was nice to knock some rust off my game, and it was reassuring that my reads are still pretty solid. Not a bad prep session for the rapidly approaching IMOP festivities.

Although there wasn't any poker-related hilarity, there was a ton of sports talk. Topics ranged from the Super Bowl to college basketball to golf (Tiger Woods and the Abu Dhabi tourney) to tennis (the Australian Open). Although there was a little shop talk thrown in (there was another lawyer and an insurance guy in the game), most of the chit chat revolved around sports, which reminded me of a couple of Tweets from two of my poker friends a month or so ago. Chris (a/k/a @MrsLedr) Tweeted:
"The biggest downside of being a female poker player? The nonstop sports talk. #notinterested"
Poker Grump replied:
"You don't have to be female for that to be a problem. Also: TVs with nothing but sports. A news feed with closed captions, please."
I'm certainly sympathetic to poker players being held captive to conversations that bore them. Poker players who aren't interested in sports are probably in much the same position as I find myself when I hang out with the sig other and his gal pals, and they discuss the latest twists in MTV's Teen Mom or Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta (or Orange County, or Jakarta, whatever)—boredom and annoyance—with the added regret that ritual suicide is generally -EV in most target rich poker games.

For better or worse, however, sports are currently the lingua franca of the live poker world. Most of my college poker buddies were also the guys with whom I played intramurals, fantasy football, and sports pools, and I suspect many poker players have a similar sports-rich background. In many casinos, poker rooms are located near if not immediately adjacent to sports books, hardly surprising given the known sports betting leak of many poker players, including a number of the big name live game players like Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson. In the online poker world, sports chatter is (or was) easier to ignore, part of the friendlier environment for women poker players or even many of the male young guns who seem closer to Big Bang Theory nerds than Varsity Blues jocks. Still, if poker players plan to spend any time in a live poker game setting, they better brush up on current sports news if they intend to maximize their profits at the poker tables.

The sig other and I watch Big Brother every summer. The game involves physical and mental competitions, along with scheming and backstabbing as players form and dissolve alliances. But the players also take into account "social game"—the friendships players build with other players, even those in opposing alliances, in order to build in social safety nets to stave off elimination in tight votes and to assist their advancement in the game as new alliances coalesce. It's possible to win Big Brother without regard to social game, but generally speaking, better social game players have more success than those players viewed as outsiders because they are odd, aloof, aggressive, or even hostile.

Turning back to poker, knowledge of sports isn't necessary to play poker well and profitably. But live poker rewards social factors to a greater degree than the more mathematical online game. At low stakes games, at least, players are in the game in large part for the entertainment factor; they want to recreate the backslapping, bullshitting bonhomie of their home game. Players who talk the talk—those who trade some barbs, make some jokes, and chatter about sports—are part of the gang. Players who are notably quiet, aloof, or too serious about the game are outsiders, viewed with suspicion. I find that when I'm playing my good ol' boy role, I benefit from players letting down their guard, playing too loosely, giving off too many tells, and taking it easy on me when they have me beat. Conversely, I observe many players who are not sociable at the table attracting unwanted attention and aggression, to the detriment of their games.

Because being able to talk sports is a valuable skill for live poker players, here are a few talking points for sports-averse poker players to keep in mind when playing poker this week, if they want to blend:

The Super Bowl "Rematch":  Four years ago, the Giants met the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots were 18-0 and heavily favored to win their fourth franchise Super Bowl, while also looking to become only the second NFL team to go undefeated for a full season, and the first to go 19-0 (the '72 Dolphins went 17-0 before the NFL expanded in teams, regular season games, and playoff games). The Giants pulled off the stunning upset with a late game rally featuring perhaps the most amazing play in Super Bowl history—a scrambling escape by Giants' quarterback Eli Manning, who connected with David Tyree for a jaw-dropping against-the-helmet catch to keep their winning drive alive (better known as simply "The Helmet Catch" or "Catch-42"):

If you want to needle a Patriots fan, simply mention "The Helmet Catch" and go on and on about how amazing and historic it was, throwing in what a shame it was for the Patriots to blow their chance at being the greatest team in NFL history. If you want to blend in with Patriots fans, simply grouse a bit about how Eli Manning should've have been ruled down because he was "in the grasp" of the defenders.

The Quarterbacks:  To blend, you really don't need to know any players other than the quarterbacks. The Patriots' Tom Brady is the rags-to-riches pretty boy, a decent but not amazing prospect from Michigan. Expected by many fans to be nothing more than a career backup or journeyman starter, Brady got his big break early in his second season when starter Drew Bledsoe suffered a serious injury. Brady started the rest of the season, and led the Patriots to a Super Bowl XXVI win over the then-juggernaut and defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.  Since then, Brady has set a number of passing records, won two league and two Super Bowl MVP awards, won two more Super Bowl rings, married a supermodel, and probably walks on water in the off-season. If you want to needle a Patriots fan, call Brady a "system quarterback" who owes his success to evil genius coach Bill Belichek, and who will never be as great as Joe Montana.

The Giants' Eli Manning is the (to now) least-heralded member of the Manning Quarterback clan, taking a back seat to father Archie Manning and big brother Peyton Manning (the long-time, but not for long, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, whose stadium is hosting the Super Bowl). In the 2004 NFL draft, Eli caused some muttering with his prima donna-ish demands to be traded from the San Diego Chargers to the NY Giants; the Chargers relented and acquired the talented but whiny Philip Rivers in the trade. Eli was generally regarded by fans as erratic, lackadaisical, and simply less talented than big brother Peyton. Since the Super Bowl win four years ago, however, Eli has developed into one of the league's elite quarterbacks. A win Sunday would certainly give him a solid claim to the "best Manning" title. For amusement Sunday, watch for "Manning face", the overly expressive looks given by Eli (and Peyton) when something goes poorly. If you have a Colts fan at your table, needle him by claiming Eli is a better quarterback than Peyton.

The Coaches:  There will be a lot of sideline shots of the head coaches, because head coaches are generally regarded as football demi-gods. The Patriots' Bill Belichik is a polarizing figure, regarded as either the greatest football genius since the 49ers Bill Walsh, or an evil genius who is an obsessive-compulsive cheater. Frankly, I think both sides are entirely correct. In any event, for fun at the poker tables, find a player in a hoodie (tough, I know), and suggest that he is imitating Belichik's fashion style.

The Giants' Tom Coughlin is the old guy who always looks extremely constipated, and resembles the nits who need the board cards read to them by the dealer. Really, there's nothing to joke about here, and if you do, Coughlin will likely kill you with a withering glare.

The Wagers:  The Super Bowl is the biggest sports-investing event of the year. The lines for the standard bets—the spread and the over/under (a/k/a points total)—are generally in the neighborhood of the Patriots -3 (Patriots are favored to win by 3 points) and 55 (the total points scored by both teams will be over or under 55). The Super Bowl also has many casinos offering "prop bets" on specific events occurring, such as a player getting more or less than a certain number of yards, which player will score first, the game-opening coin toss, the number of times a celebrity will appear on TV, and the length of the national anthem. For fun, look up some wackier prop bets online and annoy the table as you pretend to track those bets at the table. To be uber-annoying, wait for someone at the table to talk about betting on the coin toss, then launch into a lengthy explanation as to why the bet is -EV and no better than betting on red/black at roulette.

The Profit:  When playing against poker players who are sweating wagers on a sports event, their attention will be on the sports event more than their cards. They will play more straightfoward, making fewer bluffs and being susceptible to bluffs or aggressive squeeze plays, c-bets, and semi-bluffs. If they lose their sports wagers, they will likely be on tilt or on the edge of tilt, particularly if they are also a fan of the team that lost. This is where your tolerance of the sports talk pays dividends. Needle them gently about the game ("Did the Patriots cover? Oh, I guess that missed field goal was a big deal, huh?"), then take their cash when they blow up!

Super Bowl + taunting + ??? = Profit!!


  1. Remember that great Far Side cartoon of what the dog hears when her owner is talking to her? "Blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah Ginger."

    Well, my eyes glazed over at this post, and basically what I got from it was "blah blah blah football blah blah blah football."

  2. @ Rakewell (a/k/a Poker Grump):


  3. Eli might be an elite QB now, he certainly was not back in his previous superbowl and I've always thought it a joke that he was named MVP. I've never respected Eli for what he pulled coming out of college. First off, why the hell not play in SD? Second, he always got too much credit for Giant wins. He was constantly chucking the ball up and hoping his receivers came down with it. But this year, I have changed my tune. The last half of the season Eli has been a new man. He's been tough in the pocket, he's cut way down on bad throws, and he's made a lot of right decisions. I'm still wondering when he will revert back to Bad Eli but personally I think NY wins unless they turn it over or he plays poorly.

    Belichik is a great coach but so is Tom Coughlin. After 27 years of marriage, I can survive his withering glare but I am amazed how he relates to players 1/3 his age and how the players love and respect him. Which is also true for Belichik. I'm rooting for Belichik but I am betting on Coughlin.

  4. Yeah, it's usually sports, sports, sports on the tv's in the poker room.

    But that reminds me that at least twice recently I saw the same 30 minute infomertial for some supposedly new kind of bra on in two different poker rooms in two different cities (L.A. and Vegas).

    I wonder if they were doing this to attract women?

    Yeah, that must be it.

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