November 22, 2016

Dancing Gorillas at the Poker Table

Bonus update (23 Nov 2016):  My good friend Poker Grump wrote a great article over at Poker News on the same issue of selective attention a few weeks back. His article is better because he has a Penn & Teller magic video. So go read that article then come back here for dancing gorilla videos.

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After several stressful months at the office, not to mention a mind-boggling Presidential election, a trip to Las Vegas came at just the right moment. A few days to unplug from the world were just what the doctor ordered. Poker. Good food. Cocktails. Friends. The Vegas Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon. Well, the last one was more the excuse for Vegas than the highlight, yet there is something awesome about being mere yards from a stage where Snoop Dogg is rapping about peace, love, and weed, before running for two hours in the neon glow of the Vegas Strip at night.

As has become the norm for my Vegas trips, I made my headquarters at Aria; still the best value for upscale hotel rooms, awesome poker room, and great mid-Strip location. But there may have been a donkalicious late night drinking session of 2-6 spread limit Hold Them at Monte Carlo. Allegedly. Unquestionably there was a side trip for a session of Pot Limit Gambooool at the new Wynn poker room (actually in Encore). This is a fantastic room, with restrooms and a sports book window conveniently located in the room, lots of space between tables, top shelf drinks, and a cool, upscale vibe. And, of course, no Vegas poker trip is complete without a late night session of Poker With The Drunks at Planet Hollywood, where I cashed out for nearly a grand in profit. P-Ho remains the gold standard for lucrative late night poker.

Monday morning rolled around, and I decided to squeeze in a last three hour poker session at Aria. My legs were a little sore from the race, but I was rested, caffeinated, and sober. I should have been ready to play my A-game. Instead, I ended up looking like a total idiot.

But, for a moment, let's digress. Take a quick look at this video.

You may well have already seen this video, which was the centerpiece of an exceptional bit of psychological experimentation. The point of the experiment was to test how people observed an overall situation when they were focused on one aspect of the situation. Here, where people were focused on the task of counting the number of passes made by the people in white t-shirts, half of the observers completely missed the gorilla walking through the scene. That's right. People who were intently focused on tracking one part of the scene were utterly oblivious to another part of the scene, even something as absurd as a gorilla.

The researchers called this psychological phenomenon selective attention. Essentially, when your brain is focused on one task, it mutes or outright ignores information unrelated to the task at hand. And it can manifest itself in a wide range of daily activities. Including poker. And in a game where observation is a key skill, overlooking important information can be a costly leak.

Back to my session at Aria. I got into a game where most of the players had been at the table together since early in the morning. And it was quickly obvious why. Most of the players were over $500 deep, with several having over $1,000 stacked behind. The table economy ran through a total maniac across the table who raised preflop more than two out of three hands. His standard play was to raise preflop by splashing a random handful of chips into the pot, usually $30-$80. Then, he would c-bet nearly every flop by jamming a big stack of $80-$150 into the middle. Of course, the maniac attracted multiple callers every hand, with players looking to catch a hand and take a bite out of the maniac's stack. For his part, the maniac, as maniacs are wont to do, caught improbable hand after improbable hand to vacuum up chips from tilty nits.

So how many times did I screw up in this session? The number of the counting shall be three ....

Hand #1:  Early in the session, I had roughly my $300 starting stack and was in the small blind. Maniac raised to $20, and I called with 75 soooted along with three other players. Flop was a gorgeous 7-7-5 with two hearts. Catamaran! We checked it around on the flop. Turn was another 5. Boo! I led out for $50, and got called by the big blind. Maniac and another guy folded, but the cutoff—a fairly standard older nit—raised to $150. Damn, pretty clear he has the other 7 and we're chopping the pot. So, I shoved, expecting the big blind to fold, the nit to call, and to run out the board.

Except the big blind didn't fold. Instead, he kept looking at his cards and thinking. He cut out chips for a call, and kept looking back at his cards and the board. Eventually, he sighed and mucked. I rolled my cards and said, "I flopped it, but guess now we'll chop it."

It was only then that I realized the old nit in the cutoff hadn't snap-called! That was ... awkward. And seconds ticked by as the nit stared at my hand, the board, and his hand. Finally, he reluctantly folded. Obviously he didn't have the last 7, so he might have had something like an overpair or possibly an open-ended straight flush draw. In any event, I likely cost myself his $100 or so call.

Hand #2:  Later in the session, I was on the button with the Spanish Inquisition6h3s. The table maniac raised to $30 and I called, along with three other players. The flop was interesting—9h5h4h—giving me an open-ended straight draw, but presenting the danger of drawing dead, I was prepared to fold to any bet, on the theory there is always a better place to get it in bad. But instead it checked around, and I gladly asked the dealer for a free card.

The turn was even more interesting—the 2s—giving me the straight. This time, the maniac threw out $50, basically 1/3 of the pot. Two players flat called, and I made the reluctant crying call.

The river was the 2h. Although I doubted there had been a slow-played set or two pair that boated, the fourth heart on the river was almost certainly the nail in the coffin for my straight. The other players took turns looking at their hole cards and checking. I checked and waited to see the inevitable showdown between big single hearts in the hole. As everyone stared at each other, I rolled my cards and dramatically announced, "I have a straight to the six!" hoping to prod the other players to show down and move things along.

Knowing my hand wasn't good, I looked over at the TV, waiting for the next hand. I heard the dealer announce "Flush wins." Well duh. But then, I saw the dealer pushing the pot to me. What the heck??

Oh yeah. I had a baby heart in my hand, so I had a flush, not a straight. Of course, I could only beat a naked 3h in the hole, but that was the only other heart held by anyone in the hand at showdown. Cha-ching! Feel like I missed a value bet there with that monster ....

Hand #3:  Once again, maniac opened in middle position for $35. Once again I called on the button with 8s7s. But to my surprise, the rest of the table folded. The flop was pretty good—Ah9s6c—giving me an open-ended straight draw. Maniac bet $50, I raised to $130, and the maniac auto-called. Hmm, he might have a hand this time. Turn was interesting—9c. Maniac checked, I bet $200, he called. At this point, if I didn't hit my straight, I was done with the hand. It was far too probable maniac had an Ace or 9.

River was not just a blank, it was a killer card—6h. Basically, if maniac has any Ace, 9, 6, or pocket pair, he wins. Maniac checked, and I checked. Maniac says, "You win," I respond, "I have eight high" and flashed my hand. Maniac goes, "Oh, I can beat that!" and tables QcJc. Ahhh, so he chased a flush draw, missed, and still has me beat. Sucks to be me.

I went to muck my loser hand when the guy next to me says, "Wait, you chop!" I paused, then realized that maniac and I were both playing the board because the Ace on board was the kicker for each of our hands. I tabled my cards, and we chopped the pot.

I ended up stacking maniac when I slow-played QhQd preflop, and we got it all-in on a flop of AsQcTc. Maniac showed Ac2c, which was stronger than I hoped. But the board ran out blanks and my set held up for a monster pot.

So back to selective attention. In each of these hands, I was so focused on one thing—a player's action or chasing my draw—that I missed other important developments. Of course, having it happen three times in a three hour session is not something I am terribly proud of. I'm certain that the circumstances—a last quick session, some residual fatigue, playing a maniac—contributed to the problem. But it's also a phenomenon that happens even to the best trained professionals; for example, a decent percentage of radiologists failed to detect a gorilla shape when reviewing CT scans for tumors. And for you smug folks who saw the gorilla in the first video and who are laughing at my stupidity, try this follow up test:

In any event, being aware of this psychological phenomenon will hopefully make it less likely to recur in my future poker sessions.

Or I'm just getting old.

November 09, 2016

The Resiliency of America

Elections mean everything.

But not because our favored candidate wins or loses. I'm old enough now to have experienced the highs and lows of many, many elections. Elections for Presidents, Senators, Representatives, Governors, legislators, and even city council members. Won some. Lost some. Cried in jubilation. Cried in despair.

But here's the thing. America has been the greatest nation on Earth for going on nearly a quarter of a millenium. Our nation is the first and greatest experiment in Democracy, the idea that the will of the People will govern the People. We've had great leaders. We've had terrible leaders. And yet, here we are. Still Number One on the Charts, Number One in Their Hearts. The rest of the world still looks to America as the great beacon of Hope, of Freedom, of Opportunity.

Last May, I was in Las Vegas with a diverse group of friends to run a half marathon and share some good fellowship. We talked some politics. One member of our group is a hard-core conservative. When others in our group expressed fear of a Trump presidency, I noted that Trump would be constrained by the American power structure—Congress, the Executive bureaucracy, the courts. In an age of expansive Presidential power, these constraints may not mean as much as they did in prior ages. But they are there, and they are real.

At this moment, the election hasn't been officially called, but it looks like Donald Trump—yes, the Celebrity Apprentice "You're fired!" Donald Trump—will most likely be our next President. I'm on record thinking Trump will be a disaster as President. I would have voted for Jeb! Bush, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio over Hillary Clinton, and basically any Joe or Jane Schmoe over Donald Trump. Yet, here we are. A majority of Americans (or close enough as to make no difference) prefer Donald Trump.

That's the beauty of democracy. The will of the People prevails. And it seems America wants to go a direction I think is folly. But who am I to say I know better than the People? Maybe the People as a whole are smarter than I am, Wisdom of the Crowd and all. In two years there will be another Congressional election, and in four years there will be another Presidential election. And if Trump is a disaster, if our country has lurched into a ravine, then my side will presumably win a victory or two, and maybe even claim a mandate. And if Trump is successful? Well, then America as a whole presumably is doing well and my fears were misplaced.

I know my Democratic friends will run through the list of unfair disadvantages Clinton faced. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Media fawning over Trump. FBI Director Comey's absurd injecting of himself into the last two weeks of a presidential race. Third-party candidacies by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein. Irrational and even rabid investigations by a Republican House. And yes, still in 2016, residual sexism.

It's all bullshit.

Trump was the weakest potential candidate in a large Republican field. President Obama is as popular as President Reagan was at the end of his second term. The economy is doing well, and unemployment is under 5%. This loss is squarely on Hillary Clinton. Clinton, who already faced skepticism and distrust, chose to use a personal email server while Secretary of State, feeding into a narrative of dishonesty and lawlessness, creating a scandal that was both meritless and defining. She chose to give speeches to Wall Street companies for large fees. She chose to limit her campaign efforts in the Upper Midwest, taking the traditional support of blue-collar union workers for granted. Clinton had the most amazing possible opposition research to turn into anti-Trump ads, focusing on Trump's sexist, racist, and generally unsavory actions and attitudes. Even Trump's greatest strength—his self-acclaimed business acumen—turned out to be as much a fraud as the candidate himself.

Clinton's failure to capitalize on all of these inherent advantages is a testament to her weakness as a candidate. She failed to connect to ordinary Americans who have been left out of the economic recovery. She failed to explain how she would change the status quo, how she would represent those who aren't part of the social and economic elite. She failed to make a case why her Presidency would move America forward in a significant way other than being "not Trump". She simply failed to connect with We the People.

So, here we are. The American People have spoken. The People want change. The People want not-Clinton. The People want Donald Trump to look President Obama in the eye and say "You're Fired!" And in a democracy, the will of the People prevails.

So to all of my friends who are anti-Trump: Do not despair. Trump and the Republicans now have full and unfettered power. Everything is on them. If they let Obamacare fail without a safety net, it's on them. If Russia hacks our government computers, it's on them. If there is a terrorist attack or if the Middle East falls into chaos, it's on them. If the economy tanks, it's on them. If they repeal civil rights legislation, it's on them. And if the Republicans do any of these things, well there is always the next election. And today begins the next election. Today is the first day to start to make the case for change. Today is the day to begin recruiting candidates for city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. Today is the day to start the opposition to Donald Trump.

But remember, millions of people around the world don't have the ability to participate in an election. Many people around the word have no say in their governance. They have no say in who runs their country, no say in who speaks for them on the local or international stage, no say in who makes policies that affect their lives.

Elections mean everything. And that's a beautiful thing.

November 08, 2016

Kumbaya and the Limits of Empathy

Boy have we come a long way since the Iowa caucuses. As we await the results of yet another hotly disputed presidential election, my thoughts have turned to the widening and seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, right and left. In recent days, two prominent articles (one in the Washington Post, the other in the Wall Street Journal) have suggested that liberals need to learn to "empathize" with conservatives—in particular, blue-collar white voters.

These and similar empathy-trolling articles are based on the premise of finding a way to join hands and sing kumbaya after an election. This kumbaya mentality held a certain essential truth in the wake of the bitter, fractious elections from 2000-2012. Growing up in a small town in rural Nebraska, I understand the angst and even despair of those who feel left behind in the rapidly changing world. And I agree many liberals would be well-served to better understand and, yes, empathize with conservative voters.

But this election is different. We are far past differences in policy. We are even past disagreements as to basic facts; the rejection of shared facts by many conservative politicians and voters has only exacerbated our political divide. We are in a new and dangerous place where we no longer even share a concept of American democracy.

Trump has built his campaign on a base of alt-right, white nationalist support. This is not saying that all, or even a large number of his supporters are alt-right white nationalists. But that base, the ones supporting Trump because he wants to deport millions of Hispanics because they are "rapists and murderers", fueled his nomination. And we should rightly be disgusted by and reject them.

But even that is not the real problem with the kumbaya argument. The highly partisan, polarizing elections off 2000-2012 were fought within the shared boundaries of American democratic discourse. But Trump and the alt-right (with the tacit support of mainstream Republican leaders) have abandoned all pretense of those shared democratic values. Trump got his start with his alt-right base by championing the "birther" movement, attacking the legitimacy of Obama's presidency. Trump has only thrown gas on the alt-right fire with his rhetoric during the present campaign.

Trump not only claims polls are skewed, he and his alt-right supporters also assert the political process itself is rigged. Linking back to the racist base of his candidacy, Trump this week suggested the Nevada elections are "rigged" because polling places were only kept open for a "certain group" of voters. Or how about his rhetoric toward Clinton. Calling a political opponent "crooked" and "corrupt" is fair (if rough and tumble) commentary. Calling her a "criminal" and promising to throw her in prison is the stuff of fascism.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In even more heated rhetoric, Clinton is no longer merely a "criminal"; Trump and other Republican leaders are asserting that Clinton and President Obama are "traitors" or have committed "treason"--treason, of course, is one of the few federal crimes for which there is a death penalty. And don't forget Trump suggesting that, if the election goes the wrong way, his supporters should use their Second Amendment rights (a dog whistle to the alt-right, where the right to bear arms is held to be part of a right to armed rebellion against a perceived tyrant). And as the election drew to a close, Trump has even refused to state if he will accept the results as legitimate in the event he loses.

Of course, it's hard to know whether and to what extent Trump and other Republican leaders are drinking the alt-right Kool-Aid. For some, whipping up crowds chanting "Lock her up!" is only a tool to energize their voting base. Yet, when those chants turn to "Execute her!", those same Republican leaders turn mum, offering at best tepid rebukes, afraid of losing their base (or worse, becoming a target in their next primary).

It's one thing to argue that we should all find common ground and respect each other after a bitter campaign like Bush-Gore or Obama-Romney. But it's an entirely different argument when the Trump/alt-right wing of the Republican party rejects the legitimacy of our shared democratic norms. How, exactly, are we supposed to engage post-election, particularly if Clinton is elected? How is that conversation at the office or church supposed to go?

"Clinton is a criminal who ought to be thrown in jail."

"I guess I don't agree. I get your frustration, but you know, she hasn't even been charged with a crime."

"The corrupt system is just protecting her. She's a traitor and ought to be executed."

"Well, I see where you're coming from, and I can agree Clinton has had some shady moments, but I guess I can't agree with you about her being a traitor."

"Thomas Jefferson once said, 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.' And that's why we have the Second Amendment."

"Interesting point. Never thought of that perspective. Not sure I agree with you, but let me mull it over. Want to go grab lunch?"

Sorry, but certain ideas are sufficiently dangerous to a functioning democracy that they cannot be given false equivalency and treated as a legitimate part of political discourse. Rejecting the legitimacy of an anti-democratic argument is not "dehumanizing" those who advocate it; it's a defense of basic American values.

Sometimes, it's not about empathy. You understand your opponent's argument perfectly. And the only rational response is to say their idea is batshit insane.

So, until the Republican party rejects the batshit insane, anti-democratic, anti-American alt-right, I'm all out of empathy.

Empathy, anyone?

(Billboard posted by a resident of an affluent 
West Des Moines, Iowa neighborhood.)