Wednesday, November 30, 2005


In high school, I was on the cross-country running team. I asked one of my friends on the team what his goals were for the season. "I don't set goals," he said. "I just try to do my best."

That seemed odd to me because I thought you should always have a plan about where you want to be and what you need to do to get there. I thought I would always try to have specific objectives for myself.

But then when reading Alan Schoonmaker's latest article in Card Player magazine, I realized that I haven't set out a specific plan for what I want to do with poker.

So far, my only goals have been to climb the limit ladder, improve my game and keep making enough money to live on until I find a job.

Now I realize I need a more specific outline for my poker career.

1) I want to beat $15/$30 for 1.5 big bets an hour on a regular basis. For this to happen, I need to be playing $15/$30 as my regular game for at least 50,000 hands before I can come to any initial conclusion about my winrate.

2) I need to analyze my assets and liabilities. My assets are that I constantly study the game, I am focused on my play and that I have the discipline to resist tilting away unnecessary bets. My liabilities are that I don't have a steady primary source of income, and I have a hard time growing my bankroll because of life expenditures.

3) My plan is to get a job by the end of this year. I will play a lot of poker up until then, and after I get a job, I hope to continue playing for about 2 hours a day. I will rebuild my bankroll at the lower limits, and I may need to rejuvenate it with money from a real job. Normally I would resist using real-life money for poker playing, but the only reason I've dropped down in limits from $15/$30 already is because my bankroll has shrunk due to life expenses. I would like my bankroll to roughly reflect my poker earnings so that I can play at limits where I feel like I have the most profit potential.

4) I will review where I am once a month, starting Jan. 1. My goals are attainable if I successfully land the job I want. If I don't get that job, I will need to continue playing at limits within my bankroll before I can afford to take another shot.

It's disappointing that I hit a bad run of cards shortly after moving up to $15/$30. I'm not afraid of that game -- it seemed quite fishy to me. Without the bankroll for it, though, I have no business playing there.

I'm not worried. I'll be back soon, and then the fish will pay.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I had just gotten back above my original buy-in at the weekly game when I heard yelling at the other table. I thought a fight had broken out. This was much worse.

I peaked into the entry room, where I saw everyone on the ground, hiding wherever they could. Then I ran into the bathroom so I could hide in the bathtub with one other guy.

One of the robbers charged into the bathroom with a gun pointed at my head.

"Get the fuck out of the bathroom! Get on the ground with your hands in the air!"

I moved onto the floor and put my hands over my head. I laid that way for what seemed like a long time, but it was probably more like six or seven minutes. I stayed still and listened to the robbers yelling and banging on furniture as they looked for the money. It was locked in a closet.

There were four robbers. One by one, they moved all of us into a corner near the kitchen. There were about 18 of us total -- about 12 players, two dealers, two game organizers and a few of their friends. I crouched down at the back of the huddle and put my hands on top of my head. The robbers were cursing and looking for the person who had the key to the money closet.

"I just play poker here," one guy said. "This isn't my place."

Then they emptied everyone's pockets. They only took my wallet. Most people also lost their keys and cell phones.

They tied up our hands with rubber cord. Then they started jamming all of us into the bathroom. On the way there, one of the thieves hit me in the back with the butt of his gun. "Don't fucking move," he said.

They were terribly disorganized. The whole robbery must have taken at least 20 minutes, and I was surprised they wasted so much time tying people up when they could have left as soon as they got the house's money.

The bathroom was full. It was a pile of sweaty, tied-up guys. One of them whispered that he couldn't breathe.

The bastards closed the door and jammed one of the poker tables up against it. A minute later, they were gone.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. And I think most people lost more than I did. I'm out about $400.

It was a scary experience. I had been robbed twice before tonight, but never at gunpoint. The silver lining is that I'm unhurt, and the lost money is like taking a bad beat. Lord knows I'm used to those.

I won't be playing live poker again outside a casino for the foreseeable future. For those of you who do play in home games, please insist that the hosts provide adequate and competent security. Anything less is unacceptable. You don't want to have a gun to your head before you realize you should have taken precautions.

Daniel was also at the game. I'm sure he'll also write about the hold-up. Be safe.

Monday, November 28, 2005

How do you know?

Am I playing bad cards, or am I just running bad?

I wish there were a PokerTracker filter that would let me know the definitive answer. I wish I had a Noted Poker Authority as my chief adviser. I wish there were an optimal amount of money I should have won or lost based on the cards I was dealt, and then I could compare that to reality.

But there's not. All I have are some clues.

So how can I tell how much of this downswing is due to variance, and whether I have previously unknown leaks?

Here are some tests to determine how cold the deck has been:

1) Are my premium pocket pairs (AA and KK) holding up less than usual? In 9,217 hands before this losing streak (sorry about the small sample size -- my current database was only started then), AA won 82 percent of the time, and KK won 67 percent of the time. In 8,683 hands since, AA has won 76 percent of the time, and KK has won 70 percent of the time. So Aces have done a good bit worse, and Kings have been a little better.

2) Am I losing more hands at showdown? Before this downswing, I was winning 55.8 percent of the time at showdown. Since then, I've won 52.1 percent at the end. I'm not sure how significant that 3.7 percentage point turn is, but it certainly costs me money.

3) What hands have been losing? In my case, AJs, QJs, A8s, A6s and A5s have been losers. I think AJs and QJs are probably anomalies, but the others I should probably play less often from middle position.

4) Have I been losing more money than necessary on losing hands, or winning less money than I should with winning hands? This can only be measured by reviewing individual hand histories in PokerTracker, and I think my playing habits are closely in line with historic norms. Fortunately, there's always room for improvement!

I have come to the conclusion that I'm playing well. Even if I could have saved some bets over this time, it would still be a pretty dry run of cards.

Now it's time to recover as quickly as possible. The best way to do that is to get in more hands, play well and stay focused. I think I should play more no limit games because I believe they have less severe swings. I hate to shy away from profitable limit games, but now seems to be the time for bankroll restoration.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


I decided to figure out the probability of any one of three cards falling on the flop. I wanted to figure this probability out after I won $100 by betting that an Ace, a Three or a Five would be flipped up. I knew the odds were in my favor, but I didn't know by how much.

Here's how I think you do the calculation:

40/52 * 39/51 * 38/50 = The probability that an Ace, a Three or a Five will NOT be flopped. That comes to 59280/132600, or 0.447.

So the odds that an Ace, a Three or a Five will be flopped is 55.3 percent (1 - 0.447). I had guess that it would be somewhere around 60 percent, but the odds weren't quite that high in my favor.

If my math is wrong, please let me know.


Daniel and I are playing at our weekly no limit game in Atlanta, and the fish are biting. I won my first hand on a bluff, and Daniel racked up a bunch of chips with a set of Queens, pocket K and AK vs. two all-in short stacks. We're both sitting pretty.

Then this guy I call the Unabomber says he wants to play Ace-Three-Five for $100. Ace-Three-Five is a funny prop bet where one person bets that an Ace, Three or Five will come on the flop. It's a sucker's bet because the odds are in favor of at least one of those cards falling. I need to do the math, but I think it's somewhere over 60 percent in favor of the person who bets on the Ace-Three-Five.

"I'll take that bet, if I can take the Ace, Three and Five," I said. The bet is on, and a beautiful three comes on the flop. I collect my $100.

Daniel and I are talking about the changes in the online poker world. Eurobet was about to switch from the Party Poker network to the Poker Room network. They've offered a 100 percent up to $600 sign-up bonus, which I don't think I'll be able to pass up even though I hate the Poker Room software. I also mention that I heard Party Poker would be releasing a new platform sometime after the new year.

This dude to my right pipes up and says he had heard about that, and that the reason for the new platform is that too many people had hacked into Party Poker's card generating engine. Umm ... I don't think so. Sure, it's possible. But I haven't heard of Party being hacked like that, and if there were even a rumor of something like that happening, I would have heard about the controversy. It's much more likely that Party Poker, the largest online site, is finally getting around to making some much-needed upgrades (although I absolutely love the current format, in all its year 2001-esque simplicity).

I kept my mouth shut. Let the fish believe that online poker is rigged if they want.

Then the dealer, who's nice but always tells questionable tidbits about the poker world, mentions that $10/$20 limit is the main game of her friends in Vegas. She said they make $5,000 a week by sitting 40 hours in the casinos.

This time I had to say something. "I don't think they make $5,000 a week at $10/$20," I said. Let's see: that's $125 an hour, or about six big bets per hour. In other words, it's completely impossible for anyone to win at that clip. Either the dealer's friends are lying to her, or she's lying to me.

Whatever. I think she was sincere, and if she can't figure out that she's passing on a falsehood, then that's her loss. It's also the loss of everyone else at the table who believes her. What can I do but disagree and then smile when she reiterates the validity of her point?

There's a lot of bad information out there, and perhaps the ability to separate the truth from rumor is what contributes to the making of a solid poker player.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hand Protection? Maybe Not

I first read "Small Stakes Hold 'em" by Miller, Sklansky and Malmuth about a year ago. I still consider this book to be the bible of limit hold 'em. When I learned about how to protect your hand, I thought that was the key to playing winning poker. If you can make the odds incorrect for your opponent, how can you lose?

Well, sure. If you can pull it off.

The more I think about hand protection, the more I believe it's utility is limited when compared to a more important concept: value betting.

Now, I'm not saying that trying to protect your hand is wrong. I think it's an important part of any solid poker game. What I am saying is that many times, players cost themselves money because they are more concerned about protecting their hand than they are about getting the most from it.

As a simple example, you may have a hand like AA or two pair that you decide is almost certainly the best hand. Sometimes when you decide to wait until the turn to pop in a raise, you may have improved your winning chances slightly, but the pot will often be much smaller. Instead of winning a huge multiway pot, most players will simply fold or call on the turn.

Here's the problem: It is correct for any hand to continue playing if the odds justify it. Many times, especially in large pots, it is difficult to force out players who have strong draws.

But just because someone has a strong draw doesn't mean you shouldn't make them pay for it. Any time a player has an equity advantage in a hand, he is making money by betting and raising. Any time a player foregos that opportunity to raise, he is reducing his earning potential.

For example, it is difficult to drive out flush and straight draws on the flop. A flush draw (nine outs) only needs 4.1:1 odds to continue, and an open-ended straight draw (eight outs) only needs 4.75:1 to continue. In limit hold 'em, those odds (plus implied odds) usually justify a call, raise or re-raise (especially from late position to try for a free card).

Most of the time, you are not going to have any luck protecting your hand from these and other powerful draws.

The places where you can protect your hand are in pots against more marginal draws. You do want to drive out hands like second pair (up to five outs), bottom pair with a backdoor draw (about 6.5 outs) or gutshot draws (four outs). These are the hands that you can frequently re-raise or check-raise to alter the pot odds to the point where they're making a mistake not to fold.

When you're involved in a hand, your goal is to make the most money over the long run. Many times, this means you want to ram and jam the flop rather than wait for a slightly higher equity advantage on the turn.

Links to columns about hand protection:
"Protecting Hands in Limit HE," from Sound of a Suckout
"Forego Time?," from the 2+2 Small Stakes forum

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Looking for Leaks

I don't believe in luck, but I know what works.

Jumping out of a plane works. I went skydiving yesterday for the second time, hopeful I was correct that this would be a +EV situation. Based on my previous jumping experience, it would kick ass. I risked a 75,000:1 chance of dying in exchange for the intangible benefits of the free fall: fun, an adrenaline rush, life perspective and a guaranteed great day. It makes you feel good to feel alive.

When you're dropping from 14,000 feet with an undeployed parachute strapped on, the loud wind creates ripples on your face. The sensations of fear, falling and faith rush through your body, adding up to feelings of exhilaration. The small patchwork world below seems like it might just stop right there.

The adrenaline rush lasts for hours, and its afterglow holds for much longer. The rest of the day is like the fulfillment of a happy prophecy. Everything will be great. I will have a good interview for a job, I will fix Matt's computer, I will cook out, I will get a little drunk, I will have fun hanging out with friends, I will win at poker.

Wishes granted.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Wouldn't it be cool if you could change your poker site's screen so it doesn't have all those distracting avatars, chairs, dealers and backgrounds? Would you rather just see a black screen, players' names and statistics?

Something like this?

It's pretty easy to do.

The first step is to go to Chip Litre's Poker Mods, select the layout you like and follow the instructions. This will help you get rid of that pesky dealer and those bothersome chairs.

Once that is done, you can get the black background I use by clicking on this link from Other backgrounds are also available on this page and from

But what if you play on PokerStars? Well, they have mods too. Your screen may end up looking something like this:

Basically it's a two-step process to use this background with PokerStars. First, go to the 2+2 thread about modding PokerStars. Right-click on the table image displayed in the thread, and then select "Save Image As" from the dropdown menu. Save it as bg.jpg into this folder: C:/Program Files/PokerStars/Gs.

That step makes the black image your background, but PokerStars won't let you use that background unless you launch PokerStars from the file called "PokerStars.exe" rather than the default, which is "PokerStarsUpdate.exe." The easiest way to launch PokerStars from PokerStars.exe is to simply double click on that file in C:/Program Files/PokerStars. For more information, give a detailed read to the 2+2 thread linked to above.

That should do it! Good luck with your modding.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Dad walked down to the basement to watch me play poker for a few minutes before he went to bed. He sweats me so bad I might as well have Mike Matasow standing over my shoulder.

"How could you fold that hand?!? It was suited! You could have made a flush," Dad said about my 75 suited vs. a preflop three bet.

I get the same crap when I hold unsuited connectors.

"Mark, you're passing up all these golden opportunities for straights and flushes," Dad said. "How are you ever going to win if you keep folding all the time."

It gets better.

Sometimes I'll hold a hand like JTs and the board will come AA5 rainbow. The pot gets three-bet to me, and I'll fold.

"How could you fold that? You had a pair of Aces," he said.

"But so does everyone else," I whined.

"Yeah, but you could make two pair if you got a Jack or a Ten," he said.

The Dad will start complaining about taxes or about how I haven't put my empty iced tea glasses in the dishwasher. He knows he can give me a hard time because I tease him all the time just for fun.

I love my Dad, but his poker advice really sucks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Live Play

I broke one of my rules by playing poker late into the night at the weekly game.

As always, it was a good game. I quickly lost about $200 to two flushes on the river, but I don't mind losing to chasers because they'll pay much more in the long run. I made back a little by bluffing with AK vs. AQ that had made top pair with the Q. It's ridiculous that the guy folded to me, but I'll take it. "Good read," I said.

Most of the regular characters were there. Pipsqueak sucked out on me with a third flush on the river to knock me down a little bit again. Then another time, Pipsqueak sucked out a higher two pair than mine on the river. I bluffed a few pots to make back a little money, and then I busted an aggressive player with QQ that turned into a straight vs. his A-high bluff in a large pot. But what I was really looking for was a big score. It was just a matter of waiting for my chance.

I had my target: this guy who looked like Phil Laak, the Unabomber. He talked a good game and listened to his iPod the whole time, but he was losing. He said I was the only player at the table he was scared of.

Near the end of the night, the Unabomber busted again and rebought for another $250. He was obviously tilting. He told the table he was steaming. He played like it too.

I raised preflop with AKo. He reraised, and I pushed. I figured at best I had him dominated, and at worst it was a coin flip. He turned over pocket 10s, and I got no help from the board. I'm content with my play of the hand and my read of the Unabomber.

I was frustrated that I had lost, but I agonized over trying to figure out why. Here's what I came up with:

1) I hate losing. Even though I played well, losing sucks.

2) I broke my rule of playing relatively short sessions. I was losing patience, but I told myself to stay because the game was still good.

3) I told myself I was ready to double up or go home. I should have just gone home rather than adopt an all-or-nothing attitude.

4) I try not to dwell on minor losses, and that's exactly what I'm doing.

Oh well. It feels better to write about it and put the game to rest. Today is a new day and a new session. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

Monday, November 14, 2005


There is in all things a pattern that is part of our universe. It has symmetry, elegance, and grace--those qualities you find always in that which the true artist captures. You can find it in the turning of the seasons, in the way sand trails along a ridge, in the branch clusters of the creosote bush or the pattern of its leaves. We try to copy these patterns in our lives and our society, seeking the rhythms, the dances, the forms that comfort. Yet, it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move toward death.
--from "The Collected Sayings of Muad'Dib" by the Princess Irulan

There are countless rules of thumb in poker, but one holds true more than the rest. That rule is, "It depends."

One of the most dangerous things you can do in poker is fall into patterns. No situation is exactly the same. No two opponents are the same. No flop texture is the same. Small differences in the previous action of the hand, the table composition and position can change everything. For example, these factors can change an easy fold to a ballsy raise that results in a huge win.

I remember reading somewhere that poker is counterintuitive to the way most people naturally think. People want to look for patterns in their behaviors, and they try to base future actions on their results. Many times, this kind of thinking leads to poker death. It brings about results-oriented thinking and loose, passive play. People are more likely to remember their successes than their failures. A fish will remember the time his 10-2 suited led to a flush and a huge pot, but then that fish will forget the 10 other times that 10-2 suited led to nothing.

It's more correct to learn the correct play, understand the reasons for it, and then disregard the results. The difficulty is that at the end of the year, when you look down at your wins and losses, the bottom line is what's important. But with study and analytical thinking, a poker player's goal is to make the right move at the right time and resist the impulse to do things like automatically call down or always play Aces the same way.

Another pattern that I try not to fall into is the advance action buttons on every site. Those are the boxes where you can place a check mark to automatically bet, check or fold when the action comes to you. These are dangerous because they can give off tells if other people can intuit what your future action will be. More importantly, when you use the advance action buttons, you are making a decision before you know what everyone else has done ahead of you. Sometimes, a folding hand becomes a betting hand if everyone else checks. Or a pot will grow large enough to give you odds to continue that you didn't have previously. I've come to believe that these actions often determine the difference between a winning and losing session. Those one or two pots extra pots are critical to a winning poker game.

Patterns are the easy way out, especially when multi-tabling. But evaluating each situation as an independent event opens doors to +EV plays that otherwise would not have existed.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I'd Better Get Used to It

Well, I knew it had to happen sometime. You can't run that well forever.

Sometimes you have to feed the fish. It's OK ... I'll eat them some other time.

Last night was my first real kick in the ass at $15/$30. No draws came in. Many hands got sucked out on.

This is nothing new. This is poker the way I'm used to it. You can't win them all, no matter how cool that would be.

It was my worst day of poker yet, but I'm not worried at all. How can I worry? I lost one day after making money the previous eight days in a row, and 11 days out of the last 12. I mean, a run like that is just incredible.

The only thing that sucks about it is that it wouldn't have happened (at least not as badly as it did) if I had played the Empire bonus like I planned to. But that's silly talk. The games were soooo fishy on Party's $15/$30 tables last night.

Anyways, I'm off to Maryland for the weekend for a couple of days. Good luck over the weekend!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

20 K

I crossed $20,000 in career poker winnings last night!

This run is really amazing. It was just on Aug. 19 that I wrote about passing $10,000 for the first time. And now, about 2.5 months later, I've doubled my bankroll.

But I'm skeptical. Or maybe I'm just paranoid after watching the movie "Casino" last night.

If gambling is a trap, then maybe it's only a matter of time before I start losing money. Maybe I will develop compulsive tendencies. Maybe I will be tempted to play other games. Maybe I'll go on a bad run and have a hard time stepping down in limits. Maybe I'll lose respect for the money and blow it.

If gambling isn't a trap, then why have I been winning so much for so long? Has my game really advanced that far?

Poker is an anomaly in the gambling world. It's one of the few games where the house isn't necessarily out to get you. The casino usually wants all your fucking money. In poker, the online casino has learned to be content to take a $3 rake from most hands.

The only way to be safe is to stay on guard. I've done damn well so far to stay disciplined and avoid tilt. I've made rules for myself and I stick to them pretty well. I don't play casino games I have no business playing. I limit my sessions to 2 hours. I'm a stickler for table selection. I don't get too emotional about big wins or losses. I play within my bankroll. I concentrate on my game.

Everyone seems to be asking, "How long can the poker boom last? How long before all the fish bust out?"

Perhaps the better question is, "When will my luck run out?"

Without constant vigilance, focus and discipline, anyone could end up as a fish.


New Empire Poker bonus: Use Deposit code PLAYNOV to get a 100 percent bonus up to $100. Link.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Surly Poker Gnome

What's up!

This is the evolution of my former blog, 5,589 Miles From Vegas. I should have changed the blog title after I moved back to the States from Santiago, Chile a few months ago, but I'm just now getting around to it. It seems a little disingenuous to keep advertising "Poker in Chile" when I now live in Atlanta.

This blog will be similar to the old one. I plan on updating the style and links on the site, but most of it will remain the same. Content will consist of random ramblings about what I think about poker, the evolution of my game, funny stories, book reviews, strategy ideas and trip reports. The purpose of this blog is to write about poker to help myself and readers understand the game better. I intend for this blog to be like a poker diary, but one which I will actually keep up with because other people might read it.

A little about myself: My name is Mark Niesse, and I currently live in the basement of my parents' house in Atlanta. I lived in Chile for most of last year and moved back at the beginning of July. I'm a journalist by trade, and I've been looking for jobs in the States. I have several promising leads, and in the meantime I've been living the good life. I've been winning at poker, traveling and having fun. Who knows if I'll ever have such an easy time of life again?

I recently made the jump to playing $15/$30 limit hold 'em on Party Poker, although I wouldn't consider it my main game yet. Previously, I played mostly $5/$10 limit hold 'em, but I now have the bankroll for $15/$30, and the games are much looser than I anticipated. And I'm winning.

I have to give props to Drew for coming up with the title of the blog. His idea was to call it Hal, the Surly Poker Gnome, but I don't know if Hal would be comfortable with that.

If you have a blog, please link to me or update your old link. My linking policy is that I will only link to blogs that I read on a regular basis. This might decrease the number of hits I get, but I don't want to refer people to crappy content.

I'd like to receive comments from readers about what they would like to see from this blog. I've considered putting up more hand histories, but I'm not sure whether that's something that would interest people. Let me know what you think.

Thanks! I hope you come back to read the blog again.