Friday, January 11, 2008

Don't stand still

About three years ago the most common question I got asked as a TV pundit was ‘what starting hands should I play with?’ We, the presenters, just looked at each other, sighed, and replied ‘pocket pairs from 9-9 upwards and A-K’ (while probably mumbling something sarcastic under our breath incorporating the words “Christ” and “Muppet”). It was – suffice to say - an unsophisticated answer for an unsophisticated question.

Jump forward in time to present day and I’m now more likely to be asked (by a beginner I hasten to add) how to trap a tight-aggressive early-positioned opponent in light of a raise and a re-raise while holding the nut straight with a second-nut flush draw. There’s a very good chance that this query will be accompanied by a full hand history and Poker Tracker data. Times – my friends - they are a’ changing.

The interesting thing for me is identifying those people within the world of poker who move with the times and those that sit, quiet and smug - entirely self-assured that they are the real-deal - while the rest of the world accelerates off into the distance waving ‘ta-ta’ back over their shoulders.

Curiously, the development of industries is not a subject new to me. A large part of my training to be a marketeer (don’t worry – this was during my old life!) was looking at case studies for various companies in various markets. If there’s one thing that holds true across all of them, it’s that change is inevitable, and if you chose to stand still you must be prepared to watch your competitors sprinting past you for the finish line, no matter how far ahead you were when last you checked your rear-view mirror, so to speak.

This entire train of thought/rambling/BS (feel free to delete as you find applicable) was kicked off by two strategy pieces sitting back-to-back in Poker Player Magazine.

The first piece was from online marvel Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend. It contained the kind of deep, analytical thinking that has become synonymous with today’s online professional. For example: “…unless my opponent has a pocket pair larger than Jacks, a bigger flush draw or a set, I am at worst even-money from this point forward. If he has A-9 without the flush draw I’m still a 52% favourite. He could be holding Jacks or better, but it’s unlikely as I viewed the player as loose and one who’s willing to gamble with marginal hands.” Wow – is this guy’s opponent screwed or what!

Then we turn the page and bump into the familiar grinning mug of Phil Hellmuth. Ah Phil… bless him: the only man on Earth who can tell you story where he gets the crap kicked out of him but he still emerges (somehow) victorious. It’s like Alan Partridge ending every painful anecdote with, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”

So, on the back of Brian Townsend’s thoughtful insight, what kind of tactical analysis can we expect from ever-humble Hellmuth? Well, Phil kicks off with: “Imagine this: I’m playing poorly in the $5,000 No-Limit Short-Handed event at the WSOP.” What!? You’re playing poorly? How am I meant to imagine that, Phil! I mean, I like to think I have a pretty vivid imagination, but that’s simply too much to ask of me!

Anyway, in a beautiful Hellmuth-shaped turnaround (totally unexpected, obviously *ahem*) Phil suddenly turns on the heat and becomes brilliant again. Phew - thank god for that!

He talks us through one hand, ending with: “I love the fact that I stayed so aggressive in this hand.” Do you Phil? Do you really love it? Do you love it so much that you went home and pleasured yourself? I do hope so…

Other classic story-ending statements of self-congratulations include: “Player A folds and I feel like a superhero”, “Wow, what a beautiful three hands!” and my personal favourite: “One theme common to all of the above hands is this: I was either reading my opponents well or throwing them off the scent by giving out false tells”. Remember kids: Phil Hellmuth is remarkable. Just ask him. Or his mum.

I guess my point (that’s right folks, I have a point!) is that Phil is old school and starting to sound like a poker-parody joke. Indeed, as ludicrous as it may seem this early in their careers, to a degree even the likes of Esfandiari, Laak and Hanson are ‘old school’. Today’s poker players are younger, fitter, healthier, and less worried about TV time and selling DVDs than they are about playing good poker. They’re hungry poker machines that want to eat chips and poo pound coins (or wads of dollar bills depending upon relative nationality, aspirations and anus size).

Right now the spotlight still moves to highlight the dancing clowns first, but more and more it seems the majority of the audience are turning to watch the clever young jugglers over in the corner. So, you just have to ask yourself; do you want to be entertained or educated? Well, whichever you chose, please enjoy the circus.

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