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Online and Obsessed
Daniel G. Habib
May 30, 2005
As the Internet poker wave breaks over college campuses, a few bright young players are exploiting high-level statistics and game theory to make a fortune. Others are losing more than their tuition
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May 30, 2005

Online And Obsessed

As the Internet poker wave breaks over college campuses, a few bright young players are exploiting high-level statistics and game theory to make a fortune. Others are losing more than their tuition

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Elite players believe the game nears perfectibility, and an essential arrogance informs this conviction; on a poker telecast last month Sklansky said dismissively that had he pursued physics instead of poker he could have won a Nobel Prize. With Sklansky's acolytes too--among them Strasser, who avers, "He defined how to think"--an air of certitude accompanies discussions of philosophy and tactics. A TwoPlusTwo.com thread cropped up recently after a frequent contributor named SoBeDude played a multitable tournament on PokerStars and made a debatable fold in the late stages: From the $8,000 big blind, he mucked his hand of 8-3 off-suit, despite favorable pot odds, after a short stack--a player with few chips--had raised all-in to $19,600.

As is common, a gaggle of aficionados on TwoPlusTwo.com was "sweating" SoBeDude, that is, observing and critiquing his play. ("Lurking," a cousin of sweating in which several people observe a tournament and instant-message suggestions to the player, also thrives, though it breaches the poker etiquette of one player to a hand.) In a postmortem on TwoPlusTwo.com, Strasser wrote, "This call is insta-automatic-essential-easy-ABC whatever, and I can not believe there are actually people advocating a fold here. First of all, [SoBeDude] is getting over 3:1 [pot odds, meaning the pot contains three times as much money as his call costs]. So mathematically alone, that single decision (call or fold), lined up against the range of hands the ss is pushing here, its OBVIOUSLY +EV." Plus-EV means "positive expected value"--a situation that, over repeated iterations, will be profitable. It encompasses not only probability but game theory, risk management and making reads about an opponent's likely range of hands and responses. Seeking plus-EV is the cornerstone of strategy.

On this model, poker rewards nothing so much as academic mastery. This challenge in particular captivates Selbst. "I love the game theory involved in multiple levels of out-thinking your opponent," she writes in an e-mail. "I love the fact that there are so many intricacies to the game and so many different strategies that you can play differently every time. It's one of the most intellectually stimulating and the most fun thing that I've spent a good portion of my life doing." On the Excel spreadsheet she uses to log profits, losses and hours played, a half-dozen single-day sessions since February exceed 15 hours.

Like Strasser, Selbst multitables on Party or Stars, playing mostly $3-$6 and $5-$10 no-limit. She's wedged in the corner of a weather-beaten yellow couch in the three-story town house she shares with four roommates. Her back to a bay window that leaks afternoon daylight, Selbst cradles a borrowed laptop, her own motherboard having fried that morning. The spartan living room is outfitted with the accoutrements of collegiate transience: a low-slung wooden futon, halogen lamps, a coffee table upon which sit an empty Merlot bottle and a Scotch tumbler, two fingers full.

Selbst enters four $20 sit-and-gos--brief, 10-player knockout tournaments that pay the top three finishers--and buys in for $100 at a $1-$2 ring game. The piddling stakes do not reflect her usual level, but she has suffered a rough few days. "If I had a real bankroll," she grumbles, "I'd be playing fifties." Selbst's mother, Ronnie, who has just finished law school, supported herself as an MIT undergraduate by playing poker. Vanessa says it helps that Ronnie understands a swing of several thousand dollars to the wrong in the space of a week.

Selbst has tried in vain to bring other women into the Trumbull game, and recently she gave her girlfriend a poker lesson, which did not take. At Foxwoods, she believes, being a woman gives her an advantage. "Despite my not having a traditionally feminine appearance," she says, "there are some guys who try to outplay me." A few months back she picked off a $525 bluff--"the most obvious case of an old dude trying to push a college girl around."

In her first sit-and-go Selbst quickly dumps most of her stack when, with a sizable raise in front of her, she goes all-in preflop with ace-king. A shorter stack calls with ace-jack, a 3-1 underdog, but backdoors a straight. Lips pursed as though she's swallowed a mouthful of bad egg salad, Selbst murmurs, "That's gross." By "gross," her favorite multipurpose adjective, she most often means "statistically unjust."

Below her usual stakes, she feels as though she's slumming. "I'm very condescending when I talk about others," she says, "but these players don't know what they're doing. Calling all-in with ace-jack after a raise-reraise?" The affront to strategy seems to bother her most. In a seminar during spring semester in a computer science building equipped with wireless Internet access, Selbst read TwoPlusTwo.com during class. A math major during her freshman year at MIT before she transferred, she has near-photographic recall of the significant hands she's played, and she dissects them vigorously.

Playing $5-$5 at Foxwoods last month, Selbst dropped $1,150 on a bluff, yet she recapitulates it over dinner at Mamoun's, a Syrian restaurant near her house, not as a catastrophe, but as an exercise. Holding king-queen off-suit--top pair on a queen-5-4-3-5 board with three hearts--she read her opponent, a capable but tight player, for a flush. When the second 5 turned up on the river and the opponent put $300 into a $1,250 pot, she moved all-in, on the logic that she'd played the hand like a set and could now represent a full house, inducing him to fold. "I'm betting $1,150 to win $1,550, so if he folds half the time, it's a profitable play," she says. "I'm not thinking about the money there, I'm thinking about pot odds. I walked away from that table satisfied. I wasn't thinking that $2,700 was a lot of money--and if I was, only because it was one tenth of my bankroll. I was thinking that I made the right play."

Live games crackle with gallows humor. One borscht-belt joke asks, What's the difference between a poker player and a pepperoni pizza? (The pizza can feed a family of four.) Accustomed to betting unreal sums and moving casino chips or digits on a monitor, players often develop an indifference toward money's real-world utility, a disconnect between betting money and spending cash. Selbst, ahead almost $20,000 since February, thinks of her profit as a scorecard. She says her lifestyle has changed only in that she orders more takeout and tips more generously. Strasser agrees, "If I lose a ton of money, it's not that big a deal. It's like a video game."

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