February 24, 2006

Don't get burned

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Virtual deck

Do online poker rooms use burn cards? Every few weeks someone asks me this. In a live poker game, before each round of cards after the first is dealt, the card on top of the deck is "burned" – discarded. They do this in order to reduce the ability of cheaters to recognize a marked card on top of the deck and gain an unfair advantage. Since the top card is not used, there's much less (but still some) value in knowing what it is.

In online poker rooms that particular form of cheating is impossible, since there are no actual cards to mark, which raises the question: do online poker rooms still burn a virtual card before they deal, and if not, does it change the odds?

The short answer is: it doesn't matter and no.

Since there is no actual deck of cards, burning a card is almost meaningless. If the order of the cards is random, it doesn't matter if you take 23 cards off the top of the deck, the bottom, or the middle. A proper virtual shuffling algorithm will make the order of the cards completely unpredictable to a player.

People sometimes argue that no computer shuffle is random; they like to use the term "pseudo-random" as if there were some truly random process in the universe better than what the computer uses. In reality, today's most trusted card rooms, such as Full Tilt, use hardware random-number generators based on such factors as thermal noise and timing of user input, ensuring the unpredictability of the deal. It's safe to say that the cards on Full Tilt are dealt more randomly than in any live poker room, where frequently a trained eye can track the approximate location of at least one card through the perfunctory three riffles and a strip commonly used.

But suppose we are playing Texas Hold 'Em at a full nine-handed table. Eighteen cards are dealt, there is a round of betting, and three more cards come on the flop. In a live card room there would be 30 cards left in the deck because one was burned prior to the flop, but online there are 31 cards left. Doesn't this change the odds of, say, making a flush draw?

No it doesn't. What matters when computing odds is the ratio of unknown cards that help you to unknown cards that don't. You could burn five, 10, or 25 cards before dealing the turn and river and it wouldn't change anything. The fact is you don't know which cards are coming and it doesn't matter whether the cards that aren't coming are burned, at the bottom of the deck, in other people's hands, or down the paper shredder. Conversely, if you were to see one of the cards you needed in another player's hand, that would change your odds, regardless of whether or not cards were burned.

The math of Hold 'Em is pretty easy. With a flush draw, open-ended straight draw, or set, you're about a two-to-one dog to improve with two cards to come and about a four-to-one dog with one. Make sure you've got the right odds to play your hand and you won't get burned.


February 19, 2006

It's my party

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There's no feeling in poker like getting deep in a big tournament. Today I outlasted all but two players in a field of 3141 to take down the third-place prize of $46,486.80 in the $215 buy-in $500,000 guaranteed tournament on PartyPoker. I played the $60,000 guaranteed on Full Tilt at the same time and as usual was the last "red pro" standing but finished out of the money in that record 457-person field.

The buggy PartyPoker started the tournament without bothering to open my table. When I finally figured out how to open it I saw I had pocket Aces on the button and had to quickly decide how much to bet. I made a big raise and took down the pot, but I saw Aces many more times en route to the final table. I won almost all my coinflips, my steals worked, my Ace-Kings held up, I cracked Aces (played donkily by the aggressive player to my left who, after coming over the top of my steals six or seven times, just smooth called for almost half his stack when I raised with Deuces. I flopped a Deuce and busted him.), my Aces weren't cracked, and all in all it was flowing and grooving until we got down to three-handed.

(It was below freezing in Seattle and I had set up on the kitchen table, which was right by a lot of windows that were radiating cold and I was freezing. I made some tea and Trader Joe's chicken chili verde (man, that stuff is good) in between hands to warm myself up as my wife Heather was out on assignment.)

It was down to me, an unknown and seemingly inexperienced player on my left, and WSOP bracelet winner Gavin Griffin on my right. I was bullying the short-stacked Gavin mercilessly when he called my Ten-Seven offsuit button raise and then led out on a King-Ten-x board. The lead-out often indicates a tenuous holding and I decided I had the best hand and moved in. He called with King-Ten for top two pair and I was drawing dead to runners. That gave him almost as many chips as me. Then I called a small raise of his on the big blind with Ace-Four of Spades. The flop came Queen high with two Spades. he bet out and I jammed with my flush draw and overcards. Once again he had a monster, Ace-Queen, and I missed my flush and was short stacked. I jammed on the small blind with Queen high and got called by a King, which held up.

The $46k was my biggest tournament win to date, online or otherwise. My buddies Matt Maroon, Matt Matros, and Chris Fargis sweated me -- thanks guys!

Despite the nice prize, I much prefer playing on Full Tilt. The Party software is inexplicably buggy even after all these years. They just released a new version and they still haven't fixed the problem that causes players to sometimes pay the big blind twice in a row or to skip it because players come or go from the table. To their credit, they caught a cheater playing multiple accounts last week and disqualified him from the $140k first prize, moving everyone else up a spot. They also seized $40k he had in his other account. This kind of scrutiny and punishment is essential to keep the integrity of online poker.

I've been happily skipping the big live tournaments in places I don't like to go and looking forward to the circuit returning to Vegas. Rumors are that the WPT will change its release to make it more reasonable and I'll be happy to be playing in some of those events again. I'm told I'm due.