The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What professional players see at the poker table. (Hint: More than you.)

Amateur poker player Gene Drubetskoy of Reisterstown, Md., swam with the sharks on a recent “Poker Night in America” taping at Maryland Live. It did not end well. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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One of my favorite things about hanging out at the “Poker Night in America” taping at Maryland Live was hearing the professional players talk about the hobbyist in their midst.

They had begun looking for useful information from the moment the amateur arrived and plopped a $10,000 brick of $20 bills on the made-for-TV table. I included some of their observations in my story about Gene Drubetskoy, a mortgage consultant and recreational poker player who sat with the pros in the biggest game he’d ever played — a cash game that began with $68,500 in play. Here, for example, is Tom Schneider, a four-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner from Arizona:

“I pick up clues immediately,” Schneider said. “If you come in, like Gene did, and all your bills are 20s, it means you don’t have casino chips and you don’t have 100s. It means you went to the bank, and money is probably more important to you. You’ll be a little tighter with it than somebody who comes in with $20,000 in $5,000 casino chips, which means they’re probably a gambler in the pit and money won’t mean as much to them.”
Schneider had decided the amateur wasn’t somebody he needed to spend much time thinking about and adjusted his game accordingly. “Gene is playing a little too passively. He’s a lot easier to play against because I don’t feel like he’s going to make a lot of plays against me.”

The perceptual part of the game, as played by people operating at higher-than-average levels, comes up again in a fascinating story published last week by the Atlantic magazine. “Where the Card Sharks Feed” focuses on Maryland Live’s poker room, where “fish abound” — fish, of course, being one of the great nicknames given to bad poker players. (It’s way better than “sucker,” though “donkey” is also pretty good.) There are many fine moments in the long Atlantic piece; one of them comes as the writer, David Samuels, describes what happens when a mid-level pro player he calls “John Calvin” (not his real name) comes to Maryland Live to play.

We found a table Calvin liked. “There are no good pros here,” he said. It was easy to identify the other players at table 24 as fish—the older white guy with gray hair and horn-rimmed accountant glasses was one, and the clean-cut young black guy pushing seven Ben Franklins out of a bank envelope was another. Calvin licked his chops. One of the basic rules of thumb in live poker is that clean-cut young black guys play like older white guys, meaning they are cautious and rarely bluff, which in turn means their hands are incredibly easy to read. According to a handy app on his iPhone called Poker Journal, Calvin has been earning an average of $120 an hour at Maryland Live since the poker room opened. Leaning back in a red-leather-padded chair, he began to figure out whom at the table he should spend his afternoon angling for. “Today I’m going to make my money from those two guys,” he said, nodding first at the black guy, in seat 4, and then at the charter-boat guy, who was in seat 9.

“John Calvin” winds up hammering “the charter-boat guy” — which means everything went as  planned: John Calvin, the story says, knew his best hope for turning a tidy profit on the day would be to go after the weakest players, which he did by isolating charter-boat guy in heads-up pots and playing against him accordingly.

Most games in which large amounts of money are won and lost require a basic acquaintance with the laws of chance. But poker requires skills that transcend simply knowing the odds of completing any particular hand. It requires a split-screen ability to read the other people at the table while maintaining an awareness of how they are reading you. It requires what is called “leveling”: the ability to move fluidly and accurately in one’s imagination from the hands that all the other players are representing, to the hands that they probably have, to the hand that they think you have, to the hand that they think that you think that they think you have. The acute awareness and processing ability required to quickly go through a complex checklist and get it right—while controlling your thoughts and behavior so that others can’t read you with any equivalent degree of accuracy—is what separates poker pros from casino operators and other crude types who profit from the fact that large numbers of people are dumb or drunk and can’t do math.

The story introduces another character — this time by his real name, Tom Wang. Wang is one of the area’s best full-time professional poker players. He also maintains a part-time blog about his poker adventures.

There are plenty of simple poker truths that pros like Wang intuit but that fish find impossible to recognize. One is that strong is weak, and weak is strong—meaning that players who are obviously trying to suggest that they hold, say, four aces, by betting large sums of money and raising at every opportunity, are most likely holding air, whereas players who act poor and meek while still staying in a hand are probably the ones holding the cards. Another truth is that nearly all fish signal the real strength of their cards through the timing of their bets: when fish bet fast, for example, they’re almost always trying to discourage other players at the table from betting, by falsely portraying a weak hand as strong. At a higher level of play, the most common way that fish reveal their true position is by failing to tell a consistent story about their hand, through their pattern of betting, as new cards are added to the board.

One great detail in the story comes later, after John Calvin admits that the pros who play at Maryland Live “are very friendly with each other” and “all understand that staying out of heads-up pots with other pros is another basic rule of winning poker.”

“It’s common sense,” Calvin told me with a smile. “I don’t want to get in marginal spots against someone who’s good. I want to get in marginal spots against someone who’s bad.” It’s all relative, though. For a pro like Tom Wang, who occupies a higher position in the food chain, the way Calvin plays is entirely predictable. “He’s married, and has a kid and a mortgage,” Wang told me, in a matter-of-fact, only mildly condescending tone. “It’s a very formulaic way of playing, unimaginative and uncreative. It’s common among grinders like Calvin. But you don’t want to play against him. You want to play against the fish, who are bleeding all over the place.”

The pros eventually do clash.

Near the end of the story in the Atlantic, John Calvin locks horns with Greg Merson, the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event winner, who grew up just a few miles from where Maryland Live was built.

Read the story for details of the hand, but the executive summary can be found in John Calvin’s reaction:

“I just outplayed Greg Merson the 2012 WSOP champ,” he texted to his wife when the hand was done. He knew he possessed nothing close to Merson’s level of skill and intuition, but still: he’d won.