It’s been a while since we had a really good poker movie. Fingers crossed: The people behind Molly’s Game recently finished filming in and around the Toronto area, with the movie expected to hit North American screens sometime in 2017. They’ve brought out the big guns, too. Jessica Chastain will play the lead role, alongside the likes of Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Brampton’s own Michael Cera.
There’s been a fair amount of buzz around this project since Aaron Sorkin was named the director last January. This was Sorkin’s first crack at directing; he also wrote the screenplay, adapted from Molly Bloom’s memoir of the same name. Let’s hope things go well in post-production, because the story itself is amazing, and if Sorkin and company did it justice, the game of poker should see another rise in popularity.
If you’re not already familiar with Ms. Bloom, she’s the former US Olympic-hopeful skier who ended up hosting a weekly private game at the Viper Room in Hollywood (and later on in Manhattan), featuring some of the town’s biggest A-listers. According to her memoir, Leonardo DiCaprio would show up, as would Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire. In the upcoming movie, Cera takes on the role of “Player X.” It’s probably a composite character, and there will no doubt be some fictional elements added to the story, but let’s just pretend Cera is standing in for Maguire.
In the real world, Maguire is one of the biggest sharks in Hollywood. He’s earned a reputation as a very tough cookie – Bloom called Maguire “the best player and the worst tipper.” At one point in the memoir, Maguire tries to make Bloom bark like a seal for a $1,000 chip. She refuses. Bloom even said Maguire brought his own ShuffleMaster with him to make sure the cards were dealt fairly – and charged a rental fee for the device.
Spoiler alert: Bloom was effectively pushed out of hosting the game mere months after she partnered with poker pro Edwin Ting in 2010. Four years later, Bloom pleaded guilty to illegal gambling charges and was handed 12 months’ probation, along with 200 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. Then came the memoir, and now the movie. Filming wrapped up on January 20, after a trip to the Beaver Valley Ski Club in Markdale, just southwest of Collingwood. It’s good work if you can get it.
By: Paul Hewson
Our dystopian nightmare has finally arrived: The computers have beaten the humans at no-limit Hold’em. The “Brains vs. AI” challenge at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh has come to a merciful end, with the Carnegie Mellon University poker bot known as Libratus (Latin for “balanced”) beating four professional players for the equivalent of nearly 15 big blinds per 100 hands, which is insane.
For the folks at Carnegie Mellon, this is a major step forward in artificial intelligence. But their goal isn’t to felt everyone in sight; this technology is for “real-world” applications, like figuring out the economy. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to figure out what Libratus has under the hood. What can we learn from our new electronic overlords?
Trust the Processor
The most obvious takeaway is how Libratus was put together in the first place. The creators started by doing the programming – 15 million “core hours” of it, using a supercomputer to do the grunt work. Instead of designing outward from a base poker strategy, they let the computer figure it out from scratch, using a variant of the game-theory concept known as Counterfactual Regret Minimization (CFR).
In a nutshell, CFR means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s an iterative, trial-and-error process, where you keep track of all the stuff that went wrong and try to make fewer mistakes next time. Libratus was able to put in trillions of poker hands, playing versus itself, before battling the humans. Then the computer would look over the results from each day of the competition, and keep improving – another four million core hours of work in total.
None of us will be able to put in that much study, but we can do our best with the time we’re given. CFR looks like a recipe for so-called GTO (Game Theory Optimal) poker; the idea is to arrive at a solution that minimizes our losses, and if our opponents play poorly enough, that’ll be the source of our profits. In theory.
In practice, we can’t match the complexity of the Libratus algorithm. Maybe we can pick up a few tricks, though. One of the stranger things about this bot is its propensity for calling on the river with marginal holdings. Bluff-catching, basically. Most humans don’t bluff the river as much as the math suggests they should, so this might not be such a good idea when you’re playing the regular stakes at Bodog Poker. But it sure seems to work well against the pros.
By: Paul Hewson
Terrence Chan is one of the better poker players ever to come out of Hong Kong. Now based in Vancouver, Chan has over $1.2 million in tournament earnings to his name, including four cashes at the 2016 World Series of Poker. Oh, and he’s 3-1 lifetime in mixed martial arts. Officially, Chan is listed at 3-0, but he lost via decision in the first round of a WMMAA (World Mixed Martial Arts Association) tournament back in November.
Chan isn’t the only poker player to enter the cage. Last April, Olivier Busquet pummelled JC Alvarado at the Syndicate MMA gym in Las Vegas, winning a six-figure prop bet for his efforts. MMA fighters love crossing over to the felt, too – remember Tito Ortiz in Season 2 of the Shark Cage? Or how about Martin Kampmann making a deep run at the 2014 WSOP Main Event? It’s as if these two sports were meant for each other.
The Sweet Science
In a way, they are. Brains will take you a long way in just about any endeavour; when Holly Holm upset Ronda Rousey for the UFC Women’s Bantamweight title in 2015, coach Greg Jackson, arguably the most respected figure in MMA, said figuring out Rousey was “just a math problem.” Math is the direct route to solving poker, as well. If you haven’t read The Mathematics of Poker yet, you’re leaving money on the table.
Brawn is also a useful attribute at the poker table. Many top pros use combat sports as a way to improve their fitness level, be it MMA, boxing, or martial arts in general. Your brain is part of your body, so if you want to make smarter decisions, get in better shape. Martial arts will improve your mental game in turn by helping you develop the right psychology for battle.
However, as Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth. Stepping in the cage, or the ring, or the Octagon, means putting yourself at risk to severe brain trauma. None of the benefits you gain from MMA will do you much good at poker if you can’t think straight. So if you’re interested in making the leap like Terrence Chan, remember the first rule of self-defense: Avoid getting into fights. The stack you save could be your own.
By: Paul Hewson
Canada has long been a source of quality players for tournament poker. Names like Daniel Negreanu, Jonathan Duhamel and Mike “Timex” McDonald roll off the tongue. But none of these players can hold a candle to Alan Ari Engel right now. He was the top Canadian on the 2016 Global Poker Index and has shown no sign of slowing down yet. He’s No. 1 on this year’s leaderboard at press time, well ahead of Sam Greenwood, Mike Leah, and Sam Chartier.
It’s still going to be difficult for Engel to match last year’s performance. After winning the main event at the 2016 Aussie Millions, the Toronto native crashed out on Day 2 of this year’s tournament – as did Greenwood, along with fellow Canucks Mike Watson and Griffin Benger. But Engel didn’t leave Melbourne empty-handed; he finished third at an 8-game event and seventh at a no-limit Hold’em shootout, pocketing just over $30,000 for his troubles.
What Can Brown Do for You?
Engel has taken a much different path to poker glory than his contemporaries. Engel’s father was an Orthodox rabbi, and the family ended up traveling from congregation to congregation, in South Africa and Australia, and eventually in the United States. The younger Engel attended yeshiva (theological school) in Chicago, learning the sacred texts, then spent a year of advanced studies in Jerusalem before enrolling at New York University, where he earned a double major in finance and business management.
NYU also introduced Engel to Andrew Brown, his roommate as a sophomore. Brown was an online Hold’em whiz who became one of the world’s leading Omaha players, winning a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2008. He helped Engel brush up his game, and upon earning his degree in 2004 and entering the workforce, Engel realized he’d be better off turning his hobby into his profession. So he signed up at Bodog Poker, and the rest is history.
Gambling and Orthodox Judaism do not go hand-in-hand, but that hasn’t been an issue for the Engel family. In their view, as it is for many smart players, poker is primarily a game of skill. Without the family’s understanding and support, and a chance encounter with Brown, Engel might not be where he is today: on top of the poker mountain, with over $4.2 million in live earnings. Mazel tov.