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Molly’s Game Wraps Up Filming in T.O.

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.
 
Molly Juice
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.
 

Is Libratus a Calling Station?

Is Libratus a Calling Station - Bodog Poker Blog

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.
 
Call Epidemic
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.
 

Poker and MMA Make Strange Bedfellows

Poker and MMA Make Strange Bedfellows - Bodog Poker Blog

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.

 
 

Ari Engel Is on a Roll

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.

 

Omaha and Omaha Hi/Lo: The Future Is Now

Omaha and Omaha Hi/Lo: The Future Is Now - Bodog Poker Blog

By: Paul Hewson
 
Like any other sport, poker is all about making adjustments. Sharp players change their strategies to get the most value out of their opponents. The games themselves change, too. Poker used to be played with 20 cards; now it’s 52. Draw and stud poker used to be the norm; now it’s Texas Hold’em, which first popped up in the 1920s.

Texas Hold’em’s popularity will change, too. As people (and computers) get better and better at Hold’em, the need for more difficult games to play increases. That’s where Omaha comes in. It’s got the same rules and structure as Hold’em, but everyone gets dealt four hole cards instead of two. That’s like being dealt six starting hands in Hold’em, card removal notwithstanding. It’s going to be a while before anyone, human or machine, “solves” this particular game.
 
Do the Evolution
That goes double for Omaha Hi/Lo. This is a “split-pot” game where the lowest qualifying hand (five unpaired cards Eight or worse), if there is one, gets half the money. It already takes an extra layer of thinking to play Omaha; unless you’re a savant, you have to bundle starting hands into categories, rather than memorize exactly which two cards to open from every position. In Omaha Hi/Lo, conceptual thinking is even more important than rote play.

That’s exactly why Omaha and Omaha Hi/Lo are not only the games of the future, but of the present. As I write this, four professional players (Jimmy Chou, Dong Kim, Jason Les and Daniel McAulay) are getting thumped by Libratus, the latest in poker artificial intelligence. It’s only been a few days, so the sample size isn’t significant yet, but the players are doing a lot worse so far than they did against Claudico less than two years ago.

There’s been some hand-wringing over this competition and the effects it will have on poker – especially online poker – but we’ve been here before. Every poker game gets “cracked” at some point, then a more difficult variant comes along. It’s the early adopters who do best at the new games. Omaha and Omaha Hi/Lo are still relatively new; the sooner you jump in, the more of an edge you’ll have over your late-arriving opponents.

 
 

Dealing With Antes in Tournaments

By: Paul Hewson
 
In the past three years or so, computer-based “solvers” have done a marvellous job helping poker players figure out what starting hands to use. But most of these programs are for cash games. What about tournaments? They’re a lot like cash games in the first few rounds, then somewhere around the third or fourth level, boom – the antes kick in. Each player has to throw a few chips into the pot, and that changes everything.

Let’s look at this situation again: At last year’s World Series of Poker Main Event, Level 2 saw the blinds at 150 and 300, no antes. Level 3, on the other hand, was 150-300 with a 25-chip ante. That is a huge difference at a 9-handed table. Instead of 450 in chips up for grabs, there were 675 to go after – that’s 50% more chips. In later rounds, the antes grew in proportion, up to a third the size of the small blind. That means there were double the chips on the table when nine players anted up.
 
Move One Place
Stack size notwithstanding, if you stick with your usual starting hands once the antes come out, you’re not being nearly aggressive enough. The more money there is in the middle of the table, the more risk you should be willing to assume in going after it. That means you should open a wider range of hands. You should also be willing to call much more liberally from the big blind.

As you can see with the WSOP Main Event structure, antes come in different sizes, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for how to attack them optimally. But you can get reasonably close by remembering this rule of thumb: Pretend you’re sitting one seat to your left. For example, if you’re in the hijack, open the same range that you would from the cut-off. If you’re in the cut-off, open the same range that you would from the button.
 
Open Wide
What about when you’re in the small blind? That’s trickier still; you’ll be out of position if the big blind calls, so people already have different ideas about how to proceed – many choose to open-limp the vast majority of their hands, antes or no antes. But if your standard play from the small blind is to open-raise a large percentage of hands, open even more when the antes begin. Have you played any heads-up poker? That’s pretty close to how wide you need to be opening, or else the big blind will be able to call correctly with just about any two cards.

Alternatively, you could make your open-raises larger instead, and go with your typical starting hands. That will help restore the usual “ratios” you normally deal with in the early rounds, or in cash games. Either way, remember to adjust your default ranges to account for how loose/tight your opponents are, and as always, may the rectangles be with you.

Will PokerVision Network Succeed Where Poker Central Failed?

Will PokerVision Network Succeed - Bodog Poker Blog

By: Paul Hewson
 
It’s 2017, and we’re talking about television. Even the word itself seems old-timey now. But if all goes according to plan, there will be a new poker channel in the New Year: PokerVision Network (PVN), with operations in Calgary and Toronto. PVN hopes to launch as a digital cable channel in the first half of 2017, bringing a mix of poker, E-Sports, and gaming content in general to homes across Canada.

It just might work. Television production may be a sunset industry, but the folks at PVN have learned something from the demise of Poker Central, which shut down its channel at the end of 2016 after barely a year in business. Poker Central launched with very little new content; by the time they had some original programming to offer, it was already too late. PVN will focus on live coverage of poker tournaments, with a healthy dose of “reality” programs and other content. Opening up the platform to eSports and sports betting should attract more customers, too.
 
The Medium Is the Message
If television is good for anything these days, it’s live programming – especially sports. But is it the networks running the show, or the teams themselves? Consider the Toronto Blue Jays, owned by Rogers Communications, playing out of Rogers Centre, and broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet. Oh, and Rogers also owns 37.5% of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors, as well as the Air Canada Centre in which they perform.

Again, PVN may succeed here with a similar model. Remember the Canadian Poker Tour (CPT)? Expect to see their return in 2017; CPT founder Kelly Kellner happens to be part of the new network, as does his mother, Lynne Kellner, who was named the director of ePlay Digital (the company behind PVN) in November. Lynne Kellner was a producer with CBC Sports for 25 years. She knows a thing or two.

It remains to be seen whether PVN will actually appear on your cable box (if you still have one), or if they’ll punt and keep their presence online. But as long as all this effort leads to the creation of more live poker tournaments in Canada, it’ll be good news for players and fans alike – whatever screen it ends up being shown on.
 
 

A Simple New Year’s Resolution for Poker Players

By: Paul Hewson
 
What if I told you there’s an easy way to improve your poker game that requires no math, no study, basically no brain power at all? Okay, it does take some resolve – so why not make this simple one-step process your New Year’s Resolution for 2017? Here it is: Stop calling other players fish.

Many of the smarter poker pros have made it a point in recent years to change the language they use when referring to (possibly) less-skilled players. Even if you haven’t already made this change yourself, you may have noticed others doing it. The term “recreational player” has become the go-to description; “casual player” is another good one. Anytime you catch yourself saying or even thinking words like fish, donk, nit, or maniac, let alone anything with –tard at the end, use one of these other terms instead. Political correctness? Nope, just smart poker.
 
Don’t Tap the Glass
There are several problems with using these all-too-common slurs to describe your opponents. If you’re at the table and someone limps from early position, or 3-bets you with trash, or calls your turn barrel with very few outs, those are definitely things you want to make a note of. But they aren’t necessarily the signs of a weaker player. Maybe they’re trying to deceive you. Maybe they just mis-clicked. If you go after them with impunity, they could very well turn the tables on you.

It’s the impunity that you have to watch out for. When you label someone a fish, you’re de-humanizing your opponent, and in doing so, you’re cutting yourself off from truly understanding why they do what they do. There are no “non-thinking” players at the table. But there are recreational players. They want to have fun, so many of them open more hands than they mathematically should – but some open tighter, because they’re more comfortable sticking with premium hands. The more you can empathize with your opponents, the more accurately you’ll be able to profile and exploit them.

This is especially important in live situations. The last thing you want to do at the table is call someone a fish for making a sub-optimal play; they might get offended and leave, costing you a customer. Worse, they might wake up and start playing better. As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, he who exercises no forethought, but makes light of his opponents, is sure to be captured by them. Don’t be that person in 2017, or any year.

Unusual Poker Gifts for 2016

By: Paul Hewson
 
It’s always a bit tricky buying holiday gifts for the poker fan in your life. There’s no shortage of cool stuff to buy, but how much of it does the person in question already own? Unwrapping another chip set when you already have a good one isn’t much fun. The same goes with a nice deck of playing cards – unless it’s an antique. If you’re unwilling to ask the poker enthusiast for specific recommendations, you’re going to have to get something weird. Here are five interesting items available online as we go to press.
 
Poker Plaques by Brybelly
They might already have a set of poker chips, but how many people have plaques? These large rectangular Euro-style “chips” can be added to any set, representing high denominations; each one weighs 32 grams, yet they can still be shuffled like regular chips – with a little practice.
 
Men’s Cycling Clothes by PaladinSport
This is for the poker/cycling enthusiast in your life. The bib/shorts combo features a large playing-card print on the zip-up shirt; it’s a tight fit, so the company recommends getting one size larger for most people, and two sizes larger for the Dan Bilzerians and Greg Raymers on your holiday list.
 
Men’s Socks by Good Luck Sock
It wouldn’t be Christmas (or any other festive celebration) without giving someone socks as a gift. These “King of Spades” socks are pretty festive. They’re reinforced at the heel and toe, machine washable, and available in a wide variety of patterns like Hipster Dog and the Kraken.
 
Poker Tournament Trophy by Straight Poker Supplies
Assuming your intended target hasn’t already won a trophy on tour, this is the next best thing. Standing nine inches tall and weighing about 2.5 pounds, this statuette of a human hand holding a royal flush in spades says “POKER CHAMPION” on the front plate. Make sure to get a photo of your target holding the trophy aloft in triumph – and throw in some confetti for realism.
 
Daniel Negreanu Card Cover by Trademark Poker
Now you can have Canada’s greatest poker player at your table for every game – in miniature form. This hand-painted card protector looks more like a bobblehead of “Kid Poker” than the player himself, but the details are sharp. Not to worry if you’re not a big Maple Leafs Fan, like Negreanu. His iconic blue-and-white hockey sweater doesn’t have the Toronto Maple Leafs crest on it, in case that would have offended anyone.

Montreal Nationals Win GPL

By: Paul Hewson
 
It’s been a while since the city of Montreal had a champion. The Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993, the last Grey Cup for the once-mighty Alouettes was in 2010, and Georges St-Pierre hasn’t fought in the Octagon since 2013. Maybe the Montreal Nationals won’t get a parade, but at least they won the first season of the Global Poker League, beating the Berlin Bears in the Finals and taking down the top prize of $100,000.

On pure talent alone, the Nationals (Martin Jacobson, Marc-Andre Ladouceur, Jason Lavallee, Pascal Lefrancois, Xuan Liu, Mike McDonald) figured to be one of the top teams in Season 1. Everything went according to plan; Montreal led the GPL in points almost from wire-to-wire, earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Then, with the Finals tied at 5-5 going into the last round, Lefrancois – the team captain – beat Brian Rast heads-up in the Cube to give Montreal the championship.
 
Better Call Paul
But will the Nationals get to defend their title? Interest in the GPL faded as the year wore on. The Finals, which were supposed to take place at Wembley Arena in London, were instead held in-studio without much fanfare – or viewership. Merchandise wasn’t even available until midway through the season, well after those swank team logos were revealed to the public. And league CEO Alexandre Dreyfus had some cashflow problems to contend with.

On the positive side, the GPL provided countless hours of pro-on-pro poker action, giving the world a look inside the minds (and strategies) of the top players in the game. On top of that, the appearance of Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul as a member of the LA Sunset helped bring in some extra spectators. If Dreyfus and his people can sign up some more celebrity players, improve the quality of the presentation, and trim some of the fat from the schedule, Season 2 might give the GPL the foothold it needs to stay in business.

In the meantime, the Montreal Nationals are the champions of the poker universe. You could see how important the title was to the players, who were biting their fingernails as they slugged it out with Berlin in the Finals. As McDonald said after the hard-fought victory, it was about the poker instead of the money, and by that measure, Season 1 of the GPL was a success.
                 

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