Monday, November 10, 2014

GAME ON — My New Column in the Wall Street Journal

For a while I’ve had the secret ambition to write a regular newspaper column. At one time I thought I could write a chess column; at other times I thought that Dan Simons and I could write a series of essays on social science and critical thinking. Last year I suggested to the Wall Street Journal a column on games. They turned me down then, but a few weeks ago I gently raised the idea again and the editors kindly said they would give it a try. So I’m excited to say that the first one is out in this past weekend’s paper (page C4, in the Review section), and also online here.

The column is about Dan Harrington's famous "squeeze play" during the final table of the 2004 World Series of Poker main event. Here's how ESPN covered the hand (you can see in the preview frame that he was making a big bluff with his six-deuce):

There were several things about this hand that I would have mentioned if I had the space. First, a couple of important details for understanding the action:

  • Greg Raymer, the ultimate winner, started the hand with about $7.9 million in chips. Josh Arieh, who finished third, had $3.9 million. Harrington had $2.3 million, the second smallest stack at the table.
  • Seven players remained in the tournament (of the starting field of about 2500) when this hand was played. At a final table like this, the prize payouts escalate substantially with each player eliminated. This might explain why Harrington put in half of his chips, rather than all of them. In case he got raised or called and lost the hand, he would still have a bit left to play with, and could hope to move up the payout chart if other players busted before he did.
  • David Williams, the eventual runner-up, was actually dealt the best hand of anyone: he had ace-queen in the big blind. But facing a raise, a call, and a re-raise in front of him, he chose to fold, quite reasonably assuming that at least one of the players already in the hand would have had him beat, and perhaps badly—e.g., holding ace-king. For reasons of space and simplicity I had to omit Williams from the account in the article. I also omitted the suits of the cards.
  • Dan Harrington is a fascinating character. He excels at chess, backgammon, and finance as well as poker, and he wrote a very popular series of books on hold'em poker with Bill Robertie (himself a chess master and two-time world backgammon champion). He won the World Series of Poker main event in 1995. After his successful squeeze play in 2004 he wound up finishing fourth. He had finished third the year before.
Some people have noted that this could not have been the very first squeeze play bluff ever in poker. And of course it wasn't. But it was, in my opinion, the most influential squeeze play. Because ESPN revealed the players' hole cards, it was verifiably a squeeze play. As I hinted in the article, without the hole card cameras, everyone watching the hand would have assumed that Harrington had a big hand when he raised. Even if Harrington had said later that he had a six-deuce, some people wouldn't have believed him, and no one could have been sure. Once ESPN showed this hand (and Harrington wrote about it in his second Harrington on Hold'em volume), every serious player became aware specifically of the squeeze play strategy, and generally of the value of re-raising "light" before the flop. And because the solid, thinking man's player Dan Harrington did it, they knew it wasn't just the move of a wild man like Stu Ungar, but a key part of a correct, balanced strategy.

Of course, the squeeze play doesn't work every time. It would have failed here if Arieh (or Raymer) really did have big hands themselves. Harrington probably had a "read" that suggested they weren't that strong, but I think this read would have been based much more on his feel for the overall flow of the game—noticing how many pots they were playing, whether they had shown down weak hands before—than on any kind of physical or verbal tell.

Two years after Harrington's squeeze play, Vanessa Selbst was a bit embarrassed on ESPN when she tried to re-squeeze a squeezer she figured she had caught in the act. At a $2000 WSOP preliminary event final table, she open-raised with five-deuce, and drew a call followed by a raise: the exact pattern of the squeeze play. After some thought she went all-in, but the putative squeezer held pocket aces. Selbst was out in 7th place. But she didn't stop playing aggressively, and since then she has become one of the top all-time money winners, and most respected players in poker. Most of the hand is shown in the video below, starting at about the 6:50 mark.

Some readers of the column asked whether I wasn't just describing a plain old bluff, the defining play of poker (at least in the popular mind). The answer is that the squeeze play is a particular kind of bluff—indeed, a kind of "pure bluff," which is a bluff in which your own hand had zero or close to zero chance of actually wining on its merits. (A "semi-bluff," by contrast, is a bluff when you figure to have the worst hand at the time of the bluff, but your hand has a good chance of improving to be the best hand by the time all the cards are out.) What the Harrington hand showed is a particular situation in which a pure bluff is especially likely to work. Pros don't bluff randomly, or when they feel like it, or even when they think they have picked up a physical tell. And they especially don't bluff casually when more than one opponent has already entered the hand. Harrington's bluff was more than just a bluff: It was a demonstration of how elite players exploit their skills to pick just the right spots to bluff and get away with it.

In future columns I’ll talk about different games, hopefully with something interesting to say about each one. The next column should appear in the December 6–7 issue, and will probably concern the world chess championship. My “tryout” could end at any time, of course, but for now my column should be in that same space once per month, at a length of about 450 words. As most of you know, it’s a challenge to say something meaningful in so few words, and for me it’s a challenge just to stay within that word limit while saying anything at all. As in poker, I may need a bit of luck.

By the way, I think it's too bad that the New York Times decided to end their chess column last month. I believe, or at least hope, that there is a market for regular information on games like chess for people who don't pay so much attention via other websites and publications. I remember reading Robert Byrne's version of the Times column in the 1970s. I would get especially excited when my father came home on one of the days the column ran, so that I could grab his newspaper and check it out. Yes, it used to run at least three times per week, then two, then just on Sundays (when Dylan McClain took over with a different, and I think better, approach from Byrne's). Now it doesn't run at all. The Washington Post ended its column as well, but some major newspapers still have one (The Boston Globe and New York Post come to mind).

PS: If you liked the squeeze play column, here are some of my other pieces on games that you can read online, in reverse chronological order:

"The Science of Winning Poker" (WSJ, July 2013)

"Should Poker Be (A Tiny Bit) More Like Chess?" (this blog, August 2013)

"Chess Championship Results Show Powerful Role of Computers" (WSJ, November 2013)

"Bobby Fischer Recalled" (WSJ, March 2009)

"It's Your Move" (WSJ, October 2007)

"How Chess Became the King of Games" (WSJ, November 2006)

"The Other American Game" (WSJ, July 2005)

"A Match for All Seasons" (WSJ, December 2002)

"Checkmate for a Champion" (WSJ, November 2000)