Monday, October 20, 2008

Poker as War

Since I've still got over a week to go before I let myself play poker again (and I may choose to extend this depending how I feel), it might be a good time to explore something I've been meaning to for a while. If nothing else, it might get my head screwed on straight for this game again.

I'm sure it's been done before (if it hasn't I'd be surprised), but applying the words of Sun Tzu's Art of War (NOT the Wesley Snipes movie) to poker could be an interesting experience. There are 13 chapters, so perhaps there will be 13 posts. I'm reading as I go here, so there's a chance this could all dwindle off as a failed experiment, or that some chapters won't be applicable. I doubt this though.

If you want the full text of the classic work, it's very easy to find out on the interwebs.

Chapter 1.- Laying Plans

Sun Tzu saw war as vitally important to the state, and broke it down to five governing factors. These are:

1.- The Moral Law - A concept of harmony, not necessarily rules of morality. Think of the endless drills of soldiers so that they act as one unit and follow orders without question. An army cannot function if the brain doesn't have complete control of the body. One could see it as martial law, but that suggests a forced, instead of developed, harmony.

2.- Heaven - No, not clouds and angels, but the forces of nature and the unstoppable, inevitablities of life. Seasons, weather, night and day, temperature, etc.. In other words, those things controlled by the "gods".

3.- Earth - The Earth. The distances between places, the geography and dangers encountered, life and death.

4.- The Commander - "... the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness."

5.- Method and Discipline - Organization of the army, and development and upkeep of infrastructure such as roads and supply lines, in order to ensure efficiency.

Sun Tzu states that by being cognizant of these five factors, one can ensure victory. He further states that by examining how well two factions (with emphasis on their leader) follow these precepts, he can determine who will be victorious.

From there, he then states that while these are guiding principles, one must be flexible and able to adjust their strategies and plans as dictated by conditions. You can't walk into a war with a fixed battle plan, because you only control half the field, and without knowing your enemy's intentions, you cannot formulate a complete plan.

Then comes one of the most famous lines of the work: "All warfare is based on deception."

The rest works just fine verbatim:

19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable;
when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we
are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away;
when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder,
and crush him.

21. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him.
If he is in superior strength, evade him.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to
irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

23. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.
If his forces are united, separate them.

24. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where
you are not expected.

25. These military devices, leading to victory,
must not be divulged beforehand.

26. Now the general who wins a battle makes many
calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.
The general who loses a battle makes but few
calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations
lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat:
how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention
to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

Thus ends chapter 1, and it should be obvious how well this connects with our little game.


Poker is war. While we are technically playing against eight or more opponents at a full table, most of the battles are against one or two other players. Walking into a game without any strategy or plan is a good way to find yourself on the rail early. Let's look at the five factors under that dim poker room light.

1.- The Moral Law - Can be seen as practice, practice, practice. We are alone in this war. Our army is our instincts, studies, reads, hands, chips, tells, and the countless other aspects we have worked on over time to make our play seem natural no matter what the situation.

2.- Heaven - Those things we cannot control or avoid. In poker, the greatest of these is luck - in all its forms. Be it us catching that draw, or our opponent catching the two-outer, or another player unable to give up the second nuts to your stone-cold nuts. There are other things we can't control as well - the rake, the other players (moreso in tournaments where you can't change tables), the dealer, the environment of the room, etc..

3.- Earth - Those things we can control to some extent, or at least plan around. In cash games these include the players, the table, or the stakes. In tournaments these can be the structure, the buy-in, the tournament itself. For instance, an ongoing discussion is if The Venetian or Caesars offers a better structure for their deepstack tournaments. Both are similar, but the Venetian has autoshufflers, where Caeasars doesn't. This means you can see more hands per hour. But perhaps there are other factors at Caesars that appeal to one person over another. In both cash and tournament, things such as the type of players, our health, bankroll, or temperment would fall under this.

4.- The Commander - This is us. Wisdom - reads, knowledge, plans, attitude, everything we have learned so far. Sincerity - Honesty with ourselves. Are we playing our best? Are we on tilt? Are we beat? If there's no fish at the table, then are we the fish? Benevolence - There's no room for benevolence in poker, right? Well, not quite. We have to know not to beat ourselves up for a good play that went wrong. Sometimes your opponent won't let go of the flush draw no matter how hard you bet. It's not your fault. Courage - Bold, risky moves can bring great reward. The all-in with air can push the set off the flush board for instance. At the same time, it often takes great courage to lay down that set yourself. Strictness - Stick with your plans. Adjust as necessary, but don't start throwing away chips because you aren't seeing any strong hands and everyone is a calling station and catching anyway. You've worked too hard on your game to throw it away when things don't go how YOU want them to. Poker owes you nothing.

5.- Method and Discipline - This should be obvious. We constantly learn as we play. As our game advances, we need to make sure the road behind us doesn't collapse, causing us to forget the fundamentals that supply our strategies. We must not become overconfident and lazy, or we'll discover we're losing far too late. In many ways, this ties back the Moral Law of the first factor.

Now that these are in poker terms, it becomes easy to see how one could pick a winner based on these observations. Hellmuth vs Johnny from your home game? Hellmuth. Negreanu vs Ivey? Who has come better prepared? Who is more disciplined today? Who's got the luck?

And of course, as touched on in "strictness", we must adjust our game to the conditions presented to us. We're facing off against 8 opponents, and at any given time we will need to change our strategy accordingly. If we're against the LAGtard, we let them give us chips. If we're against the rock, we retreat to fight again later. The weak player can be pushed off when the calling station cannot. If our strategy has been discovered, we mix it up to confuse.

If any form of warfare is based on deception, it is, without a doubt, poker.

Hell, let's look at each one:

19. Weak means strong and strong means weak. If we're drawing, look like we've made our hand, if we've made our hand, look like we're drawing.

20. Sucker him with the nuts

21. If he's better than you, be ready for it. If you're beat, fold.

22. Table talk to tilt him. If he's aggressive, look weak and he'll hand you chips.

23. If he's weak, attack relentlessly. If he's got his shit together, divide it - mix it up, tilt him, lay a bad beat.

24. Find his weakness and exploit it. Stay under the radar and nail him with a hidden hand.

25. Don't give off tells or talk about your game. Keep your strategy to yourself.

26. The better prepared player will almost certainly defeat the less prepared. Be it through knowledge, instinct, reads, or awareness of how the "Heaven" and "Earth" of the game affects play.


Yah, this could prove to be an interesting series. For me at least.


BamBam said...

Trying as hard as I can NOT to sound like the jovial Bam-Bam that frequently comments here and elswhere......

Fascinating piece.

I think maybe two of us could get something out of this.

Goatlady said...

I like the idea of the war link to poker. I think I could improve my game greatly if I went into battle, (a hand) with a plan! Collecting usable data on my opponents is a struggle for me. I will read your next chapters in due time. I do enjoy this read! Thanks