Thursday, May 31, 2007

The News in Views / Old Puzzler Answer / New Fortnightly Puzzler


Poker Lessons with James Ernest

This past weekend in Missoula we had a science fiction convention called MisCon, organized by our very own CthulhuBob. (If you attend Origins, you will sometimes see Bob manning one section of that mile-long desk.) CthulhuBob invites guests from various sectors, usually an array of writers, artists, and game designers.

This year, the game designer was James Ernest. Several weeks ago, we were excited about the prospect of gaming with Mr. Ernest and his latest work, the Stonehenge Anthology Board Game (I should mention that this was a group project in which James Ernest, Richard Garfield, Bruno Faidutti, Richard Borg, and Mike Selinker designed very different games using the same components). Unfortunately, Stonehenge reached distributors during the MisCon weekend and not even James Ernest had a copy. Bad timing for us, but I'm glad it's now out.

We invited Mr. Ernest to do a signing at our vendor booth, which he accepted. At the appointed time, he showed up, and we all sat down around a table to play a game.

What game did we play, you ask? Kill Doctor Lucky? Gloria Mundi? Give Me the Brain!? In fact, we played perhaps the single favorite game of James Ernest, a game he did not invent: Texas Hold 'Em Poker.

This experience was brutally painful for me. Don't get me wrong; I had a ton of fun. But I became aware of just how little I can control myself while looking at small amounts of information.

Before I go on, I should say that we weren't playing for money. The game was stripped of a key component, like taking the doubling cube away from backgammon. I in no way am comparing this to a normal poker game in which monetary stakes matter. It was a game of information and control, and perhaps there was a little pride on the line.

Given all that, I learned some key lessons that apply to all of my gaming. The following are social lessons, easily forgotten in the realm of friendly gaming, but which became quite obvious to me in the poker game.

Lesson #1: There is a personality unique to the stresses of every game which comes to the surface.

In a game, you're on stage. How well you act can sometimes affect the outcome of the game. With everything stripped away in a poker game, I became aware of how uncomfortable I am with casual banter. I saw in myself a simple pattern: if I'm in a good position, I can relax and talk, and if I'm in a bad position, I tend to clam up. Breaking patterns like this can be a strategic edge.

Lesson #2: Hands can betray a wealth of information.

This was terrible. I did not know what to do with my hands. Sometimes I would throw in a chip even though I had put up the single blind we were playing with. Sometimes I would throw in another chip when the bet had come back to me, even though I hadn't intended to raise. This could be chalked up to beginner stuff, but I honestly think that it can be reduced to the fact that I couldn't control my hands. Before I knew it, I had betrayed my card hand with my actual hands.

This hand control made me think of other games. How many euros use cards? How often had I done similar things in all of my favorite games? And what am I doing with my hands in euros that use other mechanics?

Lesson #3: If I'm not watching other players, I'm depriving myself of valuable information.

Usually, I try to take account of other people, not just their actions. During the poker game, I just wasn't picking up on anything, and all the relevant tells fell below my radar. I suppose this can be rectified by folding and watching. Not so in most euros during which you participate most of the time, though I don't rule out watching people. Sometimes I get bogged down with my own plans that I don't set aside a bit of time to watch other players.

The above lessons are simple to be sure, made painfully obvious by a simple no-stakes game. I just wonder what would happen if I improved my poker game. Would my other gaming improve as well? So much control is necessary for an effective gaming presence. Calculations have their place, but what would one be without the other? Maybe you can get away with a lack of personal control in a game of open information, but it sure couldn't hurt.

James Ernest was in Missoula for the duration of MisCon. During that time, he came to the World Games of Montana booth a couple of times to play poker. He clearly knew what he was doing in the game while most of us blundered away. We all ended up with a couple of big wins, but how much of that did we deserve?

I have always been curious about poker and the skills necessary to play it. I am also curious about my fellow gamers who play poker. Does playing poker well help you in other games? Or do you take a solid approach to all gaming? How do you practice control at the gaming table (regardless of the game)? Have you ever lost a euro-game because of an unconscious disclosure of information?

Signing out.

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Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: If my name SMATT were a cryptogram, how many different games could you spell?

A: Here are a few: CHESS, DVONN, FLUXX, CADOO.

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New Fortnightly Puzzler

This is a personal story about a magician which will lead into the puzzler.

A friend once took me to see his uncle. His uncle loved magic tricks and jumped at the opportunity to show them off, especially to new people.

When I met him, it seemed we were opposites of sorts. I was a kid in high school; he was a husband and father of two. I wore a baseball cap to block the Texas sun; he wore nothing. I had baggy jeans; he wore shorts and a T-shirt. Somehow, he knew I was the perfect mark.

He had me sit down in a chair on the living room carpet. He then took a roll of paper towels and ripped off one sheet. He showed me both sides of his arms to demonstrate that he wasn't using any machine or apparatus.

He then started swinging his arms in front of me like a person mimicking a giant alligator. One arm would go high, and the other would go low. As he made this movement, he crumpled the paper towel and switched hands. Up and down the paper towel would travel, and smaller and smaller it became as he crumpled it. Finally, poof! It disappeared.

"Do you know where it went?" he asked. I shook my head. "Ok," he said, "I'll do it again." He repeated the trick. Again, the paper towel disappeared. Again, I didn't know what happened.

"Ok," he said, "This time, I'll make it easy on you." He then took the entire paper towel roll, a pretty hefty full roll, and did the same thing. Up and down it went in his alligator jaw pattern. Finally, and I kid you not, it disappeared right before my very eyes.

Can you guess how he was doing it?*


* I appreciate all guesses, but please don't post them. If you think you have the answer, write smattathias@gmail.com. Thanks!

1 comment:

ratpfink said...

Playing a lot of poker(but mostly online) definitely helped me realize the value of turn order position in some games. I wouldn't say it's helped me read people in games like Werewolf. I'm still pretty bad at that.