Right Play

There are formulas in art and poker that will get you good results.  Brilliance, however, often goes its own way without all the variables accounted for and balanced, even if they can never truly disappear if the equation is to work.  In Isolde, which I attended last night at the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, there was genius in the central metaphor expressing what can and cannot be replaced by another thing or person.   There was genius in the pacing and hypnotic effect of the deliberate acting style.  There was (often) genius in the minimalist direction.  However, the destructive and confused ending lacked coherence.  What Isolde needed was its own organic logic to be concluded.  Instead, the play went somewhere else entirely; literally, at the very close, into the ether behind the main stage.  There seemed to be three endings, where in each one the director proposed to first to raise (the overdone dumbshow); then, unsure, to call (the brutally exaggerated forgetfulness of Isolde under the spotlight), then sighing, fold (Jerry and Massimo mumbling in the dark about what might have been).  Unable to settle on one, he gave us all three.

Poker players know this indecision is impossible, even though they also know that they should consider all available options.  One way forward is going to be best, the which gathers the most value.  Players also know, because they have all experienced it, that it’s easy to be confused without formulas or history or examples, especially when they have reached the limits of their handreading and actionable knowledge.  What happens when you have experimented, gone into that deep backstage ether, but come up with no real conclusions, is that you paradoxically end up duplicating something or someone else, even yourself perhaps, and end by taking an action that does not fit the circumstance.  For example, the calling station trying to be better who now folds incorrectly.  The bluffer who now bluffs too small, having heard it’s about getting the most for the least.  The fancy player who levels himself in a whole new way.  Gargamel somehow tanking longer.

After the disappointing denouement, many in the audience left quickly, chattering in exaggerated bewilderment (raised on self-respect, New Yorkers love their own opinions to excess).  The cumulative effect that the eminent director and actor Richard Maxwell was about to earn in the closing moments had been thrown away in favor of a heavy handed dumbshow, unnecessary technical effects which undercut the lead actress, and, at last and worse, a nearly pointless epilogue which emphasized the importance of the least necessary character while adding nothing to any of the others.

The same organizational chaos can happen in poker when you are not applying basic, working, functioning lines, right from the start.  Excellence in poker is taking account of all variables and designing the best plan, “+EV,” as they say, perhaps too often.  It’s a phrase which is really too glib to be always useful, as obviously poker players don’t say to themselves, “well I’m going -EV this time, that will teach them.” Everyone has their reasons, and they are often more defendable than you might first think.  Sometimes, many lines are +EV, how do you choose?  Are there consequences I might be creating by being obsessed with EV? Poker is not infinite like art, but it does offer so many possibilities that the comparison works.  In any case, plus EV in general is the encore you want to hear.

In this thread, the poster Eazzy wants to limp a weak hand, feeling that he has a significant postflop edge.  This is a reasonable thought in a vacuum.  He has the button; he wants to play from a position of strength; and he wants to ensure he has opponents with weak holdings; he feels his choices will be better at every decision point.  However, like Maxwell, he is choosing complexity, not simplicity- is this the right beginning to his piece?  Is this the highest expectation line?

Isolde is standing and delivering when the play begins: “We know the story. I was to come by boat and save him. But aboard that boat we know there was a saboteur. That bitch. And then I saw… Line?”

It’s a terribly clever opening which orients us to the entire piece: Isolde is an actress losing her mind and memory, perhaps as a metaphor for age, practicing with her husband.  At once we know the thrust of the piece, and the ensuing interchange between them foreshadows her affair with the weightless Massimo.

The thread poster Eazzy himself has started out clever, as well.  The problem is his choice to limp a very clumsy hand.  Amidst the variables of hand strength, position, number of players, stack depth, player types, etc., it is of course okay to do anything if your edge is so great, your genius so vast, that no obstacle is insurmountable.  No doubt Eazzy is a winning player; in fact, this button overlimp is probably a big part of his game, based on his attitude and language.  From everything he wrote, I’m imagining him as something of a bully in his games, willing to mix it up and knock a few heads about.  A guy who doesn’t mind getting caught bluffing every now and then.  The problem is, A9o and his gouty friends A6-A8o have no maneuverability on the vast majority of flops; that should tell you something about limping them.  The motivation for this player’s line is too heavily reliant on his own genius; he would be better off humbly using the formula of raising for isolation.  He wants to limp, but this isn’t the hand.  He’s forcing it.  The juxtaposition of value and action isn’t matching the natural opening lines of Isolde.

Another way to look at it, is that the poster has given up all his preflop edge so that he could create complexity on the flop.  This would work out well if he wants complexity, and is planning to get the maximum when he flops well, which he has.  His flop plan, which is a good one in many senses, is to raise.  However, he believes that when raised in return he most always fold.  The situation is actually simple.  His theme (limping for complexity, i.e. outplaying the field) for the hand is inconsistent.  Consider, for instance, a counterexample, where Dennis Phillips was playing against an opponent of such sophistication on High Stakes Poker that he found himself in the position of needing to stack off with K7, top pair second kicker, correctly, to deal with the complexity of the situation.  In Eazzy’s hand, it’s the opposite case, it’s complexity taking on simplicity, a mismatch and a miscalculation.

This is a significant explanation for why A9o is a raising or folding hand here.  This is not a hand that rewards nuance. The stack to pot ration is in fact too big for when Eazzy limps and makes his most likely value against speculative hands.  Not only could he possibly be outplayed, he is disregarding reverse implied odds because he believes he knows how to avoid them.  Thus another contradiction emerges: the ability to preclude folding the best hand often involves the possibility of being value owned.

Where does A9o belong?  It’s a simple as the situation itself. A9o’s equity share is suited to a low to mid SPR situation; and fewer opponents for that matter. It’s fairly clear to see that the formula for this piece should be raising>folding>limping.  It turns out that limping, to answer the thread question about why you can limp A10 in the same spot, is in the fact the counterintuitive fancy play.  Yet it is probably a default for this player, based on empirical evidence of his success and play style.  It won’t necessarily seem like a natural opening line for him… yet.

isoldeIn Isolde, the issue was difficult straightaway, and demanded a complex formula.  Maxwell’s actions were consistent with his holding.  However, as we all know, everything changes on the river.  Faced with a confusing scenario of possibilities, the director went for the tour de force, the answer to all the questions, even the ones we weren’t asking.  He’s probably done this before.  The river, and the end to a drama, is about resolution-even if it is a reversal or a irresolute resolution.  The drama would have been very powerful if the dumbshow had ended the piece in a ritualistic connection to the original German/Celtic legend, like a terrible dream or spell summoned up the tragic triangle of husband, wife, lover.  We could have done without the Jerry/Massimo confrontation, or, in fact, pushed this bit of moralizing before the last two scenes, in order to accentuate what was the true finale, Isolde alone on the stage losing her mind, as predicted in the opening lines.

So a bit of mess, but one should have sympathy- 5th street is the most difficult to play.  Isolde was wonderful and riveting overall, and that is what counts.  As we filed out of the theater, the young night still in front of us, one attendee pointed at a positive review on a placard and snorted derisively.  I tried to defend the powerful if imperfect Isolde, get a bit of a hand history going and figure out what could have been done.  Maybe over cocktails.  However, no takers, and the dissatisfied woman disappeared down the escalator of laments with her friend.  Everyone wants the very best, the most expected value, whatever that is.

There is a place for all lines, in poker and in theater.  A drink to the first ninety percent, anyone?  It’s still plus ev, right?  Anyone?

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