reviews

Bluff

There are apparently quite a few poker novels out there. As far as I can remember, I’d read none until this past month. Seemed like I should get started.

The issue for me (and for many others) was never really poker novels, per se. I’d always looked forward to reading a few. I’d tried to contact the author of The World According to Cinch, which sounded like it had to be the greatest poker fiction of all time, based on plot alone. (The book is not for sale any longer and the author didn’t respond to email.)

No, it was the genre novel itself that seemed dubious.  Usually the focus is a little funny in a genre set piece, providing a concave view of one thing through the convex of another. However, maybe I’ve been unfair. In fact, I remember being given collection of tennis fiction, which at first sounded too cute by half, but in fact ended up being very enjoyable and even pithy. Strange, it’s almost like you should not judge a book by its…

Anyway, enter Ms. Hitchcock and then Maud Warner, her protagonist and voice of the author of Bluff, Poison Pen Press, 2019. The plot detail of this novel is complex but the plot itself simple and inevitable: Warner and a few others in Manhattan wounded by the slippery financial scoundrel Burt Sklar make sure he gets his. In other words, it’s not a what plot, but a how plot. It’s only natural then, that the novel is slow to move at first, as it populates and explores, then gathers speed in a rolling ball of revelations and layers, ending with a flattened villain.

Talk and revelation compose most of the text of Bluff. In this way Hitchcock seems influenced by either the theater or its more contemporary equivalent, those top-notch PBS dramas which bring the upper classes to us when the snow outside and our success inside bury our better instincts. Since we seem to know what’s going to happen, this way forward has to be carried off with zest: a gamble for the author, conveniently, in a novel of gambling.

I was furious. “Where the hell did you get that thing?!” “I stole it,” he said sheepishly. “Jesus H. Christ, Alan! Are you nuts? Do you have a permit?” “No.” “You could go to jail if they catch you with this. Who the hell did you steal it from anyway?” “Burt,” he said with a sly smile. I was dumbfounded. “You stole this gun from Sklar? When?” “A couple of years after Mom died.” I crossed my arms. “Explain please.”

Breathless stuff. Hitchcock is not one for fading rivulets of compelling information, but instead is consumed by the polarities of sincerity and insincerity. Talk is genuine or it is not. ( And polarity is going to matter, as we shall see.)

Our interlocutor here, and taking on some of the personal life of the author herself, is Maud, who must accomplish quite a bit. Maud must not only commit a perhaps intentional revenge killing, but must escape from its consequences. However, the first task Hitchcock assigns herself is backdrop, the stage Maud and company fret and frolic upon: wealthy Manhattan.

It’s a convincing if entirely off-street one as a whole. The detail of this part of her world never lets up from front to back of this book.

As I climb the marble staircase, I hear the hum of conversation, which is the music of power in this power restaurant in this power city. I gird my loins, as the Bible says, and take the last few stairs up into the airy restaurant where the best tables are reserved for the best bank accounts.

Passages such as this exemplify, at one time, the best and most improvable aspects of Bluff. Throughout the book, Hitchcock comes up with a surprising number of piquancies that help sustain the narrative. Recognizing that conversation and the expressions of desire are the conduits to action, the author deftly names the tune of a talk heavy book. However, Maud “girding her loins” doesn’t quite work, nor her invocation to the Bible. After all, she ends up being quite above regret and reproach for her possible crime, and is a resolute and death-borne character: her loins or what is in them no longer matter. It’s not the future that belongs to Maud, but vengeance and peace or possibly death or incarceration. Defiance is her real theme.

Hitchcock is conversely very strong on differentiating characters and enlivening the cast. The reader rarely is confused by the plotline or the actors it contains. This alone is enough to carry many books.

The first time Magma bursts into tears the guests are moved by her dramatic ordeal. The second time she breaks down, during the entrée, they are less sympathetic. Her third outburst, during the salad course, is met with stony stares. By the time the Grand Marnier soufflé arrives, people wish to hell Magma had gone to some other fucking restaurant.

An extremely satisfactory and explanatory passage, one of many examples.

Further, the de rigeur place mat detail is crisp and good:

Greta is a famous hostess in New York, known as a grand acquisitor of paintings, porcelain, and people. She has an eye for quality, in life and in art. No “Paperless Post” for her. Invitations to her “small dinners,” as she calls them, are handwritten on ecru cards, and much sought-after because, along with the elegant apartment, gourmet food, vintage wines, and glittering table settings, there is always interesting company. Greta coined the phrase, “You are who you eat with.”

However, after Hitchcock knocks out what for her appears to be the easy stuff, she repeatedly reveals her real talent: the recognition of character and its detail:

Burt Sklar, by contrast, is gym-fit and spray-tanned. Strands of his black hair are carefully combed over a shiny pate. He’s dressed all in black—black suit, black shirt, black tie. Contrary to Sunderland’s rocklike presence, Sklar is all motion, using his hands to hammer in a verbal point. He reminds me of a bat. I overhear him repeating his mantra, the words he prefaces every sentence with in order to reassure people of his veracity: “Candidly…? Honestly…? Truthfully…?”

A primary way to understand people is to assume they mean the opposite of what they say, and Burt is characterized here nicely with his innocuously vicious overuse of adverbs. He is a liar, and lies are always ominous. Burt, for good or bad, is possibly the real star of the book.

That’s an important accomplishment for the writer, but also a potential challenge, because Maud is the formal protagonist and her voice guides us. In fact, the narrative attributes of the book revolve around two structures.

First, the format of a hold’em game is imposed on the book. Instead of three acts, the book is divided into Flop, Turn, and River. Why Bluff starts with the flop is open to interpretation, but perhaps a good one is that the history of Burt’s crimes against Maud and others are the preflop action. However, because all the action happens late in the game, so to speak, it feels like we’re starting on the turn, and that Maud is simply going to bluff out her opponent on the river, the equities against her. A come from behind story.

The second formal attribute is the switch of narrative voice from omniscient to Maud, a regular change of guide which occurs throughout the book.

“Pizza’s all gone. Sorry.” “It’s never all gone.” I dig out some half-eaten pizza crusts from the industrial-size garbage can, brimming with dirty paper plates, soda cans, and beer bottles. “Maudzilla dumpster diving!? Icicles are forming in hell,” Pratt laughs. I stretch out on the ripped, springless couch, scarfing down leftover pizza crusts. I think about my poker journey which began on the Internet, then went live at Billy’s Poker Palace, and pretty much ended here in this dismal loft. No Poker Palace amenities here. The poker table, under a single hanging lamp, is the only bright spot in a vast room reeking of Thai cuisine from the restaurant directly below. The wall-mounted TV has a lousy picture, much to the fury of players who bet on sports. Whereas my tablemates at Billy’s were a cross-section of Washington’s elite, here at the Gypsy’s, I played with a more colorful, diverse crowd, including felons and felons-in-waiting, guys I knew only by nicknames like Night Fox, Zombie, Joker, Cowboy, Big O, Professor, Beast, and The Great North American AJ, aka Sasquatch Man.

Here is an example of what our genre piece could work on. Why she is called Maudzilla is never really clear or earned, nor is why she is so quickly willing to have lost her standards and look through garbage, at least without comment, or if she was already huddling in alleys, why she hadn’t grabbed other undignified forms of nourishments; or why Pratt, man of a dingy poker club, is simultaneously so arch in his language or so easy going in the bizarre circumstances. Some suspicion and silence and unease would add a lot to these underground club scenes (in fact, to most scenes). Poker is, in fact, all too full of half-functional mental cases as much as the cheerful grifters with the erasable tramp stamp of their colorful appellation.  In any case, having committed a crime and now on the run, Maud is utterly blase about it: she’s one tough bird performing an instant rewiring to physical cunning and close living.

Is poker the province of such a soul? That might be an explanation, and it is one of the messages of the book, intended or not. The snappy nicknames mean little in a world where nothing particularly good or real exists. Part of the issue is that, despite being sold as such, Maud is not believably gifted at poker. Everything for Maud is polarities – they are bluffing or they aren’t, she either has it or she isn’t.

He studies my face, my body language, the pulse in my neck— all the little “tells” that poker players focus on to try and figure out if an opponent is lying, and if they should fold or call. “Okay. I believe you,” he says at last. He folded.

Poker is a game of wagers, and you will win and lose quite a bit in the parlay, both in theory and over time. The winning, in other words, is a long-term proposition, but for Maud everything is all or nothing, a somewhat facile view of the game that may be good for newspaper coverage but doesn’t match her difficult challenge and parallel success in outwitting Burt. There are hints Maud is a tournament player, and this sort of makes sense with her folksy philosophy. But it doesn’t mesh very well with her being a supposedly a tough reg in local games like Billy’s or The Gypsy. Instead, the significant detail and unwinding of the complex plot is not mirrored in the poker:

We were both “all in” before the flop. We both had fairly equal chip stacks so whoever won this hand was going to win the tournament.

Jane S. Hitchcock at the BWPO2019.

And that makes sense within the theme of Maud gambling everything on a big play, I suppose. We don’t spend much time in those places, nor on the characters mentioned – the Professor, the Beast, the Sasquatch – ever make more than cursory appearances.

In other words, in the end, Bluff is a pokerly novel but all the real poker is played outside the game, with Maud outwitting the viciously unscrupulous Sklar at the very end. The best, most heated moments of the novel are all the discoveries of Sklar’s slickness, Sunderland’s dangerous buffoonery, the comic suffering of the stripper bigamist, and the worlds of the upper crusters, many only a generation removed from a more Sklar-like status, being upended.

I’d like to see Maud in more stories, or if that character is closed off by the novel’s outcome, this poker world of Maud’s explored further by the writer. Hitchcock’s ability to nail her supporting cast and provide a believable world for them is something poker could use more of, and the author has just the vantage point to do it. Just as Maud ends her days beyond reach of both Sklar and the law, Hitchcock is one of the few who have the chops, standing, and access do more with our little world, a world of its own little high society, its own ridiculous hypocrisies, miserable criminals, and all too smooth liars and hidden heroes and heroines. Poker is a genre world, yes, but one still as rich as the upper west in possibilities.

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The OOP Lexicon is a user-developed poker glossary.

Absolute Position
Being last to act (e.g. closest to the button) postflop.

Advancing Leverage
Aggressive actions intended to shift the leverage point closer to the current street.

Analog
A bluff or value hand which is a natural candidate for balancing another hand because of their shared qualities, such as AA and AK; usually helps planning range splitting and line construction.

Auto profit threshold (APT)
A bluff made with positive expectation resulting from the opponent under defending vis-a-vis bet sizing. The inverse of MDF.

Balance
Choosing to support either value bets or bluffs with their converse.

Bet
A bet is a proposition.  It’s the first offer on the pot with regard to the outcome of the game. Each player, in turn, has the opportunity to lay or change the price on the pot to the rest of the players. “The language of poker.” The bet, as opposed to the raise, is most often and most easily allied to the merged pricing construction.

Block
To remove combinations of hands from a range based on cards in your hand or on the board.

Blockers
Cards which influence our combinatorial assumptions. Ex: We face resistance on T76ss while we hold As7d. Both our cards act as blockers. Our ace of spades blocks (limits) a number of flush draws our opponent could hold, while our seven blocks a number of two pair and sets our opponent could hold. *See also Block and Unblock

Blocker Bet
A small bet made by an out-of-position player.

Board Texture
The available community cards and the set of conditions which inform its relationship to a logical range.

Bottom
The worst hands in a betting range.  Depending on context this could be the worst hand in a value bet range or the bluffing section of polarized range.

Bounded
A range descriptor indicating a range shape with a specific high or low boundary.  A range bounded high won't contain some number of the best linear hands ranked from the top down.  This is equivalent to a "capped" range.  A range bounded low won't contain some number of the worst linear hands ranked from the bottom up.  This is often useful to describe a range that doesn't include any air or very weak hands.

Capitalization
A strategic mode in which a player is attempting to deny their opponent(s) equity share of the pot through aggression. Often referred to as “denying equity” or “buying up equity”.

Capped
A range is capped when it represents little to no nutted combinations as confirmed by prior action.

Cbet
A continuation bet. A bet made by the player with initiative as a continuation of their initiative on a prior street.

Clarity
The ability to accurately range an opponent based on all available information at a decision point.  An understanding of your hands exact equity.

Closing Action
Acting last where no subsequent action is possible behind you.  For example calling a UTG raise in the BB or calling in position postflop with no players behind.

Cold Call/Cold Bet
An action is considered “cold” when it comes from a player entering into the pot has not previously put chips voluntarily in the pot. Ex: the UTG opens, the BTN 3bets. If the SB were to call or raise, it would be a cold-call or a cold-4bet.

Combinatorics
The branch of mathematics the deals with finite number sets. Used in poker in determining the amount of combinations of certain hands in a range.

Complete
When a blind that is not the biggest blind calls the amount of the biggest blind. Ex: At $2/$5, action folds around to the SB and the SB completes. Meaning they just call. The BB can complete when there is a straddle.

Condensed
A capped range that contains only middling value hands. A range without the polarized portion.

Construction
Logical advancement of combinations across streets.

Dark Side of the Deck
The large swath of hands, often off-suit, that fall outside of conventional playable recommendations. Counter-equity hands.

Dead Money
Money in the pot that is not being fought for.  A passive player creates dead money when they call a bet preflop and looking to play fit-or-fold postflop. Dead Money is often confused with the money in the pot.

Delayed Cbet
A cbet made on the turn by the preflop raiser when the flop checked through.

Delaying Leverage
Passive actions intended to maintain a likely late street leverage point, or possibly to avoid a leverage point entirely.

Deviation
A strategic break from one’s standard construction as an exploit of a particular player’s profile or construction.

Diminishing Medium Value Category
A Seidman concept in which when one’s middling value hand range is too small and transparent to our opponent and thus either that range should be shifted into the top of a polarized range or the nutted portion should be shifted into the medium value range. Ex: AQo or TT being 3bet preflop.

Downbet
A cbet that is less than the preflop raise. Ex: BTN opens to $25, we 3bet to $90 from the SB, BTN calls. On the flop we cbet $70.

Dry Board
A board texture that yields relatively few logical hands value. Often containing one medium or high card and disconnected low cards. Ex: Q53r, T622r.

Dual Mentalities
A Seidman concept in which when we decide to go postflop with a weak hand against a nutted range, we should either be looking to out flop it or steal the pot away. We base our decision against the player type we are up against and never go post with both mentalities at once.

Dynamic Board
A flop texture in which the runout is very likely to change the order of top ranking hands. Ex: 954tt, 742r.

Effective Stack
The smallest stack to VPIP in a given hand. Their stack decides the amount of money that can be played for or threatened before an all-in.

Effective nuts
A value hand that can be played for stacks as if it were the actual nuts.  This is a relative hand ranking based on range assumptions and opponent type.

Efficiency
A measure of how well the equity of a hand is deployed. Efficiency can also be used as a measure of what is risked vs what is gained for a given bet size.

Either/Or Philosophy
A Seidman concept in which a particular street can be a very good spot for value, meaning our opponent is never folding, or a very good spot to bluff, meaning our opponent is never calling, but that those spots cannot be concurrent.

Elasticity
Borrowed from economics, a measure of the sensitivity of a range or hand relative to the price offered.  Ranges (or hands) described as elastic will narrow, sometimes quickly, in response to increases in price.  Those described as inelastic will not.

Equity
The percent pot share of a holding or range on any given street if the hand were to go to showdown with no further betting action.

Equity Pusher
A analytic approach to the game in which a player views the correct actions only through the lens of their hands equity vs. their opponent’s range. Often this player type has a lack of understanding of overall strategy and plays their range face up with few bluffs.

Expected Value
The mathematical formula for how much a player’s action is expected to make with their hand vs. their opponent’s range. EV = ($towin * %ofwin) - ($tolose * %ofloss)

Face Up
A player is playing their range “face up” when their actions directly correspond with their desired outcome. Ex: A player bets half-pot three streets with a range that has no bluffs. A player 3bets to 7x with JJ.

False Polarization
Otherwise known as Faux-Po; a polarizing action taken with a merged range.

Felted
The result of losing your entire table stakes. All the way down to the felt.

Float
A call of a cbet with a weak holding with the likely intention of taking the pot away when the opponent shuts down. Often done by an in position preflop caller.

Formation
The convergence of positions, stack depths, and preceding actions at a given decision point.

G-Bucks
A mathematical formula developed by Phil Galfond for calculating the expected value of one’s range construction vs. an opponent’s holding.

GIGO
A computer programming term that means "garbage in, garbage out" which also applies to poker forums when a poster seeks an in-depth conversation about a hand, but fail to provide pertinent information such as stack sizes, bets sizes, table dynamics and player tendencies.

Game Theory
The applied science of combining mathematical models with logic to craft winning poker strategies.

Game Theory Optimal
A set of strategies is GTO if no player can unilaterally deviate and increase his average profit. ~ Will Tipton.  GTO does not mean best possible response, highest EV, or maximally exploitative play.

Implied Odds
Additional value likely to be accrued if you make your hand on a later street.

Initiative
Sometimes referred to as the betting lead, a common situation in which the passive player yields to the aggressive player postflop, or the last aggressor continues betting on subsequent streets.

Isolate
A bet or raise intended to force out the rest of the field in order to play heads up against a weaker opponent who has entered the pot through limping, raising, or posting the blinds.

LAG
Loose aggressive player type. Generally overused and inaccurate.

Lead
A bet made from out of position after a passive action. Often referred to as a donk bet on the flop.

Leveling
He knows that I know that he knows I know.

Leverage
A bet or raise that signals the hand will be played for stacks.  Within reason, it is accomplished by betting with a sizing that will create RSP equal to 1 on the following street.

LFI
Limp First In

Linear
A consecutive range of hands decreasing in strength from top to bottom; generally meaning value hands. Equivalent to "merged."

Lockdown Board
A board on which the nuts have often already been made.  More prevalent in PLO but sometimes useful in no-limit, for example on monotone flops and boards with available common straights e.g. JT9, T98, 987, etc.

Merge
1) A range of hands that includes both strong and medium value; 2) in reference to medium value; 3) the merged construction describes the natural representation of a wide range through a bet.

Mini Stop-N-Go
A Seidman concept, a line taken by a OOP PFR where flop is check/called and turn is lead.

Minimum Defense Frequency (MDF)
The necessary defending (calling/raising) frequency to prevent an opponent from auto-profiting.  The inverse of APT.

Natural Action
A check, bet, or raise which is exactly suited to a player's range and situation (e.g. a pfr's continuation bet on AK2r).

Nit
A player who will not put chips into the pot without a very strong and sometimes only nutted hand.

Nuts
The best possible hand.

Nuts-To-Air Ratio (NAR)
In a polarized betting line, the ratio of value to bluff.  As used by Seidman, not limited to polarization but sometimes used to label general opponent tendency of value to bluff.

OMC
Old Man Coffee. Typically an older, retired player that likes to play bingo with ATC, but will only continue with the nuts.

Open
The first voluntary action. The first action or bet to voluntarily enter the pot.

Overbet
A bet that is more than the size of the pot.

Perceived Range
Refers to the range of hands that your opponent thinks you could have in a certain playing situation. This can be interpreted and thus misinterpreted from your playing style and position at the table.

Polarized
A range consisting of very strong and very weak hands.

Post Oak Bluff
A small bluff on a late street that has little chance of winning the pot.  Generally interpreted as “gutless” in the past but now fulfilling certain functions as betting efficiencies are understood.

Positional Protection
When the strength of a range is perceived to be capped or uncapped based on which position an action is taken from.

Protected
When an action or player is perceived to have strong hands in its range.

Protection Bet
A wager which denies equity to hands which will only give action if they significantly improve; "a value bet which does not want a call."

Raise
The rejection of the offered price and the laying of a new higher price.  Raises represent a more narrow range of hands and trend towards polarization.

Range Advantage
Implementation or study tool that refers to 1) most basically, equity measurement of one range against another; 2) or also including a combination of further factors including availability of nutted hands, the nuances of the runout, and positional protection.

Range Manipulation
Deliberate line work/bet sizing made to narrow a range or keep a range wide.

Range Switch
A deliberate change in range composition made to thwart a player who is reading our range too accurately in any spot.  Reduces transparency, fights assumptions, and wins the leveling war if implemented correctly.

Ratio of Stack To Pot
RSP. The stack to pot ratio at any point in a hand, generally used post-flop as opposed to Stack to Pot Ratio.

Realization
Taking a hand to showdown and realizing its full equity.  Generally used with regard to passive actions.

Reciprocity
The mutual exchange of chips resulting from similar play and ideas.  Reciprocity is a common bi-product of group-think.  A true edge by definition cannot be reciprocal.

Relative Position
A player’s position measured against the aggressor's position.  Generally this is used going to the flop.  For example, if UTG raises and several players call behind, calling in the big blind would give you the best relative position.  You will act after seeing how the field responds to a likely continuation from the preflop aggressor.  In the same scenario calling immediately after the preflop aggressor results in the worst relative position.  You will have to act immediately after a continuation without seeing how the remaining players will respond.  Strong relative position confers an information edge.

Retention
The ability of hand to maintain equity across streets against a betting range or as part of a betting range.

Reverse Implied Odds (RIO)
Hands that often win small pots or lose large pots suffer from reverse implied odds.

Robustness
Popularized by Mathew Janda, a descriptor for how well a hand retains equity over streets of play.  Hands described as robust have equity that does not suffer as an opponent's range becomes stronger.  Often these hands are currently both strong and invulnerable, or have the ability to become very strong by the river, relative to the opponent's range.

Runout
Fourth and Fifth Street cards following a given flop texture.

Scale of Protection
Poker theorem which states that the more protected or strong an opponent's range is, the higher the degree of denial or retention a counter will require.

Sklansky Bucks
Dollars won (or lost) in expected value regardless of actual hand result.

Smurf
Any one of many possible poker archetypes found at low stakes games.

Squeeze
A reraise made after a player has raised and one or more players has called in-between.

Static Board
A flop texture in which the runout is unlikely to change the order of top ranking hands. Ex: AK7r, KK4r.

Stop-N-Go
A passive action followed by an aggressive action, out of position.  For example, a call followed by a lead on the next street.

Streets of Value
A crude shorthand measurement for how much betting a hand can tolerate and still be best at showdown more often than not.

TAG
Tight aggressive opponent type. Generally overused and misapplied.

TAG's Dilemma
The paradox created by having a top-heavy range played so aggressively that it misuses equity vis-à-vis position and holding.

The Great Range Fantasy
The common idea that we know our opponent’s range and frequencies precisely; most commonly seen in post-hoc analysis to justify microedge decisions.

Thin Value
A bet that is only slightly more likely to be called by worse than by better. Associated with the merged pricing construction and bet-fold lines.

Three Fundamentals
The most fundamental variables for decision making: position, stack size, and community cards.

Top
The best hands in a given range.

Two-Way Bet
A bet that expects calls from worse hands and incorrect folds at the same time, a simultaneous value bet and bluff line.

Upstuck
The psychological effect of feeling like you’re losing because your stack size isn’t as large as it once was during a session, even though it’s more than what you’re in the game for.

(e.g. You bought in for $100, ran it up $450, but now only have $175 in front of you.)

Unblock
A hand that has no negative card removal effects on the target range.  Bottom set, for example, unblocks top pair top kicker.

Uncapped
A range that is perceived to contain the nuts in any given line.  Capped ranges may become uncapped during transitions for example from preflop to flop, or flop to turn.

Unicorn
A turned nut straight after raising flop with a gutter.

Value Owning
Making value bets with a hand that has less than 50% equity when called.

Voluntarily Put Money In Pot (VPIP)
The frequency at which a player limps, calls, or raises preflop.

Volatile Board
A flop texture where equities will often shift on the turn and river.  See “dynamic”.

Warmer
An illusory cooler where one player makes a massive mistake equity mistake and loses his stack with a strong but second best hand; also known as a Jam Basket.

Wet Board
A board texture that allows for a lot of logical hands to continue. Often made up of medium rank connected cards. Ex: KT9tt, Tc8c6s-7c-Ac.

WIFSUWO
“Walk In, Fuck Shit Up, Walk Out” a hashtag used by instagram poker players.

Winning Player
A forum poster who offers reciprocal advice under the guise of questionable positive low stakes results. A weak player or fish, in general.

YMC
Young Man Coffee. Is very much an OMC, but younger.  They usually only continue with the nuts, often under the illusion of playing a GTO style.