Beauty in Poker

I had been thinking some about the aesthetics of poker lately, and someone reminded me of an article I wrote in 2009, back when I was 19. I’ve decided to reprise it here with a little editing; it didn’t need that much, to my surprise. It’s one of the pieces I wrote about poker that I’m really proud of, so I wanted to have it here as well. I hope you guys enjoy it.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Beauty?… To me it is a word without sense, because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to.” Beauty is a difficult word to define, and it seems to have no single definitive characteristic. There can be beauty in a flower, beauty in a waterfall, beauty in a woman. But there are other forms of beauty that are less basic to our perception. We can find beauty in the movement of dance, in the richness of music, the rhythm of poetry. And yet we can go further, to beauty that departs from these conventional senses of the word. We can find beauty in mathematical proofs, beauty in the handling of a basketball, beauty in a chess stratagem, and indeed, beauty in a hand of poker.

I have always been an artistically-minded person. Not because I am myself an artist, but because I have always been drawn toward art. So this question had a special resonance to me: in what sense can a hand of poker be beautiful?.

It certainly isn’t beautiful in any purely aesthetic sense (that is, in its appeal to our senses). A hand of poker will never be sensually stimulating, and in that way, it is more like the beauty of a mathematical derivation than the beauty of a painting. In order to understand what makes a hand of poker beautiful, we must first decide how we ought to appropriate the concept. There must be some experience in common between observing a beautiful hand of poker and anything else that is beautiful. What is it like to experience a beautiful hand of poker?.


Looking to the Source

To discover if beauty existed in poker, I looked to the source, poker players. I picked a few high stakes players I knew and interviewed them. I carefully chose players who I thought were particularly reflective and intelligent, and I tried to phrase my questions carefully so as to extract as much of their own thoughts as possible, without biasing them toward mine. Although I won’t name the poker players I interviewed, they were very established high stakes regulars.

Ace of Spades (Langford Style) by Malkav, on Flickr

What I found was that there was a surprising unanimity among them on not only that there was beauty in poker, but also on what constituted that beauty. For all three players I interviewed, I began in the same way—”can you name some hand or event in the context of poker that you would describe as beautiful?” Each of them provided one hand that they felt fit this criterion. I then probed their reasoning about why they thought the particular hand was beautiful, and what made poker hands beautiful in general.

The first person told me, “I think anytime I make a “perfect bet,” as in one with a certain timing or amount to make my opponent do exactly what I want, that’s beautiful.” The second person described a beautiful poker hand as “manipulating [one’s] opponents in an artistic way.” The third person described beauty in poker as “finding an eloquent, unexpected solution.” The language was slightly different among the three players, but when I questioned them further, I found that they could be distilled to the same essential component—mastery.

Mastery is beautiful. It’s making perfect bets, making your opponent do exactly what you want. It’s manipulating your opponent in an artistic way. It’s finding that eloquent, unexpected solution. Mastery is beautiful, and so we must explore what mastery is to explore what is beautiful within poker.

What is Mastery?

If you imagine the world from an undifferentiated, “objective” perspective, there is no such thing as mastery. This is true on various levels, such as saying “everything is just particles mashing about chaotically” or “if an alien came to earth and watched humans playing a game of basketball, they would see nothing but animals romping around with a ball,” and of course there are infinitely many variations on this theme. The notion of mastery collapses once you deconstruct some element of the cultural frame surrounding that task. Mastery does not exist objectively; it exists only once you set parameters on what experiences are meaningful, and what goals ought to be pursued by human endeavors.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre aptly separates the human sphere thus: the widest sphere, the entire human community, recognizes a limited number of forms of mastery. These are mostly limited to the basic virtues: moral goodness, industriousness, courage, etc. It is only when we narrow our scope to looking within what he calls a “practice,” that the more variegated and interesting goals of human effort become meaningful (he calls these “internal goods”—goals that are meaningful within a certain practice, but not outside it). A practice is any subsection of humanity in which people are pursuing a more specific set of goals than those pursued by the larger human community. Practices can be simply understood as crafts or professions, like carpentry, or basketball, or cardplaying.

So in order to understand mastery in poker, we have to realize that outside of the practice of poker, there is no meaning or intrinsic value in the mastery of poker, and hence it could not possibly translate into beauty. One must first acknowledge poker as a worthwhile practice, and understand poker well enough to recognize mastery. If there is beauty in poker, it is entrenched behind these two layers, which the average person will not be able to cut through. In the same way, I may be told that a mathematical proof is beautiful, but even though I have some rudimentary understanding, and even reverence, of mathematics, I don’t have anywhere near the understanding of the practice to recognize mastery, and hence beauty. Show me two potential proofs of the Poincaré conjecture, and setting aside which proof is beautiful and which isn’t, I wouldn’t even be able to tell which one were a proof and which were garbled nonsense.

So if there is beauty in poker, then this beauty can only exist within the practice, and can only be recognized among those who have sufficient understanding of the practice. You might even go so far as to say that within every practice that is sufficiently complex and understood, there exists some form of beauty (hence, it shouldn’t puzzle you to hear a CEO talk about a beautiful negotiation, or a boxer talk about a beautiful punch, or even a scammer talk about a beautiful scam). So we should have no apprehensions with talking about beauty in poker so long as we understand how we are constraining the set of people who can experience this beauty.

So, that being said, what constitutes mastery? The dictionary will tell you that mastery is “the possession of consummate skill.” This is easy enough to understand, but it falls short of providing a useful picture. If you think about mastery in terms of poker, it seems as though mastery can be roughly defined as the ability to make the most +EV set of actions (given, of course, imperfect information). So to recognize mastery, we must be able to recognize what is the most +EV action to take at any point in time—we must know what “the right play” is. If you have no idea what the right play is while looking at all possible options, then you will not be able to perceive mastery, and hence the beauty of a hand will escape you.

Now, this definition actually gets a little tricky here, because defining mastery as simply “making the right play,” seems to be overly inclusive. For example, folding 39o preflop UTG in a full ring game is absolutely the right play each and every time. And yet, if we had the hole card cam on Phil Ivey folding 39o UTG, this would not strike us beautiful. The notion of mastery would not even enter our thoughts. We have to then infer that there are some things which are optimal (“the right play”), but which are not beautiful.

How is this line drawn? How are some things which are optimal beautiful, and others trivial? Our reaction is to look for the purely aesthetic element—e.g., in basketball, a dunk is more visually impressive than inbounding a ball, so that’s why a great dunk will be more beautiful than a great inbound pass. But I don’t think that this is enough. I think a better way to understand this problem is to think about the difference between structure and “gameplay.” (I choose the word gameplay because the analogies that I’m using here are games like chess, basketball, and poker, but this still applies to a practice which is not a game, such as mathematics or carpentry or whatever..

Structure and Gameplay

In all of human experience, there is a basic duality that defines our interaction with the world. That duality is the opposition between the conscious and the unconscious, foreground and background, substructure and superstructure. All of experience is predicated upon this fundamental, yet almost invisible distinction. In any experience of the external world, your unconscious filters out what is unimportant, otherwise it would be impossible for your brain to extract patterns from such enormous swathes of information (all of the visual, aural, and tactile stimulation that your nerves are recording at every moment of your life). If you are exposed to any stimulus long enough, it congeals into a background entity, swept behind the curtain of your consciousness, and ceases to be an object of direct perception. This is obvious with things like putting on pants or wearing sunglasses—at first, it is an object of experience, but as it the experience is repeated (the feeling of having your leg press against denim or seeing an object shaded darker than it usually is), your brain filters it out and you no longer notice it. In a way, this is what happens in games like poker as well.

This initially manifests in understanding the basic structure of the game. When two players get to showdown and turn up their cards, if you had no idea how poker was played, looking at their hands would be completely meaningless to you. You wouldn’t know the structure of the game—you wouldn’t know the rules. How would you decide who won? Of course, poker has a complicated set of rules about how to combine two cards together to create different hands, some of which beat others. This is the structure of the game on the simplest level. Once you understand how to evaluate showdowns, then this is subsumed into your understanding of the structure of the game. At that point, you understand the basic rules. You can’t break those rules. You can’t take the pot if you have a straight and your opponent has a flush; the structure of the game determines that the person who has the flush will win no matter what.

But the structure of the game goes further than that. The structure is simply what is constant to your perception—there’s no reason why it has to be limited to the most explicit rules. Once you have learned basic preflop hand requirements, then you know that raising 39o UTG is definitely a bad play, so you fold it every time. In fact, everybody else folds 39o UTG as well. When you fold 39o UTG, you no longer have to mentally consult a preflop raising chart to see whether that falls into the range of hands you can play around with—it’s simply an auto-fold. Folding 39o preflop becomes a mental constant, you stop perceiving it or thinking about it as a decision in your poker game. Folding 39o effectively becomes a rule of the game. You can’t break this rule, in the same way that you can’t take the pot if you have a straight against a flush. It is incorporated into the structure of the game.

Gambling Addiction by schnappischnap, on Flickr

So structure becomes more and more developed as one moves closer to mastery of any practice. In poker, many things start to become relegated to structure, such as continuation betting, raising the river with the nuts, 3-betting AK preflop, etc. If anything is obviously the correct play and is constantly repeated, it eventually becomes incorporated into structure and ceases to be a point of gameplay. Gameplay, then, can be defined as that which is not constant—whatever we need to think about, what’s dynamic in any instance of the game that we play. In a 10/20 6-max round, nobody is ever going to raise 39o UTG; that is simply not a part of gameplay, which is effectively the same as saying that it’s an illegal move. However, 3-betting an UTG raiser with 67s is a legal move. People know that this is a viable play, but not a mandatory one. Hence, 3-betting an UTG raiser with 67s counts as gameplay.

The conclusion is that mastery will only be appreciated if it occurs within the gameplay, not within the structure. Anybody who follows the structure of a game has, in a sense, some basic level of mastery. Neither an amateur nor a professional basketball player will try to travel to the other side of the court without dribbling the basketball, and so both the amateur and professional are obeying the structure of the game, but we don’t find this to be indicative of mastery. It simply means that if they don’t do this, then they haven’t outright broken the rules yet. True mastery is demonstrated through gameplay.

Delineating Structure

To properly separate structure from gameplay, you must first understand the structure that a master is working within. If an amateur were to watch a professional chess match, he might marvel at the thoughtfulness displayed in the first four or five opening moves. But for masters of chess, gameplay doesn’t begin until their respective “opening lines” begin to interact. The first few opening moves are all structure, because they are determined by each player before the match began, or directly determined by the other player’s opening. They’re not dynamic.

Structure in high level poker is quite similar. When amateur poker players observe a high level match, very often what they tend to do is ascribe elements of gameplay to what is actually structure. When railbirds (or poor commentators) see a preflop 3-bet or a flop check/raise, they tend to say things like, “Oh, he’s fighting back!” Or if they see somebody call a jam with a hand like 99, they might say something like “He’s taking a stand, he won’t be pushed around!” In reality, the gameplay in a high level match is occurring on the battlefield of frequencies—the individual hands usually are of token importance. Individual flop checkraises and preflop 3-bets compose the structure of the match, and the adjustments and frequencies that each player adopts are what constitute the actual gameplay. This is invisible to those not privy to how high stakes matches are played, which makes it impossible for an amateur to really understand the dynamics of such a match.

But in spite of the fact that little gameplay occurs within individual hands, there nevertheless seem to be some hands which can be described as genuinely beautiful. How is this possible, if gameplay is taking place within the interplay of ranges and large-scale adjustments? Beautiful hands are rare, no doubt. But once in a while, we do see a hand that seizes our awe.

I think what defines beauty in poker is not just gameplay within structure, but gameplay that challenges structure. Structure, remember, are the constraints we perceive upon the field of gameplay. But there are times when inspiration strikes a player to see beyond structure, and to harness some tool or technique that seems to be structurally disallowed. These are the moments that we see as beautiful—the beauty is in the breaking of the rules that we realize were never really rules. It’s to capture that eloquent, unexpected solution.

An Eloquent Unexpected Solution

When I conducted those interviews with the high stakes players, it was around the time that the QT hand that Durrrr played on High Stakes Poker had just aired. It caused quite a stir among poker aficionados, and two of the players I interviewed actually mentioned it as an example of a beautiful hand of poker. Here it is.

Eastgate and Durrrr are 500k deep, and Barry is 200k deep. The blinds are 400/800 with a 200 ante, and Barry Greenstein opens under the gun for 2500 with AA. Durrrr who is immediately to his left calls with QTs, six other players behind him call, including Peter Eastgate in the small blind with 42s. The flop comes down 22T. Peter checks, and Barry leads out the flop for 10k. Durrrr makes it 37k, Peter overcalls, and Barry calls as well. The turn comes down an 8 and they both check to Durrrr, who bets 104k. Peter Eastgate folds quickly, and Barry folds after some thinking.

The vast majority of people who commentated on this hand had a poor understanding of what was actually going on. When Barry’s bet comes around to Durrrr, the standard play is going to be to fold (Barry is betting here into 8 players, so he almost certainly has something after raising UTG). The way that full ring players are conditioned to react to a spot where there are 8 players in the pot and UTG bets into them is to realize that a lot of strength is being represented here by this action, and so they fold all but the strongest of hands. The structure of the action (the positions, board texture, and amount of players in the pot) are supposed to create a situation where Durrrr has to play straightforwardly. This is the structure of this situation. But instead of obeying this structure, he goes the other way—he exploits the the fact that he has a ten, which blocks the most likely nuts (TT), and he decides to strong-arm the structure of the hand and use it to his advantage. When UTG+1 raises the UTG player with 7 players left to act in a pot with 9 players on a board where UTG obviously has something, it represents enormous strength and an indifference as to what action occurs behind.

When he makes the raise, Peter Eastgate overcalls from the small blind, and Barry calls as well, and the turn comes down a blank. Durrrr bets the turn a big size—one that seems to signal to Eastgate that he’s looking to get all-in, and one that has Barry completely covered. Once Peter Eastgate overcalls the flop, it’s very obvious that his range includes some 2’s, TT, and 22. The structure has become again intensified, because all players in the hand know that every other player acknowledges this structure, and so when Durrrr bets the turn big even when he knows what is meant by Eastgate’s overcall, Eastgate’s decision must acknowledge this fact. He knows that Durrrr is not stupid, and so he’s going to play his hand value relative to what is dictated by the structure of the hand and everybody’s perceived ranges. Now, of course if Eastgate had had 22, Durrrr would have not looked as spectacular, but it was a risk that he took, and I suspect he was not going to beat himself up over it if Eastgate turned out to have had quads.

It wasn’t just the fearlessness that Durrrr demonstrated or the fact that he bluffed for such an enormous pot, or even that he bluffed Eastgate off of trips and Barry off of aces up. What’s beautiful about the hand is how Durrrr managed to find an eloquent solution that challenged the basic structure of how the hand was supposed to be played.

Ascending the Ladder

Now, I won’t get carried away here. I won’t say that this bluff that Durrrr made was a sudden spark of creativity or some kind of eureka moment that broke full ring poker wide open. The bluff itself is actually fairly basic, and I’m sure Durrrr makes these kinds of bluffs with some regularity when the opportunity presents itself. If you wanted to, you could just call it something as simple as balance (i.e., since Durrrr is bluffing here so rarely, he has to include the occasional bluff, and if you look at the situation holistically QT is the best hand to do it with). High caliber full ring players make this kind of bluff all the time I’m sure—if they didn’t, then it’d be far too easy to play in these situations, and they’d be missing out on too much bluffing EV since they usually get credit for having hands. The hand is beautiful because it demonstrates mastery, as Durrrr certainly understood everything that was going on (he basically called both of their hands when the hand was over), and its defiance of structure. But in spite of that, there are many other hands like it that could be summoned, which moves it closer and closer to being structurally sound (something like “standard”).

Ultimately, the higher and higher you go on the ladder of poker prowess, the more difficult it is to find hands that an expert player will consider beautiful. If a hand is demonstrative of mastery, then the highest caliber poker players understand the inherent concepts and employ them whenever they can in their games. If you asked somebody like Durrrr or LarsLuzak for an example of a beautiful hand, they’d have much more difficulty producing an example than a mid to low level player would. This is because of all of the possibilities that are available in poker, players like Durrrr and Lars have explored so many of them and can see every inch of gameplay that is possible (that is, they are not obstructed by false structure), and so there is very little that appears to them as genuinely novel or beautiful. The situation would either have to be very rare for it to seem beautiful (because it would come about so rarely, they could appreciate the moment of discovering a solution), or it would have to manifest itself not in a hand, but in the higher level gameplay of adjustments and counter-adjustments..

Poker is all about possibilities, and the moment of discovering a new possibility is the sweetest feeling for a poker player. For a beginner, you might imagine that they’d find the most mundane of poker dogma, such as folding ace-ten offsuit from under the gun, as a beautiful solution to a difficult problem. And as we move up the ladder, players start to appreciate more subtle and surprising solutions to various problems, slowly uncovering more and more of the field of gameplay. Even experienced players often speak of “aha” moments, at which point their understanding of poker suddenly jumped up to another level, or some concept which they once didn’t really grasp was suddenly elucidated. I think these are the moments in poker we all hunger for. There is, truly, no greater delight than that moment of discovery. When we emerge out of the cave of ignorance, and the light of realization blinds us with its brilliance… it is then that the universe of possibilities unfurls itself before us. And indeed, it is a thing of beauty.

November 12 2013
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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This is a glossary of common poker terms. Suggest additions or changes in the comments below. [#](#num) [A](#a) [B](#b) [C](#c) [D](#d) [E](#e) [F](#f) [G](#g) [H](#h) [I](#i) [J](#j) [K](#k) [L](#l) [M](#m) [N](#n) [O](#o) [P](#p) [Q](#q) [R](#r) [S](#s) [T](#t) [U](#u) [V](#v) [W](#w) [X](#x) [Y](#y) [Z](#z) # $1/$2, $5/$10, $10/$20 A way of notating the size of the blinds in the stakes being played. $10/$20 means a $10 small blind, and a $20...
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Dec 2013

It’s fall now, and just starting to get cold in Texas. I haven’t written in a while. The book, The Philosophy of Poker, I will collate and edit from the pieces written on this blog. I’ll release it within the next couple of months as an e-book. There will be extensive editing, some additional material I’ve thought of in the interim while writing the book, and some revisions of ideas...
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