Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Posted by Dr Fro 8:40 PM
"But I don't eat locusts"
(alt. hed.: "It's my Blog and I can Capitalize if I want To')

I spent Memorial Day weekend in St Louis. The three of us drove 620 miles there and 620 miles back in a rented minivan. Mrs. Dr. Fro's cousin married a Mexican, so that is why she went. She told me we could go to a Cardinals game, so that is why I went. Baby went because we went.

The wedding was fun. It was also interesting. It is always interesting when a Catholic Mexican marries a Catholic Slovenian in a non-denominational ceremony with reception with a black uncle that is the DJ. Said uncle is my favorite relative. He played Kenny Roger's The Gambler at one point and said it was for me.

Uncle Dr. Fro and I have a connection. Well, we have lots of connections. That might be surprising to hear that an accountant from Dallas has much in common with a guy who owns a funeral home business, lives on top of the funeral home, owns a DJ business, owns a speaker wire installation business and is the head pastor of a church he started (and built). He also owns a time share in Vegas. That is where our connection starts. Uncle Dr. Fro has a little gamble in him. I have a lot of gamble in me. UDF told me the story of when he saved somebody's soul at a poker table. I have lost my soul at a poker table. As you can see, we have a lot to talk about.

One of UDF's quirks is his conviction to the notion that all professional sports are rigged. All of them. All the games. This is, to say the least, a bold notion, but it is one that he likes to explain to any soul who will listen almost as much as he likes to explain the Gospel of Thomas. He once made $4,800 on an NFL playoff game that was rigged. He also celebrated wildly when the Rams won the Super Bowl last decade and when the Cardinals won their World Series last year. I don't fully understand how you can be convinced that all sports are basically scripted drama and at the same time rejoice at the (surprise of the?) outcome, but he does.

During my trip to St Louis, I finished Moneyball, the best-seller about Billy Beane, the Oakland As GM, and how he managed to win more games per dollar of payroll than any other GM in Major League Baseball. It's one of those books that you finish and want to do nothing other than discuss it with others who have read it (much like my reaction after watching last week's episode of LOST). Since I have no friends and since KTl is too busy at work to talk to me, I will carry on my usual one-way conversation on this here blog.

For starters, most of Billy's ideas fall into one of three categories for me:

  1. Wow, I never thought of that, but that is genius;
  2. Yes! I have always thought of that; or
  3. Hmmm, I respectfully disagree.

Probably 95% of his ideas fall into categories #1 & #2 and mainly into #1. The short list of things on which I don't entirely agree with Mr. Beane includes his complete hatred of stealing bases. This seems to me to contradict other ideas of his such as placing a premium value on On Base Percentage and his corresponding hatred of giving up cheap outs. I think that with a man on second (as opposed to first), the likelihood of the batter walking goes up (increasing his on base percentage.) Also, on the cheap out fronts, obviously a successful stealing of second base takes away the forced double-play (i.e. takes away one of two cheap outs). So it seems to me that the value of a steal is not as simple as it was portrayed in the book. Another area with which I might disagree with Mr. Beane is his insistence that he not change his strategy for the playoffs (specifically, that he not try to manufacture runs). I am not certain that I disagree with this, but it seems quite analogous to the difference in strategy for a cash game versus the strategy in the late stages of a tournament. With the latter (and perhaps in a playoff game), the EV should not be measured the same way as in the former. It seems reasonable that taking a few extra gambles could make sense.

Other than that, I think he is genius.

If you have have not read the book (or if you haven't heard others that have read it talk about it), let me try to summarize. All the teams in MLB relied on certain conventional wisdom in deciding what makes a good baseball player (and, by extension, a good baseball team). This conventional wisdom was based on the collective experience baseball insiders, but it was never tested against empirical data. Billy, on the other hand, hired a bunch of Harvard nerds to crunch numbers to test wisdom (both conventional and unconventional) against actual data. Some wisdom was proven to be flatly wrong, while other wisdom was directionally correct, but the magnitude was off. In practice, this meant that GMs overpaid for certain traits (borne out by stats) and underpaid for other traits (e.g., on base percentage). By trading away players with more of the overvalued traits than undervalued traits for players that had the opposite composition of traits, he efficiently created a team that was outperforming other teams that had significantly higher payrolls than Oakland.

Sounds simple, huh?

Although the baseball specifics of the book were wonderful fun, the real takeaway was quite a bit broader. It was also the exact same takeaway from Freakenomics. (I do suggest your re-read the linked post). What I learned (again) was how people hold onto ideas even in the face of blatant evidence in contradiction of those ideas, and I learned (again) the reasons why they do this. Every once in a while, somebody comes along and says, "Hey, this conventional wisdom is a bunch of hogwash, and I can prove it to you. There is a much, much better way of doing things, and I would love to explain to you just how." When that guy says that, the response is overwhelming. Unfortunately, it is overwhelmingly aghast at the idea that what we have held as Truth for so long is in fact false. So, behavior continues to be based on false ideas.

When Freakenomics came out, there was a serious backlash. There was one idea in particular that explained why crime rates have dropped in America (I won't spoil it for you by telling you what the idea is) that generated some emotional reactions among "experts".

When Moneyball came out, it made a lot of people in the Establishment look very stupid. The Establishment reacted by blasting the book and Billy Beane. One member of the Establishment, Joe Morgan, was particularly vocal. Interestingly, though he was one of the book's biggest critics, he never actually read the book. (This is not too different from Michael Moore's biggest critics who have never read his books nor watched his movies. Accordingly, their criticism usually makes no sense because they criticise things that Michael Moore never actually said. I suggest that if you want to criticise MM, that you actual watch/read the subject of criticism first. In all likelihood, you will still have criticism, but at least it will be informed criticism.)

So that is just how it is. People freak out when the Truth comes out because the truth hurts. We all have different reasons for hanging onto conventional wisdom. It is comforting. After all, we have been making decisions our whole life based on conventional wisdom, so if we find out that conventional wisdom is in fact false, then we have wasted our lives. The Establishment always benefits from the status quo, so they are always vocal in shooting down ideas that challenge the status quo. But just because everybody calls the lone voice of truth an idiot does not make him one.

I'll get a little religious on you here and point out an easy example. Jesus was the ultimate anti-Establishment hippie. He disagreed with just about everything that everyone was doing. The Establishment was pissed. Fellow Judeans weren't too happy that he made them feel very bad about how they were living their lives. So how did they react? I'll spoil this book for you, because if you haven't read the book yet, you probably never will.... they killed him. They killed him in a really bad way. Not all people would say that he was telling the Truth, but I can find a few hundred million people in the world today that would say he was.

How about MLK? I love this example because, unlike with my previous one, it is extremely hard to find somebody today that actually thinks his ideas such as getting rid of racial segregation are bad ideas. Maybe if you live in a swamp in Louisiana you might disagree with me, but assuming you have most of your teeth, you probably are anti-segregation. Well 40 years ago, that was a radical idea, and people didn't take too kindly to Dr. King. And again, yes, they responded by killing him.

I don't mean to suggest that Billy Beane is Dr. King or Jesus, but I am trying to paint a picture of how people react when truth confronts conventional wisdom.

Of course, I would never say that every time somebody says something contrary to what everyone believes and generates a lot of controversy that they are necessarily a prophet. If that were true, then Michael Moore would be a prophet. I suppose that Rush Limbaugh would be too. A lot of times, people strike a nerve because what they say is unbelievably stupid. But I think that it is worth listening to anyone that is striking a nerve in the event that they are onto something.

I have 3 more examples, all of which revolve around UT football. However, I will save those for another post or perhaps a drunken conversation later, because I have a lot of points to make and I have already taken to long to get to them.

I was thinking about how this could all possibly relate to poker, and I have convinced myself that it very much does. There is conventional wisdom in poker.

Prior to Super System, there were just a bunch of individuals with their own ideas, most of which were probably stupid. Doyle Brunson changed all of that by co-writing a book that not only explained how to play poker well, it made a pretty good case for why playing poker Doyle's way made sense. Of course the ultimate proof was simply that Doyle wrote it, and Doyle was quite successful at poker.

A heap of poker books have come out since then, but they all are basically the same. Sure, some focus on some areas more than others (e.g., I learned more about post-flop play from Dan Harrington and more about O/8 from Hellmuth than from other books), but there are not a lot of disagreements between the books. Sure, authors tout how their advice differs from the other's, but they all really just put a lot of meat on this basic bone structure:

  1. Play tight but aggressive.
  2. Only play quality hole cards.
  3. Fold or raise. Calling is for pusses.
  4. Choose your bluffs wisely.
  5. Call on draws when you have the pot (or implied) odds.
  6. Adjust all decisions based on position.
  7. Stick to 1-6, but vary your play just enough to keep your opponents from knowing that you are largely sticking to 1-6.

I am going to suggest something heretical here: This not the best possible poker advice. At a minimum, it is incomplete.

Shots ring out over the Memphis sky.

I think that Mr. Brunson and his fellow writers are genius. I just think that you shouldn't follow their advice. I am going to offer 5 reasons why I think that poker strategy books could do with an overhaul from the conventional thinking that hasn't changed much since Doyle wrote his book:

  1. Most books still start from fundamental advice for limit poker (which until 2003 was the only kind of poker most places offered) and then adjust the advice for no limit.
  2. All of this conventional wisdom was gleaned from people's perception of poker, but it was not tested against empirical evidence. With the extraordinary amount of data now available from online poker sites, conventional wisdom can now be properly put to the test.
  3. The advice is given by people who have a direct interest in giving advice that seems sound (so as to sell books) but is not actually entirely sound (so as to make their opponents actually get better. Conspiracy Theory Alert!
  4. The advice, while sound for the types of opponents the authors faced, was never sound for the opponents we face. Do you think that your brother in law in your weekly home game plays like Layne Flack? If so, read Super System and act accordingly. If not, sell your copy of Super System for $20 on Ebay, and use the money to see a movie with your wife. Afterwards, you will have made you wife happy, put $4 change in your pocket and gotten rid of advice that does you absolutely no good against your brother in law.
  5. The advice, while it may have made sense at one point in time, no longer does. This is because everybody has read the books and now plays "by the book." Basic game theory would say that you need to adjust your strategy to the the one that dominates they way people now play.

It is getting late, and I am getting tired. The Astros are also testing my patience by competing with the Rangers for the worst record in baseball. So, I won't elaborate on these five points tonight. I am still trying to figure out exactly what I think about them. I have something to say about 1, 2, 4 and 5, but 3 is really a brain fart speculation. I don't think there is an actual conspiracy out there to keep us lemmings stupid, but I do think that it is easier to sell books with advice that is easy to swallow and exciting to imagine as true than it is to sell books with tough pills to swallow.

I do know that I am not the bringer of the truth. I have neither the requisite experience nor the intellect to tell you why the books are wrong (or, at a minimum, incomplete). I am more like John the Baptist. My job is to prepare the way. (for the record, that is not my biggest delusion of grandeur; when I was four, I thought I was the Messiah). I just want people to see that there might be a different way of looking at things, a different way to make money at poker. Hopefully, after being well-prepared to receive the truth, we can recognize the truth when we hear/read it. I suspect it will, like all truth, come from an unlikely source.

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Random thoughts from a lawyer, an accountant, a commodities trader, an ex-Marine and a WSOP Main Event money finisher that don't know as much as they wish they did...



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The Doctor is IN

Dr Fro
aka "slow roller"

Which one is the fish?

aka "Sunday Stroller"

You go now!

Johnny Mac
aka "Chop Suey"

You got to know when to hold em;  Know when to Mo' em ...

aka "Mo roller"

Old School

"Baby's Daddy"

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