Data Minding

Back in the 1980s, I realized that if I was going to play poker by the book, I’d need a book. So I bought a book. And I did everything by the book — I played by the book, I kept score by the book, and since I kept the book on my bed stand, you could even say I slept by the book.

A couple years after that, I left my job to play poker full time. And a couple years after that, I realized that keeping score by the book was making it hard for me to play by the book. I had become an obsessive data miner, which in turn turned me into a data minder. While I was playing, I was all too often thinking about my hourly average when I should have been thinking more traditional, bookish thoughts, such as, “What does this guy have?”

Let me explain what I mean by “keep score by the book.” It’s just what you’d expect. Very simple. After each session, I’d write down what game I played, how long I played, and how much I won or lost.

And then I’d look at the numbers, and I’d look some more, and I’d feel good about them, or bad about them, and I’d do some wishing and hoping. I’d wish they were better. I’d hope they didn’t get worse. I’d pack all my numbers into my mind and carry my messy collection of figures and anxieties to the poker table. Then a pot would come up where I got unlucky, or I made a dumb play, and instead of bearing down on the next hand, I’d be bearing the brunt of my burdensome numbers, I’d be calculating my current totals and averages, I’d be thinking like a regular wage earner who just took a cut in pay and… gawd, what a gunked-up mess! And in the middle of all that, here comes the next hand.

A Buck a Hand

There are three things you need to know before I go on. 1) The poker world I lived in then was almost entirely limited to Limit. 2) There was no internet poker. 3) $30,000 per year was plenty enough to support my food and rent habit.

One day, my mining mind got to thinking:

I am dealt about thirty hands per hour, and I play about 2000 hours per year. That’s 60,000 hands per year. I’ve been netting about $30,000 per year. And I pay about $30,000 per year in rake and tips. So my total earn per year is about $60,000 per year. OK, let’s see here. I play 60,000 hands per year and my playing edge earns me $60,000 per year.

You do the math.

When I realized that my gross earn rate was $1 per hand, it became obvious where my focus should lie. Find faster dealers!

My minding mind went further:

I am dealt 60,000 hands per year, and I make $60,000 per year. Of those 60,000 hands that I am dealt, I fold 45,000 of them before the flop. 60k – 45k =15,000, which is the number of flops I see per year. So I make $60,000 in 15,000 flops, which reduces to:

$60,000 / 15,000 flops = $4 per flop seen.

The mining mind is a curious creature. How could I make more? Should I see more flops? Should I see fewer? If I saw every flop, I would surely lose. If I saw no flops, I’d also lose. The optimum was somewhere in-between. Had I arrived at just the right number? Maybe I should see a few more flops? Maybe a few fewer? Maybe more from some positions and less from others? These are some of the healthy and useful questions dug up in the mines.

The Universal Time Unit of Poker

Units are tools, and they should be chosen to fit the job. In the same way that you wouldn’t use a saw to drive a nail, you wouldn’t use millimeters to measure miles. “Did you see that amazing interception in the Super Bowl? It was the longest runback in Super Bowl history! James Harrison ran it back 1/100,000,000,000,000 of a light year!”

Before internet poker, there were five units of time in a poker player’s world. I’ll use each of them in a sentence.

  • “A good player should make one big bet per hour at limit hold’em.”
  • “This has been the worst week of my life.”
  • “Last month I was on fire.”
  • “I lost ten grand last year.”
  • “There’s no way I can get even at poker in my lifetime — I already spent my winnings.”

Then along came internet poker, and soon afterward, the world welcomed the most elegant, pure, versatile, accurate, and mineable time unit for poker there has ever been or ever will be: The Hand. But of course I would feel that way about The Hand, since I had had a handle on it for over half a million hands. But hey, who’s counting?

Soon, through common usage, the new time unit was clustered into larger groups, made up mostly of zeros. The Hand was sending time-worn time units — the day, the week, and the month — to a convalescent home where they could live out their days in obsolescence with other words that once thrived in the poker world such as “non-smoking room” and “stand pat.” The new way of talking sounds like this:

  • “I’m up $50,000 over my last 50,000 hands.” (This player is obviously one of my $1/hand brethren.)
  • “I hope to make 3BB per 100 hands.” (Is that in dollars or euros?)
  • “I play more hands in one month on the internet than Tommy ever played in a whole year of live poker.” (Fair enough. But I can play the drums, so there.)

The BBPH Fog

BBPH is one of the most widely interpreted and therefore vague acronyms I’ve ever seen. If you play No Limit Hold’em on the internet, it means Big Blinds Per Hundred. (The word “hands” after “hundred” is implied.) If you play Limit Hold’em on the internet, it means Big Bets Per Hundred. If you play No Limit live poker, it means Big Blinds Per Hour, and if you play Limit Hold’em live poker, it means Big Bets Per Hour. And if your name is Alex — more on him later — it means Bad Beats Per Hour.

The whole BBPH thing is a good idea, like nuclear power. And like nuclear power, when it goes wrong, it can result in a meltdown. BBPH is great for comparing results in various games and various limits, and for comparing the past and present. But it can keep poker careers grounded by glazing the eyes of up-and-comers until everything is viewed through a BBPH fog.

The BBPH mindset has made me lots of money when it helped me be detached, when it caused me to think of money not as money but as merely betting units. It has also cost me money when the clarity of detachment gets fogged over by the delirium of desire. When I cling to the numbers — numbers that always change, and sometimes for the worse — I am never satisfied, and dissatisfaction causes pain, and pain opens the door for non-A-game performance to step through.

Data Mauling

My buddy Alex and I both manipulate our data to serve our emotional needs. I’m into self-inflation. What I used to do back when I was grinding out a living at poker was if I went through a really bad run, I’d just quit keeping a log of my results. This preserved my hourly average at whatever it was before the bad run started. Then, after the bad run ended and I started feeling great and playing good and winning almost every day, I’d start over with keeping score again. And my hourly average would be a totally unrealistic, absolutely unsustainable number. The end result was that whenever my bankroll got pumped up, my stats got disproportionally even more pumped up, and all this inflation helped me float through life.

My buddy Alex, on the other hand, is into self-deflation. What he does when he hits a rough patch is he looks back to the exact moment it started and he keeps a tally in his head from that moment to the present, and then he broods on those negative numbers every day. He always knows exactly which segments of time will supply him with maximum agony. Let’s say he has two bad months followed by two good months. Anytime I talk to him during that time, he will give his data starting from the beginning of the two bad months.

Let’s say he then has two more good months. Now what he’ll do is shorten the time span to a week, or a day, or even an hour… whatever it takes to extract a negative number from his graph of life. Alex might be the only poker player in the world who can crush poker games for years and give negative reports the whole time, and be telling the truth. It’s a special talent he has. And it used to drive me crazy, totally tilt me. I’d be like, dude, you got plenty of bankroll and no one can beat you, so you’re supposed to be happy goddammit!

But now I’ve mellowed. If he wants to use his data to dig up demons, that’s his business. Best if I just mine my own.


2018 Coaching Update: I’m doing video coaching now on whatever ails you — from betting problems and tilt issues to bad quitting and no patience. For more details and to schedule a call, click here.


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