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Can You Spot the Ways the Game Has Changed?

Can You Spot the Ways the Game Has Changed?
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  • One great challenge of poker is how it is always changing -- over years, or even in a single session.

  • Pay attention at the poker table, and actively look for ways the game is changing from hand to hand.

I moved to Asheville, North Carolina from Las Vegas about four years ago. I quickly learned that the city's favorite son is author Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe was born in Asheville in 1900. He later moved to New York and wrote a best-selling first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, based on his childhood. It was not kind to his hometown. Something like 200 characters in the sprawling story were so thinly disguised that local readers had no difficulty figuring out who was who — and few were happy with their portrayals. Wolfe was not warmly welcomed on future visits to Asheville.

His last novel, published posthumously, was what today we would call "meta." As explained by Wikipedia, "The novel tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book that makes frequent references to his home town…. The book is a national success but the residents of the town, unhappy with what they view as Webber's distorted depiction of them, send the author menacing letters and death threats." This is, obviously, Wolfe's own story, again.

The title of that final work was You Can't Go Home Again — and, yes, that's where the expression comes from. It tells us that home will never be the place we remember it to be.

The philosopher Heraclitus had this idea 2,500 years before Wolfe did: "Everything changes and nothing remains still, and you cannot step twice into the same stream."

I was reminded of all of this when I recently made my first trip back to Vegas since moving away. My flight arrived at a new terminal of the airport. I got disoriented in the shuttle ride to my hotel because of how roads had been rerouted to accommodate the expanded airport.

But there was much more yet to see. In the relatively short time I had been gone, the city sprouted a giant Ferris-wheel thing, a sports arena, and a new casino complex just off the Strip, the Lucky Dragon. I had known from news reports and social media that these things had gone up, but they had not been incorporated into my mental map of the city, so they were still startling to see.

It's a universal human attribute to think that things stay the same when we're not watching them, and to be surprised when we finally see the changes. It's the phenomenon that will be behind millions of children this week hearing visiting relatives say, "Just look at how much you've grown!"

We shouldn't be surprised by this, because we have a lifetime of experience telling us that everything is always changing. Of course the city isn't the same as when I last saw it. Of course children grow. Of course your high school classmates don't look the same at the reunion as they did at graduation. But somehow, in spite of ample experience to the contrary, we are still constantly fooled by the illusion that things remain as they were.

It's true of poker, too, you know. You're probably familiar with articles describing how the strategies of the best players change from year to year. Some of it is faddish, some the necessary evolution of countermeasures to last year's profitable moves.

When I first started paying attention to poker around 2001, hold'em strategy books still advised that the fourth preflop raise meant pocket aces, period. Now it's not uncommon to see that move made with garbage hands, as a re-re-re-steal. A strategy guide that repeated the trope about aces would be hopelessly outdated.

To the typical low-stakes player, though, it's even more important to recognize that the game changes on much, much faster time scales.

Suppose you take a break from a cash game to grab a bite to eat. You're gone, say, half an hour. You come back, and everything looks the same — same players in their same seats. It's natural, therefore, to think that everything is the same. But it's not. You are not stepping back into the same stream that you stepped out of 30 minutes before.

The tactical problem you face is knowing that something will be different, but not exactly what that might be.

You may be tempted to use the first few hands back to catch up on Facebook and Twitter, or the sports on television. I urge you instead to use that time to figure out what has happened in your absence. A few of infinitely many possibilities:

  • Somebody lost his stack on a horrible beat, rebought, and is now steaming, looking to recoup his losses.
  • A poker room promotion has gone into effect, changing what starting hands players will keep.
  • Somebody ordered a round of drinks for the table, and everybody is a little tipsier than when you left.
  • One player's girlfriend is now sitting behind him watching, and he wants to impress her.
  • Somebody lost a sports bet, pounded down three shots of whiskey in rapid succession, and they're just starting to take effect.
  • A new dealer is affecting everybody's mood, either for good or ill.
  • There was an argument heated enough that a floor person had to come over and give those involved a warning. Two players are now quietly seething at each other. Since they can't escalate the fight physically or verbally, they've taken to doing it with chips and cards, presenting you with an opportunity to profit from their targeting of each other.

I suppose you could ask somebody, "What happened while I was gone?" But I wouldn't expect an especially accurate or informative rundown.

So you'll have to figure this out by yourself. Which stacks are markedly shorter or taller than when you left? Whose faces are showing emotions — anger, ebullience, boredom, fatigue — that you had not noticed before? How has the conversation changed, in tone or subject matter?

You may not be able to reconstruct the exact events that took place while you were eating, but you certainly can certainly tune in to what effect that passage of time has had on the players and their tendencies.

You can do so, however, only if you're actively looking for such things. If you succumb to the illusion that nothing is different, you won't see them.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.

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