Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Poker Conundrum

So the other night I fired up the DVR to watch something other than the Olympics. Yes it's true. Olympics junkie though I may be, there are times when I just have to watch something other than the Olympics. It usually happens when the "Olympics Broadcasting Consortium" (meaning CTV and its cable networks TSN and TSN2 aswell as Rogers Sportsnet) are showing tape of events I've already seen – or some figure skating – but that's beside the point. On this particular night I decided to catch up on an episode of The Big Bang Theory whichis one of the few sitcoms that I can not only sit through but actually enjoy. I was rewarded with the episode in which Sheldon – the character who elevates the show to another level – encounters his mortal enemy Wil Wheaton.

The reason why Wil Wheaton is Sheldon's mortal enemy is complicated but when is anything with Sheldon not complicated. Essentially Sheldon's favourite character on Star Trek: The Next Generation was Wesley Crusher – well you knew there had to be one – and when the opportunity to see Wil Wheaton at a Star Trek convention and to have him autograph a collectible action figure came up, Sheldon travelled nine hours by bus (twice violating his personal rule going to the bathroom on a moving vehicle – I have the same rule for busses and so do most people who have travelled by bus; gross!) to attend a Star Trek Con in Jackson Mississippi only to discover that Wil Wheaton wasn't going to be there. Finally Sheldon's chance for vengeance comes when he discovers that Wil Wheaton will be competing in a collectible card game that sounds like Magic: the Gathering...but isn't for copyright reasons. It is also a tournament that Raj has been begging Sheldon to enter – Raj wants the money – but that Sheldon has been dismissive of...until he learns that Wil Wheaton is playing in it. Inevitably Sheldon and Raj triumph over all opponents on the back of Sheldon's eidetic memory which allows not only to remember what cards have already been played but to deduce with incredible clarity what cards each of his opponents has. It's something that, in his smugly arrogant manner, he delights in telling them. Eventually he comes face to face with Wil Wheaton. And it is Sheldon's delight in explaining things to his opponents that proves to be his eventual downfall. He explains to Wil Wheaton why he is so hostile, and Wheaton explains that he missed the con because his grandmother died. Suddenly Sheldon, who is devoted to his Meemaw, melts and much to Raj's consternation throws the match to Wil Wheaton, who after winning informs Sheldon that his Grandmother will probably be very pleased that he won the money in the tournament – she's still alive.

The episode contains some elements of truth. Wil Wheaton is well known as a gamer, particularly a Dungeons & Dragons player. What's also fairly well known is that Wheaton is a competitive Poker player. How good is he? Well I've outlasted him in a couple of tournaments but that occurred in large part because I never played a hand against him. He's a solid recreational player who would have cleaned out the game on the USS Enterprise (those of you who remember Star Trek: The Next Generation will recall that a number of episodes centered around a Poker game featuring Riker, Worf, Data, Geordi, Dr. Crusher, and Counsellor Troi; like all TV poker players they played Draw Poker, a version of the game that is largely extinct in the casinos). This connection got me to thinking about how Sheldon would do as a Poker player. It's not really idle speculation on my part, rather it stems from a couple of things that's I've observed about Poker and what non-Poker players think about the game. One is that the most successful Poker players tend to be highly intelligent. Several of the top players either have PhDs or (in the case of Annie Duke) were close to getting the post-graduate degrees. Several were involved in high tech companies. We are also confronted by people who insist that poker isn't a game of skill but rather all about the luck of the draw.

If you believe that Poker is about the luck of the draw, which a recent "gamble responsibly" ad around here stated (not even suggested) then Sheldon would be an excellent Poker player. He's capable of calculating odds almost instantaneously, and obviously he'd know the relative values of various hands. His Eidetic Memory would be a tremendous asset in any of the games based around Seven Card Stud because he'd remember every card that had been played including the ones that had gone into the muck and been able to tell what each of his opponents had. It would be like the scene in Rounders where Matt Damon's character tells each of the players in the "Judges Game" what they had. That of course is what the situation would be if poker were entirely about the "luck of the draw."

In fact Sheldon would be a lousy Poker player just as Wesley Crusher, admitted into his mother's game, would be a terrible poker player (but not as bad as Sheldon; in this Sheldon would be more like Data). Sheldon would be easy to bluff because he wouldn't understand why someone would lie in that sort of situation or would always expect an opponent to bluff once a bluff is exposed. He'd only play good to great hands rather than the marginal hands that turn into something. As a result, when he does collect pots they wouldn't be as big as they might be. Big pots are usually pulled in when a player has a hand that develops into something greater than the losers expect them to be. With Sheldon playing only strong hands opponents would know that when he bets he has a very strong hand. In being a winner in the luck of the draw he would lose in the game of taking ships from opponents. Sheldon would be a disaster playing a Seven Card Stud style game because of his tendency to gloat when he wins, or more accurately when he knows he's going to win and sets out to explain why his opponents will lose while the hand is playing out. This is a breach of poker etiquette which in tournament play would probably result in penalties from the organizers and in standard "ring" games would probably result in a player being thrown out of the card room.

Sheldon's greatest weakness as a poker player is that he doesn't relate to people. In Poker playing the person is often a bigger thing than playing the cards, which is why Poker is a game of skill. An experienced poker player will be able to read his opponents, even online, and know when one of those opponents has a good hand and when they don't. They know when to bluff with a weak – or at least a not very strong – hand and when to fold their cards and wait for a better hand. It's about knowing when the other player is bluffing and when that player really is strong. It's about knowing the right time to apply pressure. It's about adopting different personas and styles of play during a tournament based on the skills and actions of opponents. Poker is about being one person at one table and a different person at another. It's knowing the right time to be loose and aggressive and when to be tight and conservative. They say that great comedy is all about timing. So is great Poker playing..Great comedy is about understanding people, at least in so far as it involves knowing what they'll laugh at. The key to great Poker is also understanding people and how they think. Sheldon would never get any of that – you can see that from the way he interacts (if you can call it that) with other people not to mention what he allegedly describes as his sense of humour – and more to the point he would care that he didn't get it. Sheldon's Eidetic memory would make him a great Blackjack player (at least until the casinos banned him and put him in "The Black Book") and his skills as a physicist would turn him into a wonder at the Roulette table, calculating orbital mechanics in his head, but when it comes to Poker, he'd be a disaster.

Now his roommate Leonard might have potential....

9 comments:

Tim said...

Given how popular poker has gotten its kind of a surprise we haven't seen a show where the lead character is a poker player, even if they likely wouldn't actually show much poker being played. They'd probably have him be a Phil Helmuth or Mike the Mouth type who freaks out in amusing fashion when things don't go their way.

Brent McKee said...

Funny you should mention that Tim. There was actually a sitcom proposed that would feature a poker player based on Annie Duke. The Annie Duke character was to be played by Janeane Garofalo, and it was to be about a single mom who also happened to be a professional poker player. It was to have been on NBC but was never made.

Todd Mason said...

And, fwiw, there's a good somewhat improvised comedy film/mocumentary about poker and a poker tournament, THE GRAND, which apparently never saw any cinemas, went directly to pay cable.

I like it.

Ben said...

I remember hearing about that proposed sitcom, which I think had the working title "All In." It died around the time Garofalo was under heat for opposing the Iraq war, although I don't know if the two things were related. Anyway, too bad.

Toby O'B said...

Definitely putting a link to this @ Inner Toob when I get home in the morning. Good Toobworld speculation....

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