Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.
Aunt Sophie goes wild
“Say,” announced my Aunt Sophie indignantly, “I see here that this writer is claiming that wild cards ruin a poker game. How can that be?” By “here” Aunt Sophie meant the best and most widely circulated cardroom publication in the nation that she was currently perusing while awaiting the arrival of our order in the coffee shop of the Anaheim Club.
“Do you mean that writer,” I queried, “who quotes from his own book in his articles, as if it’s the ultimate poker authority, without letting on that he’s the author?”
“I guess so,” she responded. “I didn’t know he wrote that book he’s forever quoting from. Why don’t he say so?”
“Well,” I temporized, “it doesn’t lend much of an air of authenticity to be quoting from a book you refer to as ‘that great book on poker’ and, less modestly, as ‘a novel … which many believe to be the greatest book ever written about international poker players’ when you wrote it, does it? Oh well, guess you can’t blame the guy for plugging his own stuff. Anyway, it does appear we’re talking about the same person. What was it he said that set you off?”
The waitress arrived with our dinners, brisket and potato pancakes for Aunt Sophie, Veal Marsala for me, and a bottle of Pat Paulsen Chardonnay for us to share.
“He claims,” offered Aunt Sophie, “that just adding a joker to the deck ‘throws the odds and all of the intelligence of the game right out of the window.’ Is that true?”
“No,” I replied, “I wouldn’t say so. Not only does it add a further element of skill to the games of lowball and draw poker, but it also increases the number of playable hands, so there’s more action to the games.”
“Ah ha,” she continued, “and more wild cards? You know, I don’t just play in the cardrooms. Once in a while a few of us get together and play dealer’s choice. And in a game like that, the dealer tends to choose games not usually played in cardrooms, like deuces wild, low hole card wild, and so on.”
“Hmm,” I ruminated, “how often do you do this, and for what stakes?”
“About once a month,” she answered, “and nothing to get excited about. Usually five dollars maximum bet, no limit on the number of raises.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Somewhat bigger than your usual nickel-dime-quarter Friday-night home game, but not big enough to hurt anyone, I suppose. A good player, like you, ought to be able to make two or three hundred in that game.”
“But what about those wild-card games?” she insisted. “Shouldn’t I be playing them?”
“On the contrary,” I offered, “a good player should have all games in her repertoire. And, in fact, the more options available, the greater the skill factor. The more possibilities at any juncture, the more betting rounds, the greater the edge for the good player who knows how to play the game. David Sklansky claims that he could play every hand in a seven-stud, high-low split game in which the players have to declare which direction they’re going for at the end and beat the game regularly, and I believe him. And that’s a game with no wild cards, just more options than the usual game. Usually seven-stud has one winner, the highest hand. It’s played high-low sometimes, and then the pot is split. That gives a player the opportunity to play more hands, but the poor player plays too many, and goes for the wrong half of the pot. In cardrooms, usually the ‘cards speak for themselves,’ that is, the players all show down their cards at the end, and the highest hand splits the pot with the lowest hand. Players often luck into half a pot. But when players have to declare which way they’re going before showing their cards, ah, then another facet of skill enters. One more decision. It’s very tricky knowing which way to declare based on the cards the others are showing and on how they’ve been betting. A good player can win half of a pot he couldn’t possibly win on a showdown just because he knows how those remaining in the pot are going to declare. If there was a showdown, with the ‘cards speak’ rule, he couldn’t possibly win.”
“Oh sure,” put in Aunt Sophie, “I see that. The more decisions required, the greater the skill. And with wild cards?”
“The same thing, of course,” I went on. “With wild cards, suddenly the average winning hands change. A good player can adjust to that, and a poor player can’t. An average player, for example, might have learned that in seven stud two high pair is a good hand to go to the river with. In a wild-card game, if he isn’t able to adjust that strategy, he’s going to be at a disadvantage to the player able to think on his feet who does. And, of course, low hole card wild means better hands required to win as compared to, say, deuces wild. When everyone has a wild card it only stands to reason that everyone is going to have better hands. Add to that split pots — going for both high and low with wild cards — and suddenly the poor player’s game is thrown all off kilter. So is the old-line player’s game, who knows only one or two games, and then most of his strategy is just playing tight. That works in cardrooms, at the smaller limits, against average players. It won’t get it against good players, though, and it’s a completely losing strategy in games that increase the available options at every point.”
“So,” remarked Aunt Sophie, “if I’m to be a triple-threat player, I need to be able to play the wild-card games too?”
“You sure do,” I came back with, “if you’re going to play in your weekly friendly game. This guy you mentioned praises five-card stud as the best, purest game, the one with the most skill, which is utter nonsense. If five-card stud is played properly, the average pot has one player in it, and there is no contest. The high card is supposed to bet, and everyone else should fold, at least according to the advice of the most-respected authorities. If you’ve got a higher card in the hole than the opener, or a pair, you stay, at which point he’s supposed to fold. Once in a while what appears to be the best hand is not, and a contest develops, but most of the time the best hand has so much the best of it, that anyone ‘chasing’ is a complete fool. But, anyway, five-card stud is a game revered by old-timers mostly, players with no imagination. I know it’s making something of a comeback in a few casinos, but mostly with a stripped deck, which is somewhat different, and not the game he’s referring to. You don’t find a lot of ‘gambling’ in five-card stud, and those who do generally lose.”
“Well,” she chuckled, “who pressed your button?”
“Sorry,” I apologized, “but I wish they’d have dealer’s choice in the cardrooms. I know why they don’t, of course. It’s because there’s just too much of an edge for the good players. The suckers would have no chance. That, and if the players deal for themselves, it’s much easier to get away with cheating in a wild-card game than any other. But I’d love to see low hole card wild at decent stakes, deuces wild, Chicago, Anaconda, twin beds. The more choices you give me, the more edge I’ve got. I’m afraid the less-imaginative players would never go for it, though.”