"One can win the war but lose the peace."
-- Venkiah Naidu
I have previously written about how poker tactics are not poker strategy,
and about how a reality TV show like Survivor has poker lessons
to offer us. Both these lessons were reinforced by events in late 2009.
Survivor Samoa was the 19th season of the program where eighteen or so players work to outwit, outplay and outlast their
opponents. One player is voted off the island each week by the other players until there are just two (or three) finalists left, at
which point the most recent seven (or nine) players voted off vote for which of the finalists they want to see get the $1,000,000
first prize. Survivor Samoa was most notable for having the best tactical player in the history of the show, Russell Hantz.
Russell manipulated his opponents endlessly, found key prizes ("immunity idols") on the island without any clues (something
never done before, that the producers of the show never even considered possible), made a wide variety of alliances with other players
(including his "dumb girl" alliance with three female players), and so on.
The show started with the contestants divided into two "tribes" of ten players each, but when they merged into one tribe Russell's
side was down eight players to four. Through Russell's manipulations (and some help from the other three) the four person tribe
managed to all make it to the final four players by picking off the outmatched opponent tribe one by one.
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After voting out one of their own four, the three finalists pled their case for why they should be voted the winner to the jury of nine
players that each one of them voted to eliminate. Russell clearly expected to win based on having played the best tactical game in
Survivor history. BUT, Survivor is not just about game tactics. It is also a social game, meaning you have to get a majority of
the jury votes, and the jury can vote on whatever criteria they want. Russell was overconfident because he thought the jury would
appreciate his tactics, but his gloating, dismissive way of dealing with the jury members and now the other finalists ended up
alienating the jury, who instead awarded the million dollar prize to "nice girl" Natalie White.
Russell was stunned and
near tears at losing. He shouldn't have been though. In two previous seasons (gorgeous) Amanda Kimmel was by far the best tactical player,
making it to the finals both times she played -- both both times did not win. In short, the jury didn't like that she (and Russell) outplayed
them, and awarded the prize to a less threatening (and much less tactically skilled) player. Also, the best tactical player before Russell,
poker player Rob Mariano, also lost when he made it to the finals -- but his game was so good he end up marrying the woman who won!
In Amanda's case, she lost in part because Alpha females always have trouble winning popularity contests because they threaten both
weak men and less talented women, but after Russell lost it really became clear to me that the phenomenon of "winning the battles but
losing the war" cursed Russell in the same way it cursed her. As the opening quote in this article states, Russell losing came off
more as "winning the war but losing the peace." He seemed to think he had won the game, and voting was a formality, when in fact the
voting is a separate, critical unit of the game... even if it takes less than an hour while the rest of the game is spread over 39 days.
To win a game like Survivor, you need a strategy that takes you to the final finish line. Flashy,
temporary triumphs are of little value. The
game only ends when the last vote is cast. Being tactically best at some aspects of the game does not mean you will end up a winner.
So it is in poker. Most poker
players see short term tactics (playing hands) and tactical victories in the wrong light. Tactical hand playing skills are important
too be sure, but poker is a "meta-game" where strategy and actions outside the actual card-playing impact the game. Poker is a
lifelong game where self-control,
game and table selection, and other skills are
all more important than the actual card-playing.
At the same time as Survivor Samoa was playing out on TV screens, Tom "durrrr" Dwan was spectacularly crashing and burning in a similar fashion.
From a tactical hand-playing perspective, durrrr is a talented player. Unfortunately for him, November 2009 revealed him to be a poor meta-game poker player.
According to durrrr, he started his poker career with $50. By the end of 2008 he had won over $5,700,000 playing online. In three weeks
in November 2009 he lost every penny of his five years of online poker income, and at one point a million dollars more on top of that.
(He has won money in casino poker tournaments and casino
cash games, which accounts for the ability to go an extra million
in the hole playing online.)
Despite being a tactically talented player, make no mistake about it, as of the end of 2009, durrrr was not a "good" online poker
player. Good players do not lose five years of income in three weeks! "Good" players make significant money, not merely breakeven
after hundreds of thousands of hands played over five years.
While like Russell it is clear that durrrr was overconfident, the primary leak in his play was his absolutely horrible
bankroll strategy. For whatever reasons he
chose to play in the biggest games available online with a woefully inadequate bankroll for the games... a bankroll it took him
years to build. And, in some comments he admitted that the edge he had in the head-up games against top players that he primarily
played in was small. Recipe for disaster: play over your bankroll in games where you only have a small edge.
Think of it this way. Suppose John offered to play Mary in a (fair) coin flip game, where if John lost he would pay Mary $110, but if
Mary lost she only had to pay John $100. Sounds like an obviously good bet, unless... if Mary loses the game is over but if John lost
he had the right to flip Mary again for all the money, this time Mary puts up $210 while John puts up $220. If Mary wins again, John
gets to flip again, with Mary putting $430 and John putting up $440. Bottom line, if John has a bankroll like Bill Gates, Mary has no chance
to win. Like in poker, bankroll almost always trumps advantage. Eventually John will win a flip and Mary will lose her entire $100 bankroll.
durrrr did not face a single opponent like John, but instead he faced a serial group of players who as a group had the bankroll to
crush him. While his opponents over the years also may have been playing too high for his bankroll, eventually one will come along who
will have a a good run against him. In durrrr's case the player was named "Isildur1". Isildur1 alone took more than $5,000,000 from
durrrr in November 2009... only to NOT-ironically fall victim to the same phenomenon, losing all $5 million, plus over $2,000,000 more
to the rest of the online player universe by the end of 2009.
The game of Survivor has social aspects that come into play on top of the tactical maneuverings to vote people off. Being the
best at some aspects of the game doesn't make you the best player or the best player at all aspects of the game. Survivor is just
a 39 day game that does have an end point. Poker does not (unless you quit playing completely). Poker requires meta-skills that many
tactical card players simply are horrible at. Managing your bankroll, not giving in to demons like playing craps or doing drugs, not
spending money like a sailor when you have a rush of good fortune, making sound investments with your bankroll
(making a mule of your money) so that it productively
produces its own income when not sitting on the poker table, not going on "life tilt" (as durrrr claimed he was in one chatbox
conversation) when adversity knocks you on your butt... these and many more meta-skills make great overall, longrun, winning poker players.
Tom Dwan was a terrible poker player in November 2009, someone with tactical skills but with a bad overall strategy. Still, he may be
able to build up his bankroll again in the future, especially if he learns from his mistakes -- after first recognizing he made
mistakes! An irony in Dwan's situation is that literally days before the floor caved in on him, he signed a sponsorship deal with Full
Tilt Poker. This means his bankroll will be replenished on a regular basis for the foreseeable future. Perhaps his recklessness was a
result of knowing that his longterm assets had grown considerably with the signing, but still, losing five years of Internet income in
three weeks is... not a good strategy.
(Six months later Russell Hantz once again proved himself to be possibly the best tactical Survivor player ever and definitely the
worst strategic player ever when he again made the finals in Survivor Heroes vs. Villains -- and proceeded to not get a single
vote from the jury. In fact, it seemed likely that he would not have gotten a single jury vote from anyone regardless of who he faced
in the end. If anyone needed to be reminded that tactics can only get you so far in any game, Russell's second game performance really
drove this message home.)
Also see Poker Ego,
Why Play Poker? and
Playing Your A-Game