Just when you thought the podcast was dead for good, we’re back like a zombie just in time for Hallowe’en! As usual, Alex and Andrew are joined by a guest, in this case the Finnish pro and Upswing Poker coach Miikka Anttonen, to discuss the fairly insane prop bet he’s made, and through which both his fortune and his future will be determined over the next couple of months.
Miikka’s situation is likely a familiar one to many online pros these days, as the games get tougher and people’s ROIs drop like stones. Does one double down on poker and try to push through to the top levels of the game despite the inhospitable climate? Content oneself with grinding out thin margins and hope something changes? Or leave the game behind and reinvent oneself?
Sites, meanwhile, are facing a similar dilemma of their own. PokerStars and others have attempted to reinvent themselves as catering to recreational players, emphasizing fun and novelty over the possibility of making a living at poker. PartyPoker has gone the opposite direction, attempting to turn back the clock through brute force. That’s proven a popular move with many pro players, but is it sustainable, and what happens if it isn’t?
Next, the hosts make a somewhat self-indulgent departure from poker to rekindle an ethical debate from Twitter, for which 140 characters (or 280 in Andrew’s case) just weren’t cutting it. The issue: Whether it’s possible to resist factory farming while still buying factory-farmed meat and, more generally, to what extent individuals have a responsibility to address systemic problems.
Finally, it’s back to poker for the strategy segment, a look at the bubble hand from this year’s WSOP Main Event, in which Quan Zhou bluffed off a large stack to Davidi Kitai. Twitter hated Zhou’s line at the time, while Alex and Andrew weren’t so sure it was bad. But which side is Miikka on?
Welcome Back! (0:00-7:24)
The episode kicks off with a bit of catching up between the hosts. Andrew talks about his summer at the WSOP, losing his six-minute mile prop bet yet again, PhD research and coming around on the issue of cryptocurrency. Alex has recently moved from Montreal, Quebec to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and has a bit to say about his new life there, including his desire to lay odds on the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta.
Who’s Miikka Anttonen? (7:24-9:02)
Some of our listeners may not have heard of our guest, since online pros tend not to be public figures to the same extent as live ones. So, we begin by getting Miikka to fill us in on his backstory, which includes getting into sports betting as a grade schooler and from there into the early days of online poker.
The Bet of a Lifetime (9:02-19:15)
From there we get into the meat of our interview, as Miikka explains the details of his prop bet and his motivation for making it. He has 120 days to grind online poker, including 20 mandatory rest days. During that time, he must both turn €500 into €10,000 and win 1000 buy-ins at MTTs. If he wins, he’ll make a ton of money, because his entire net worth is on the line. By the same token, if he loses, he’ll be completely bust and not only that, but the bet contains a provision that he will never be allowed to participate in poker in any way, ever again. Also, no one seems to agree on what his odds of success are; talking to other MTT pros who should know, he’s heard estimates of his odds at anywhere from 5% to 80%.
What motivates someone to make such a crazy bet? Well, in large part, nagging doubts about whether one actually wants to be a poker player anymore. Miikka wants to be a writer, but can’t seem to balance writing with poker without each interfering with the other. He feels he needs to commit one way or the other, and the bet is a way of letting fate decide which way he’ll go.
Poker: a High-Maintenance Career (19:15-25:47)
Miikka’s feelings remind Alex of the interview with Mike McDonald in the final episode of the podcast’s first season, in which Mike expressed the worry that he’d be the guy poker left behind, and wanted to move into other fields voluntarily before that could happen. Alex can also relate personally, in that he was at one time attempting to juggle poker with writing, and couldn’t do it. Miikka sees the problem being largely one of the amount of dedication required to beat poker these days, and how little mental energy that leaves for other tasks. Alex agrees with that, but also notes that in his case, the swings of tournament poker made motivation an issue, as the week’s winnings or losses would almost always be much larger than whatever guaranteed amount he could make by writing.
Andrew approves of the bet as a decision-making tool, noting a psychological study that showed that people who made big, difficult decisions by flipping a coin actually ended up happier, regardless of the outcome of the decision, than people who arrived at their choice through deliberation.
And If You Win? (25:47-28:58)
And yet, only one of the bet’s two possible outcomes really forces the decision. Miikka originally expected that if he won, it would be a sign for him to throw himself more deeply into the game and try to become one of the best in the world. But two weeks into the bet, he’s wondering whether he might not want to just take the money and use it to take some time off to look for a real dream job.
Status Report (28:58-36:52)
So, how is the bet going anyway? Pretty well, it turns out. Miikka went in assuming that tripling his bankroll from €500 to €1500 in the first month would put him on pace to win and now, halfway through the month, he’s already at €1800. He discusses his overall strategy, which includes targeting small-field, low-guarantee events in the middle of the day, rather than those with huge money up top. Aside from the lower variance, the structure and field composition mean that the final table is less likely to contain better players than oneself, in his opinion.
On to the second topic, PartyPoker. What is PartyPoker trying to accomplish and can it succeed? Miikka’s of the opinion that it can, in that it has already managed to attain “good guy” status with most players, while PokerStars is seen as unethical. That may be the case, but Alex can’t help but wonder whether that image is contingent on it continuing to throw free money at winning players the way it has been of late. Miikka’s less pessimistic, believing that as long as it scales back its rewards in a transparent way with lots of forewarning, most players will accept it.
Miikka’s big grievance with PartyPoker is its software, which he says has always been bad and just keeps getting worse. He wonders why they don’t dedicate some of these resources to improving it. Alex says that making something clean, simple and functional is always much harder than non-designers believe. Andrew points out that the fact that Miikka plays there despite his complaints is proof that it would be a waste of money; players may prefer to have a nice client, but will play on a site if the games are good enough, no matter how frustrating the software is.
Why is There Rakeback at All? (45:40-58:56)
The discussion moves on to the subject of rakeback and VIP rewards in general, and why that’s even a thing. Unlike most pros, Miikka sees it as somewhat absurd, and Alex and Andrew agree. The idea of profiting off rakeback came about during the boom years, when some sites were even willing to give greater than 100% rakeback to certain players to boost traffic. Now, players reliant on rakeback programs are understandably resistant to the idea of removing such systems. Miikka thinks it has its purpose in terms of making unbeatable games beatable, but shouldn’t be set up to allow break-even players to make a living off rewards.
Andrew suggests that paying prop players to keep unpopular games running is a better solution, and Miikka agrees. The idea is floated that maybe it would be better to remove rakeback entirely and simply rake certain games at a lower rate. Alex points out, however, that rewards programs have marketing value especially when it comes to recreational players, who prefer the experience of having a little extra money taken out of pots and prize pools, then given back to them all at once as a bonus.
Andrew wonders why sites don’t take a more experimental approach with rake, but concludes that there’s too big a cost in terms of player backlash whenever it’s adjusted upwards. Miikka feels smaller sites would have more leeway to do these sorts of things, while big sites simply want to avoid messing with something that isn’t broken.
Individual and Collective Solutions (58:56-1:05:58)
It’s now time for the ethics debate. Alex and Andrew are both concerned with cruelty in the factory farming industry, yet still eat meat. Andrew feels bad about it and tries to eat both less meat, and more ethically-sourced meat. Alex sees no contradiction in opposing factory farming yet consuming its products, because he believes the only solution will come from government. His philosophy is “individual solutions to individual problems, collective solutions to collective problems.” Andrew insists that even if an individual’s acts don’t change things perceptibly, they can become a movement, and individuals as part of a movement can make a big difference on aggregate. Andrew also thinks that raising awareness is important.
The Canadian’s Perspective on Americans (1:05:58-1:08:30)
Alex observes that the difference in opinion is probably partially cultural, in that American values put a lot of emphasis on the power and responsibility of the individual, while the country’s government has been so dysfunctional in recent decades that there’s extremely little faith in its ability to regulate effectively; this is then extended into a mistrust of governments and regulation in general. By contrast, Canada has relatively high awareness of environmental and ethical issues, and Canadians are both more receptive to regulation and have more faith in their government’s ability to regulate effectively.
Opportunity Costs and the Foresight Horizon (1:08:30-1:24:25)
Andrew takes another tack, bringing up sweatshops. He argues that buying sweatshop products rather than locally or ethically-produced ones if one takes the cost savings and uses it to donate to organizations working to improve labour conditions in these foreign countries. Perhaps saving money on meat is also okay if one spends the savings to promote animal rights in some way. Alex agrees that one needs to consider the additional cost of buying ethical meat vs. the benefit gained in spending the same money in alternative ways, but disapproves of Andrew’s suggestions.
Alex says he’s come to the conclusion that although philosophically all people are equal, it’s impossible to behave that way in practice, because the sheer number of people in the world makes doing those ethical calculations a hopeless proposition. Rather, for pragmatic reasons, one should focus one’s efforts on doing good on a small scale, where the outcome of one’s actions is both directly observable and highly predictable. Foreign policy and aid, Alex feels, is the business of governments interacting with one another, not individual citizens. Andrew thinks this is simply a relic of evolutionary psychology, which can be overcome through rational thinking and effective altruism practices.
Alex counters with examples of seemingly positive economic efforts going awry, and concludes with the assertion that a lot of damage can be done by smart people overestimating how smart they actually are.
Miikka on Vegans (1:24:25-1:31:12)
Asked for his take, Miikka admits that he also finds the American psyche hard to fathom. In Finland, he says, there aren’t nearly so many vegans, but rather almost everyone eats meat at some meals, but also many vegetarian or vegan dishes. Like the hosts, he feels that the world would be better off if people ate less meat in general, but can’t understand why so many vegans are as aggressive as they are in attempting to persuade others to adopt the same lifestyle.
Andrew agrees that discussing these issues with vegans can often become unpleasant, and that a softer approach would be more persuasive and produce greater benefits. Alex expresses his frustration with people who feel that agreement in identifying problems isn’t enough, and berate people for attempting different solutions. Andrew feels this is the biggest problem facing the American left wing today.
Strategy: Don’t Bluff Davidi Kitai (1:31:12-End)
Finally, it’s time for strategy. Hilarity ensued after this year’s Main Event bubble, when Chinese high roller Quan Zhou dusted off an 80 big blind stack attempting a crazy airball bluff against Belgium’s Davidi Kitai. The hand was widely panned on Twitter at the time, but Alex and Andrew felt that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, that it would be hard for Kitai to call with very many hands against the line Zhou took, and it was just bad luck that Kitai had happened to river the second nuts, and results-oriented thinking leading fans to call the bluff a “punt.”
Miikka disagrees, however. He hates the bluff because it “doesn’t make sense.” That is, there’s no possible hand Zhou could have where the line he took would be a standard attempt to extract value, which in turn makes it look like the desperate bluff it is. Unlike Alex and Andrew, he thinks that Davidi Kitai, being an expert hand reader and “complete maniac” would have found it easy to call with essentially any one-pair hand.
Alex and Andrew ultimately agree that the line is questionable in most circumstances and that while it could work well against the right opponent, Miikka is correct in saying that Kitai is probably the last person in the world one should try it against.
Offsite links in italics. Articles by one of the hosts in bold.