10/03/2006 11:00PM

No accounting for intelligence


On the first page of his 800-page book, "Super System," Doyle Brunson writes, "Poker is a game of people." Judging by what we see on television, the other 799 pages might as well have been blank.

David Sklansky, in his book "Theory of Poker," writes that the fundamental point of the game is always to make the correct decision. He, too, took way more than the one page necessary to make his point.

So to save the 1,100 pages of tedious reading, in fewer than 10 words here is the secret of poker:

Poker is a game of people. Always make the correct decision.

Watching the World Series of Poker on TV, we've seen "players" labor over the decision of whether to call all of their chips against a re-raise while holding K-J. Or others make a third raise all-in with pocket 9's. And even others try to steal pre-flop with pocket 2's, get a caller, and then try to steal it again after 3 overs come on the flop and then whine when they lose.

While each of these plays is weaker than the next, there is something far greater than simply bad poker motivating these decisions. But what? Is it the People rule? The Decision rule? Or is it the I-just-lost-my-mind-and-can't-stand-it-anymore rule?

Here's the problem: If you are playing against people, then making the correct decision is just not possible. They are people, and people do some seriously strange things, way stranger than calling all-in with a king and a jack. Just think of the millions of people out there who spend $4 a day on a cafe mocha latte or those who watch Rosie O'Donnell on TV.

Mel Brooks said it best in the movie "Blazing Saddles." The character played by Gene Wilder was describing to Cleavon Little's character the people they'd be up against when he said, "You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know . . . morons."

Morons is a handy excuse, maybe used too often, but then again not used often enough. People truly play badly - they really, really do. But the point here is to get the money and not to complain about how we didn't.

People are motivated by an array of factors: greed, boredom, low self-esteem, high self-esteem, degeneracy, loneliness, or simply action. When the time comes for a decision to be made, it's the real players who can determine almost immediately which emotion is motivating an opponent and which play is the correct play.

An example occurred in the World Series Main Event a few years back. With 26 players remaining, the blinds were $3,000/$6,000 and a $500 ante. The average chip count was around $250,000. The player in the big blind was dealt queen of hearts, jack of hearts. One player called the blind from middle position, and the rest of the table folded. The big blind, short-stacked with around $70,000 in chips, checked his option. The flop came king (hearts), king (diamonds) and 10 (hearts). The big blind, with an up and down, open-ended royal flush draw, immediately pushed all-in.

The player who limped held an ace and a queen. He, too, was short on chips, and a call here would be for about half of his remaining $150,000 in chips. And he had no hand. Ace high. No pair, and only an inside straight draw. He called.

What motivated this man to call? It was for half his chips. He had no hand.

Well, when the hand was over, and the ace-high turned into a winner when a queen fell on the turn, the player who called said, "I knew you didn't have a king." And that was it. He had determined that since the player pushed in all of his chips, he was stealing.

Because any hand other than a hand that didn't have a king in it was a hand that was stealing. Never mind that the player could have had a 10. There was a 10 on the board. And 10's seriously dominate A-Q with two cards to come. Or how about just a pair of 3's? Calling half your chips against 3's is weak as well. But no. It didn't matter. As far as this guy was concerned, his opponent didn't have a king. And that was good enough for him. Was he right? Yes, sir. Guy didn't have a king. Was it the right call? No, sir. But did he win? Yes, sir.

Keep in mind the situation. This wasn't the $5-$10 game on the corner where if you're wrong you lose $5 and then maybe $10 (twice). Or 3 in the morning and you're drunk and wanna go home. Or a $1 online tournament and you can't be bothered. This was the final three tables of Main Event of the World Series of Poker. You've been playing for 18 hours a day for the last four days. Every decision is life or death in this spot. You cannot be wrong.

So here's the debate: In the Doyle Brunson world of poker, this man had determined that the all-in bet represented no king. He was right about the king but wrong about the read. So he failed the Doyle Brunson test. In the David Sklansky world of poker, his A-Q was an underdog to the straight flush-draw (miniscule dog, but a dog nonetheless). So he failed the Sklansky test as well.

How'd he do? Ask Mel Brooks.

Kurt Paseka, a former turf writer, is a regular at New York City tracks and has cashed in the main event at the World Series of Poker.