Monday, November 10, 2008

The Poker of Casino Royale--Meadowlark Lemon?!?

It's no surprise that they decided to go with Texas Hold 'Em instead of baccarat in Casino Royale (2006). It didn't hurt that poker was booming in popularity. But poker is also a more accessible game for the general public than baccarat, and a game requiring more skill and strategy. So when re-introducing James Bond to a 21st century audience, Texas Hold' Em was an appropriate way to go.

But how good was the film's portrayal of poker? Well, after I spent far too long analyzing Kronsteen's chess game in From Russia With Love, you know I can't resist droning on for far too long about the poker scenes in CR06.

So how are they? Well, let's just say that, in a world a car can flip 7 times and the driver survive, and where parkour chases through construction sites are apparently an everyday occurrence, the poker we see played in CR isn't out of place.

Which is to say "heightened reality," exaggerated, melodramatic. As expected in a movie, They want to hype things up, make them more exciting. So you see people playing hands in ways that generally wouldn't be played that way, and you see showdowns that probably wouldn't happen. Two words best describe it--Harlem Globetrotters.

A couple of things to note. First of all, we never see the beginnings of hands..we never see any bets before the flop, and very few on third or fourth street. This makes it really tough to analyze how the hands are being played. Poker is a game of imperfect information, and one of the primary sources of information is looking at your opponents' betting patterns--how often they bet before the flop, what types of hands they're likely to stay in with, are they playing conservatively or aggressively. Frankly, this kind of observation is usually far more important than any physical tells, no matter what the movie tells us, and so we're not given a critical component needed to analyze the hands.

The other factor to consider is that, in Texas Hold 'Em, the average winning hand is in the one-pair to two-pair range. Such smaller hands aren't sexy, but they're what win hand after hand, and ultimately tournaments. Of course, players do get higher hands--but those hands are very often not played to completion, as the board or the betting pattern scares people away. Compare that with CR, where of all the poker hands where we see the cards, the lowest winning hand is three of a kind (three aces, no less). That, my friends, is heightened reality.

The first hand we see played is LeChiffre against the "dear general." We can't see most of the cards...all we can make out is the King turned up on the river. The Asian woman folds after that card is turned up, but before anyone has bet...that's wrong! You never fold until somebody bets, because it's possible everyone will check and you'll get a free look at the river!!

Meanwhile, LeChiffre goes all in, telling the general he has two pair while the general has a 17.4% chance of making his straight. The percentage is right...of course, LeChiffre might have been bluffing at having two pair, too, just psyching the guy out. But going all in? This is the first of several times that CR displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what "all in" means. Every single time it happens, both parties put 100% of their chips into the pot. But that would never happen unless those two players had exactly the same number of chips!! One player never has to risk more chips than the other. So if Player A had 10,000 and Player B had 7,000...even if Player A called all in, he wouldn't commit more than 7,000 to the pot. So if the player who was ahead loses, he would still have some chips left. Yet even though he seems to have a lot more than chip than the general, LeChiffre pushes his whole stack into the middle. Dramatic, perhaps, but inaccurate. Yet every single time he hit an all in situation in this movie, both parties push in all their chips. That ain't how it works.

The next hand we see is Dimtrios vs. Bond, when Bond beats his trip kings with trip aces. And again, we're supposed to believe that Dimitrios' $5,000 plus his car just happens to precisely equal what Bond has in his stack. Plus, Bond splashes the pot, which is incredibly rude.

Then we come to the big tournament. The first hand we see is the one where Bond discovers LeChiffre's tell, the physical gesture he makes when he's bluffing (to get picky, you wouldn't be able to figure that out just from one instance...maybe it was just a random gesture. You'd have to see him bluff multiple times because you could say for certain that was his tell). Now, after the hand, Bond explains to us that LeChiffre didn't have the best hand until "the last card. The odds against were 23-1, and he'd know that. When he did his first raise he had nothing. Winning was blind luck."

Man, there are so many things wrong with that statement. First of all, when LeChiffre first raised he had a a pair of deuces in the pocket...not the greatest hand, surely, but not nothing...it was a semi-bluff, at best. After the river, LeChiffre had two pair, deuces and nines, most certainly not nothing (except in this movie, where winning with anything less than 3 aces is apparently considered unmanly). And when Bond says the odds against were 23-1, he's just plain wrong. The odds against turning two pair into a full house on the river are only 10.5-1, not 23-1 (the writers obviously were mixed it up with the odds of turning a single pair into 3 of a kind on the river, which are 22-1). We don't know what hand Bond hand, because he mucked after LeChiffre turned over his full house (Three 9s? A flush?). But based on Bond's claim to have discovered LeChiffre's tell, and his explanation of what went on in the hand, I can't say I'm too confident in his understanding of hold 'em.

The next hand we see is the one where LeChiffre busts Bond. Once again, we see the all-in confusion, with both Bond and LeChiffre putting the entirety of their stacks into the pot. And Bond splashes the pot again, that rude little bugger. And a KKKAA full house being beaten by four Jacks? Heightened reality, my friends, just like jumping from crane to crane. Sure, it could happen...

The next hand we see (but only the end of) is actually a real poker hand, as LeChiffre's two pair aces and sevens with a queen quicker beats Leiter's same two pair with a jack kicker. I guess Felix isn't important enough to require an nearly impossible hand to beat him....

Than comes the final hand, the hands that is so over the top that it is to poker as the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball. Again, they don't show us any betting aside from after the final card is turned up, but let's work backwards an reconstruct what we do know.

Four players left...Bond and LeChiffre have a hefty chip lead over the other two. The blinds are at at least one million dollars. Since Bond bets first, he must have been the small blind, so Fukutu was the big blind blind.

What they're deal (with chances of winning in parentheses after):
Dude 8h 8c (30.9%)
LeChiffre Ac 6h (21.3%)
Bond 7s 5s (12.6%)
Fukutu Ks Qs (35.2%)

Now, 7s 5s isn't the best hand, but it isn't as terrible as it seems, and can be quite dangerous with the right flop. Also remember, Bond doesn't know what the others have, so a 7s 5s against 3 random hands is roughly 23-26% to win. And since he was already partially committed to the pot as the small blind, calling the $500,000 while getting 7-1 pot odds wasn't a bad play. Problem: there was more betting, that put the pot up to $24 million, and we don't know if that betting was here (which probably would mean Bond was insane for calling a huge raise here...unless he raised?!?), or after the flop (everyone checked on the turn).

The flop: Ah 8s 6s

Presumably, at this point there's a spurt of betting, because during the turn, Mathes tells Vesper that there is $24 million in the pot already, which means each player has put in another $5 million worth. This is especially significant, because it means Fukutu and Dude have already put in at least half their stacks (they've committed $6 million this hand, and their all-ins are 6 and 5 million, respectively). At this point, one has to wonder why they aren't all in already. By waiting until 5th street to go all in, they allow anyone playing a draw to make their hand, instead of forcing them to make a decision earlier. Fukutu has 4 spades, but he can't be sure his will be the top flush, as the Ace of spaces is unaccounted for yet. So if he's already committed half his stack now, why not just go all in to encourage the others to fold? It's an in-between, wait and see strategy that is guaranteed to lose in the long run, as it does here. If you don't get your flush, you've wasted your six million. If you do and still get beaten by a higher hand, as happens here, same result. Dude has trip 8's, but with straight and flush possibilities on the board, he has an even stronger reason for trying to discourage the other players from taking more cards.

LeChiffe has two pair, including top pair, so it's reasonable for him to say in (even though, unbeknownst to him, he has the lowest odds of winning at this point). And Bond? He's in pretty decent shape...he has four to a flush, and an open-ended straight draw, not to mention the 2 shots at a straight flush. A couple of warning signs, though...even if he draws the flush, there's a pretty good possibility that his high spade of 7 wouldn't make it the highest flush, so it could still be a loser. Ditto with the straight...it's fully possible you could get the straight and lose to a higher straight, or a flush. But he's a chip leader, he has a 50% chance of winning against 3 random hands (and a 28% chance against these actual hands) and the implied odds of later rounds of betting make putting $5 million into the pot justified for an aggressive player.

The turn: 4s.

That's it, game over. Bond has his straight flush, no one else can have one based on that board, it's game over. Everyone else is drawing dead. All 007 needs to do now is suck as much money out of everybody as possible. He wisely leads with a check...but the others? Fukutu has made his flush. It's very likely it's the highest flush, so why check? Why let everyone see a free card, which might beat you? Since the board hasn't been paired yet, no one can have a full house--yet. Here's where you go all in, to protect yourself from getting beaten by a later card. But he passively checks, allowing Dude and LeChiffre to make their boats (yeah, he still would have lost to Bond...but the odds were against it, and when you have a possible nut flush and are low on chips, you have to protect it!!). Dude and LeChiffre wisely check--they have to consider that someone might have a straight or flush based on that board, and if they're going to give you a free card when you've already got trips or two pair, don't argue.

The river: As

Fukutu has the nut flush, but now the board is paired, so there's a chance of a full house. He should have gone all in two rounds ago, and definitely last round. Dude has a boat 8's full of aces, and he already has committed over half his chips, he has no choice but to call. LeChiffre's decision is interesting. He has the big boat, aces full of sixes...but it is conceivable that someone has a higher full house (if someone held A8). And you can tell he never really considers the unlikely chance that Bond held 5s 7s for the straight flush.

His decision to raise is interesting, though...since $6 million covered the bets of the other two, he was essentially wagering a $6 million side pot with James. Which is odd. In higher poker circles, you don't keep raising after the small stack has gone all in. Why give him a chance to increase his pile when he's on the verge of dropping out? Because everyone called Fukutu, for example, if he had happened to win he would have pulled down $47 million in chips and become the new chip leader, instead of being out. Realistically, in a situation like this, there's usually "implicit collusion" to just call, so as to eliminate another player.

And given Bonds' re-raise to all-in, warning bells should have gone off for LeChiffre. Remember, LeChiffre didn't know Bond had the straight flush, but he should have suspected the possibility that Bond might have that or a higher full house. Did he really think that Bond would go all-in at that point with just a straight or a flush?

So once again we have an all in situation where everybody throws all their chips in the middle, although either Bond of LeChiffre would have had some left after matching the others' stack. Once again Bond splashes the pot, the rude bastard--but LeChiffre does a little bit too.

And after we have the unbelievable spectacle of the final four players all going all in on one hand (it would never happen), it turns out that they reveal an ace high flush, a full house, a higher full house, and a straight flush. And it just happens that these hands are revealed in ascending order. Folks, it's possible to play Hold 'Em for decades and never see a straight flush. But to see four hands this high, all in one deal, conveniently in dramatic order...well, that's like getting hit with lightning while winning the lotto 5 times in a row. I'm certain the writers had to spend days coming up with a scenario where this could happen and not have everyone folding after the turn. Sheesh.

It's so overly melodramatic that, frankly,, it kills some of the tension from the game, which was very well-directed. And after Bond's lecture to Vesper that it's not the best hand that wins, that it's not a game of luck, and that you have to play your opponent, and not the hand--well, we never see Bond play a hand lower than trip Aces, and he wins the tournament by being dealt a straight flush. So Bond never got to show off these supposed poker skills, because he was always dealt these freakin' incredible hands that my grandmother could have won with!!

Worst of all...Bond tips the dealer with one of the chips at the end---it's worthless!! It's a tournament chip, which has no value outside of the tournament!! The money's not held by the casino, it's held by the Swiss bank!! James. you basically flipped off the dealer by giving him a worthless trinket!!

So, I like my Harlem Globetrotters analogy...yes, it's recognizable as basketball, and yes, it's as entertaining as heck...but don't try that stuff in the NBA, because it ain't gonna work, and someone's gonna get hurt. Same here...fun to watch, thrilling...but I wouldn't reserve James a seat at the World Series of Poker anytime soon....

Odds provided by the Poker Stove desktop application and this Wikipedia page.

1 comment:

  1. "We can't see most of the cards...all we can make out is the King turned up on the river"

    ^^The cards are the king of diamonds, 9 of clubs, and the 8 of diamonds. The only card not visible is the first card of the flop. Plus the King comes on the turn. not the river.
    17.4% is not the correct percentage either. An open ended straight draw against two pair with one card to come has 8 outs or 18.18%. A gut shot has half that. any draw the general had for a straight with only one card to come will not equal 17.4%, the closest you can get to 17.4% is an open-ender post-flop with two cards to come (17.78%, but this is not possible with four cards on the table)

    "Since Bond bets first, he must have been the small blind, so Fukutu was the big blind blind"
    ^^he WAS in the small blind because lechiffe has the dealer chip. no analyzing of position bets needed.

    "And when Bond says the odds against were 23-1, he's just plain wrong. The odds against turning two pair into a full house on the river are only 10.5-1, not 23-1"
    ^^The odds are 10.5-1 if lechiffe has all of his outs for making a full house left. IF Bond was holding 9-ANYTHING, or 5-Anything, or 8-Anything, lechiffe's odds drop to the ballpark range of 23-1. If bond had a flush or flush draw, then lechiffe's odds are 10.5-1. So until we see bonds hand, we'll never know whether he was right or wrong.

    "In higher poker circles, you don't keep raising after the small stack has gone all in. Why give him a chance to increase his pile when he's on the verge of dropping out?"
    ^^Lechiffe is trying to isolate the pot by raising into Bond to push him out. ALSO the small stack can only win up to his chip amount from any player still in the hand.
    I.E he can only win the main pot. The side pot is between bond and lechiffe. If one of them were to fold to the other, the one remaining in the hand would automatically win the side pot, because the small stack Can Only Win The Main Pot.
    Implicit collusion, also known as "checking down", mainly applies when the players who can still bet didn't hit the nuts on the board (or if no one likes the guy that is all in). If any player hit a big hand, they are not going to just check down because of an all-in short stack.