Weekly Poker Update: September 28, 2020

Poker Player Mike Postle

They say that any publicity is good publicity. And it’s hard to deny that the cheating scandal surrounding Mike Postle and his exploits at the Stones Gambling Hall in Sacramento, California, over the past couple years is intriguing stuff, even if you’re not a poker aficionado.

It has everything: intrigue, animosity, charismatic characters, and big wads of money changing hands. Or at least if did before it devolved, like everything eventually does, into an issue haggled over by lawyers, which is where it currently stands.

This is by no means a new story, as it was first reported about this time a year ago. But it received a fresh coat of paint courtesy of Wired and an online article by investigative journalist Brendan Koerner. It’s an exhaustive piece of reportage that covers all the bases and makes an honest effort to get both sides of the story, even if it’s pretty clear what side Koerner believes.

Poker Cheating Controversy

For those who may have missed the details, Postle—up to that point a middling poker pro—went on an incredible tear at Stones. This began in the summer of 2018 and continuing for the better part of a year, in real money Texas Hold’em tournaments that were live-streamed by the casino.

In a tournament last September, Veronica Brill—a poker player herself who was acting as commentator for the event—raised issues about the legitimacy of Postle’s play, issues on which she elaborated shortly after on social media.

In the aftermath, the poker world seemed to take sides. Both Brill and Postle were eventually the subject of harassment. Accusations and denials were flung, legal issues were raised, and no real answers were ever uncovered to anybody’s satisfaction.

Speculation was that somehow, Postle—whose success was built on decision-making that many other pros saw as unorthodox—had received information about what other players at the table were holding as their hole cards. Since these were live-streamed events, hole-card cameras were in place.

Perhaps, Postle had somehow glommed on to these camera feeds, either through a technological loophole he exploited or with the help of a conspirator? And perhaps he then accessed this information through his cell phone or even a transmitter hidden in his baseball cap, as some have alleged.

Poker Player Veronica Brill

Again, there has been no proof of any kind that Postle did anything but beat the odds at a mathematically unlikely rate. As for the legal ramifications, they have mostly fizzled out. A settlement with some plaintiffs in a case involving Postle and the casino was offered, where some money was awarded on the condition that those receiving money conceded that no evidence of cheating was found.

The article examines the damage done to the main participants in this imbroglio, with both Postle and Brill now estranged from poker. But it also speaks to another interesting disconnect in the poker world between those who believe in the numbers and those who think the game goes deeper than that.

There is an unspoken thread running through the article that many of those who thought Postle was cheating were those who harbored an analytical approach to the game. By that, we mean that they based their decisions on computer algorithms and other technological resources meant to yield the ideal play in every possible Texas Hold’em situation. Koerner makes several references to game theory optimal, or GTO, in his article.

Yet we have to remember that Hold’em Poker is not the same as playing video poker. In video poker, there is a correct play for every situation because there is no human element in the game. Make those decisions and, once luck evens out, you will do better than someone who makes other choices.

What if Postle was just extremely astute at reading his competitors at the table, either detecting tells of betting patterns that helped him intuit what cards they were holding? That wouldn’t account for the fact that he hadn’t been able to do that so well previously in his career, when his results weren’t that noteworthy. Could he have just figured something out?

It’s a situation reminiscent of the whole Moneyball debate in baseball. When that famous book was published, it helped initiate an era where baseball decision-makers started to lean heavily on statistical information, instead of subjective traits, for everything from player acquisition to lineup construction. Yet even now, a couple decades after that book came out, you’ll still find baseball lifers who think analytics are mumbo-jumbo and are ruining the game that they love.

In similar fashion, the Postle case seems to illuminate that schism in the poker world. Even as the micro picture of Postle’s actions is still extremely cloudy, the macro picture is of a poker world somewhat divided between the old and the new guard. And that debate figures to rage on long after the memories of this specific mess dim.

Phil vs. Antonio: The Eternal Struggle Continues

On a much lighter note, one of modern poker’s longest-standing rivalries will undergo a new chapter this coming week. Phil Hellmuth will take on Antonio Esfandiari toe-to-toe in the second round of their “High-Stakes Duel” series on Wednesday at 6 PM PDT. You can watch it via PokerGo’s app and social media outlets.

The esteemed duo will be going at it for $200,000 in a head-to-head Texas Hold’em battle. In Round 1, held by PokerGo back in July, Hellmuth got the better of Esfandiari. Now, the stakes have been doubled for this one, since Esfandiari has demanded a rematch.

Poker Player Phil Hellmuth

Apparently, the idea behind this is that the loser can continue calling for rematches at double the stakes of the previous match. You can argue that these two have met for much higher stakes in the past, of course, but there’s no sense in raining on this parade.

After all, any occasion we get to see Esfandiari infuriate Hellmuth is one that should be cherished. At one point, these two actually seemed to actively dislike each other.

Now, the two are good friends, so any histrionics at the table on Wednesday will likely be theatre. But with personalities this big and poker talents this vast, it should at least be entertaining theatre, so why quibble?