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Poker News | PokerWorks Op-Ed

Grinding Online - Poker Luck

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They say that poker is a game of skill.  We would all like to believe that statement is true, and that whenever we play our best, we will win.  And yet, we know from experience that the luck of the cards will be a huge determining factor in how much money we will win or lose in a given session or tournament.  For example, in my previous article on a tournament win, I described a hand at the final table where I was all-in for my tournament life with pocket tens against queens, only to four-flush my opponent.  That single hand was the difference between sixth place (where I would have finished had I lost the hand) and first, where I actually wound up, since it elevated me into the chip lead and a big stack with which I could control the rest of the final table.

Phil Hellmuth once stated, “If it wasn’t for luck, I’d win every tournament.”  Although very few poker players have quite the inflated ego of Mr. Hellmuth, to some extent, almost every player feels that way.  When our pocket aces get crushed by 6-4 offsuit, or when our opponents hit their runner-runner flushes seemingly every single time they need to, it is easy to feel as if we never get the best of it when it comes to luck.  For whatever reason, it is much easier to remember the crushing defeats than it is to remember all the times we ourselves went in with the worst of it only to escape through some miraculous turn of events.

The 2009 Main Event champion, Joe Cada, had an uncanny run of luck at the final table, flopping sets with both pocket threes and pocket deuces against higher pairs, after all his money was in the middle.  After the tournament, he suggested that anyone who ever heard him complain about bad luck after that should just knock him out.  Perhaps it takes that magnitude of good fortune to have people realize that they don’t always catch the raw end of the luck stick.

Psychologists suggest that poker players, like other gamblers, have a tendency to actually get more of a thrill from their losses than their wins, and that inside the darkest reaches of their minds, they actually prefer to lose.  Perhaps this is why bad luck seems to have much more of an impact on most players than good.  Think back for a moment on the hands that have kept you awake at night.  Were they the ones where you hit a two-out miracle on the river?  Or were they the hands where someone else did it to you?  I would humbly suggest that for almost everyone, your answer was the hands that hurt the most.  A part of your brain has the need to replay the hand over and over again, torturing yourself with the “what ifs?” and “if onlys.”

So how do you defend against the notion that bad luck follows you around like a black cloud?  Here are a few suggestions:  First, I would recommend that you write down a brief summary each time you either win or lose a hand in which you are at least a 4 to 1 favorite or underdog.  By doing this, you will likely see that, over time, the percentages wind up breaking pretty much the way they are supposed to.  Second, I would suggest that, as often as possible, you get into all-in situations in tournaments only with players who have fewer chips than you do.  That way, even if you take a horrible beat, you will still be alive.  Just the other day, I had a very healthy stack that was absolutely decimated by two all-in confrontations in which I was more than a 4 to 1 favorite each time.  However, because I had more chips than the other player each time, I still had a few thousand chips, and wound up all in with pocket sevens against FIVE other players with a variety of cards, all of whom whiffed on the board, allowing me to get right back in the tournament.  Next, I think it is important to be able to immediately recall all the blessings you have in your life whenever you take a particularly horrible beat, allowing you to take a deep breath and begin to get your mind back on an even keel.  Most players who run into a particularly awful situation that takes most of their chips will then immediately throw all the rest of their stack into the middle at the first opportunity, just daring the poker gods to do it to them again, which, of course, those entities are more than happy to then make a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Poker luck is random.  I’ve had stretches where I’ve hit sets with pocket pairs eight times in a row, and then times when I didn’t hit one for weeks.  I’ve had 50-hand stretches without a card higher than an 8, and pocket aces, kings or queens in six consecutive hands, all of which I subsequently lost!  It’s all part of the ebb and flow of the game.  

It is said that free will is not being able to control the circumstances of our lives, but rather how we respond to the circumstances we are dealt by the random number generator called the universe.  Poker luck is like that.  

It is easy to assign blame to the bad player who took all our chips, or to the site that dealt the hand.  It is much more challenging to simply smile, breathe and move on to the next adventure.  Poker is a game in which our deepest character flaws and hopefully our strongest straits are constantly being exposed and honed.  The greater our ability is to be responsive rather than reactive to the events at the table, the more likely it is that we will be successful in the long run.  While we may not ever catch as timely a run of luck like the one Joe Cada caught in November, we will be ready to make the most of our opportunities when they arise, and lose as little as possible when our luck turns bad.

See you at the tables!

*Read Clearspine's Blog*

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