Good Luck and Bad Luck at the Poker Tables
From the perspective of a mathematician or a professional gambler, “luck” is just a word that people use to describe the results of random events that don’t go as predicted. Understanding this requires a basic understanding of probability, which I’ve cover in this post.
This tendency for random events to deviate from their mathematically predicted results is called “variance.” There’s nothing supernatural about this phenomenon, by the way. If the results of a game of chance always corresponded to the expectation, it wouldn’t be a game of chance at all.
That’s the nature of something that’s random.
I always want to talk a little philosophically about good luck and bad luck at the poker tables. Some of this rambling might sound a little New Age, but that’s not my intent. I intend, instead, to provide some perspectives you might use as a mental framework for handling the vagaries of luck.
How Probability Works and How It Relates to Luck
Probability is the branch of math that looks at the likelihood of something happening or not happening. It’s a way of measuring random chance and predicting outcomes in the long run. The word is also used to describe an event’s likelihood of happening.
The basic formula for an event’s probability is simple enough:
You divide the number of ways something can happen by the total number of possible outcomes.
For example, if you want to determine the probability of drawing an ace from a deck of cards, you need to know how many aces are in the deck. You also need to know the total number of cards in the deck.
In a standard deck of cards, you have 4 aces. You also have 52 cards, total.
4 divided by 52 can also be expressed as 4/52, which reduces to 1/13.
That’s the probability of getting an ace from a standard deck of cards—1/13.
That probability can be expressed in multiple ways. I expressed it as a fraction, but you could also express it as a decimal or a percentage. That would make the probability 0.077 or 7.7%. (I rounded off.)
You can also express a probability in odds format, which is where you compare the number of ways something can’t happen with the number of ways it can happen. In this example, the “odds” of getting an ace from a standard deck of cards is 12 to 1.
If you play poker, you’re probably familiar with this way of thinking already.
But here’s the important thing to remember about probability, especially if you’re a gambler:
In the short term, with a random event, anything can happen.
If you draw a card from a standard deck of cards and reshuffle it after your selection every time, you can do this 13 times in a row. The predicted result would be to draw an ace once in those 13 trials.
But in reality, you could easily not draw an ace at all. Or you might draw an ace 2, 3, or 4 times. The probability is 1/13 on every draw.
This deviation from the expected results is called variance, which is what we mean when we talk about luck.
If you’re a poker player, this is the phenomenon that makes you lose with pocket aces 7 times in a row, even though it’s the strongest starting hand in Texas holdem. It’s also the phenomenon that makes you lose half your stack of chips in your first hour at the table because you keep playing blinds and never get a playable hand.
The Law of Large Numbers suggests that as you get closer to the long run, the closer your actual results will resemble the predicted results.
What Should a Poker Player Do with Luck When He Gets It?
The thing about luck is that there’s no way to predict when a streak of good luck is going to start or stop. There’s also no way to predict when a streak of bad luck will start or stop, either. If that’s the case, what can a poker player do with good luck when he gets it?
It seems like luck is completely unmanageable in poker because of the random nature of the game.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it.
Luck is something everyone who plays poker long enough will experience—both good luck and bad luck.
Here’s how you can mismanage your good luck:
You’re playing Texas holdem at the $4/$8 tables, and you’ve been getting hit with a lucky deck. You’ve won every pot you’ve been engaged in, and you’ve more than doubled your money in less than 2 hours.
Since you’re running lucky, you figure you’ve got chips in front of you that you shouldn’t have anyway. You start using some of those chips to take some unnecessary risks with some speculative, weak hands.
And you win a few of those, too!
But eventually, your bad play starts to catch up with you. In fact, before you know it—in less than an hour—you’ve lost the $200+ you won during your first 2 hours of play, and you’ve lost half your initial stake, too.
When you get lucky at the poker table, enjoy it, ride the wave, and have fun.
But don’t use it as an excuse to lower your starting hand standards. Don’t loosen up unless it makes mathematical sense to do so. Your job at the poker table is to make correct decisions repeatedly.
My friend Bob, who owns a bar in Pennsylvania where they play a lot of poker, once explained to me that when I have a set in holdem, my job is to lose as many chips as possible when someone else has a bigger set.
In other words, that hand is so strong, that it’s almost always the mathematically correct play to get as many of your chips in the pot as possible. In the long run, by repeatedly putting yourself into positive expectation situations, you’ll be a net winner.
But in the short run, anything can happen.
People who change their playing tendencies based on a lucky streak (or an unlucky streak) are mismanaging their good or bad luck.
The 80/20 Rule and How Important Skill Is Compared to Luck
I don’t know that anyone has done any kind of serious mathematical analysis comparing how much of poker is luck versus skill. For the sake of discussion, though, let’s assume that 80% of poker is luck, and only 20% of the game is skill.
It sounds like the game is predominantly luck-based, so skill doesn’t make much of a difference.
That’s the opposite of the truth, though.
In a game where the outcomes are 80% determined by luck, the player with more skill has all the difference there is to have.
In the long run, you and your opponents will all face the same amount of good luck or bad luck. If that determines the outcome of 80% of the events at the holdem table, well, cool. The other 20% of the time is when your skill will make the difference.
Contrary to what your psychic, astrologer, or witch doctor might tell you, you have no control over luck in the future. It happens when it happens, and it doesn’t when it doesn’t. And it can change at any time.
No amount of “the secret” is going to change the vagaries of long-term probability.
In fact, in a game like poker where luck is such a huge factor, you get an even greater advantage because of one thing:
Your opponents will often think the game is “all luck.”
This gives you an even bigger edge, because such a player won’t even learn how to play correctly. Acting on correct strategies is even less likely. After all, if it’s “all luck,” why would you bother learning when to fold and when to raise.
The Practical Difference between Luck and Skill
I mentioned (somewhat cheekily) that luck is something you can manage. I used to work for a manager who explained that if you can’t measure it, you can’t measure it.
How do you measure something like luck or skill, though?
You measure luck with short term results. If I buy in for $160 at the Texas holdem table and go home with $320 after 2 hours, I got lucky during that session.
On the other hand, if I’ve played 2000 hours of $4/$8 over the last year, and I have $32,000 in profits to show for it, I’ve demonstrated a degree of skill.
The closer you get to infinity, the closer your results should mirror your skill level.
In fact, if you’re a serious poker player, you must keep records. Without keeping records, you are, by default, NOT serious about the game. The nice thing about this standard is that it makes it easy to become a serious poker player—all you must do is start keeping records.
One other thing I learned from being in middle management in corporate America is this:
Performance measured is performance improved.
The act of measuring performance immediately causes that performance to improve.
I worked at a start-up call center in the 1990s. We did inbound sales. The vice president of operations took me aside one day to ask me how we could improve our conversion ratio.
In a call center, your conversion ratio is the percentage of calls that are taken which turn into sales. In the short run, whether a call turns into a sale is luck. In the long run, it’s a matter of skill.
I told her that most of the call center agents didn’t know what a conversion rate was or that it mattered. If she wanted that number to improve, she should create a simple spreadsheet with 4 columns:
- The name of each agent
- The number of calls they’d taken that month
- The number of sales they’d made that month
- Their conversion rates (which was just #3 divided by #2)
I also suggested that she set a goal of improving that number for the center overall by 2% or so. Every agent who had a conversion rate greater than that goal should have their name and conversion rate highlighted in yellow.
The final step in the plan was to just post this spreadsheet in the breakroom on the bulletin board.
Within a week, the call center’s conversion rate had improved by 3%.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but look at what that did to revenue:
You had 20 agents taking 80 calls per day average. The average sale was $250, and $50 of that was profit. That’s 1600 calls per day. A 3% increase meant that we started generating 48 additional sales per day. That’s almost $2500 in extra revenue per day.
All of which was generated just by measuring results. (That company eventually went public, and I made a fortune from the stock options. I lost all that money, but that’s another story, too.)
Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks
If luck exists as a real phenomenon, and it works the way I’ve mentioned, then it’s obvious that you’ll sometimes face winning streaks and losing streaks. As long as you understand that you can’t predict when such a winning or losing streak will hit, you’ll probably be fine. You also need to remember that you can’t predict when such a streak will end.
If you’ve played poker for long at all, though, you’re familiar with what a winning streak FEELS like, though.
It’s almost like being drunk. When you’re on a winning streak at the poker tables, it’s like being 10 feet tall and bulletproof. You can’t lose. Everything’s easy, and you start to get giddy—even giggly.
Some players get confused and think their psychic powers have kicked in. I love having those players at my table, by the way. Eventually I’ll win all their money while they live in their fantasy land.
When you’re in the middle of a winning streak, the best way to continue that streak is to play good poker. Make good, rational, mathematically correct decisions to the best of your ability. Don’t loosen up and start playing lousy hands just because you’ve been winning every hand you’ve played. Don’t start bluffing every other hand just because a handful of bluffs have worked well recently.
If you continue to play tight, aggressive poker—with an eye aimed directly at maximizing the number of positive expectation decisions you make—you maximize the probability that your winning streak will continue.
Also, when your winning streak does end—and they always end—you’ll lose less money in the long run, because you’ll be making good decisions.
What It Feels like to Have Bad Luck
Having bad luck feels terrible, and it often starts somewhere other than the poker table. These omens that some superstitious players see are probably more indicative of their state of mind than predictive of random chance, though.
Suppose you have plans to play poker tonight, and you get a phone call from the IRS in the morning. You’re being audited.
Later, one of your close friends calls and suggests that he thinks your wife is cheating on you. He ran into her with a political science professor at a party, and they were almost certainly “together.”
And you tripped and fell on the way home to change clothes before driving to the cardroom.
Some people might think those are omens so large that you just plain shouldn’t play poker that night. They might be right, but not for the reasons they think.
We create our own luck with our attitudes and the decisions that spring from those attitudes. What kind of attitude will you have at the poker table when you’ve had a day like the one I just described?
Do you think you’ll have an, “I don’t care about results, just about making good decisions…” attitude?
Or is it more likely that you’ll have an, “I’m going to get back at the universe by forcing something to happen at the tables by driving the action with bets and raises constantly…” attitude?
The latter attitude almost guarantees that you’ll have “bad luck.” Although, really, in this case, your bad luck at the tables isn’t really bad luck at all. It’s just poor play that stems from your attitude toward the bad luck you’ve experienced in your life all day.
How do you avoid this, though?
David Sklansky is a writer in the gambling space that I admire, and he’s also a professional poker player. He suggests that you have multiple irons in the fire so that you can always find something to be happy about. Every day, he keeps a journal where he ranks what’s going on in his life with a score from 1 to 10. He has 7 categories.
This way, even if something’s going badly in one category, he has something to be happy about in one of the other categories.
Of course, the example scenario I gave earlier is of a man who’s life is falling apart. He probably shouldn’t be playing poker at all, in fact.
But we all have bad days. Broadening our perspective and counting our blessings can help us maintain a better attitude and maximize our probability of getting lucky.
Some Examples of Bad Luck at the Poker Table That Are Unexpected
Everyone who understands card games knows that sometimes your cards are going to run cold and you’re going to get more than your share of sub-par hands. That’s expected by most players, who also understand that sometimes they’re going to get a lot of great cards, too.
But that’s not the only way the cards can run funny. Sometimes you’ll encounter situations where you’re getting great cards, but you keep losing with them to players who are getting even better cards. When your pocket aces get cracked 7 times in a row, it can be a natural reaction to get frustrated with the laws of the universe.
You might even start to play your pocket aces differently. Maybe you’ll stop raising with them preflop, thinking that your previous results don’t justify playing the cards the way you should, mathematically. That’s a huge mistake, by the way.
Sometimes you’ll get really great cards and be unable to win much money with them. Everyone folds every time you get pocket kings, and when you hit that miracle flush on the flop, you don’t get any action. This can be frustrating, but it’s also all just part of the game.
Managing Your Emotions in the Face of Both Good and Bad Luck
The problem with lucky streaks is that you make bad decisions based on those results. If you stay lucky, those decisions might even seem justified. This is one of the reasons good poker players love new, bad poker players. They know that in the long run, they’ll profit from those bad players—especially when their bad decisions have been validated by some lucky wins.
If you’re unlucky, it can be even worse. You might get angry and depressed. Sometimes you’ll have a losing streak that will last so long you’ll question the nature of the game of poker itself. A common reaction to these emotions is to try to force something to happen by loosening up and getting more aggressive. This is always a mistake. You should loosen up and get more aggressive when that’s a smart decision, not when you’re frustrated.
Watch out for both of these kinds of emotions. You don’t have to play poker, by the way. If you’re too emotionally cocky to make good decisions, or if you’re too angry and depressed to make good decisions, you’re better off going to the movies or taking a nap.
Poker is a game of both skill and luck, and understanding the true nature of luck seems to be one of those meta-skills that every successful poker player needs.
The bottom line is that no matter what your results look like, your focus needs to be on making good decisions that make sense mathematically. And you want to focus on doing so repeatedly.
If you do that and measure your results, you’ll eventually see that your long-term results reflect your skill level.
And it won’t matter what the short-term outcomes based on luck are like.