If you’re a true poker player then you’re well aware poker is a game of skill, not luck. Why then, do we wish opponents (halfheartedly, of course) good luck at the tables? In any given tournament or hand there can be a tremendous amount of luck. You can make every correct decision and lose, and you can make every incorrect decision and win. The cards don’t care who’s making what decisions or whether you’re a nicer person than your opponent, whether you love your mom more than he loves his, or whether you have spent your life volunteering to help those in need while your opponent may have a rap sheet longer than the transcript of a Phil Hellmuth tirade.
It’s important to keep luck in perspective. We tend to focus on the negative side of luck that gets labeled “bad luck.” Listen to anyone on break or after they bust from a tournament. They talk about a bad beat or the donkey who keeps sucking out on them. You never hear them say, “Oh man, I got my money in as a 10-to-1 dog and I sucked out so bad on this poor guy. I made the dumbest play I have ever made and got so lucky. If I can keep playing this bad and keep getting lucky, I think I am going to win this tournament!”
You also don’t hear people talk about how lucky they were when someone made a mistake and paid them off when they shouldn’t have. That situation typically is attributed to their “great” play, not the good fortune of having that hand develop against a weaker opponent. Or what about just the simple luck of having aces when someone else has kings, the money goes in preflop and your hand holds up? That’s lucky right? No one did anything wrong: You were lucky and your opponent was unlucky. The catch is most people look at the opponent with the kings was unlucky, while hardly acknowledging the good fortune of getting the aces at that exact moment when you were an 80 percent favorite, etc.
A lot of people ask me if I got lucky during my WSOP Main Event run in 2007. They naturally assume I probably caught all kinds of cards and sucked out on people left and right to make it through such an enormous field. The truth is I was extremely lucky, but not in the sense that most people think. I drew very good tables on Days 1 and 2 without having to change tables. That’s an enormous amount of good fortune. On Day 2 I had a hand where I called a raise with pocket threes from the small blind and flopped a set. My opponent moved all-in on a bluff for about 90,000 and I called. If I lost the hand, I would’ve been back down to my starting stack of 20,000. My favorite was when a player told me he had “designated me as the one who was going to double him up.” He said this because of a hand played just before the break where he was frustrated he had to fold to my river bet. On the first hand after the break I was dealt two black aces on the button. He was in the big blind. It folded to me and I raised. He quickly moved all-in and I obviously called. He tabled the mighty Q-6 and he exited the tournament, all because his ego got in the way and I was lucky that he tilted his chips to me. Plus I was lucky he didn’t flop three queens or another hand that would beat me.
There are more subtle forms of luck, such as when you raise with two rags to steal blinds and antes and someone calls you. You completely miss the flop and make a continuation bet that results in you winning the pot. Were you not lucky they didn’t have a hand to reraise you with preflop? And were you not lucky they missed the flop so you were able to win the pot uncontested without a made hand? These situations are important to keep in mind when you make a continuation bet after flopping the nuts and get no action. If you get to win some pots when you don’t want to get called, then you have to accept winning when you don’t get called when you hold a quality hand.
People routinely get bummed when they get no action after raising with pocket aces. They’re discouraged they picked up a premium hand and no one came along for the ride. These are often the same people who are most mad when they have their aces cracked. How logical is that? Do you want action or not? Of course you want action when you have aces, but you have to accept that most of the time you’re going to win with them and sometimes you’re going to lose.
If you have aces vs. kings five times in one tournament, you’re actually supposed to lose once because you’re an 80-20 favorite. Start thinking about things like this and when you accept the percentages you’ll realize there really is no luck involved. It’s more about the percentages of what hands are dealt and what cards come on the board combined with the actions involved.
It’s often said the best players “create their own luck.” Well, sort of. The better players will make better decisions over time; therefore they’ll put themselves in profitable situations more frequently. This results in winning more and losing less than inexperienced players. There are so many factors that affect the “luck” at the tables that it’s just simply something we should all strive to ignore. The way the cards are shuffled, the order in which they fly into the muck, whether there was a card accidentally flipped over during the deal thus changing your opponent’s hole cards, your table and seat draw. My advice? Don’t think about it. This will help you to not whine about it. Learn to accept the realities of the game and play your best. Try hard to remember the times when a big hand holds or you suck out on your opponents for a big pot. These memories will make it easier to handle when you’re on the bad side of those situations. Strive to become the best you can be, always play the best you can and leave the rest up to the luck math.
Decide to Win!
— Lee Childs is founder and lead instructor of Acumen Poker and an instructor with the WPT Boot Camp. Check out his site at www.acumenpoker.net.