Luck enters into every contingency and every successful outcome. You would be a fool if you forgot it, and a greater fool if you count solely upon it. Luck is the confluence of time and circumstance.
Our task is to try to figure out how to manage luck. Luck is random and unpredictable, and yet I’m telling you to manage it? Doc must be off his rocker! No, not really, I’m just trying to reframe how you view luck and how you can use it.
So, where does that leave us? We already know poker is a game of skill and perception, but it’s also a game of luck. How many times have you heard the phrase, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” uttered at a poker table? Luck evens out though, and the only way to reach peak performance is to be good. But that doesn’t mean you should disregard luck entirely.
I’m not going to advise you to rely on luck because the poker table is the wrong place for luck alone. It may seem counterintuitive, but usually the stakes are not high enough to base the outcome on luck.
As odd as it may sound, playing lucky is a better strategy when the stakes are high and you have little to no control over the outcome. Lotteries, bingo, even roulette are the right venues for luck; there is little skill involved.
Luck, or the perception of luck, however, can be a valuable tool in your poker arsenal, if you take the time to analyze and use it correctly.Tennessee Williams, a great American playwright once said, “Luck is believing you’re lucky.” This is a very useful idea for the poker player.
Poker requires work, but no doubt luck plays a part; it’s just that luck is not controllable. We would all like to be lucky or at least to avoid luck entirely; but since we can’t control luck we learn to live with it and develop our skills, including an understanding of chance. Buddha is to have to said, “Being deeply learned and skilled, being well-trained and using well-spoken words; this is good luck.” This seems like pretty good advice.
Instead of hoping for luck and engaging in magical thinking you would be better off thinking, “If I develop my poker skills and understand the elements of chance then, and only then, will my poker play prosper and will I have a better chance at peak performance.”
Poker is a game of infinite and complex decisions in a somewhat controlled setting. The luck player dreams about reducing the complexity and bringing it down to taking a shot.
The number of decisions made in a poker session probably exceeds those made by most people in a month of work and life. How we make those decisions is not only based on the situation but how we perceive skill, chance and luck.
Don’t confuse chance and luck. Chance is not luck. Chance refers to variance and probability. Luck refers to randomness, perception, superstition, etc. But lucky play does happen and the only viable aspect of using luck to your advantage, over the long run, is the perception of luck — your perception and your opponents’ perception. You might have a shot at controlling perception of luck without falling prey to counting on luck to win.
No doubt one can get lucky, but the best way to deal with luck is utilizing the perception of being lucky, or your opponents perceiving you to be lucky. Actual luck is uncontrollable. How you and your opponents perceive luck should become another tool in your arsenal.
Chance on the other hand is the weighing of probabilities. Over time the probabilities win, if you play them right. Chance and probability are figured in an ideal world, but we play in a flawed world. The probability of A-A heads-up is much greater than the probability of A-A winning in a limped pot against six players. Do the math.
Chance is an acknowledgment that there is variance in poker. The chance player understands there are random events that affect the play and makes decisions according to odds and probabilities that they can define. The decisions are how much and when to bet, fold, raise or call. Luck-oriented players ignore these probabilities and rely on attributes of idiosyncratic situations.
A chance player is skilled, relying on math, odds and probabilities. The better comparison would be to pit the chance player, the numbers guy vs. the “feel” guy or the luck player. But as many of you know, I advocate a combination of situational poker and grokking the table — using everything you have to achieve your peak performance.
Luck players play their favorite hands, they rely on superstition and they sometimes win, (especially against me, you might be saying). We call such winning intermittent reinforcement, and it is the strongest kind of reinforcement. It happens randomly and for no reason, so the luck player tries to make sense of it and by making some sense tries to control. Someone plays 9-3 offsuit and wins and then he always plays 9-3 off. Sometimes they win and they start to think this is their lucky hand. When they do hit they are reinforced. Luck plays a factor in the short run only, and the most part we can’t control the short run.
However, the perception of luck or superstition can sometimes go a long way to winning.
Research has shown a belief in luck can impact performance. This belief serves a number of functions. It reduces anxiety or stress, it can calm someone down or it can make someone look like a better player. When the deck is hitting you, you might start to play more aggressively, you might intimate others or your raises and calls might have a greater impact. Believing in their good fortune can help people only in situations where they can affect the outcome. It can’t, say, help people watching a horse race on which they’ve wagered.
So, we can debate whether rushes exist and whether luck exists and the pure math guys will tell you no. But the belief in luck coupled with a strong strategy or game may affect the outcome of the play.
The only real reason to follow a ritual or a superstition is to create a perception or to decrease your stress, to help you stay calm. Decreasing stress and remaining calm increases skill.
I sat next to a guy who was getting hit in the head with the deck. It changed his play. Others sometimes would not challenge his raises, thinking, “He is too lucky for me.” The sense that he was getting lucky changed his entire strategy and instead of limping when the bet came to him, he raised. This eliminated many marginal hands and often he won. Was he being lucky or was he playing better because he believed he was being lucky and managed that image at the table, leading others to react to this “luck” aura?
A belief in luck may simply be seen as a positive attitude. When we do anything with a positive attitude we play more toward our peak performance.
Don’t become a slave to luck or superstition and don’t ignore luck completely. Instead, incorporate your perception of luck into your game to improve it and to take advantage of opponents’ perception of your luck; understand probability and develop your skill set; achieve your peak performance and always keep your head in the game.
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.