Watch out for the black swan hands

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During a recent $2-$5 game at the Orange Park Poker Room I had an epiphany: Uncertainty in poker can destroy you. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in poker. The observant player avoids situations in which they create more uncertainty for themselves; the observant players destroy themselves less.

Poker is full of unusual events, or hands … hands that shouldn’t have been played.

In Super System, Doyle Brunson wrote: “In no-limit play you must be very careful you don’t lose all of your chips in an unraised pot.” Of course, sure, I get it…well most of the time.

But I finally really did get it; it’s because of Black Swan event.

A Black Swan event is an event that has three components: It’s anoutlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility; it carries a possible extreme effect, and in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrenceafterthe fact, making it explainable and predictable, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

To give you a sense of what is meant by Black Swan events, some people have explained that if the Pacific tsunami of December 2004 had been predictable there would have much less destruction; a low-probability event with high consequences.

In poker we’re faced with Black Swan hands.

I observed a hand recently at a $2-$5 game and Brunson’s admonition hit home. The pot was limped preflop and there were three players, each with between $600-$800. The flop came 5-6-8 with two spades.

Hole cards: UTG: 8-8; cutoff: 4-7 offsuit; button 7-9 offsuit.

The UTG and cutoff checked, then the button bet $50. The UTG player raised $90 and got two calls.

Everyone hit the flop; trips, the second-nut straight and the nut straight, but there was a flush draw. Everyone, it seemed, thought they had the best hand, was afraid of the flush draw, and thought about how to extract as much money as possible.

This is a Black Swan hand: low probability and high stakes. As I watched the betting I had no idea what was going on.
The reason not to limp is because of these Black Swan hands. When you limp you don’t know what anyone else has. Each player thought he had the best hand but was concerned about the flush draw.

The turn was the {2-Hearts}. UTG checked; cutoff bet $100; button shoved. After some thinking the UTG called and the cutoff folded. The river was the {3-Clubs}.

Preflop the low probability event of 4-7 and 7-9 was a low-stakes event for each of them. Each limped, hoping to hit and both did. For the 8-8 it’s a high probability event that he had the best hand and the opportunity to make it a high-stakes event by raising. But he chose to allow the others a low-stakes entry. If he had made it a high-stakes scenario there would have been more likelihood of 4-7 and 7-9 folding.

On the flop the stakes raise and the chance of a low probability event happening, the Black Swan, might indicate a low threshold for action. After the fact everyone tried to analyze what happened. But one can’t predict, based upon Black Swan hands. The second nut straight fold is brilliant, in my opinion. Preventing a Black Swan event is possible for 8-8, but it’s not easy to see a set of eights isn’t the best hand there.

Some may say it is a doomed hand, others may have ideas about how to play the hand; I think it’s a useful illustration of a Black Swan hand. I don’t offer advice on playing specific hands, but I do offer alternate ways of looking at human nature. Black Swan hands are low probability events that have disastrous consequences. To simplify: Don’t fall prey to Black Swan hands and watch every hand, even when you fold. Oh, and 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 editor@anteupmagazine.com.