It’s Not Really Luck

Like most poker players, I’m unlucky way more often than lucky. Or so it seems. A psychologist could explain this phenomenon better than I can, but I’ll try.

Various cognitive biases reinforce the feeling of being unlucky. Confirmation bias suggests that people are more inclined to look for or pay attention to information that confirms beliefs they already have. Self-serving bias describes the tendency to give ourselves credit for our successes, but blame failures on outside causes, including bad luck. I win at poker because of my skill; when I lose it is due to bad luck. Sound familiar?

Perhaps the emotional pain triggered by bad luck is stronger and/or lasts longer than the pleasure derived from good luck, an emotional viagra of sorts.

One strategy to counter false perceptions about luck is to record some of the good luck, as a reminder that, yessir, sometimes we do actually get lucky. Besides, who wants to read another bad beat story.

Tonight I was playing 6-max PLO online. I lost one buy-in after flopping top set on a T87 board, only to run into the nut straight and fail to improve. Coolers happen. OK, that was a 1-sentence bad beat story. Moving on.

Later I was on the button with 9922 (rainbow) facing an UTG pot-sized raise and one caller. I started to fold, looked again and realized I could double set-mine here with a post-flop positional advantage. Folding is still the smart play. Against a single random hand, my equity is only 48.8%, and hands that flop set-under-set are PLO deathtraps.

Anyway, the flop was 822. How lucky is that!? Little did I know UTG was holding 88. How unlucky is that!?!? Little did he (or she) know what was about to happen. I imagine that when I re-raised on the turn (a 6, not at all scary) and it became apparent that all of the chips were going in the middle, he (or she) was fist pumping or dancing or mentally composing the narrative for an awesome blog entry.

After my double-up, the villain immediately reloaded for 100 big blinds.

On the very next hand, I get AA95, with the A9. UTG limps and I raise pot. The button calls, small blind re-pots it and big blind (the poor schmuck from the previous hand) calls. I re-pot it again and pretty quickly we have a 3-way all-in. SB has KQJT with 2 hearts, and BB has 6432 also with 2 hearts. The flop is A83 (rainbow), giving me top set and BB a wheel draw. No fives or running Broadway cards come, and in the space of two PLO hands, my stack has grown from 73 BBs to 332 BBs.

Boom!

But is it really luck? There’s an argument to make that this 2-hand heater isn’t luck at all. Since I play a lot of poker online, I’ll get my fair share of good hands and bad hands. Most of the time, the gods of randomness will randomly deliver bad cards; occasionally good cards. The fact this happened tonight might be random or lucky, but the fact that it happened at all is merely a consequence of high volume play.

In PLO, there are approximately 270,000 combinations of four hole cards. The fact that I was dealt a specific one of those is purely random. So is every other specific fact – my seat at the table, each opponent’s combination of hole cards, the flop, etc. Luck is merely a by-product of randomness. Choosing to participate frequently in a system governed by such randomness ensures that we get our fair share of both good and bad luck.

The two hands described above didn’t require any particular skill, but over the long run skill matters. Where skill meets bad luck, we can minimize our losses. Where skill meets good luck, we can maximize our winnings.

When the cards are scrambled, shuffled, cut and spread, they don’t know anything about the players, and no advantage is conferred by virtue of any status or life situation. Maybe I wasn’t lucky at all. It was simply my turn… I just didn’t know that in advance.

It’s endlessly fascinating, this crazy game we play.

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