King of a Small World

Rick Bennet, author of the excellent poker novel King of a Small Worldfamously said “In the long term there is no luck in poker, but the short term is longer than most people think.”

This explains both good luck and bad luck, also known as variance.

Last night I played in a local poker tournament. Near the middle, I tried to bully a short stack off a K-8-8 flop while holding AJo. When he called – with 99 – for slightly less than I had bet, tournament protocol required me to show the bluff. He was a 74% favorite until an ace on the river saved me. Good luck for me.

Later, at the final table with a dwindling stack of my own, everyone folded to me in the small blind. I peeled back one card to see the A♠ and decided that was good enough to go all-in. The big stack in the big blind hemmed and hawed and called with 85o. I was delighted to see a T for my other card. While I was a 65% favorite, I’d have been just as happy to collect the big blind and ante and move on. Instead, the runout completely missed both of us and I doubled up. Let’s call that the absence of bad luck for me.

One spot shy of the bubble, the guy on my left open limped and I jammed with AJo. It folded all the way around, and he called with A8s. I’m not unhappy there, as a 68% favorite, which a friendly flop and turn increased to a 86.5% by the river. To make this technically accurate, the turn card paired the board, creating six outs that would create two pair on the other board and force a chop. Oh, but no! The dreaded 8 came on the river and sent me packing. Very bad luck for me.

Looking at the above three hands, I was the favorite when the betting was over twice. And won twice.

Yet the lasting memory on the drive home was getting busted by a 3-outer on the river. It haunts me. I couldn’t go to sleep right away. At least partly this is because I always expect to win. Whether it’s recency bias or a difference in how the emotional region of the brian processes pain vs. pleasure or commentary on the human condition on this planet or just a reminder that poker tournaments always end abruptly, that feeling of having the worst possible luck at the worst possible time is hard to shake.

Even when we know at an intellectual level that it wasn’t luck at all. Poker does what poker does, and I’ll be back at it later today.

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