Dumb Poker Luck

Learning to ignore short-term variance--and focus on long-term skill instead

”I say luck is when an opportunity comes along and you’re prepared for it.” – Denzel Washington

The word “luck” is thrown around a lot at the poker tables. Just the other day, a friend of mine lost four buy-ins in a high-dollar cash game and bemoaned his luck in an email to me. “Mark, everyone is luckier than me. I never win. I’m cursed with bad luck.” When I pushed back on this statement, my friend got angry with me, accusing me of “not understanding what it’s like to have bad luck.” He claimed that my win rates are nothing more than “dumb luck.”

Uh, sure. Keep thinking—and acting—that way, I told him, and you’re going to stay unlucky. You’re going to stay “dumb” forever.

There are a lot of quotes like Denzel Washington’s above that come from successful people. More importantly, you never read quotes about these folks having bad luck. In writing about business success, entrepreneur Jack Canfield famously said, “I believe that people make their own luck by great preparation and good strategy.” And you know what? These words are just as applicable to poker, too. Let me explain…

Whether we believe it or not, we are all dealt Aces and 7-2o at the same frequency as everyone else. How we play those cards—averaged out over time—is what separates the winning players from the losing players. Lady Luck is as fickle and unforgiving with me as she is with my friend. My Aces get cracked just as often as his do. But I persevere and remain calm in the face of bad beats and coolers. I learn from my mistakes. I study the game. I work on hand reading, and math, and bet sizing, and deception. I work hard at winning, which is something I don’t believe my friend actually does.

And perhaps more importantly, I never blame my results on luck—good or bad or dumb. And this is what separates my long-term results from those of my friend. I ignore the luck of the game and focus on the skill, while he does the opposite.

Benjamin Franklin opined that:

Diligence is the mother of good luck.”

Even Lucille Ball weighed in with:

Luck? I don’t know anything about luck. I’ve never banked on it and I’m afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: Hard work – and realizing what is opportunity and what isn’t.“

This notion of hard work—and the eschewing of blaming bad luck—is a common theme among successful business people and sportsmen. Said another way, you and my friend need to quit bemoaning—and blaming—bad luck. Instead, focus on the things you can control. If you do this correctly, the luck aspect of the game will even out and take care of itself.

Lucky Friends Aren’t

Years ago, when we were first learning how to play poker, Mr. Multi, and I used to quack a lot about our bad luck at the tables (note we conveniently didn’t consider it luck when we won, only when we lost). We’d also sigh and whine and shake our heads when another friend of ours seemed to continually get good results at the tables, despite, well, terrible play. We thought he was just lucky and we weren’t. Boy, were we wrong.

In hindsight, Mr. Multi and I were just whining. We didn’t understand the power of short-term variance, nor did we appreciate that poker rewards preparation, technical skills, and discipline—but only if you are willing to take a long view of the game. Our “lucky” friend was just fortunate to be on the upslope of variance at that particular point in time (despite playing really, really poorly), while we were on temporary downslopes (despite playing kinda sorta correctly).

Luck Takes a Long Time to Even Out

Success at poker is not measured in individual session result. Heck, it’s not even measured in weekly results. It’s a phenomena with a much longer time scale. In fact, some experts say you can only really look back after three to six months, or even longer, before you can really assess your results. Individual week-long sessions during that period constitute nothing more than the up-and-down variance of the greater skill-based whole. You have to think long-term, and not fixate on the short term. You have to ignore individual session results and, instead, keep the big picture in mind.

Unfortunately, the big picture is longer than most people think. Oh, and it’s fraught with lots and lots of ups and downs along the way.

The trick to maintaining poker sanity—and not falling into the “oh, woe is me, I’m so unlucky” mindset—is separating the variance we can’t control from bad play and decisions that we can.

The secret sauce to winning at poker is really just three basic things:

  1. How you prepare before playing.
  2. What decisions and actions you make during play.
  3. How well you control your emotions before, during, and after play.

That’s it, nothing more. These three things are what actually add up to your “luck” at the tables. These are the things you can not only control, but are the things that, if you work on and improve, will ultimately lead to riches.

And yes, those riches will continue to look like dumb luck to those unwilling to accept the work it takes to get better at poker.

Assuming two people are equally skilled, neither is naturally lucky or unlucky; they’re just at different places and times on the variance curve. Remember, we all get the same cards over time. The truly “lucky” long-term players are those that learn how to minimize the amounts lost during the downswings, and maximize the profits in the upswings.

The rest is just, well, dumb luck.

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