‘SICK! THAT IS SO SICK!’ ‘I CANT BELIEVE YOU GOT THAT LUCKY’. ‘OH MY GOD, YOU’RE SUCH A LUCKBOX!’.
Heard any of these phrases before? Once? Twice? Seven million times? How about every single time you sit down to play, whether it’s live or online? There are many that believe that luck is often the deciding factor in a game of poker. And guess what? They’re wrong.
Poker is a game of skill. Repeat that phrase. Poker IS a game of skill. And, while lady luck will always have a little say in the outcome of a poker game, skill will win out. Sometimes.
When it comes to luck, there is an interesting fact that many people miss: poker success is a mix of skill and luck. But the more skill you have the more luck you remove from the equation. Beginner poker players may as well be playing blackjack: if the right cards come, they will win.
Conversely, the best poker players in the world do their utmost to make sure that luck has almost no say in the outcome of a tournament or game. And how you deal with the swings of luck and variance often define how successful you will be as a poker player.
For those that are new to the game, poker really is just a game of luck. They have no idea what cards their opponent might have, and, therefore, consider only their own two cards. So they are gambling on whether or not their hand is the best one.
The better player will have a pretty good idea what hands their opponent might have, so they remove that luck factor of their opponent possibly having better cards. The poker newbie will shove all his chips into the middle with pocket queens, despite a flop of ace king king. They just don’t factor in their opponents cards. So one could say they got unlucky to run into a better hand. But that’s not really true, now is it?
The better player, of course, would fold the pocket queens faster than a Tony G could get on his bike. He realizes that his opponent very likely has him beat. Therefore, the ‘unlucky’ factor is minimalized. He may not have cashed in on his two ladies, but he certainly didn’t cash OUT with them.
Poker tables are filled with good luck charms
Now, bad luck (and bad beats) will always be a part of poker, but, again, that’s just statistical variance rearing its ugly head. If you get enough full houses, EVENTUALLY you will run into four of a kind. Sure, that’s a cooler hand, and a bad beat. Unlucky, for sure. But it’s also part of normal statistical runs. When it happens, you’re going to go broke, whether you’re Phil Hellmuth or Doctor Phil.
And that’s where poker mentality and psychology comes into play. When those bad beats happen, how do you take it? Guys like Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow take it like a punch in the gut. Mikey complains constantly about how bad he runs, and how unlucky he is. But Matusow is actually a great card player, and it’s just odds catching up to him, not bad luck.
So you need to learn, as a poker player, to write those bad beats off, not to ill fortune, but just to the normal run of cards in poker. If you play enough hands, you’ll get some good ones, and some bad ones. The secret to success is to treat them the same way in your mind. Never get too high when you’re running good, and never get too low when you’re running bad.
But, the truth is, you’re probably going to have a hard time convincing most poker players that luck is just a word. Poker tables are filled with good luck charms. Coins, pictures, lucky hats, and lucky underwear are as common as poker chips. Players simply don’t want to flirt with the gods of fortune if they can help it. Does kissing a picture of your kids change your cards? Nope. But don’t tell that to Jerry Yang, who picture-kissed his way to a WSOP Main Event Champion bracelet in 2007.
In 2009, I got knocked out of the Main Event of the WSOP late on Day 3 in a massive pot, where I had the best hand when all the chips went in. My opponent was drawing to a 4% shot of beating me. He hit. Unlucky? Damn right. But would having my lucky Bruce Springsteen ‘Sandy’s Place Arcade’ coin have changed anything? Well… maybe. But probably not.
So, if it makes you feel a little better, wear your lucky belt. Don’t shave on poker days. Always look at your cards with your left eye closed. Whatever works for you. But in the end, skill will always hold up better than luck. So sharpen your tools just as much as you rub your lucky rabbit’s foot. Because it’s always better if the other guy has to get lucky to beat YOU.
Follow Chris Tessaro on twitter @ChrisTessaro.