Poker Lesson 44

On good and bad luck in poker
We all know that luck plays a part in poker. You can do all the right moves at the table, and still lose the pot.

Here is what once happened to me during a 540-dollar buy-in hold'em tournament at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas: I am in the small blind, with K-6 of hearts. Only one player in front of me calls, from late position, which I read as a pure speculation move with a marginal hand. The button folds, and I raise to put pressure on both the previous caller and the big blind. The big blind calls, but the previous caller now folds.

The flop is a miracle one: 2-8-10 in hearts, giving me a made flush! Unless the big blind has A-x of hearts – statistically very unlikely – I now have a massive lead, but I want to be paid well with my monster hand. I fake hesitation and then check; the big blind bets out 4/5ths of the pot. I fake another hesitation, then move all-in, a massive overbet in order to make it look like I am bluffing.

The big blind says: "For some reason I have you on Ace-King", and calls me, with only a slightly bigger stack than I have, and turns over his hand: A-2 in clubs, for bottom pair and nothing else. "Guess again", I reply and turn over my flush. He winces. I now have a better than 97% chance of winning the pot!

So far, so good. I have played the hand well, have received an extremely fortunate flop, and have tricked my opponent into calling my all-in move which will double me up and make me one of the chipleaders in the tournament. But what the poker gods can give, they can also take away: the turn is the Ace of hearts... and the river the 2 of clubs, giving my opponent a so-called runner-runner full house!! He had less than a 3% chance of winning the pot, but pulls it off and I am out.

All experienced poker players recognize themselves in those scenes from the movies "Rounders" and "The Cincinnati Kid": that walking-home-in-the-cold-dawn-after-having-lost-it-all-feeling. Here in this series of poker lessons for you, it is time to ponder something very few poker books devote a chapter to, but sooner or later hits us all. The laws of probability says that once they hammer down the lids on our coffins, we will all over a lifetime have received the same proportion of good, bad and mediocre cards... but experience teaches us the hard way that those hands also come and go in waves: there are shimmering moments when we are totally invincible at the poker table, but also times when absolutely nothing goes right.

Another truth in poker is this one: that you can have good luck in the wrong situation. You may be dealt a pocket pair and flop a four-of-a-kind in hold'em only to see that nobody else is willing to bet out or call anything, and so you win a pot containing a lousy three dollars... with a hand that, in a different place and time and game, could have won you a fortune.

You may also have your share of good cards, but at an even worse moment: when for example you flop a made straight flush, only to find that for once, another player has simultaneously flopped a higher straight flush. Trust me, things like this WILL happen to you – it is only a matter of time. That's poker.

So what do you do, when the heavens crash down and the cruel poker gods turn their backs on you? The classical piece of advice is to back into a corner and play extremely tight, or – if you lose your entire stake at the table, or notice that you are on tilt and have started making stupid moves – simply leave the game.

No poker player can avoid such a playing session: it will hit you sooner or later, no matter if your name is Average Joe or Phil Ivey. Such is the nature of poker, such are the inner mechanisms of the Universe. But if you in advance are aware of that it can happen, if you at the back of your mind are mentally prepared for the possibility, you have increased your chances of survival at the poker table once it occurs. Then you may keep your head, and play cooly and smartly enough to come back, even from the brink of the grave: people have done it before.

Take a moment right now to think through how you will react in such a situation; for in tomorrow's cash game or tournament, it may turn into icy reality.