Luck can be beautiful and cruel in poker

December 01, 2015 3:00 AM


Even the best players will agree luck plays a critical role in succeeding (or failing) at the poker table. It’s not all skill!

When the poker gods smile down on you, it feels so good to catch the card you need to win a big pot. But, unfortunately there are times – too often, it may seem – luck goes against you.

Worst of all are those nasty Bad Beats. An opponent’s two-outer with pocket 9s connects with a third 9 on the river to literally smash your set of 8s you were so happy to catch on the flop. Like it or not, bad beats happen to all of us. Bad luck! There are so many bad-beat stories. We remember those horrible instances, while forgetting the good luck.

Reading poker columns by other experts often gives me ideas for my GamingToday columns. Chad Holloway’s poker column in a recent Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, “Focus on good luck,” offers me such an opportunity. He points out that luck can go either way – good (if it benefits you) or bad (if it costs you). His main message is that “luck may be out of your control, but how you receive it isn’t.” While you hate bad luck, “you should always count your blessings” when it’s in your favor.

Holloway gives an example: During a hold’em poker tournament he held pocket Queens, dominating his opponent’s pocket 8s. The opponent opened with a raise, to which Chad responded with a three-bet. (Note: At that point, the opponent probably realized Chad held a big starting-hand, so he had to play with caution.)

After the opponent called, the flop came down 8-10-2 rainbow. His opponent, now holding a set of 8s, checked on the flop (being deceptive, of course); so Chad bet out and was called. The turn was a King. Again, his opponent checked. Thereupon, Chad decided to go all-in. His opponent snap-called. The river was a blank. And so his opponent doubled up at Chad’s expense.

Certainly, the opponent was lucky to make a set on the flop (the odds were about 8-to-1 against it) and then double-up his chips. Just plain bad luck for Chad… we can only empathize with him. It happens to all of us on occasion.

Chad could have lessened the extent of bad luck in this case: First, had he evaluated his opponent, he might have noted he was deceptive, as demonstrated when he slow-played his set to trap Chad into making the final monster bet – going all-in.

Secondly, when a King fell on the turn, Chad could have been more cautious. Why assume his opponent did not have a matching King in the hole? Poker players love Kings almost as much as Aces. A check would have been more appropriate, instead of betting all of his precious chips – and getting knocked out of the tournament.

My point, of course, is while we cannot control luck, we certainly can influence it – especially the consequences when luck goes against us, in favor of our opponent.

My message: I do agree with Holloway that we ought not be discouraged unduly when we suffer occasions of bad luck. For one thing, it can toss us into tilt. That is very dangerous to our poker life! In the long run, luck is bound to even out – although it might not seem that way, at that moment.

Luck is just chance. We have no control over it; but we can influence it. For example, you can play your hand so as to prevent bad luck from smashing you to bits. Case in point is when you start with a made hand, say, pocket Aces. From probability law, we know your hand will become an underdog against four or more opponents.

In that situation, you should raise to reduce the size of the playing field. Ideally, you would like to play against two or three opponents so you are not an underdog. Use your skill to influence luck (chance); then, you are much less likely to suffer a draw-out – bad luck.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Email:

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