Luck and skill interact at the poker table

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My correspondence with the remarkable Jay Bingham led me to Richard Wiseman’s “The Luck Factor.” Professor Wiseman is known for his psychological research to understand the phenomenon we label “luck.” 

That’s a topic of considerable interest to all of us, including poker players. After all, luck plays a very big role in the game.

Luck is success or failure brought about by chance rather than through one’s own actions. And it is powerful. According to Wiseman, “luck has the power to transform the improbable into the possible, to make the difference between life and death, reward and ruin, happiness and despair.

“People have searched for an effective way of improving good fortune (luck) in their lives for many centuries.”

At the poker table, we often see players place a lucky charm atop their hole cards. Some call it a card-guard. That includes me. How about you? 

Years ago, my friend Edward L. (long deceased) told me of the magical power of a penny found on the ground. He said: “Put it in your left shoe, and it will bring good luck.” 

I tried it. Guess what? It worked for me — at least for a few days. Then, it ran out of its magic. 

Call it superstition. As a matter of interest, a Gallup poll once showed that over 75 percent of people admitted to being at least somewhat superstitious. Most likely, it’s human nature. 

“Superstition doesn’t work,” Wiseman explained, “because it is based on outdated and incorrect thinking. It comes from a time when people thought that luck was a strange force that could only be controlled by magical rituals and bizarre behaviors.” 

Knock on wood for good luck. 

Based on his research, he concluded that “luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance. Nor are people born lucky or unlucky. Their thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune.”

I am glad he said, “much of their fortune.” That leaves room for those times at the poker table when you get beat on the river by a long shot — which, in fact, is random chance. The odds were highly in your favor, but. . .

Wiseman concluded that “lucky people generate their own good fortune.” That, indeed, is an interesting insight to the Luck Factor. There are four ways for that to happen, he elaborated: 

1. “Lucky people” are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities. Notice that he recognized that skill is important to realizing good luck.

For us poker players, that could mean being skilled in making key decisions. For example, skill in the art of bluffing involves recognizing when it is a favorable opportunity to pull off a bluff, resorting to the Esther Bluff tactic to enhance the probability of success.

Likewise, with a drawing hand, using the pot odds vs. the card odds to ensure a positive expectation before calling a bet is mathematically bound to put you ahead over the long run. 

2. They listen to their intuition. I would suggest that there must be a good reason for that insight; it’s more than a mere hunch. Perhaps they observed the opponent’s tell or are well aware of his poker traits and used that information. Those are powerful poker skills.

3. They create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations. In poker, the skilled player often counts his outs, using the information to gain a positive expectation. In that case, he is mathematically assured of often winning his opponents’ chips.

4. “Lucky people” adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good. Almost sounds like magic! 

Here’s a good example as applied to the game of poker: The skilled player who failed to connect with his big flush draw (bad luck), uses the Esther Bluff to reinforce his bluff, thus forcing out an opponent who almost certainly held the better hand. The skilled player thus “transforms bad luck into good.”

Luck and skill interact. The more skilled you are, the luckier you will be — at least in the long run. Luck can make the difference between a winning or losing session.

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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