Luck at any poker table is uncontrollable

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By way of background: There is a college scholarship for financially needy, academically deserving seniors at our local high school. It is named in memory of my wife (deceased) who believed every child should have the opportunity to get the best education he/she can.

As I read the applications for this year’s candidates, one young lady used a phrase that really caught my attention:

“I may not be able to stop the waves, but I can learn to surf.”

This teenager was born and raised in Mongolia, and came to the U.S. just three years ago, hardly speaking any English. Her parents were seeking a better life for their children. I think you will agree she was confronted with very high waves.

Today, ranking in the top two percent of her senior class, she has well succeeded in “learning to surf.” And I have no doubt she will succeed in her goal to become a great surgeon, helping people with cancer. Indeed, this young lady is doing what it takes to be a winner – overcoming the obstacles.

Subsequently, I learned this saying was created by Jan Kabat-Zinn who founded a concept for stress-reduction. What does all this have to do with the game of poker?

Just as we cannot control the ocean waves – they are unstoppable, we cannot control luck at the poker table. Luck (or chance) just happens. It’s a fact of life. An opponent catches the one card that he needs to beat your hand on the river. You have been rivered. It hurts… Don’t give up in utter frustration. Keep your cool. “Learn to surf.” Go with the tide and learn to deal with it.

While you cannot control luck (chance), you can, in fact, influence it. How so? Take, for example, the case where your opponent rivered you. What if you could have bet to force him out before the dealer placed that crucial card on the board? Then he would not have rivered you. In the long run, luck will even out.

If you have gained the skills essential to being a winner in the game of poker, eventually you will succeed. You will win the chips from those less skilled. The ocean waves are like the probabilities – the hurdles – that are inevitable. “Learn to surf.” Learn to use the waves – the probabilities – to your advantage, against your opponent.

One way is being skilled in using the poker odds. It’s easy: Just be sure the pot odds are higher than your card odds. Skilled poker players know that the pot odds are merely the size of the pot relative to (divided by) the bet you must call to see the next card.

A rough estimate is adequate. The card odds are simply a way of stating what your chances are of catching the card you need to make your hand.

For example, if you have four-to-the-nut-flush on the turn, then you have nine outs. Multiply your nine outs by 2; that’s 18 – or about 20 – the approximate percent of the time (the probability) you will make the flush. If the probability of catching your nut flush is 20%, then the probability against it is 80% (100% – 20%).

So your card odds are about 4-to-1 (80%-to-20%) against making the flush on the river. As long as the pot odds are greater than 4-to-1, you have a Positive Expectation.

In the long run, you will come out ahead. The higher the pot odds, the more you will win. That’s another way to influence luck (chance) in your favor – learning to ride the wave, to surf!

As for Jan Kabat-Zinn and his fascinating concept for stress-reduction, when you learn to beat your opponents at the poker table, you have indeed reduced the stress from which losers are bound to suffer. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

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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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