Showing posts with label luck. Show all posts
Showing posts with label luck. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Economist blog post

Shamus's blog post today points to this blog post by "J.F." at The Economist. It's a worthwhile read, and a generally good riposte to the absurdly shallow and thoughtless discussion of luck versus skill in poker that was found in the New York Times piece to which J.F. is responding.

I have just two quibbles with it.
Finally, consider losing rather than winning. Can you deliberately lose a hand of poker if you tried? Of course: bet badly, fold with winning cards, and so on. Can you deliberately lose a game of baccarat or roulette? No: to play you have to bet on an outcome that might happen, regardless of what you do.
This is just wrong. I don't even know how baccarat works, so I won't talk about that. But I do understand roulette. You absolutely can deliberately lose at roulette. Just bet the same amount on every one of the 38 spots (36 numbers plus 0 and 00). The ball will land on one of those slots, and you'll be paid 35:1 there. Suppose you bet $1 on each number. You will have spent $38 on every spin of the wheel, but win $35 back. If that doesn't constitute deliberately losing, I don't know what would. That thought experiment is, all by itself, sufficient to destroy the argument that any game at which you can deliberately lose is necessarily a game of skill.
Offhand, the only games I can think of in which luck plays no part at all are chess and go.
Also not true. In chess, the decision about who gets the white pieces--and therefore gets the advantage of moving first--is made by chance.

But, of course, I have no quarrel with J.F.'s overall theme, which is that skill predominates over luck in poker over the long run, so taking the example of any one hand, in which luck can certainly prevail over skill, is just silly. That's what the Times reporter did, and it's worth having J.F.'s more informed view presented as a counterweight.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Karma, or lack thereof

Last night I was playing at Planet Hollywood. Or, to judge by the Halloween costumes that kept going by, Planet Ho.

I was in seat 1. The wife of the guy in seat 2 came up to see him. They chatted a bit. He coaxed her to join the game, as seat 9 (of 9) was open. She agreed, and was preparing to sit down. I really have no preference between these two positions, so I asked her if she would prefer changing with me so that she could sit next to her husband. She was eager to do so, but asked, "Are you sure?" I told her it was fine. She said, "So you're not superstitious?" Me: "Not even a little bit."

I got my stuff moved over, and was prepared for the universe to reward me for going out of my way to be nice to a stranger. I looked down at my first hand and saw the two red jacks. Ah! That's good! The player to my right open-shoved for his last $20. I called. The woman to whom I had given up my seat instantly moved in her entire buy-in of $100.

It folded back around to me. I thought for a while. The obvious conclusion is that she has aces or kings. I had zero read on her level of skill or experience, obviously, so I had to wonder whether she would do this with A-K. If we expand her range from just A-A and K-K to include A-K, then my equity jumps from 19% to 40%, which at least approaches being a good call, with what is already in the pot. But after pondering it for a minute, I decided that at a minimum she would have taken a while to think about whether to shove or just call if she had A-K. So I reluctantly folded.

Sure enough, she had A-A, which had the A-8 of the short stack in horrible shape.

The flop came jack-high. The aces held two ways, but I would have stacked them both if I had stayed in.

In poker, no good deed goes unpunished.

Oh--the picture? That's a Fisker Karma. See other photos of this gorgeous machine here. And no, I don't have that kind of Karma either.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lucky charms

So it turns out there might be something to the idea of lucky charms after all.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bad luck at the WSOP

Yesterday I finally finished watching the final table of the main event of the World Series of Poker. I noticed, as I suppose everybody must have, how many of the eliminations occurred on bad beats.

I was sufficiently impressed with this fact that I went back and tabulated the last hand of each of the eight players voted off the island, with the percentage probability of winning as given by the on-screen graphics when the money went in. They are listed in order of elimination, with the ousted player listed first in each pair:

Akenhead 3-3 (20%)
Schaffel 9-9 (80%)

Schaffel A-A (83%)
Buchman K-K (17%)

Ivey A-K (75%)
Moon A-Q (25%)

Begleiter Q-Q (70%)
Moon A-Q (30%)

Shulman 7-7 (59%)
Saout A-9 (41%)

Buchman A-5 (56%)
Moon K-J (44%)

Saout 8-8 (54%)
Cada A-K (46%)

Moon Q-J (48%)
Cada 9-9 (52%)

So only Akenhead and Moon failed to get the last of their chips in as a favorite; six out of eight went out with the best hand. That's just kind of unsettling.

You can also get a sense for how often Darvin Moon got a lot of chips in as an underdog; in all three cases where he eliminated an opponent, as well as in his own final hand, it was when he was taking the worst of it.

CK over at the BWOP blog has some cogent thoughts about what all of this means. Go read her. I'm just showing you the numbers.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poker gems, #239

Mike Caro, in Caro's Most Profitable Hold'em Advice, p. 135.

There is nothing that scares typical opponents more than the thought that you might be lucky. That's why you should never complain about your bad luck at the table. If you do complain, opponents won't give you the sympathy you're seeking. Instead, they'll just think, "Hey, there's someone even unluckier than I am. Maybe I can beat him." And they'll be inspired and play better against you.

So, it's important to make opponents think that you're lucky. Emphasize the fortunate things that happen to you. You might simply tell your opponents how lucky you are. I do. Many players like to present themselves as unlucky. Then they brag about being able to overcome misfortune through skillful play. Most opponents are not intimidated by these boasts. What they instinctively fear is that you're lucky, and you should bury your ego and make them think that luck is why you win.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

And I MEAN it!

Three hands played, three buy-ins lost. Should have known something was up when the cards felt cold to the touch. What do they call such hands? Oh, yes--SIGHs. Worst 20 minutes in poker history.

Posted to Craigslist job seekers category: "Available cheap: one grump. Will work for chips."

How do people run so good? I'm never playing poker again.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go squish as many ants as I can find. Any penguins I come across had better watch out.

(If the last two paragraphs don't mean anything to you, see here.)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Our brains are not wired for poker

This is a whole post devoted to telling you of a roughly three-second mental malfunction that I had the other night.

It was the unplanned mini-bloggerpalooza at Imperial Palace. I was in the big blind with some sort of king/baby offsuit hand, but nobody raised, so the flop came for free. It was king-high with two spades. I decided to take a stab at it and see what happened. Player A called. Player B called. OK--probably at least one of them has a flush draw, so if another spade were to hit, I was going to shut down. (Note that this isn't always so by any means. But the combination of being out of position and having an unraised pot pre-flop, so that opponents could have anything at all, meant that it was not a situation in which I was going to press hard with top pair/crappy kicker.) Turn was, indeed, another spade. I checked, Player A bet, Player B called, I folded. I don't recall the river action, but B won it with a small flush.

Next hand, I had some jack/baby garbage in the small blind. Again an unraised pot. Again the flop came to give me top pair, and again with two spades. I took the same tack. (I don't always do this, but the players left in were pretty passive, and a bet could often take down a pot uncontested, so I thought it worthwhile.) Same two players called me as in the previous hand. Again the turn was a third spade. I felt like I was Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day."

I checked, Player A checked, and B led out. My first reaction--which is, finally, getting to the point of this post--was approximately this: "There's no way that two hands in a row this guy can have been dealt two spades, flop a flush draw, and then hit it on the turn." I even went so far as to recall explicitly that if you start with two suited cards the probability of making a flush by the river is only about 6%, so must obviously be somewhat lower than that to hit it by the turn. Surely, I thought, he can't have had a less-than-6% event happen twice in a row--especially not in the same suit.*

The thing is, I know better than to think like this. I have had it drummed into me very thoroughly that things like hands of poker are independent events. The cards have no memory. What happened on the previous hand has zero bearing on the current hand. Hell, I even did well in a post-graduate statistics course back in the day. I know this stuff backward and forward.

What's more, I have an archive of posts making fun of players who don't grasp this simple fact. Here's one typical example. I'll even throw in a story I haven't told here before. In Minnesota, no-limit cash games are illegal, so the card clubs spread only limit. One time I watched a guy with pocket fours hit a set on the river, having called bets and raises from two opponents all the way, with every card on the board larger than his fours. His explanation? "I only called because fours have been hitting so often tonight." Brilliant, eh? In his mind, apparently, the cards had had a meeting at the beginning of the shift, and decided to have the fours be the stars of the show. He believed that enough to bet a substantial amount of money on the theory. (And, wonderfully, he was rewarded for it, thus perversely reinforcing his views.)

All of that history of me both feeling and actually being superior to many typical opponents in the degree to which I have internalized this simple concept is precisely the reason that I think it's so interesting that it would all abandon me, even if only briefly. I actually considered calling Player B in this spot. I might even have done it, if not for fear that Player A was setting a trap for a check-raise with the nut flush. And the only reason I contemplated the call was that kooky notion that he couldn't have made a spade flush on the turn twice in a row.

Fortunately, that thought lasted only about three seconds before rationality grabbed the steering wheel back from the stupid driver who was about to send it careening off the road.

Thinking about this mental lapse afterwards made me realize, for about the millionth time, how fragile our rational understanding of the world can be, and how easily it is penetrated, suppressed, and overwhelmed by erroneous, distorted, biased guesses about what is happening around us.

No matter how much I make fun of players who ask for a new deck of cards or a seat change** in order to change their luck, who play a junk hand on the basis of how lucky it has been for them (obviously the Deuce-Four is not included in the phrase "junk hand"), perform some weird ritual before each hand is dealt, won't touch $50 bills, believe in various good luck/bad luck totems, and so forth, I guess I have to admit that at some scary brain level I am only one odd coincidence away from potentially reverting to a caveman's grasp of the universe. We are deeply hard-wired to see patterns and infer cause-and-effect relationships even where they do not, in reality, exist. It requires constant vigilence to keep that tendency on a very tight leash.

Oh, and yes--Player B did have his second consecutive spade flush. Go figure.

*If it had been crubs, then sure. Because, as I have recently learned, crubs always get there. But we're talking spades here.

**Oooo, here's another story I haven't written about before. I'm pretty sure I told it in one of my early contributions to the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show, but I can't find it in any blog post. This was at the Canterbury Card Club in Minnesota. When one player left, the guy in seat 10 claimed dibs on a seat change because, he said, he was card-dead where he was (i.e., his request was not for tactical or comfort reasons, both of which can be perfectly legitimate). But he wanted to wait until he had played his button so that he wouldn't have to post the big blind again. On the next hand, when he was on the button, he ended up hitting quads and won a large pot. The dealer then started to help the guy move his chip stacks to the empty seat. The player practically shouted at the dealer, "What are you doing?" The dealer said, "You said you wanted a seat change." Seat 10, sounding as if the dealer were the world's biggest idiot, said, "You think I still want to change seats after I hit quads???"

Addendum, February 10, 2009

Just found the following story here:

Once football season ended, we put in a Splash the Pot promotion. That is
working out great and actually bringing in some people. It has also caused a few
comical events to occur.

A couple weeks ago, we had three tables going when it was time to splash
the pot. We drew the first table - table 7. Two hours later, we drew the second
table - table 7. At the time of the last drawing, one of the players sitting at
table 7 asked if he could move to table 2. His reasoning for wanting to move was
that table 7 had been drawn two times already and there was no way that it would
get drawn a third time; he felt he improved his chances of contesting for the
extra money on a different table.

I allowed him to move...and then I had him reach into the bag and draw for
the lucky table - table 7. After the pot with the extra money was completed, he
moved back to his original seat.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Secret most pros won't tell you

I've decided to break down and share with my readers an important poker principle that you won't find in any book or DVD or training video currently on the market. That's because there are some things that the pros keep to themselves in order not to give up all of their edge to the general public.

You're sitting in a casino poker room and the dealer pitches you a card. It lands nicely right in front of you. But you see that it is not oriented the way you'd like in order to be able to peek and see what it is. Personally, I like them with the long axis pointed toward/away from me, but others like them with the long axis oriented right/left. Either way is fine, but whichever way you prefer, you have a problem when the card lands close to 90 degrees from the way you need it.

The dilemma is this: You have to rotate the card(s) either clockwise or counterclockwise--but which?

Amateur players often assume that it couldn't make any difference. After all, what is printed on the face of the card can't change because of how you turn it. "Preposterous," these people would say.

But it does matter. You absolutely must apply the rotation in the same direction that the card was spinning as it arrived in front of you (which usually depends on whether the dealer is right-handed or left-handed). If you rotate it in the opposite direction, terrible things happen. The cards get dizzy from the sudden change. This is especially true with the face cards. If you upset the delicate equilibrium of, say, a queen, do you think she is going to call out to her peers to come join her in this hand? No! She's upset. She's nauseated. Her inner ear thing is all out of whack. She's going to just sit there and try to recover. She might even throw up a little. By the time she's feeling better, the hand is over and you've got nothing except a little spot of queen vomit.

The underlying mechanism is different for the non-face cards. It's not a dizziness problem, but one of conservation of luck, which is closely related to the conservation of angular momentum. Do you remember a carnival ride when you were a kid, in which you stand against a round wall, and they start spinning it, and after it's really going they drop the floor out from under your feet and you stick against the wall by centrifugal force? It's the same with the cards. You need to keep them spinning in the same direction that the spinning was initiated by the dealer. If you suddenly reverse it, the luck all falls out, in precisely the same way that you would have fallen down into the pit of that ride if they had suddenly thrown it into a reverse spin.

The mathematics of this has actually been worked out in some detail by the boys at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. It's beyond the scope of this blog, but trust me on this. Or go to your local library, ask where they keep the back issues of The Journal of the American Society of Theoretical and Applied Serendipity, and look it up for yourself.

You have to treat the cards with respect, and that includes not jarring them into a sudden reverse spin. Once you think about the underlying mechanisms, it's rather obvious, isn't it?

So now you know.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Poker gems, #162

Mike Caro, in column for Poker Player Newspaper, July 23, 2007, available here.

The cards probably won't break even--not in gin rummy, not in poker, and not in real life. There's a common misconception that if you play poker long enough the cards will break even. Fat chance! Maybe, if you could play forever, never stopping, never sleeping, eventually you'd break even on luck. But not in just one lifetime! Early on you'd probably break even on, say, the number of full houses you were dealt, but it would take much longer to break even on circumstances surrounding those full houses.

You might lose more hands than you should lose on average. On the other hand, sometimes opponents might have nothing to oppose you with, and you'll win nothing. You might get many full houses when you're sitting in big-limit games, or you may receive most in smaller games.

You might be against weak opponents, you might not. On and on. And the more factors you consider, the broader the range of luck, and the longer it will take for you to break even.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Lucky charms are not magically delicious

I've mentioned before the silver dollar that I use as a card protector. But I don't think I've told you that roughly once a week somebody asks me a question like, "Is that your lucky coin?"

I realize that the question is always intended to be friendly and inoffensive, but I think I should be offended. The implication behind the question is this: "I think you are so stupid that you probably believe in magic charms that make it more likely for you to get good cards."

Well, I don't believe in such nonsense. Not even a little bit. And what is it, exactly, that I did that made you assess my IQ as being roughly that of Cro-Magnon Man?

Here are four stories about magical thinking in poker from yesterday and today's WSOP Main Event, as reported by--come on, you can say it with me by now--PokerNews:

Hal Lubarsky and His Assistant

Hal Lubarsky is legally blind and uses an assistant who relays him the
action. He has an interesting totem on his table. It's a ceramic paw print. The
dog is a German shepherd named Nexus, who actually belongs to Hal's assistant.
Before every hand, Hal touches the paw print for good luck.

Unlucky Shoes

Sverre Sundbo woke up this morning wondering what to wear today. He
called his girlfriend and she gave him a few suggestions. One of his choices was
to wear a new pair of white sneakers. [Snarky editorial comment from the
Grump: A guy who can't decide what to wear on his own is already is such deep
life trouble that nothing is likely to pull him out of it. But he apparently has
found a match. Any woman that I would be interested in having a relationship with would, if asked such a
question, say something like, "You can't make simple decisions on your own? Have
I inadvertantly gotten myself involved with a pathetic momma's boy? I think maybe we need
to be spending more time apart for a while." If you ask me, that's about the
only sensible response to a boyfriend who can't dress himself. But no. He has a
girlfriend who not only doesn't object, apparently, to be asked such a stupid
question, but takes it seriously enough to make suggestions. I guess there's
someone for everyone out there.]

Within the first level, he had seen his double-the-average stack reduced to
less than 10,000. He called his girlfriend again and she told him to take off
the sneakers as they might be bringing him bad luck. He duly did what he was
told and, pot win after pot win, has seen his stack rise all the way up to

Sverre can now be seen walking around the Amazon room in white socks which
may now be dirty, but the smile on his face is clean and wide.

Wait...The Lucky iPod!

Dave Colclough opened with a preflop raise before Steve Zolotow moved
all in for his last 22,100. Colclough made the call and tabled Ah-Qd, but
Zolotow held the lead with his pair of 10s-10h.

Before the flop was dealt, Zolotow asked for the dealer to wait while he
grabbed his lucky iPod off Erik Seidel. He grabs the iPod just in time to see
the board come down Kd-Js-3s-Ks-5d to give Zolotow kings and tens to double up
to 50,000. Colclough is back to 65,000.

Hoodie Power!

Alan Jaffrey raised to 2,500 from under the gun and was put all in by
the small blind for around 20,000 total. Jaffrey called.

Jaffrey held Q-Q and his opponent Ad-10d.

Board: 10c-3c-6h-Js-9h.

After the hand, Jaffrey is up to 42,100. Jaffrey attributed his win to
"Hoodie Power." He said that after he put up his hoodie, he got two big

And here's one more along the same lines, nipped from Shamus's post earlier today over at Hard-Boiled Poker. (I think nearly all of my readers will know by now that Shamus is one of the live bloggers for PokerNews at this year's WSOP.)

Had another guy asked to be included in the [chip] counts (which we did),
then subsequently start to lose hands. Figuring he’d jinxed himself, he came
back and asked to be taken out. We did that, too.

I get this stuff, at least on some level. I mean, I've read Michael Shermer's excellent book Why People Believe Weird Things. I understand that we have "modules" in our brains that cause us to seek out and perceive cause-and-effect relationships that do not objectively exist.

But c'mon, people! We went through this little thing called the Enlightenment--and it wasn't just yesterday, as if the news has yet to spread. We are supposed to be beyond thinking that every little thing in the world is governed by mysterious forces that can be controlled by talismans or strange incantations and rituals.

In my own poker playing, I have noticed the odd coincidence that at the times I'm playing Elvis Presley music on my MP3 player, I tend to get better-than-average cards. In fact, I've hit two high-hand jackpots while listening to Elvis, way out of proportion to the percentage of time I have him on. I suppose I could conclude, were I so inclined, that the ghost of Elvis is still wandering through Las Vegas, rewarding those who listen to his music with favorable shuffles of the deck or rolls of the dice. But I don't. I do not put Elvis on in order to try to bring good luck, because if there really are forces like that operating in the world, it's far too scary and mysterious a place for me to want to continue living in it. The juxtaposition I have noticed is a weird statistical anomaly, and/or selective, biased memory at work, nothing more.

How can you possibly believe that more favorable cards will come your way if you touch a ceramic dog print before each deal, and yet survive in the modern world? Too bad for Lubarsky that he is blind, because that makes it harder to avoid stepping on the sidewalk cracks, thus putting his mother's back at risk of breaking with every step. Think I'm being harsh on the guy? If so, then tell me how it is even the tiniest bit less insane to believe in a connection between a totem and how the cards get shuffled than to believe that the placement of one's feet on the sidewalk causes vertebral fractures in a parent? It is not just stupid to be convinced that such notions are true, it is positively and literally delusional.

If you want to run around the casino without shoes, well, OK, but telling the media that you're doing so because you've discovered that the shoes you put on today are unlucky is the same as announcing, "I'm a complete imbecile" and/or "I've lost my mind." I'd love to ask this idiot to explain how, exactly, the presence or absence of these particular items of footwear affect the shuffling of the cards. No good ducking the question with "I don't know." You've got to explain the physics of it in detail to me. While you're at it, please explain how wearing the tinfoil hat prevents the aliens (or maybe the CIA) from reading your thoughts.

Same with the guy that Shamus reported on. Pray tell, sir, how does having your name either on or off of a web page showing updated chip counts affect the dealing of the cards? Who is the unseen omniscient being that takes offense in seeing your name on that list, and thus punishes you by moving the cards into arrangements that are unfavorable to your success? Describe this being in detail for me, please.

I'll grant that some of this stuff may be tongue-in-cheek. I doubt that Steve Zolotow genuinely thinks the outcome of a hand will be influenced by an iPod. More likely he was playing the clown for the amusement of the table. Same with Jaffrey. He's a very bright guy, and is, I think, more likely to have been joking for the sake of the reporter. But I don't think you can so easily write off the actions of Lubarsky or Sundbo or the anonymous man Shamus described. They appear to take such crap with complete earnestness.

This is just as looney and wacked-out as Jerry Yang believing that, if he says just the right prayers at the right time, God will change the order of the cards in the deck, even after they have been shuffled--a bizarre phemonemon I have written extensively about in the past.

I'm honestly baffled at how people can be that stupid, that far afield from rational thought, that deluded, and yet succeed in a game requiring intelligence and objective, rational decision-making.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

An empirical test of luck versus skill in poker

You can read the full research report here:

or the newsy summary of it here:

The fundamental conclusion: "The question at the start of this study was Is poker a game of luck or skill? The unequivocal finding is that poker is a game of skill. In both studies, participants who were instructed outperformed those who were not instructed."

Well, yeah, but....

I'm confident that the same would be true of blackjack--those receiving, say, printed cards instructing them in the mathematically optimum strategy for each combination of their cards and the dealer's shown card would surely do better than those given no instruction at all. But they would simply lose less, rather than actually being winners over the long run. In fact, the same is undoubtedly true of slot machines; the simple expedient of pointing out to a new player that typically there are proportionately higher jackpots available when you play the maximum amount of money at a time rather than the minimum would produce a statistical edge for the player following that advice (though you'd have to watch for a long time to see it emerge). Even with craps and roulette, there are bets that have larger or smaller house edges. Just teach a new player which are the bets with the smallest house margins, and you've got a player that will lose his money to the casino more slowly than somebody who is given no instruction.

Does the fact that one can learn to lose less, all by itself, make something a game of skill rather than luck? I don't think so.

Annie Duke argued, in a column for Bluff magazine last year ( that there is, in reality, no luck in poker, not even in the short run; it's all skill. This is based on a theoretical computerized player that makes each move randomly from among the legal options available--her definition of a zero-skill player. OK, but then by the same argument you would have to accept that blackjack is a game of all skill and no luck, too, because any player trained in the basic strategy would do far better than a computer player that simply chose to hit or stay randomly. Especially considering the political consequences, does Duke really want to be stuck with the conclusion that blackjack is 100% skill and 0% luck just the way poker is? Wouldn't that logically mean that online blackjack is just as deserving of legal protections and/or exemptions as poker is?

There's also a problem with Duke's definition of "short term." Her argument is based on the fact that the random player would never win even such a short-term game as a single-table tournament. (I don't think that's correct; given enough trials, it would eventually win at least once. But that's just an academic point that I don't think is really important.) But even if that's true, it's a very convenient definition of "short-term." What if "short-term" is considered, instead, to be one hand? Would she argue that her zero-skill player will never win even one hand? I doubt it. Readers who follow this kind of stuff in ridiculous detail, as I tend to do, may recall the idiotic court decision last year in North Carolina in which a court determined that poker was predominantly skill, on the evidence provided by one "expert" about one televised poker hand in which a player was something like a 9:1 dog when the money went in, but still won the hand. In other words, I think Duke's argument breaks down when you don't let her set the definition of "short-term" to one that proves her point.

Duke has also argued ( that the fact that one can deliberately lose at poker shows that it is a game of skill rather than luck, because one cannot deliberately lose at, say, roulette or baccarat. The obvious rejoinder to that, again, is that by that criterion, blackjack must also be all skill and no luck, because one can certainly lose every blackjack hand on purpose, should one care to do so. One can also lose money on every spin of the roulette wheel by simply betting the same amount on every number as well as the 0 and 00; one of them will hit and you'll get paid $35 on that spot, but it costs you $38 to put down this assortment of bets. You lose. By Duke's argument, roulette is therefore a game of pure skill.

Still, I think she's right (even if only in a way that's fairly obvious to experienced players) in saying that the smaller the difference in skill level between two players, the longer it will take for the skill difference to show itself in tangible results, and the more luck will control (or I think she would say, appear to control) the results in any one session.

I have still not found anything that persuades me away from what seems the only rational conclusion: luck can be (though isn't always) the dominant factor over skill in any one hand, but as the time frame is increased, the importance of luck diminishes and skill becomes the dominant factor in determining who is a long-term winner or loser. At some undefinable point of sufficiently long duration, luck has been rendered very small, perhaps even negligible--though never truly zero--as a factor.

I wish courts would follow Mark Twain's lead on this question. Back in about 1867 he wrote about a group of men criminally charged with playing a game of chance, known as "old sledge" or "seven-up." Their attorney convinces the court to convene a jury of six experienced players and six novices. When the novices lose all of their money to the better players, over the course of a night of playing, they unanimously conclude that it's a game of skill, and the defendants are acquitted. (See

That's the essence of what happened in the study with which I started this post, though without the judicial aspect. The outcome is hardly a surprise. The "unequivocal" conclusion, though, that poker is a game of skill is, or should be, subject to the caveat about the time frame of the observation. I think it is reductio ad absurdum ever to state that the game is either all skill or all luck.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer

When I was cashing out at Planet Hollywood a couple of nights ago, the nice man behind the counter asked me if $50 bills were OK with me.

When I first moved to Vegas I was baffled by why casino cashiers always asked this before paying me in $50s. I have since learned that it is an old and well-established Vegas superstition that carrying fifty-dollar bills is unlucky, and many people refuse them.

Several times I have asked cashiers their experiences with this denomination. I did again at PH Monday, and his response was typical. He said that if he doesn't ask and just starts counting out the bills, people will often react with horror, sometimes stepping back and saying something like, "Get those away from me" or "I don't even want to touch them." I asked him what percentage of customers reject them, and he guessed that it was something like 80%. Again, this is consistent with what other poker room cashiers have said when I've asked.

Even Daniel Negreanu, usually a pretty rational, thoughtful fellow, appears to buy into this crap. He wrote in his poker blog for November 29, 2006, "Superstitions are stupid, but $50 bills are unlucky. That’s just a well known fact…." (See Of course, there could be a tongue-in-cheek element here, but it seems likely that the writer at least partially believes the truth of his statement.

All of which makes me wonder this: What the hell is wrong with you people? Have you all lost your ever-lovin' minds?

Did just seeing the photo of the bill at the top of this blog entry make you cringe with fear? If you are one of the apparently millions who subscribes to this looney theory, can you please explain to me the exact physics involved? That is, what is the nature and location of the force in the universe that scans people's wallets, determines who is carrying which bills, then messes with the random number generator on the Shufflemaster in specific ways so as to cause a string of second-best hands to be dealt to any person it detects carrying pictures of Ulysses S. Grant? Seriously--isn't that what you have to believe is going on to put any stock in this particular piece of insanity? How can you invest even three seconds of critical thought into this notion and still cling to it?

I'll make this blanket assertion: If your way of thinking about poker includes garbage ideas like this, you will never, ever become a winning player. Period. If you clutter your brain with thoughts about whether you're wearing your lucky underwear, whether you should really be playing on the 13th day of the month, whether this dealer is one that always delivers you bad beats, whether just having gotten your hair cut has sapped your good luck, etc. ad infinitum, then you haven't got room left for rational analysis of the factors that really do matter, such as pot odds, stack sizes, table image, tells, and position.

Now, I happen to think that it's kind of dumb and pointless that we have $50 bills; there just isn't much practical need for a denomination between $20 and $100. (The same is true for the $2--which is part of why it never caught on.) But as long as the bank will take it as part of my deposit, any poker room cashier is welcome to unload their otherwise unloved 50s on me any time, any day. You people who won't accept them because of fear of some curse, well, you're just plain stupid--that's all there is to it.

I don't know if Stevie Wonder is a poker player, but he certainly nailed one element of it: Superstition ain't the way.