Poker and the Gambler's Fallacy

Poker and the Gambler's Fallacy

Monday, 4 April 2011

By Johnny Hughes

Have you been down to half your chips and thought,"I am due – one big pot and I will get even”? When the poker game is great and you aren’t catching any real starting hands, do you anticipate with certainty an impending change of fortune? Do you play double up and catch up, taking more risks when you are behind?

This is all part of the Gambler's Fallacy, believing past events influence future events in games of chance. That’s why a no limit hold 'em game starts out slow and tight, then picks up steam and gets more money on the table and gets higher as time goes by.

The Gambler's Fallacy, also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy, is at the heart of all gambling systems. If a coin hits heads ten times in a row, the odds on heads the next flip are still 50-50. The Gambler's Fallacy is believing the coin or the dice or the cards have "a memory".

When I first went to Las Vegas, Benny Binion, ever the great showman and innovator, had ten-cent craps on this hectic table right out by the front door on Fremont Street. It was crowded and manic and everyone really had to watch their own bets. All around the table were the system players writing down what the dice rolled and keeping a log. If a man noted an absence of boxcars, 12, then he would muscle his way through the elbow to elbow crowd to start betting on 12. That's the fallacy – believing that 12 is "due" or that anything is "due" in gambling.

For 35 years there was a huge no limit hold’em game here in the Lone Star State that started at around 1pm on weekdays and ended at precisely 6pm. The game started out slow and everyone played tight and good for a while. As most often happens, it got higher and wilder as the afternoon went on, as people were trying to get even.

Poker books describe what to do on a hand but they don’t take into account the Gambler's Fallacy, the flow of the game, and the play of the losers. A recurring joke in the Lone Star State is for a man that is losing is to acknowledge the effect of the Gambler's Fallacy and say, "Give me the hind leg of a jack. I am bigger behind than a cotton patch spider. Any two cards will do."

Two long-term professional poker players that I knew were totally different in all things, especially in their strategies of dealing with the flow and the losers in a no limit hold’em game. EW Chapman and Pat Renfro made their livings playing poker when it was much harder to do so. Pat was always very tight. EW was very loose and aggressive and bet more often than anyone taking over any game he entered.

Pat Renfro had been Johnny Moss's partner in various gambling ventures during the oil booms. He travelled and played the very highest games and always had the same lifelong strategy. He started when the game started and put up as much – or more – money as anyone. He played tighter than anyone, no matter what was happening in the game. He did not change. Pat Renfro won fewer pots and more money than anyone, day after day and year after year. When he was pushing 80, Pat was still beating them in Las Vegas. When the game got wild right at the end, Pat would take whatever score he had tipped over and go on home. My strategy for playing Pat Renfro was to stay out of his path. His play was not imaginative but it also did not have much risk to it.

EW Chapman, aka “Ole 186”, had a different strategy. When Johnny Chan first came to Las Vegas, he jumped off a winner and suddenly had $20,000 and the equally sudden realisation that he had a gift at no limit hold 'em. EW busted Johnny Chan playing head up and sent him packing. EW raised more pots and seemed to play wilder than anyone. He seemed to play on sheer instinct and emotion. He never helped start a game but just showed up some hours after it started and immediately took over. The Gambler's Fallacy had some people really ready to play and EW always came to gamble. He would fire away for two or three hours and then suddenly quit. I play that way sometimes and it will wear you out. It’s tiring slinking chips so much.

When he would really get to striking, EW would go all over, challenging all manner of outlaws to play head up until he had a huge pile of money or nothing. He took uppers and downers at times. He would get broke and get staked or borrow and the loans had juice.

Long before he beat Johnny Chan, he had helped people create their best all time bad beat stories because he played so many draw hands. He would go out to the mall and stroll around with nothing to do while the game was starting and getting good. My strategy for playing Ole 186 was not the same as playing Pat Renfro. He was out on a limb so often that I'd take some long shot flops against him.

Part of the Gambler's Fallacy has to do with the mystique of what we call a "rush". A fast run of good hands does happen and it is not all that statistically rare. It is called a statistical random walk. Johnny Moss said, "The difference between a good player and a great player is that when a good player gets lucky, he'll win a big part of the table. When a great player gets lucky, he'll win the whole table."

That was the magical way that EW played, sometimes going around the table busting people, one after another. But what he did with his dominating style was create the illusion of a rush when he was just bluffing and drawing. Doyle Brunson, in his book, said he bets often when he catches any piece of the flop. That is what EW did, bet anything and you could not put him on a hand. You could put Pat Renfro on a hand but it was usually too late for you.

Johnny Moss also said, "If you're afraid to lose your money, you can't play to win." Both Moss and EW would have all their money on the table at times and both went broke. Pat Renfro never ever went broke.

The Gambler's Fallacy overtakes poker players in their daily thinking: "I have to get even”. It is the reason for the change of plans in starting hands and the amount of time spent at the table. It’s what we call "tilt" but it is more complicated in that a perfectly calm person can have illogical thoughts.

The Gambler's Fallacy is what makes game shopping so important and the reason that poker offers so much opportunity right now in Las Vegas. The best people to play against are those that believe that they are "due" to hit and are trying to get even. The odds are they won't get even.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available on all Amazons.

Tags: Johnny Chan, Johnny Hughes, columnist