What do you mean lucky?
Tuesday, 12 October 2010
Very few players have a good understanding of luck. This is not surprising because we are not naturally predisposed to interpret semi-random events correctly. To begin with, there are just too many variables to process.
Even if our minds could deal with the volume of information involved, our emotions would still get in the way of objective analysis. This is all compounded by the fact that we instinctively attribute meaning to any outcome, even if we know chance has played a big part. The most obvious manifestation of this is that even players who have a very good understanding of variance will still believe they are playing great when they are running good, but will feel very insecure when they are running bad (even if their decision making processes have stayed constant throughout).
It’s one thing to be aware that you will run good at times and bad at others; it’s a whole different kettle of fish to be completely removed and objective when it’s actually happening.
Let’s quash one misconception before we go any further – in poker there is more to luck than just winning or losing when all your money is in the middle and its fate depends on the fall of the next card – much more. But let’s just stick with the all-in scenarios for the time being. To begin with, luck, variance, random chance...whatever you want to call it... has to be viewed over a certain period of time. In this sense, it’s not hard to find isolated periods from your poker career in which you’ve been unlucky... but so what? This doesn’t really give you any meaningful information.
For example, if you get all-in with A-A versus K-K pre-flop and lose, were you unlucky? Well sure, over that specific period of time you have run below expectation and you can report this isolated incident to all your friends if it makes you feel better. But what if, over the last five hours, or 1000 hands, you have been dealt aces eight times, and six of these times you managed to get it all-in against K-K, only to lose on this last occasion. Well, haven’t you run really well to be dealt aces so many times in so few hands? Have you not run even better because an opponent has been dealt pocket kings so often when you had aces? Have you not also run well to have won five out of six all-ins when you are only a 80% favourite? This is a crude example, but it illustrates the point that: a) luck is viewed over time and the longer the period of time the more accurate the picture; and b) every single imaginable variable can contribute to luck and the list of variables is infinite and incomprehensible. Nevertheless you can group these variables under one of the following three headings:
All-in luck – this describes the difference between what you actually won or lost in an all-in situation and what your expected value was.
Situational luck – this describes how many fortunate or unfortunate situations you faced: i.e. your opponent(s) being card dead, or getting a lot of coolers (strong hands over strong hands).
Decisional luck – this describes the discrepancy between making theoretically good/bad decisions and these decisions actually being correct in practice.
These are ordered in ease of interpretation. That’s to say, it’s easier to tell to what degree random chance has influenced any given outcome (group 1 easiest, group 3 hardest).
It’s worth noting that, over time and despite popular belief, the second and third groups are much more influential than the first. This might seem counterintuitive since all-in pots are usually pretty big and their outcomes seemingly determine whether or not any individual session was profitable or not. However, if you take a step back and view things over a longer period of time, or a larger hand sample, you will realise the percentage of hands played that result in all-ins is relatively tiny, but the forces or variables that effect situational and decisional luck influence every hand you play.
The second group ‘situational luck’ is pretty straight forward, but its influence is under-appreciated. Next time you have a very good session, consider the player at the table that lost the most money and ask yourself this: If you had been dealt his cards for the session would you still have won?
On to “decisional luck”. In many ways, running bad in this area is worse than having bad luck in the first two groups because it destroys your confidence. When you run bad in all-ins you know you were favourite and were clearly unlucky. Some tracking software will even calculate your all-in EV and you can use this number to comfort yourself (even though this figure is only one piece of a giant and complicated puzzle). But when you make a marginal decision and it doesn’t work out, you find yourself without these clear-cut quantitative or qualitative excuses. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve played poorly it can be very hard to tell.
In poker we make decisions based on limited information. This means our decisions are not perfect and, although any given decision might be the “best” option available, this doesn’t mean we actually came to the right conclusion or the same conclusion we would have were we to turn the cards face up. Often the decision that is based on the most accurate interpretation of all the information available (i.e. the decision that is theoretically the best) can turn out to be wrong in practice.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider a scenario in which you have three options. Option A has a 60% chance of being correct; B 30% and C 10%. Clearly Option A is the best decision to make but it’s perfectly conceivable that you could still be wrong in practice a number of times in a row. The decisions we make in poker work in the same way. For example, if you conclude that an opponent would bluff in a certain scenario only 20% of the time and you fold your hand, did you play bad or were you unlucky if he shows you a bluff? Well, it’s hard to say – maybe your interpretation of situation was inaccurate; on the other hand, if you were theoretically correct, you have just been unlucky that on this occasion he was bluffing.
So how does all of this help you? Well, to begin with you should realise that there is a lot more to luck than getting bad beats when you’re all in. You should realise that winning or losing over a short period of time doesn’t really give you a good indication of how well you are playing – if you win, don’t get too cocky, but, more importantly, if you lose don’t get disheartened or angry – it’s all just part of the game and the better your mindset the better you play.
Try to analyse every session you play as objectively as you can. Ignore the wins and losses in the short term and focus on making the best decisions you possibly can. And next time someone complains to you about how lucky you are, ask them, “What do you mean lucky?”
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