Brunson: Poker and superstition

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

Some things don’t mix.  Wine and whiskey. Concentration and loud music. Superstition and poker.

Superstition is so destructive to poker profit that I believe the costliest thing a player can bring to the table is a good-luck charm. When I’m in doubt, I generally go with my feelings, but that’s not the same thing as superstition. I’d prefer to make decisions based on percentages and perception, but when those don’t point to a clear choice, I let gamblers’ intuition be my guide. I figure there might be something that I’ve unconsciously observed steering me in that direction. Maybe it’s wrong and maybe it’s right, but since I don’t have a more scholarly reason to make a decision, I’ll go with that feeling.

But superstition is quite different. When you’re superstitious you do things that are contrary to common sense and analysis. And you lose money. I’m not saying I’ve never had any mild superstitions. But you’ve got to fight them back and not let them guide you.

Logical decisions

I once had a woman come complaining to me about her luck at roulette. She said, “Doyle, it isn’t easy finding the lucky numbers. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they change on you.” Doesn’t that point out the futility of superstition? The only winning road in poker is to make logical decisions. Everything else will lead you toward ruin.

I once became briefly acquainted with a kid named Alexander. He drifted into our games years ago, then was washed away in the same poker tide that sucks so many ill-prepared poker players out to sea. It drowns them. Alexander was so superstitious that he panicked whenever anyone called him Alex. In fact, he got downright angry. He thought it was bad luck.

Bad luck

For the most part we respected his wishes, but one day he was in a game with me and the famous U.S. player, Amarillo Slim. Well, Slim was bluffing and Alexander thought and thought. As soon as he slowly moved toward his stack of chips, indicating that a call was pending, Slim blurted, “Come on, Alex, it’s up to you!” Well, of course, Alexander flung his hand into the discards, apparently believing it was bad luck to call.

That wasn’t the weirdest of Alexander’s superstitions, either. One night he sat in our game looking ridiculous because he had worn a special shirt with all kinds of pockets sewn onto it. Big ones and small ones of poorly matched material. He just sat and watched a few hands. Anytime he saw a big hand win a pot, rip, he tore off a pocket. It startled us at first, but none of us said anything, due to Alexander’s demonstrated knack of throwing a tantrum when anyone called him Alex or interfered with his superstitions.

Finally someone got the courage to enquire and Alexander explained that his father advised him to tear a pocket every time he saw a poker hand he wanted, and then his luck would get better. It didn’t turn out that way. He joined the game and lost most of his remaining bankroll before drifting away to the blackjack tables, never to return.

That was the end of Alexander. Surely, he was more superstitious than most poker players. But I believe that any superstition can destroy a player who fully surrenders to it.  — DB

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  1. Just like winning the first hand of a tournament is bad luck right? Ill take it every time and ill take the last hand of the tournament also. As long as im stacking chips up and not down ill be all right.

  2. Sometimes I will bring a “Lucky” Charm and play off as if tokens and luck was a big part of my game. I will even try to get to my “Lucky” Chair, it just happens to be in a great vantage point at the table or the ideal spot to an overly Aggressive player. I might even thank the dealer when they change the deck naturally if my cards have been cold.
    It’s all just smoke. But when I call a gut shot with two over cards while having the correct pot odds and get it, most players do not see that I made a correct call based off of logic and math. All they see is that I called there bet with nothing but a gut shot and got lucky. All the while I am holding up a procaine Rabbit saying to my wife “I told you that being born in the year of the rabbit is lucky!!!”. In all realty I am a tight player who plays just enough rag hands in position in cheap flops to seem like I am a player who had no concept of math or odds.

  3. What’s kinda funny in relation to this is Doyle selling Lederer Casper with the proviso he got to keep it until he passed and willing it to Howard. I heard he also would let other players borrow – rent? – anyway, use it from time to time when they wanted some extra luck.

  4. a lucky charm usually doesnt affect the game. It’s mostly a card protector but when it comes to make a desicion it doesnt matter what clothes u wearing or if you have counted your chips before.
    However, i think people match their lucky poker days/ or bad ones with their clothes, with people who saw before or even who wished them good luck.

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