Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
Last time “Today’s word” was “False.” And I discussed some important misconceptions about poker, things that just weren’t true.
But that was then; this is now. So, let’s devote this self-interview to poker stuff that is true.
Question 1: Is it true that good runs of cards happen in clumps, rather than being spread out evenly?
You can’t ask questions like that. The premise of this interview is that I’m going to tell you only what’s true about poker. What if the answer to your question were that good cards never come in clumps?
Then I’d say, “No, that’s false,” but I can’t, because “False” was the word used for the previous interview. That’s already been published, so we can’t move questions to it. Besides, what do you mean by “clumps”? That’s not even a poker term.
Anyway, you need to phrase your questions so that I can say whatever I want about poker, as long as it’s true.
Question 2: I understand. Could you tell us something that’s true about poker?
Let me think. Okay, it’s true that in poker, good cards come in clumps. I can’t possibly stress enough how important that is. It’s natural for people to spot things that seem unusual. Their expectations are for luck to be spread out much more smoothly than it usually is.
This is easy to prove. When you’re done reading this, I want you to find a penny somewhere and start flipping it. Mark the heads-or-tails results on a sheet of paper. Pretend that heads denotes good luck and tails bad luck. Flip 100 times.
Then look at your results. You don’t see many long sequences of heads-tails-heads-tails-heads-tails-heads-tails-heads-tails, do you? But you see a lot of clumps where there are many heads (good luck streaks) or tails (bad luck streaks) in a row. In fact, heads-heads-heads-heads-heads-heads is no more unlikely than heads-tails-heads-tails-heads-tails-heads-tails. They’re probability is identical, assuming the coin flip isn’t biased.
Over 100 tosses, you almost certainly didn’t get more than 60 heads or 60 tails, so luck is already starting to even out. If you continued to do this for 10,000 flips, the result would be very nearly 50 percent for both heads and tails.
Luck levels out
What this means is that although your poker luck levels out in the long run, it’s a clumpy adventure. Smooth outcomes, measured over a few flips, are unusual, not the norm.
Once you get that clear in your head, your poker expectations will be realistic. You won’t marvel over a weak opponent getting lucky tonight. It happens. It’s supposed to happen. That fact frustrates players and makes them think, “What’s the use in playing sensibly. There’s usually someone at the table playing poorly and winning.”
Well, that’s true. But guess what? If you could follow those same weak, seemingly lucky players for the next year, you’ll see that they lose a lot of money – just as you’d expect. And, still, the next time you sit down, you’re apt to once again see a poor player winning. Don’t let that astound you or change your tactics by giving undo importance to poker “streaks.” Just remember, there will likely be a weak player winning again tomorrow. But it probably won’t be the same player.
Question 3: Could you tell us something else that’s true about poker?
In poker, most of the money you’ll ever win will come from players seated to your right. That’s because of the built-in positional advantage in poker. Since the action goes clockwise, you will usually act after players to your right. That means you get to see what they do before making your decision.
This advantage is so powerful that, for your entire poker playing career, almost all your overall profit comes from your right and you’ll lose money even to inferior players to your left. The trick is to win the maximum from players to your right and lose the minimum to players on your left.
You can make this task easier by choosing seats that put loose players, who supply the most money to your right, and tight non-entity-type players, who do the least damage, to your left. That’s universally true about poker and by doing that, if you’ve been ignoring the practice previously, you’ll significantly add to your profits.
Question 4: What else is true about poker?
Here’s a fairly rare, but powerful tell. It’s true that players who clear their throats after betting always have medium-strong hands. The bet is never a bluff and never an unbeatable hand.
By clear their throats, I’m talking about those little half-coughing, half-growling sounds they make as if in preparation to speak. You’ll only hear this from male opponents, by the way.
The sound means the same thing as it does it everyday life: A bit of anxiety. The throat clearing is psychological preparation for whatever may come. Opponents who are bluffing are too terrified to make the sound, because they instinctively fear that it might make you suspicious and more likely to call. Opponents who hold powerhouse hands and aren’t worried don’t need to prepare themselves for the suspense, so they don’t make the sound either.
So, it’s true in poker that whenever a male opponent bets and clears his throat, you’re up against a medium-strong hand. You should never waste money calling in hopes of catching a bluff. And you should not fear making an aggressive raise with a high-quality hand.
Question 5: Is there anything else that’s true about poker?
Thousands of things. But let’s end with this one. Check-raising loose, weak opponents is a bad idea. Although you might theoretically add to your profit on that one bet, overall you’re apt to make that opponent uncomfortable and more timid about entering pots with weak hands in the future.
The short-term gain just isn’t worth the risk of making the game less friendly and causing weak opponents to play more cautiously. It’s true that you should make it your policy never to check-raise against loose, unsophisticated players.
I’ve got to go. Thanks for asking me those provocative questions. — MC