Mike Caro poker word is Expectation

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.

Expectation matters in poker. If you’re just guessing, you probably have a poor understanding of what should happen. That often causes confusion, frustration, and the destruction of bankrolls. I’ve seen it happen too many times.

Today’s word is “Expectation,” and this is my self-interview about it.

Question 1: Is there one mystery about poker expectation you’d like to resolve first?

You’ve read my mind! The great mystery regarding poker expectation is that even players who understand what should be expected in the long run are bewildered by what happens in the short term.

How many times have you been playing hold ’em and heard something like this: “I haven’t started with a pair of aces or kings in two hours!” Woe is me. Two whole hours!

The number of hands dealt per hour in a typical hold ’em game depends on how quickly players act, the efficiency of the dealer, how many hands are dealt to begin with, and many other factors. No-limit games have fewer hands per hour than limit games.

Since we don’t know what game you’ll be playing the next time you hear someone complain about not having received aces or kings, let’s just choose 30 deals per hour as a reasonable number. Okay, so statistically you get a pair of aces once every 221 hands, on average. Same goes for kings. Put them together and you’ll have a pair of either aces or kings once every 110 hands or so (110.5, to be precise).

Not unusual

That’s once every three hours and 41 minutes. That’s about twice in a long eight-hour session. So, it isn’t even unusual to go a whole day’s play without getting aces or kings. During such a drought, you’re likely to see other players holding those hands frequently, though. And that can be frustrating.

The trick is to realize that the average expectation is clumpy. I love that word, “clumpy.” It should be today’s word, but it isn’t. Clumpy means that you might go what will seem like forever without getting a huge pair. And then, once in a while, you might be dealt those hands back-to-back.

Players who understand this and treat poker like being on the night watch as a security guard in a junk yard will be more successful than those who treat it like a shopping excursion at the mall. As a guard, you’re bored most of the time; adventure is rare. Things that make your pulse patter won’t happen often. At the mall, you’re looking to buy things – which is the wrong mindset for poker.

Accepting this reality keeps you from the temptation to make your own luck with inferior cards.

Question 2: Is expectation just about being patient in waiting for good cards?

No. Expectation also defines how you perceive your bankroll. Most players are lulled into feeling secure when they’ve been successful for long periods.

Weeks, even months, go by with many wins ranging from tiny to large, interrupted by occasional losses ranging from yawn-worthy to moderate. Then descends the probability storm – the one you didn’t expect. Suddenly, you can’t book a win.

You thought your bankroll was big enough. You had enough to survive 20 fairly substantial losses in a row, and you assumed that would never happen. So, you spent half you bankroll on vacations and cars and jewelry.


Now it’s all gone. Your whole bankroll. Gone. You look at your records. What the hell? It says here that I’m winning a lot of money! Why can’t I afford to play?

You know what I’m talking about, right? This very same thing has happened to almost every world-class player. It sometimes takes decades for them to understand poker’s reality. Bankrolls must be larger than you suppose. Security is an illusion.

Not spending pieces of a bankroll until it’s truly large enough is a skill you must acquire. Don’t let your expectations fool you. The sun might be shining, but a storm is creeping over the horizon. Be ready.

Question 3: What else can you tell us about expectation in poker?

Expect to win if you have a big enough advantage over your opponents. Expect to lose if you’re at a disadvantage.

I know that sounds simplistic. But I believe serious poker players often ignore that basic advice. The reason I believe this is that I observe top-name players frequently entering games against equal or superior foes. When you take the table rent or rake into consideration, each player at the table should expect to lose.

Question 4: Is there any great truth we should know about expectation?

Yes. You should expect that in the long run everything will even out and luck will be level. If your expectations are in line with reality, then here’s what will happen…

In the long run, the power of probability will prevail and all the wins and losses, all the agony and elation, all the odds and averages will turn out to be almost exactly what you predicted. Nothing else is possible.

Question 5: Anything else?

You won’t live long enough to see this happen in life. And you won’t be dealt enough hands to witness it in poker.

You’ll never know what comes next, but more often than not it won’t be smooth. The secret to having realistic expectations about poker or life itself is to understand the word clumpy.

Truly grasp it and there’s nothing more about expectation to master. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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  1. Thanks for helping calm me down. I have recently “clumpy’ed” my bankroll down to a shadow of its former self. Thanks to past reading on your site and your books I am not on tilt nor am I worried. You have helped put poker variance in perspective for me. I will make my annual infusion (or my 2011 contribution) to the bankroll and continue to enjoy the game. Thanks to you and others, Doyle, Dan Harrington, even Phil Helmuth, my patience quotent has increased substantially and I can see improvement in my decisions.

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