Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2012) in Poker Player newspaper.
We hear it in sports frequently – announcers telling us which team has the momentum. Momentum can apply in poker, too. But does the concept really make sense? Let’s use today’s self-interview to investigate.
Question 1: Is momentum as important in poker as it is in sports?
Wait! Stop assuming things with your questions. Sometimes momentum isn’t even important in sports. Often it’s an illusion.
A sequence of coin flips can seem to show momentum. But there is no momentum whatsoever. There’s only the observation that, recently, either heads or tails landed at a pace considerably greater than the expected 50 percent.
You can call that momentum, so go ahead. But actually it isn’t. That’s simply because the previous series of outcomes has no bearing whatsoever on whether the next coin flip will be heads or tails. Assuming a perfectly balanced coin and a fair toss, it’s exactly 50 percent likely that the next toss will bring tails. Same for heads.
But in sports, teams can become inspired and play better than their talent suggests they should. So, it’s not exactly like a coin flip. The outcome on the field of play can be skewed because one team temporarily is trying harder than another. That’s momentum. In fact, that’s really all there is to momentum. Everything else is illusory.
So, what you have in basketball – to choose one sport as an example – is the possibility that one team will get hot just from pure dumb luck and that will be announced as momentum, even though it isn’t.
And, additionally, there is the possibility that one team will become determined to play better and that will produce actual momentum. Or, conversely, it’s possibly that a team will become disheartened because of bad luck and play worse.
There’s luck and there’s psychologically inspired momentum. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine the difference.
Plus, there’s a third possibility – a very real one. You’ll see a team originally get lucky, scoring more points than predicted and, although that fortunate series of events had nothing to do with momentum, it can inspire confidence and momentum.
Question 2: Okay. So how does this relate to poker?
I was getting there, so let me finish. In poker, the shuffling of cards means that you can randomly find yourself on a good streak or on a bad one – or something in between.
When that happens, it has nothing to do with momentum. It’s equivalent to a hot streak of flipped heads or tails. Nothing more. But like a basketball team, you might become inspired by your good cards and play better. And your opponents might become discouraged by your good fortune and play worse. Often, both happen at once – you play poker better and they play worse.
Question 3: Does it even matter whether momentum is real or not in poker?
Of course it matters! It matters because you should never find yourself playing better poker because of good fortune. And you should never find yourself playing worse poker because of misfortune.
At poker, you shouldn’t have emotional highs or lows. Just let the cards be cards and let the players be players. And you? Well, be yourself – a consistent maker of quality decisions, no matter what.
When you do that, momentum will only matter when it affects opponents. When you’re running lucky, you should barge into pots with more hands – hands that previously would have been break-even or small losers.
That’s because opponents will be intimidated. They’ll be more likely to make weak calls out of confusion, and they’ll be less likely to raise with small advantages out of fear. That’s perfect chemistry. And so you win more by being aggressive.
However, when you’re conspicuously losing, you must back off. Opponents are inspired by your misfortune and believe you’re unlucky. They’ll play better against you. And, when they do, your “marginal” hands are no longer marginal. Fold them.
Question 4: Can you take advantage of opponents’ perceptions regarding momentum?
Yes. You weren’t listening. Play more aggressively when opponents perceive that you have momentum. Play more conservatively when they perceive that they have momentum.
Question 5: Can momentum bring profit in poker?
Only if you take advantage of opponents’ misinterpretation of reality. When you seem to have momentum, they’ll play differently than when you don’t.
The great trick here is to play in accordance with your opponents’ perceptions. Take advantage of opposing illusions. That’s the secret.— MC