Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2004) in Poker Player newspaper.
Poker is a house a mirrors. Skillful opponents can broadcast images of themselves contrary to how they actually play. It’s an illusion. Hands that look to be busted flushes turn into miracle straights on the river. An illusion.
Barely average tournament players get lucky, win twice in the same month and are momentary superstars. Illusion. Players think they bluff successfully — even though the tactic has cost them money overall — simply because there’s no way to account for the times an opponent folded a weaker hand that would have lost, anyway. All illusion.
You seldom know what’s happening in poker until the showdown. And, beyond that, there’s poker’s great illusion. It’s the one that sucks you in and steals your bankroll. It’s the one that makes you surrender sensible strategy and sit helplessly in the lap of luck – a non-participating voyeur of your own actions.
Garbage hands win
The typical lament sounds like this: “Everyday I go to the cardroom to play sensibly, but some moron always plays garbage hands and wins stacks of chips. What’s the use? I might as well just play the same stupid hands others do and hope to get lucky.”
And the standard complaint goes further: “When you’re in a loose game and everyone plays, even the worst hands win huge pots. When nobody folds, someone’s going to hold that weird winning combination. If I throw those hands away, I’ll never be that someone.”
Fine. This is a commonly held attitude, so let’s examine it. You want the truth, right? OK, here’s the truth…
It’s very likely that someone at your table is going to play poorly and win a lot more than you. Sometimes, you’ll get beat time after time, all night long, and watch someone winning big by playing hands you’ve been taught to throw away. In fact, that’s going to happen often – maybe even most of the time in loose games.
I hear you. You’re saying, “Well, if it’s going to happen often, what’s the point of playing solid poker? Why don’t I play the way my opponents do? Maybe I’ll win, too.”
Ah, but you won’t. And they don’t, either. That’s important, and I’m going to repeat it. If you play against the odds the way those opponents do, you won’t win. And they’re not really winning, either. It’s an illusion.
Most are losing
Confused? Don’t be. What’s really happening is that in poker – as in life – unusual things will always command your attention and make the news. What’s supposed to happen – and what happens most of the time – is too ordinary to impress you. In poker, what’s supposed to happen really is happening. Most of your opponents who are playing poorly are losing, not winning.
But there are so many opponents playing poker poorly that a few of them are going to win tonight. Those are the ones you notice. In business, there are so many people taking long-shot chances and exercising bad judgment that a few of them are going to temporarily get lucky and succeed. Those are the ones you notice, and you think, “What gives?” You’re won’t notice the thousands of people who make equally bad business decisions and fail, because they’re not in the spotlight. You can’t count them, because you don’t see them. Poker, business, life. Same illusion.
The illusion is even more powerful and deceptive, because sometimes people who get lucky get really, really lucky. In poker, they can win lots of chips in a hurry. That’s because, by playing so many hands that you know better than to play, they give themselves a shot at winning pots you can’t win. You can’t win them, because you’re not involved. But, you see, their lucky happenstance won’t last. It never does.
Instead of being discouraged by a lucky player who’s doing everything wrong and winning more than you are today, think about how that same player will do over a long time. Sure, the next session you play, another opponent will probably be playing equally poorly and winning. But, it usually will be “another” player. Underdogs are underdogs for a reason. They say, “Every dog has its day.” So true, so true. And while this momentary new superstar racks up its doggy chips, other dogs will be losing theirs. But, you? You will be plodding steadily along, building your bankroll from all of those poor plays.
Mountains, magic, and movies
Even a drive up to the top of the mountain has downhill stretches. And when you meet other cars on those stretches, they’ll be climbing and you’ll be descending. But it’s where they’re going to end up that matter. At the end of the drive, you’ll be on top of the mountain, where you can use binoculars to see them far below in the valley. That won’t be an illusion. It will be permanent reality.
Yes, illusion often is a fun thing. It’s entertaining in magic and in movies.
But, you’re my poker pal, and I need you to understand this. In the long run, your poker success comes from not yielding to today’s word – “illusion.” Your poker success lies in understanding poker illusion, while letting your opponents be swayed by it. Your poker success lies in acting on the reality beyond the illusion. When you’re watching a poor player win, treat it as if you’re in a theater. And keep reminding yourself, “The illusion won’t last; it’s only a movie.” — MC