The problem with feeling unlucky

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Casino Player.

It’s easier to feel unlucky than to actually be unlucky. All you have to do to feel unlucky is to decide you deserve sympathy. That’s it. Once you’ve decided that you’re really better than the world treats you, all that remains is to imagine whom or what to blame.

Blaming people is easy. But blaming events is an art only mastered by gamblers or people who have latent gambling instincts. You see, whenever anything happens that affects you, that’s an event. The event can help you, harm you, or have no significant effect. Some people go through life breaking about even. But it’s illogical to say that things break even for everyone. Life’s too short.

Now, probability dictates that if things go on long enough, you’ll get as many everyday-type good breaks as everyone else living similar lives – and as many everyday-type bad breaks. You’ll also get as many unbelievably good breaks and as many unbelievably bad ones as your similarly life-styled neighbors, friends, enemies, and cousins. Wise men tell us that it’s what is done with those breaks that determines who wins and who loses in life. It’s up to us. But it just isn’t so.

The truth about breaking even

You see, we don’t live long enough for things to break even. The god of probability is working hard to be fair, but he doesn’t have enough time to do his job. He needs millions of years and we only give him an average of about 80. So, here’s the truth. Some people are luckier than others in life. Some get the big breaks when they really need them. Take me, for instance. I’m at the top of my game. Few people doubt my expertise at, say, poker, so, they’ll listen to what I have to say. Now, I’d like to think that this is all because of the hard work I put into the field and that I “played my cards right.” And, yes, I do think I deserve to be here, but wait! What if I’d been distracted the first time I became inspired to step into the gambling-research arena. What if I’d been interrupted by a phone call at just the right moment and got turned on to stock market research, instead. And what if that research has caused me to crash and burn?

You know what? I think most people instinctive realize that luck is a key element in their lives. Sure, they can go around obstacles and often triumph, despite adversity. That’s because luck isn’t quite powerful enough to leave them without a fighting chance. But, don’t try to tell me that life is a break-even experience and that we all get what we deserve. That’s a damn lie!

The difference between other people and gamblers

Here’s my message for you today. I believe that in general, most people go about their lives expecting to be a little luckier than is reasonable. They feel lucky and if you ask them if they are lucky, the majority will say yes. But ask this same question specifically of hard-core gamblers and they’ll tell you they’re unlucky – that they have survived despite monstrous bad beats. Take your average sports bettor, as an example.

If he wins 1,000 games and loses 1,000 games, he’ll be a substantial loser to the sports book, because he had to lay 11-to-10 on each bet. Is he going to say, gee, life has treated me fairly, even though I’m losing my shirt betting? Nope. He’s going to tell you about the fumble on the three-yard line, explaining that in 999 out of 1,000 cases his team would have just run out the clock. He isn’t going to bother to tell you about any possible lucky breaks that won games for him, because he won’t remember those. They were just routine.

The secret

So, here’s a secret. Complaining about bad luck in football, blackjack, craps, or roulette won’t increase the odds against you or hurt your chances, except that you may start making more bad bets as your mind short-circuits in misery. But complaining about bad luck can be devastating when you’re against real opponents. Then, it will definitely increase the odds against you. At poker, for instance – where everyone thinks they’re on the world-record bad run at times — you can actually inspire opponents by complaining. They think, “Hey, there’s someone unluckier than I am! I can beat him!” And they play better against you, because you’ve declared yourself a loser and given them confidence.

The same thing can happen in real life. Look at successful people. How many of them frequently complain about their bad beats? More likely they’re overly optimistic and expect to be lucky. My advice: If you’re getting ready to seek sympathy by explaining your bad luck, real or imagined, dummy up. Keep it to yourself. In all likelihood, nobody cares. And if someone does care, it could be in ways that will harm you. — 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.


19 thoughts on “The problem with feeling unlucky”

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  1. One mans misfortune is another’s gain.

    About ten years back at the same WSOP event Ryan makes mention of in New Orleans, I took my shot and failed hard, but due to a random event with occurred immediately after, I’ve never once looked poorly upon the experience, nor have I ever allowed luck to hold any force in my game.

    I had just gotten out of college and was quite poor as is common. My bankroll consisted of rent money and a bit of extra cash I had picked up on a catering gig. I parlayed the gig money into a seat in the main event via 1/2 nl and satellites. At the time poker was a new addition to my list of endeavors and a cash would have been life changing, providing me with options and opportunities otherwise not available. Money for a start up, flexibility to travel, etc.

    Getting into the tournament I started out slow, but gradually accumulated and built a sizable stack, ranking top ten in the field.

    Going into the game, I hadn’t held much hope, just knew that if I played well, id’d have a shot. But there, in that moment, with all those chips, and finding myself on the brink of making a cash it became quite real, and suddenly it seemed possible.

    I think there were maybe a half dozen players remaining before the bubble burst… and there I was with a comfortable lead over the field, and dominating all but one opponent on the table. Cashing was a certainty.

    And then came along a shuffle of cards that defied probability and ended my quest for the money. Ping, next.

    I remember leaving in a state of numbness, and disbelief. I didn’t linger, I didn’t do much of anything other than walk straight out the main door. I wanted to cry, scream, curse the gods of luck and damn them to eternity.

    I never got the chance though. For as I was leaving the main entrance I rashly cut across the St Peters intersection with a rush of cars upon me. I upped my gait trying to leave myself enough space to get across before a now quickly moving bus could get a shot at finishing me off… and there, in that instant is where it occurred, where the universal balance found its break even. Just as I was stepping out of the oncoming traffic, a middle aged man, distracted by his cellphone was blindly walking into it. From the look of shock on his face when i shoved him back onto the curb, I’m guessing he had no immediate plan to cease with his mortal blunder (swoosh – rush of wind from passing bus)

    No words were exchanged between us, just a quick glance of acknowledgement, and alook of gratitude. Sometimes I look back on this moment and wish I had said something cool like, “live a great life.”, or “lucky bastard”.

    Either way its comforting to know that out there some unwitting soul is alive and well, all because my kings over tens lost out to quads against the only player who could eliminate me from the game.

    (sigh) that sob better be living well.



  2. As Always Mike your comments hit Home. I laughed so hard. As I saw myself- Feeling like I am better than my wife- I mean the World is Treating me. LOL The Truth Always Hurts. Another Great Poker & Life thought review, from the Mad Genius. I am So Happy to see your site up & active Mr. Caro. What a Gold Mine of Info.

    All the Best, jonnytarzan- Tracey

  3. Wow Mike, as I was getting to the meat of the topic my name sounded for the 2/5 seat at table 12 in the new Orleans harrahs poker room. The day prior I had every intention of making my first debue to the 2/5 for I had just graduated from the 1/2, but Nick, the floor manager said, “I’m about to open a 5/10.” My eyebrows sprung into action as I eagerly took the opportunity. I played for 6 hrs and came away with a moderate +$1400, but I gained great experience. Which now brings us back to the present. I sat in and played a particular loose/tight/aggressive strategy and skalanski tier, and then I hear my name again. Destiny is ringing through my core…. That was until I arrived at a table that was barely half full, and I had to move right back to my original seat at the 2/5. This began my series of unfortunate events. My mind could wrap around the lack of 5/10 players with the wsop here in town. Toward the tail end of this session comes my big mistake when I failed to chop from the small when asked as I was already in mid-raise. I was then chastised and marked for death. They urged that you CANNOT chop from small & not chop from the small in later hands. I listened and was receptive, but to no avail. To make matters worse, I then started a downward spiral bad beats and poor choices. I was then priced into a hand with A2 suited against cowboys from the small which I would never normally be in. I have invoked many of your qualities into my strategy, but I failed to keep fresh and aware and just ruine my chances at playing in my first wsop tournament.Well, I know this grasshopper obviously still have much to learn, but I cherish your every word Mike. Even if I may not have read it in time. I used to say that luck is just prepared opportunity. I must now prepare to make my last run with the last of my bankroll. Back to the 1/2 for me! I only hope to make into the wsop in time. Wish me luck;)

    1. Hi, Ryan —

      I do, indeed, wish you luck. Your observations and reflections indicate that you’re likely to succeed sooner or later. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t make it to the WSOP this year. Poker’s path is long and a new adventure is always unseen beyond the next bend.

      Just so you know, I never chop in the blinds. I simply tease (in a friendly manner) that heads-up play is the only entertainment I get. It seems to allow me to avoid the practice without offending anyone.

      For those in our Poker1 family who don’t know what “chop” means — it’s an agreement to split the pot among the only remaining players without playing the hand out. When the two blinds chop, both take their required bets back and the next hand is dealt.

      Thanks for making your first P1 comment, Ryan.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  4. Great column! Didn’t Einstein say “God does not play dice with the Universe”? Ol’ Al was probably right about that one, but it’s the variance that will kill you and kill you & kill you at the poker table. The top players play really great poker AND variance smiles on them more often than the guy, now delivering pizza, who plays a great game of poker and gets only a smirk from goddess Fortuna. Noney management and decisionmaking are what make poker a game of skill, but without luck you’ll only be skilled & broke.

    1. Hi, Fred —

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Good observations.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  5. Mike,
    Been following you for a long time, since the days of your columns in GT magazine. Lately been re-reading my dog-eared, broken-spined, dirty, beat-up Book of Tells. Still learning & playing. Win some, lose some, but still way ahead in life. Keep it up, John.

  6. one year when i played limit omaha i had four tens six times in the year… and i lost on five of them… and it was still the luckiest and most profitable poker year of my life. go figure.

    1. Hi, Sandals.

      Welcome to Poker1.

      I agree that winning once in six times with 10-10-10-10 IS lucky. LOL. Thanks for sharing.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  7. It’s funny your email directed me to this article just as I’m experiencing the worst bad run I’ve had in months. I just keep reminding myself that my job is to make good decisions, not to concern myself with short term results. I like the new site by the way. I’ve learned more from your website than I ever have from the books I’ve bought.

    1. Thanks for the great complement, JT.

      And thanks for making your first comment at Poker1. (Note that only your first one needs to wait for approval. After that, you can comment instantly.)

      The e-mail JT is referring to is the one I sent to my preferred mailing list. I use it for poker tips and announcements of my upcoming seminars and other events. You can join it from the right sidebar. It’s free.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  8. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for sending me the link to this article. It could not have come at a better time. I play in a weekly poker tournament at a local bar. There are between 30-40 players every week. In the past five weeks, I have been knocked out having the best hand pre-flop. I’ve been telling people how unlucky I’ve been. But after reading this article, I have come to the conclusion that telling everyone about my bad beat stories is hurting my game and that bad luck is normal. As I look back on how some of those hands were played, I realize that some were not bad beats at all, but poor play on my part. So, poor play plus bad luck equals more losses. Again thanks for the email and I look forward to learning more from MCU.

    1. Hi, Rich —

      Welcome to our Poker1 family.

      It sounds like you have the biggest battle won already. Just keep making good decisions, getting better and better along the way, and in time the good cards and bad cards will pretty much balance out and leave you with just profit when the smoke clears.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  9. I think you are right. I have been known to get a few bad beats and “fake” a little bit of going on tilt, if the right hand shows up to pull it off. As a woman that has worked in a male dominated profession, I learned don’t let them see you cry. When things really go bad got to step back. Deep breath, put on those “big girl” panties and keep going! lol

    1. Hi, Donna —

      Not being a parent, I’m not quite sure of the implications of your analogy. But if it helps with poker spirit, hey, I’m all for it!

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  10. Last night online, I had a full house beaten by a bigger full house. Within ten hands I had another full house beaten by another bigger full house. Just at showdown on the second my wife wanted to show me something about new toe nail color. I snapped at her. She hasn’t spoken to me in 17 hours, I shut off the computer so fast I lost all my stats and will have to reconstruct over 100 hands, fortunately it was limit holdem so loses were not too great. Do you care yet – Hell no. Perfect article for today. Keep ’em coming. Rich

  11. So, to review, I’m both luckier than most, because of my belief, and at the same time, unluckier than most, because I’m a gambler. Oh, wait, I only play poker, which is a game of skill, no gambling involved :) Good to know that I’ll still be luckier than most.

    Of course, my other belief is that there is no luck, only divine intervention. But that’s probably another column for an entirely different website….

    1. It’s funny when people say that poker isn’t gambling. I once thought so. But keep studying and you’ll see it is, or at least, you’ll see many professionals and world-class players refer to it as gambling.

      Gambling is a bet on an uncertain outcome. This is why it’s nonsensical to say that poker is not gambling. It’s one of the best and most fun ways to gamble, but whenever you bet on uncertain outcomes, it is gambling.

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