Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.
Aunt Sophie sees the future
“Nu, tsatskeleh,” said my Aunt Sophie, “how is it that sometimes I just know when I’m going to win the next hand?”
The cocktail waitress approached our little table deep within the gloom of a secluded lounge of the Anaheim Club. I nodded at my empty glass that had contained Glenfiddich, neat. Aunt Sophie indicated another Sloe Gin Fizz. “Now that’s an interesting question,” I replied. “Tell me, when that happens, are you right?”
“Funny you should ask,” she responded. “Sometimes I have this feeling of wishing I would win the next hand.”
“Is that,” I interrupted, “usually in a critical situation? A must-win, desperate situation?”
“Dot’s right, Dollink,” she answered. “How did you know?”
The waitress brought our drinks. I set a few bills on her tray, and, when I did not attempt to retrieve the change, she withdrew silently. “Because,” I laughed, taking a sip of the single malt, “I’m a poker player. I’ve been playing the game a great many years. And that’s a universal feeling among poker players. Some call it ‘praying to the poker god.’ Lowball players sometimes specify the lowball god. And pan players, of course, have their pan god. Whatever they call it, though, card players often find themselves in the position of desperately wishing to win the next hand. It’s usually in a critical situation. ‘This is the pot that will get me even; please, Lord, let me win it, and I’ll get up and leave.’ Or, and this happens most often in a no-limit poker game, ‘How could I have made this ridiculous bluff? Please let me get away with it just this one time, and I won’t ever do something so stupid again.’”
“That doesn’t seem to work very often,” she offered, doubtfully.
“Of course not,” I agreed. “And do you know why not? Because the player always breaks the promise that goes with the plea. He wins the pot, gets even, and then does not leave. Now he says to himself, ‘Hey, maybe I’m on a rush.’ Or, ‘How can I leave a great game like this after winning a pot like that? I better stick around and win something. After all, I didn’t come in here to get even, did I? I was even before I sat down.’ Or he gets away with the bluff that he never should have attempted against the biggest calling station in the house. He’s so relieved that he has to give himself a little pat on the back, a bit of ego-stroking. He shows down the hand. ‘Look what a good player I am. I just succeeded bluffing the guy that no one else around here can get to lay down a hand.’ And then what happens? A few hands later he tries another spectacular bluff in a situation that really shouldn’t work. It might work often, but because he just showed down that bluff, all the other players are now thinking, ‘Gee, everytime that guy makes a large bet in this situation, he’s bluffing. I’d better call him.’ And, sure enough, the next time he makes that big bet, the tight player who doesn’t normally call with less than the nuts catches him bluffing.”
“Yah,” Aunt Sophie interjected. “I know just what you’re talking. I see it all the time.”
“Of course you do,” I went on. “It’s universal. Poker players don’t really mean it when they pray to the poker god. They have their fingers crossed behind their backs. They know they’re going to be in a situation where they finally get out of the trap, and break their internal vows to leave if that ever happens. They also know they’re going to get stuck again, so that later they can say to themselves, ‘Why didn’t I leave when I got even after that one crucial pot like I said I was? I got even, but I stuck around and blew it all back, and ended up losing more than I was stuck at any point prior to that play.’ They’re lying to the poker god, and he knows it, and so he rarely grants that wish. Oh, once in a while he relents and lets the player win the pot, just to see if maybe he wasn’t unfairly misjudging all cardplayers. He wants to see if the player will keep his promise. And the poker god becomes a bit sadder and a bit wiser when he realizes that cardplayers are lying when they make that plea accompanied by a promise.”
“Uh huh,” put in Aunt Sophie, “but that’s not really what I mean. I started by saying, ‘How is it that sometimes I just know when I’m going to win the next hand?’ And when you asked, I said that sometimes I have the feeling of just wishing I would win the next time, and sometimes I do win it in that situation, but, as you explained, and I myself have observed, more often I don’t. But what I really mean is those times I just know I’m going to win the next hand. I have this feeling of absolute certainty, and I’m right, always, in those situations, that I’m going to win the next hand. If I follow through in my feelings, then I bet the hand aggressively, and win more than otherwise I would. And, also, there are other times when I just know I’m going to lose the next hand, and about those I’m right, too. Why is that?”
“Now that,” I mused, “is, as I suggested earlier, an interesting philosophical question. I have two theories for you, and you can accept or reject either, or both, as you wish.
“Theory one is that there is a bit of precognition involved. Something happens that permits you to see into the future for a moment. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you just know it. A smart cardplayer can act on that knowledge and increase her winnings. Having that ability also enables us to know when we’re in the middle of a rush. Poker analysts who rely purely on logic and statistics say that there is no way of recognizing a rush—positive or negative—until it’s over. They say that every hand must be played the same, whether we’ve won the previous hand or lost it. They claim that ‘the cards have no memory.’ I tend to agree with that method of playing, except for those rare instances you’ve been describing in which you know you’re going to win, and it seems to me that’s a way of recognizing a rush while you’re actually in the middle of it.
“Theory two is that winning the next hand is actually caused by the positive feelings. You may not recognize that this is what is happening, but, in fact, you win the next hand precisely because you think you’re going to win it. Now of course there’s no way of proving which, if either, theory is correct. They both involve unexplored and as-yet undocumented abilities of the human mind. I lean toward the second theory, and for this reason. Statistical analysts claim that there really are no rushes, that in the long run everyone gets the same cards. Well, they don’t exactly deny the existence of rushes, they just say that rushes occur far less frequently than most players claim. They use flipping a ‘fair’ coin as a model to explain. In the long run, they say, heads and tails should come up the same. But they don’t come up head-tail-head-tail, and so on. Instead, sometimes there are two or three of one in a row, and then sometimes two or three of the other. In the long run it averages out to equal numbers of each, but it is statistically quite correct to say that sometimes there will be twenty or more heads in a row. That is what we see and call a rush. They also say that in the middle of flipping coins, it’s not possible to tell when there will be such a run of all heads or all tails, any more than it is possible to tell in the middle of a playing session when you will win more than your share of hands in a given period of time. But cards are not coins. All poker players can tell you that rushes do occur, and they occur much more frequently than would be indicated by mathematical models. I believe that if some of us can actually with our minds influence the outcome of some of the hands, that would be a good explanation for rushes.
“So, there you have it. Two possible explanations for why you sometimes seem able to predict the result of a hand before you actually get the cards. Either you actually can foresee the result, or you are influencing the outcome and interpreting that as predicting it. Take it or leave it, either one. That’s the best I have to offer.”
“From you,” concluded Aunt Sophie, “that’s quite an explanation. Usually mathematics or psychology are your reasons for things. Parapsychology I never expected. Another side of you I think I’m seeing.”
Disclaimer: The author wishes it known that not only is he not “Dollink,” he doesn’t have an Aunt Sophie. In fact, he doesn’t even know anyone by that name.