Being superstitious at the poker table may seem like a harmless idiosyncracy, but it has the potential to unravel your game
Astrology. Psychic powers. Homeopathy. These and other forms of superstitious nonsense are deeply embedded in modern British society. Almost every daily newspaper employs a highly paid astrologer to entertain the gullible. Channels such as Living TV show endless repeats of ‘ghost hunts’ and psychic displays. The NHS funds homeopathic treatment. Yet none of the aforementioned phenomena has a basis in science, logic or reason.
Superstition and gambling go hand in hand. Certainly, if everybody were to look at gambling using logic and reason alone, many of the casino games that are heavily biased against the player would simply die out. People play these games because they believe they have a chance to win, because they feel lucky or because they think they can accurately predict what is going to happen. But how does superstition relate to poker? And can it harm your game? First, let’s look at where superstition comes from.
In a way, superstition is perfectly understandable. The brain, when faced with random events, tries to organise them into patterns it can understand. This can be explained to some degree by evolution – in the course of human development, those who had the ability to pick up patterns in the behaviour of other humans, predators, and the world around them would clearly be better equipped to survive than those who lacked that ability.
The psychologist BF Skinner, in a famous experiment, showed that even birds are superstitious. He fed a group of hungry pigeons a food pellet at random intervals, but found that some soon began to associate the reward of food with whatever physical action they were performing when it arrived. The pigeons developed rituals, such as turning around in their cages, nodding their heads, and so on – with that ritual being reinforced every time a new reward arrived. Skinner speculated that human superstition came about in the same sort of way, even mentioning playing cards as an example.
Take a lucky shirt for instance. There is no logical reason to believe that wearing a particular shirt can change your fortune at the poker tables. But if by pure chance you get lucky while wearing that shirt, your brain could start to link the two completely unrelated factors (wearing the shirt and getting lucky) together. Every time you got lucky while wearing the shirt thereafter, your superstition would be reinforced.
Another type of gambling-related superstition is results-oriented thinking, which was briefly discussed in IP #44 (October 2007). Such thinking is very common in poker players, particularly those who haven’t been playing the game very long. It’s the sort of thinking that causes people to say things like ‘I hate pocket Jacks, I always lose with Jacks’, and then change their style of play. As a result, this player might play pocket Jacks particularly weakly, or perhaps over-aggressively – and every time they lose with Jacks, the superstition that they always lose with Jacks is reinforced.
A more extreme example of results-oriented thinking would go like this. I decide to get creative on the button after three players limp in, and raise before the flop with a trash hand, 8-3 offsuit. I get five callers, and the flop comes 8-8-8. One by one, each of my opponents moves all-in. I call, and win a huge pot when every one of my opponents shows an overpair to the board. ‘Great’, I’m thinking, ‘8-3 offsuit is a very profitable hand against multiple opponents’.
This kind of thinking is damaging, but it’s extraordinarily common. The majority of poker players are long-term losers, but practically everybody who has had a good result or two thinks they are a good player. If you have any aspirations to play poker seriously, you must try to banish results-oriented thinking from your game, or you will sprout more leaks than a Welsh farmer.
Because our brain so actively tries to seek out patterns in the world around us, it can be completely baffled by randomness – seeing patterns where none exist. Let’s say you and I are flipping a coin for money. Every time it comes up heads, I win £1 from you, and every time it comes up tails, you win £1 from me.
We flip the coin 20 times, and the results are:
Heads has come up ten times, and tails ten times, just as you would expect on average. Nobody is particularly surprised by this turn of events. We both still feel like gambling, so we flip 20 more times, and these are the results:
This time, heads has come up 12 times and tails only eight, so I am £4 ahead at the end. What’s more, there was a point in the sequence when heads came up four times in a row, during which you probably felt very unlucky indeed. Since you want to recoup your losses, you want to play on. However, because heads is ‘running hot’, you want to swap sides. I agree, and the next 20 flips go like this:
T-T-T-T-T- T-T-T-T-T- T-T-T-T-T- T-T-T-T-T
I’ve won every single flip! By this point, you’re starting to regret changing sides, and you think I must be cheating in some way. Your brain is expecting to see a pattern where wins and losses alternate evenly, and is distressed when that pattern doesn’t materialise. This very phenomena may be why so many (mostly losing) players claim that online poker is rigged.
Even the most logically-minded of us are susceptible to this – it’s natural. Take a moment and answer honestly. What would have been the next result in each sequence?
Some of poker’s greatest players are superstitious. Ted Forrest famously parked his car miles from the casino as he felt the spot was ‘lucky’, and it’s not rare to see players on TV sporting their lucky shirt or using a lucky card protector.
Superstition can help your poker game in at least two ways. First, your superstition may give you confidence and comfort. In turn, those things help you to play better – you make better decisions, think more clearly, act more decisively, and give away less information through your behaviour. Secondly, superstitions can reinforce positive behaviour as well as bad – for example, by encouraging you to play cautiously with marginal one-pair hands in deep stack no-limit hold’em after you lose a big pot with such a hand.
But just as a supernatural creation story isn’t needed to explain the origins of life, superstition isn’t needed for these positive attributes to develop. As you become more experienced and relaxed, and have good results, you’ll naturally become more confident. You might need the occasional boost during tough times, but if you’re able to impartially analyse your game you can always be confident that you’re playing well. Your positive plays will be reinforced simply by discussing hands with friends or other players on internet poker forums (and negative ones will be identified too).
Not so super
Superstition almost certainly hurts your game more than it helps. One of the key components of superstition is that it relies on a belief in the supernatural, the unexplained, or the spiritual – ideas which are completely alien to the logical foundations of poker. The whole concept of randomness and the mathematical absolutes of probability fall apart when you believe deep down that they can be subverted by a deity. Sure, you’re 3/1 against to make this flush, but if you pray really hard, God can turn that magical card for you every time!
Holding yourself accountable for your actions and learning from your mistakes are major steps toward becoming a winning player. Once you start to believe that outside forces are influencing your game, it’s easy to fall into bad habits, and blame bad results on fate or luck, rather than bad play. Superstition can make you forever underachieve.
How often have you played a hand differently because you had ‘a feeling’ that a certain card was coming, because you felt unlucky, or because you were thinking about what happened in a previous hand?
So, if superstition is detrimental to your game, how can we think through a hand using logic and reason? You’re midway through a major tournament, and you’ve opened in the cut-off with pocket tens. The big blind has committed a third of his stack and the action is back on you. Should you call, fold, or raise all-in? If you were a logical player, your thought process might go like this: ‘I raised from late position, so his range of hands could be quite wide. I’ve seen him make this move before – once with pocket sevens – so he doesn’t need a strong hand to make this play. I’m going to assign him a range of 5-5 and J-10 or better. He’s raised a third of his stack, so my implied odds are not good and I don’t have much fold equity. However, my pot odds are about 2/1. My hand is a favourite against his range, and I’m only in terrible shape if he has a bigger pair. Based on that evaluation, I re-raise all-in.’
Logic and reason are powerful tools when analysing a poker hand. Having good analytical skills alone can turn you into a winning player, which is not something that can be said for intuition. Great poker players reject superstition and rely on solid foundations – pot odds, betting patterns, hand ranges. They use people-reading skills and intuition to add flair to those foundations, but leave the supernatural nonsense to those blowing their bankroll at the roulette table.
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