Think lucky

Does hitting a two outer on the river happen more often if you want it to? We find out if you can really think yourself lucky

Every poker player knows that luck plays a part in winning poker, with estimates ranging from as low as 20% to as high as 60%. What causes great discussion, though, is whether some people appear to be luckier than others. It can certainly seem the case over the short term, with players hitting flop after flop and sucking out on the river. But are there really lucky poker players, and is it possible to become one of them?

One man says it is, and he isn’t some nut to be indulged. His name is Dr Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology and the author of studies of luck and perception. At a dazzling lecture he gave at the Royal Institute recently, he subjected members of the audience to a number of tests and challenged them to work out how they were done. Some of them were simple conjuring tricks but others challenged preconceived notions of how we perceive what’s in front of our face.

The most striking example was a film that involved a simple game where basketball players passed a ball and we were asked to count the number of times they did so. So intent was I in the challenge that I completely missed the entrance of a man onto the court wearing a gorilla suit and eating a banana! So did my wife and most of the other people who had never seen the film before, as a forest of raised hands proved.

When Dr Wiseman showed the film again, the gorilla-suited bloke was immediately obvious because now we were no longer fixated on counting the passes. As a poker player, I was immediately struck by the similarity to watching the board for a flush and completely missing the straight. It seems that a lot of ‘bad luck’ is actually lack of perception. Were we just unlucky not to spot the gorilla? Dr Wiseman says we simply weren’t fully using our minds.

Wiseman started life as a professional magician, but he gradually became more interested in the psychological principles that conjurors use to fool audiences than in practising ‘magic’. This led him to study psychology, win his doctorate at Edinburgh University and a scholarship from Trinity College, Cambridge. He then went on to set up a research division into perception at the University of Hertfordshire.

Wiseman became intrigued by the degree of confidence that some of his subjects had in their continuing good fortune. He found that the world was divided into two kinds of people – those who considered themselves lucky and those who thought of themselves as unlucky. He also found that the people who considered themselves lucky continued to be consistently fortunate throughout their lives. Those who thought of themselves as unlucky fulfilled their self-prophecy by ensuring themselves a future of bad luck.

Among the people with whom you play poker, there are probably several with the reputation of being lucky. Doyle Brunson is renowned for his good luck, and not only at the poker table – in 1961, he was diagnosed with melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, but survived through what he called ‘a miraculous recovery that they still can’t explain’.

Brunson went on to win two back-to-back World Series of Poker titles in the 1970s with the same hand, 10-2, which most people would throw into the muck as soon as look at it. He felt impelled to play them and won the title twice, both times with a full house of 10s and deuces. He famously commented, ‘Everyone gets lucky once in a while, but no-one is consistently lucky.’ Dr Wiseman would disagree.


More recent world title winners whose skill at Texas hold’em is matched by at least an equal share of luck include Greg Raymer and Chris Moneymaker, both of whom defied the odds to make wins netting them millions of dollars.

To discover what constituted the mind-set that attracted good fortune and whether people could be taught to get lucky, Dr Wiseman organised in his unit what he called a ‘luck school’. This was actually a research tool for measuring ways in which subjects put themselves into the frame of mind where they attracted good luck and how it could be applied.

During the 11 years since he started, Dr Wiseman has, he claims, established that ‘lucky people’ create their good fortune in their lives by using unconscious psychological strategies to emphasise their openness, optimism, and ability to face failure – all qualities, incidentally, needed to win consistently at poker. He has distilled his findings down to four principles, and claims that teaching these approaches to luck has helped some 80% of his subjects to become more successful.


  • Listen to your gut feelings and act on hunches about people or situations.
  • Maximise your chances of something good happening by creating, noticing and acting on opportunities.
  • Expect good fortune: this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lucky people create and recognise opportunities.
  • Turn bad luck into good by imagining how things could have been worse or by taking control of the problem.


  • Trust your intuition about a given hand and concentrate on its possibilities.
  • Work out your opponents’ cards from their betting patterns and demeanour.
  • Sit down expecting to win.
  • When you lose a hand, turn going on tilt into positive analysis.

If you find this strategy works in the short term, you can learn more from Dr Wiseman’s website, and his book The Luck Factor, which contains a series of tests designed to discover where you’re starting from on the luck ladder. Incidentally, if Dr Wiseman is to be believed, there’s absolutely no truth in the proverb, ‘Lucky at cards, unlucky in love; and lucky in love, unlucky at cards.’ If you’re lucky, you’re lucky. If you aren’t, it’s time you learned to be.

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