Glory Days

Handling the Luck in Poker

Luck in Poker"...but all he kept talking about was glory days. Well they'll pass you by.
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye. -- Bruce Springsteen

At the time of this writing, poker is at an all-time high in the mainstream media. The World Poker Tour has been a successful program, and ESPN is broadcasting its first "see the hole cards" World Series of Poker. The public is seeing the drama, the agony and the ecstasy of the game as never before.

But we are also seeing a glimpse of a phenomenon that plays itself out hundreds of times in the lives of thousands of players. Winning is intoxicating. Losing may hurt more for most people, but the high of winning is like any other high: we want to do it again.

The problem is: you just can't will yourself to win -- be it a tournament, a single day's play, or even an individual hand. And then, unfortunately for some, not winning is something many players simply can't handle. And being able to not win well is a fundamental ingredient in being a winning player. The mountain that successful players stand on is mostly a pile of carcasses of players who could not handle the downward spikes that are inevitable if you play the game.

You see them in middle-high ring games all the time -- players who once beat these games, but now are either seriously under-bankrolled or simply broke and playing on borrowed money. They still think they belong in these games. They think that the standard rules of thumb about bankroll don't apply to them. They think "I'm a 100/200 player, so I am playing 100/200", even if they barely have a bankroll for 20/40. For most of these people, the story only gets worse.

In tournament poker it plays out a little differently. Players who hit one or even several major tournaments, end up dumping their money playing over their head, or on the craps table, or on sports, drugs or fast living. They now are forced to trade on an old reputation to try and get in significant action.

By its nature poker, and especially Texas Holdem, is a minefield of "glory days." The level of skill is huge. But the level of luck is huge too. Skill is not equal, and luck certainly isn't either. While most people have a middling amount of good and bad luck, some people are lucky or unlucky for extended periods. Recognition of these periods and adaptation to them is a pure skill. If you know you are playing well but getting unlucky, you are much better off than a player who thinks he is playing well but is instead just getting lucky. Even if you merely just understand that you are playing well and getting lucky, you are way ahead of most players.

No Limit Hold'em in particular is a game of great skills combined with ridiculous amounts of random luck. Very often all the money will go in before the flop on near coin flip situations -- and where the actions of both players are no-brainer decisions where there is no other logical choice. Other poker games don't have nearly as many critical, basically absurd moments of total random luck. But that is part of the game! And not just for yourself, but for your opponents as a group too. At the end of a No Limit Holdem tournament you are facing a table of people who have invariably gotten lucky to be there, which means they have a tendency to think they are bulletproof. You don't need to get lucky to make final tables in other games, but you virtually always need to get lucky to make final tables in No Limit Holdem. And again, this is not downplaying the skill involved. It merely means there is an aspect to the game that is absent from other forms of poker where you can easily make final tables without having any significant good luck at all.

Now pity the poor player who doesn't get that. Gladly take the money they wager at you, but spare some pity too for the players who think the laws of physics and mathematics, and chaos, don't apply to them. Luck comes and goes. Skill lasts a lifetime, and gathers the money that luck can't hang onto.

Successful players who keep their feet on the ground instead of their heads in the clouds end up being successful players for all days, not just their glory days.

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