The Victory Dance

Winning Versus Premature Goofballism

Poker Clowns"When a player loses it in his legs, he gains it in his mouth." -- Norm Schachter

I've written about the rise in trash talking goofballs due to the surge in televised poker coverage. If you trace the root of this back to its source, we could blame Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Mark Gastineau, Terrell Owens and televised sports coverage which simultaneously catered and made fools of countless more sports players who engaged in some form of what John Cafferty called the "Victory Dance".

But it is not really that simple, because victory dances generally come in two forms: sincere celebrations upon a major accomplishment like winning a championship; and contrived, play-to-the-cameras acts that can bizarrely occur at absurdly trivial moments. (I write this after seeing a defensive lineman do a scripted dance after throwing a running back for a six yard loss -- even though his team was THREE TOUCHDOWNS behind with less than five minutes to play!)

To understand the negative value of this goofballism as it applies to poker, we need to examine two related phenomena occurring at the same time. First, there is no "leader money" in poker. Being ahead in a tournament, having the best hand with one card to come, or even winning a hand, these things are simply temporary moments. They are not the end of the game.

Secondly, we need to examine when most of the false celebrations occur -- at moments of great luck. You don't see goofball celebrations when the Lakers beat the Clippers by 25 points, for the hundredth time. And you seldom see them in poker games when AA beats A7.

Celebrations at trivial victories are a bit like when we first meet the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz -- bluster and noise that is just a pretense to cover fear and self-generated insecurity.

It's no coincidence that Texas Hold'em generates more of these displays than other games. Texas Hold'em is designed to throw wildness/luck into poker. Contrast it to draw poker, where bad players have no chance against even mediocre players. You simply can't hand after hand draw to a three flush or an inside straight against opponents playing large pairs unless you hit the lottery (more than once!). In stud and Omaha, hands change on the last card dealt in what is normally a mathematically knowable way. When a player sends two pair against a flush, it's not fundamentally "luck" that makes the two pair win. If four cards are live, two pair will make a winning full house a known percentage of the time.

Poker IdiotsIn contrast, in Hold'em when the board on the turn is 9732, A6 will draw out on KK sometimes. That is random luck. A6 has no reason to know that the hand will be good if an A comes. When it is good, it's just lucky that it is. Hold'em is full of these bits of randomness while stud and Omaha have much less.

Additionally, the most obvious luck in Hold'em is that many, many preflop situations are about 50/50. Obviously, the winner of a coin flip is simply determined by luck. The skill in Hold'em occurs when you extract more money from your opponent when you win your 50% than when he wins his 50%. That is pure skill, but the winner of the coin flip part of the hand is pure luck.

Not-great poker players have to say how great they are because they are unable to show it. They have to wildly celebrate winning hands, because they don't get to experience the more genuine victories. Basically, doing a victory dance at any time other than at the time of genuine victory is to miss the point of the game.

Poker is about navigating the ebbs and flows of a raging river. Moving a hundred feet down the turbulent river may be exhilarating and satisfying, but you are a lunatic if you then stand up in the boat and start doing a victory dance. You still have miles of the river to go, or at least you would have, if your premature fool actions hadn't capsized your boat.

Focus on what really matters, genuine goals, and real victories. Don't distract yourself by celebrating pointless victories, especially those earned by luck. And smile to yourself every time you see a sprinter stop to do a victory dance because he was leading at the sixty yard point in a hundred yard dash.

"Next time you're in the end zone, act like you've been there before, and that you're going to be there again." -- Vince Lombardi

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