The ‘Poker God’ Delusion
I consider it symptomatic of a serious character flaw on my part that when someone mentions the ‘Poker Gods’, I tend to contradict them with ramblings about standard deviation. Evidently, this is not what people want to hear when their aces get cracked by the monkey playing ‘in the dark’ with his miracle fours full of eights – not for the same reasons that an evangelist would really rather not hear similar negations of deities from the likes of Richard Dawkins. The true reason is that such a comment is just a bit dickish.
My point, however, is not mere pedantry, though I concede it may seem that way. The concept I have in mind is variance, one with which most online players will be all too familiar. Many people contend that the fluctuation is the fun of poker, and what makes the game so great. ‘Anyone can win and anyone can lose’, they might say. One would suppose that all the people who do say this are either running good, or have no reliance on income generated from poker. Or they are dangerously insane. What variance does do, however, is mean that more players are willing to play the game, as there is always a chance of them winning, even against brilliant players. It is this aspect that ensures profitability for the cardsharps; who would want to play against superior players if they were always going to lose? The interesting thing though, is that some of the better players tend to not see it in this way. The megalomaniacal ramblings of Phil Hellmuth illustrate a truly unbalanced approach to this most trying aspect of the game.
I am certain that many will have watched, some with glee, as the pantomime villain of poker had his aces outdrawn by Tom ‘Durrrr’ Dwan’s pocket tens in the National Heads-Up Poker Championship not too long ago. “What happens if I get it all in with aces and he hits a ten again?” contended Hellmuth when asked if he would accept Dwan’s challenge and play a heads-up cash game with him, compounding his ungraciousness with an apparent ignorance of the way of the poker world to create what for most poker players would be a ridiculous remark, but for him appears commonplace. This is indeed a comment that should never be uttered by a professional poker player, as there is no real answer to that question that can define anything that Hellmuth shouldn’t already know.
I will, however, clarify what would indeed happen if Dwan were to outdraw him, i.e. that Hellmuth, of course, would lose his buy-in. After playing the same scenario with aces against tens multiple times, Hellmuth would win somewhere quite close to 80.749% of the time; pretty good odds for an even money shot. However, the difference between 80% and 100% is all too often forgotten in poker. I believe it to be a fair assumption to make that most players feel righteous in victory and unlucky in defeat against an underpair, but this is not the correct way of thinking in such a position. The truth is that, unless one player is drawing dead or two players have the same hand with equal covering of suits, the correct result never happens in poker. If Dwan had lost, he would in fact have been unlucky, as he was in fact due just over 19% of the pot. Equally, if Hellmuth had won the pot, he would have run over expectation, albeit on a sample that does not lend itself too well to scrutiny and deliberation. Shockingly, what must be pointed out to the ‘Poker Brat’ is that if someone were to win with aces one hundred percent of the time over a reasonable sample, they would be the luckiest player in the world. It simply doesn’t happen.
Everybody who plays poker will have known many times when they end a session in the red, having played well and simply been unlucky. We have reached a stage of enlightenment where it has been proven several times that shit does indeed happen –and, I would venture, quite often. In the words of a man discussing (arguably) more important things, ‘What is to be done’? Outside playing more hands, reducing short-term variance is something that can be achieved, but at the risk of reducing win-rate. In fact the solution is simple, if you do not want to handle the dreaded fifteen buy-in downswing: tighten up. If you are always shoving tens and above pre-flop when given a decent opportunity, you can be sure that a lot of the time you will come up against better hands, and very rarely worse. What makes this move profitable against some players is the fold equity you have, and the equity against big aces that they may be prepared to call off. This is therefore a high variance move, as there is marginal profitability in a move that risks an entire stack.
Being prepared to shove fewer hands will probably subtract from your profits, but add a couple of extra years to your life. However, before you take this to heart, it is important to see the positives of a high-variance style as well. Opening up the range of hands you are willing to play will mean that you can find spots of increasing profitability, and give you the opportunity of running over the table. It will tend to improve your game and, in all honesty, playing under eighteen percent of your hands is quite boring.
Ideally, one should simply accept variance as a fundamental part of the game, and a strategy with a lower standard deviation may well be counterproductive in the long term. The most profitable move can always be justified as the correct one; however there may be merit in avoiding these tough situations in an attempt to blunt the swings. There is a trade-off here between increasing profitability and reducing personal stress, and choosing the former is not always suitable for everybody. For those who can truly handle the ups and downs, might I recommend some 2-7 lowball triple draw?