For some reason several of my friends in the poker industry have been very excited recently about this whole concept of “managing luck.” I think that part of it has to do with the fact that these friends are trying to prove how skillful poker really is as a game. In order to do that, they are trying to show that much of the skill in poker comes by way of managing/mitigating/minimizing luck. It’s a compelling argument for why poker is a different game when it comes to those offered in a casino, and its an argument that I think many are hoping will make poker look better in the eyes of legislators who can legalize and regulate the game long-term.
But my concern as an author and as an observer in the poker world is that when we teach players that they are being skillful when they “manage luck,” the message they often get is ‘play really tight and your good cards will hold up over the long-term.’ Of course that’ not what people usually intend, but it’s a message that many amateur players hear and then stick to religiously, because it A) allows them to make really straightforward decisions about their hands preflop, and B) allows them to wallow in a bad beat story when their KK always seems to be up against some random Ace on the flop, or the other guy always makes his set with a smaller pair, etc.
You and I know that poker isn’t a simple enough game to limit it to super-tight preflop play. If it was, I’d be justified to sit around waiting for only the most premium of starting hands and play them very aggressively, which by the way might work with less experienced players. But among good amateurs or professionals, I’d be easily exploited and beaten with this game plan. They would fold when I bet, or bet when I check, and I’d be stuck against a wall with my one-gear game plan.
So “managing luck” can’t really be a simple matter of playing tighter than everyone else, although tight and reasonable play will certainly be a part of it. What I have below are some basic ideas on what it means to manage luck at the poker table, and if you’re new to this discussion, please use these as a way to think about the skill in poker beyond an assessment of your starting hand. There are many ways to manage luck, and a few of my favorites are found below:
1) Pay attention to position. However important you THINK position at the table is, multiply it by 100 and play accordingly. Remember, the whole goal here is managing the luck factor, and one way to do that is to be in control of the information at the table. If you are acting early, you not only have to predict everyone’s future actions, but you’ll have to do so on up to 4 betting rounds and you’ll constantly be exposed to aggression from players acting later. There’s a reason they call it “Under the Gun.” But when you act last or close to it, you’ve seen declarations of strength/weakness from almost everyone, and now you get to act accordingly. Play cards in late position that you’d rarely play early (suited connectors, smaller pairs, unsuited Broadway combos, etc.) – – not because they magically get better, or there’s extra luck on the dealer button, but because you can play them with a full menu of information at your disposal on every round. Want to manage luck? Then make the other players take more risks out of position by loosening up your own play late.
2) Learn how to read a Flop. Ask yourself on every flop that you see (even if you’re not in the hand) the following questions: What are the current nuts? Could someone already have a straight or flush? Does this board make any 4 card straight or flush draws? There are plenty of other ways to assess a flop, but just identifying a few basics will help you to manage luck by understanding that if a player bets big, and a big hand is possible/probably based on the board, you can still lose a reasonably small amount by folding your QQ on a board that renders it useless. That’s not a bad beat, it’s you managing the situation well by letting a beaten hand go. If and until you learn to read flops, you’ll simply be jamming piles of money into pots with marginal hands because you hope they’re the best. Reading the board will let you know when they’re not.
3) Practice reading other players. This is more of a live tip than online, but it can work in either setting. No matter what the movies say, most players don’t have some unintentional physical tick that gives away their bluffs or strong hands. You’ll probably lose more money trying to make sense out of those things than you will make trying to catch them stealing. Instead, look for the following: How do they stack their chips? How do they look at their cards? How often do they look at their cards? Do they have the same routine each time they act? How do they push their chips into a pot? Is it consistent? How and how often do they declare their action verbally versus with signs or actions? One of the keys to managing luck is to be the first person at your table to learn the habits and tendencies of everyone else. You know what to do if you know what you’re up against, and just this simple exercise will most likely show you who the newer/weaker players are, which in and of itself will lend to playing more pots where you have a better chance to succeed. That’s managing luck in my book.
There are many, many other ways to effectively manage luck at the poker table, but I hope these start to make the point that my friends were trying to make in the first place. When you sit down at a poker table, you are without a doubt playing a game that is predominantly driven by skill, and when treated accordingly, you can and should succeed at it over the long haul, regardless of what cards you start with. Stay tuned to FTR.com for more, and Good Luck at the Tables!!