|July 26, 2005
Proper poker strategy often involves finding the right answers to the wrong questions, as a query from a reader about streaking revealed.
I received an email the other day from a reader interested in knowing whether I believed in "streaks" or not. He wasn’t referring to the 1970s phenomenon of grown men running through a public area buck naked. He was asking about streaks of good or bad cards in poker, specifically Texas holdem. He went on to opine that it was crazy to ignore them, since in his experience there clearly were times when he was running good or running bad. What he wanted to know was how to recognize when those times began and when they were about to end, and what to do about them.
Interesting. Before the skeptic in you dismisses this out of hand as superstitious rubbish, let me tell you that many thoughtful, smart, and otherwise good poker players have told me that they believe that there are streaks that can both be predicted and exploited at the poker table. Similarly, there are smart people and many books on craps and roulette that espouse the same theory: that there are "hot" tables, "cold" tables, and "rocky" tables that go back and forth from being hot to cold.
So I took his question seriously. So should you, as I’ll demonstrate.
First of all, there certainly are streaks in poker. Yes, absolutely there are streaks. There are periods that range from a few hands to a few hours to even a few days or months, when players have an unusual run of good cards or an unusual run of bad cards. It’s statistically provable. Get out a copy of Turbo Texas Hold Em if you don’t believe me. Run 10,000 hands with player profiles that are identical. Compare the results of the players after 10 hands, 100 hands, 1,000 hands and 10,000 hands. Are they always the same? Does one player seem to have an edge for the first 10 hands? How about after each additional interval? The player who is doing better than all others is on a statistical "lucky streak" for whatever that interval is. He is doing better not because of better play (since all players are identical) but because of better luck.
You can corroborate that with your own playing history if you like. Just keep track of every starting hand you’re dealt, whether in live games, online poker games, or in hands you deal out for yourself. Divide the list of hands into groups of 10 hands. Compare the groups. Are some better than others? Are any unusually good or bad? Those are streaks.
So streaks exist. The question is, Can they can be exploited? The answer to that is also yes -- but perhaps not as people commonly think.
Here’s the problem. There is no way to know whether your streak is just starting or just ending. No way to know whether it will be long or short. No way, in fact, to know whether your next hand is likely to be better than average or worse than average.
Again, I go back to all of those books on craps and roulette that rattle on about hot tables and cold tables. Many superstitious gamblers believe in the predictability of streaks. They believe that if a table has been good for the shooter and all right bettors that it will continue to be so. Other gamblers also believe in the predictability of streaks, but view them somewhat differently: They think that if there has been a long trend then it is likely that it will reverse itself. Ah, the complexity of it all. If the roulette wheel has hit red 10 times in a row, some believe that means that another red is more likely; others believe that a black is more likely since the wheel must inevitably average itself out and start hitting black.
Both of these theories are ridiculous. The wheel, the dice, the cards have no memory. They don’t know what came before or what will come after. And no player can predict the outcome of the next hand or the next throw or the next roll with any more than a random chance of being right.
So that points to the uselessness of using streaks to your advantage, no? But I said that they are useful. Let me explain further.
There are two reasons that streaks are useful. First of all, even though you know that there’s no point in using them to predict the outcome of the next hand, other players are not so smart. Many players, in fact, believe that if someone is "running good" that they will continue to "get lucky" and be more likely to hit their hands in the future. This means that you can exploit their impression of you.
Here’s an example. Imagine that you’ve won three of the last five hands or so: You seem to be "on a rush." You’re in middle position and it’s checked to you. You have a pair of 5s. Go ahead and raise three or four times the big blind. Normally you would probably call. But since you’re on a rush and stand a chance of intimidating people, go ahead and try for the pot. At the very least you’re likely to buy the button and be last to act; a large advantage for you.
Similarly, you might want to call more with borderline hands if you think that your newly-enhanced image might intimidate a player into folding if you bet on the flop. You should be more likely to try an over-the-top bluff or semi-bluff if your image is favorable, too. Folks may well be less likely to challenge you, in light of your winning streak.
Of course you can’t do this indiscriminately. Some players have the opposite reaction to players who have won a few hands in a row or many hands in the past hour. They figure, like the "don’t come" bettors in craps, that your luck is bound to change. And your more sophisticated opponents might figure that you’re just playing your rush by becoming more aggressive than your cards dictate. So they’re more likely to call you down. You must match your play to the opponents you face.
Streaks are only apparent in retrospect. You know when you’ve had a run of good or bad fortune. But they can’t be predicted. There’s no way to know whether they’re about to start, end, or continue. But they do exist. And your opponents may well react to them. To the extent that they do, you can use their reaction to your advantage as your streaks can get your opponents to act in a predictable and therefore exploitable way.
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Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 42 years, since learning the game literally at his grandfather's knee. He's been playing seriously (and winning) in casinos, poker rooms, living rooms and kitchens all over the world, for the past 12 years. He started playing seriously in 1993 at the poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino and he's been winning just about ever since. He's won No Limit Hold‘Em and 7-Card Stud tournaments in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Nevada.
He is the author of Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and articles in Card Player Magazine, Poker Player Magazine, Live Action Poker Magazine, Southwestern Poker Magazine, 5thStreet Magazine, and numerous online sites. He is under agreement for his next book, Winning Low Limit/No Limit Hold‘Em, due to be published by Kensington in early 2006.
He is by profession a union organizer and negotiator, representing broadcasters, health care workers and now teachers. He has two daughters, both of whom play poker.