Monday, May 14, 2007

Poker History: The Gambler's Fallacy 

Quick post by my hero, Johnny Hughes.


Poker and the gambler's fallacy By Johnny Hughes

"Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others." Fyodor Dostoyevsky

You have been down to half your chips and thought, "I am due. One big pot and I will get even."

When the poker game is great and you are not catching any real starting hands, do you anticipate a change of cards that you know must be certain? Do you play double up and catch up, taking more risks when you are behind? This is all part of the Gambler's Fallacy believing past events influence future events in games of chance. That is why a no limit hold 'em game starts out slow and tight and picks up steam and gets more money on the table and gets higher as time goes by.

The Gambler's Fallacy also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy is at the heart of all gambling systems. If a coin hits heads ten times in a row, the odds on heads the next flip are still fifty-fifty. The Gambler's Fallacy is believing the coin or the dice or the cards have "a memory". When I first went to Las Vegas, Benny Binion, ever the great showman and innovator, had ten cent craps on this hectic table right out by the front door on Fremont Street. It was crowded and manic and everyone had to really watch their own bets. All around the table were the system players writing down what the dice rolled and keeping a log. If a man noted an absence of boxcars, twelve, then he would muscle his way through the elbow to elbow crowd to start betting on twelve. That's the Gambler's Fallacy believing that twelve is "due" or that anything is "due" in gambling.

For thirty-five years there was a huge no limit hold 'em game here in the Lone Star State that started at around one on weekdays and ended precisely at six p.m. The game started out slow and everyone played tight and good for a while. As most often happens, it got higher and wilder as the afternoon went on as people were trying to get even.

Poker books describe what to do on a hand but do not take into account the Gambler's Fallacy, the flow of the game, and the play of the losers. A recurring joke in the Lone Star State is for a man that is losing is to acknowledge the effect of the Gambler's Fallacy and say, " Give me the hind leg of a Jack. I am bigger behind than a cotton patch spider. Any two cards will do."

Two long term professional poker players that I knew were totally different in all things especially their strategy of dealing with the flow and the losers in a no limit hold 'em game. E.W. Chapman and Pat Renfro made their livings playing poker when it was much harder to do. Pat was always very tight. E.W. was very loose and aggressive and bet more often than anyone taking over any game he entered.

Pat Renfro had been Johnny Moss's partner is varied gambling ventures during the oil booms. He traveled and played the very highest games and always had the same life long strategy. He started when the game started and put up as much or more money as anyone. He played tighter than anyone no matter what was happening in the game. He did not change. Pat Renfro won fewer pots and more money than anyone day after day and year after year. When he was pushing eighty, Pat was still beating them in Las Vegas. When the game got wild right at the end, Pat would take whatever score he had tipped over and go on home. In Doyle Brunson's book there is a picture of all the old rounders there with Pat at the first two World Series. Pat Renfro stayed in money from only poker for more years than anyone. My strategy for playing Pat Renfro was to stay out of his path. His play was not imaginative but it also did not have much risk to it.

E.W. Chapman, aka ole 186, had a different strategy. When Johnny Chan first came to Las Vegas, he jumped off winner and suddenly had twenty-thousand dollars and the equally sudden realization that he had a gift at no limit hold 'em. E.W. busted Johnny Chan playing head up and sent him packing. E. W. raised more pots and seemed to play wilder than anyone. He seemed to play on sheer instinct and emotion. E.W. never helped start a game but just showed up some hours after it started and immediately took over. The Gambler's Fallacy had some people really ready to play and E.W. always came to gamble. He would fire away for two or three hours and then suddenly quit. I play that way sometimes and it will wear you out. It is tiring slinking chips so much.

When he would really get to striking, E.W. would go all over challenging all manner of outlaws to play head up until he had a huge pile of money or nothing. He took uppers and downers at times. E.W. would get broke and get staked or borrow and the loans had juice. Long before he beat Johnny Chan, he had helped people create their best all time bad beat story because he played so many draw hands. When I was young, I had caught E.W. broke a couple of times and made nice scores on small stake horse investments. He would go out to the Mall and stroll around with nothing to do while the game was starting and getting good. My strategy for playing ole 186 was not the same as playing Pat Renfro. He was out on a limb so often that I'd take some long shot flops against him.

Part of the Gambler's Fallacy has to do with the mystique of what we call a "rush". A fast run of good hands does happen and it is not all that statistically rare. It is called a statistical random walk. Johnny Moss said, "The difference between a good player and a great player is that when a good player gets lucky, he'll win a big part of the table. When a great player gets lucky, he'll win the whole table."

That was the magical way that E.W. played sometimes going around the table busting people one after another. But what he did with his dominating style was create the illusion of a rush when he was just bluffing and drawing. Doyle Brunson, in his book, said he bets often when he catches any piece of the flop. That is what E.W. did, bet anything and you could not put him on a hand. You could put Pat Renfro on a hand but it was usually too late for you.

Johnny Moss also said, "If you're afraid to lose your money, you can't play to win." Both Moss and E.W. would have all their money on the table at times and both went broke. Pat Renfro never ever went broke.

The Gambler's Fallacy overtakes poker players in their daily thinking, "I have to get even." It is the reason for the change of plans in starting hands and the amount of time spent at the table. It is what we call "tilt" but it is more complicated in that a perfectly calm person can have illogical thoughts.

The Gambler's Fallacy is what makes game shopping so important and the reason that poker offers so much opportunity right now in Las Vegas. The best people to play against are those that believe that they are "due" to hit and are trying to get even. The odds are they won't get even.

"Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there you will find a fish." Ovid

All Content Copyright Iggy 2003-2007
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