Dispatches from the Creation Wars

This is Luck at Poker

From the Card Player live updates from yesterday at the World Series of Poker main event. One guy, William Thorsson, has been running incredibly hot and is the chip leader. How hot? This hot:

William Thorsson raises to $700 from the cut off and the button re-raises to $1,200. The small blind makes a third raises to $3,500. Thorsson re-raises $7,000 more and the small blind calls. The flop comes Ah 2d 2s and the small blind checks and Thorsson moves all-in for $100,000. The small blind makes the call after 2 minutes of deliberation and shows K-K. Thorsson taps the table and says “Wow,” and sheepishly shows his 7c 5h. The turn is a 3h and the river a 4c giving Thorsson the wheel.

Unbelievable luck. He’s just trying to push around the table, but the 4th reraise before the flop has to signal that he has pocket aces. The small blind made what was probably a foolish call after the flop given the pre-flop betting, but he was actually ahead in the hand. To then lose to a runner runner straight is just brutal. After the flop, Thorsson was almost 50-1 to lose that hand. When you’re running hot, you’re running hot.


  1. #1 Matt
    July 31, 2006


    Would you mind defining some of the jargon for those of us who are interested neophytes? (“small blind?”)

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    July 31, 2006

    Sure, there is a lot of jargon in the pasted text. It’s not all that hard to understand. In hold em, you have blind bets – bets that have to go into the pot before the cards are even dealt. The deal rotates, and there is a dealer button that moves clockwise. Wherever the dealer button is, the player to his left is the small blind and the player to that player’s left is the big blind. At that stage of the tournament, the blinds were probably something like 100/200, so the small blind was $100 and the big blind was $200. After the cards are dealt, the betting then begins with the person to the left of the big blind (that player is referred to as “under the gun”), who has to match the $200 bet, fold, or raise. Then it proceeds to the left. The player one seat before the player on the button is referred to as the “cutoff seat”. So in the scenario above, here’s what happened…

    Thorsson was in the cutoff seat, meaning he was in the seat before the player with the dealer button. He raised it to $700. The player on the button then reraised to $1200. Then the bet went to the small blind, who already had $100 in the pot. He then reraised to $3500. The big blind then folded. Thorsson then reraised a 4th time to $7000, the button folded and the small blind called him.

    Also, the phrase “runner runner” means that a player hit the exact cards he needed on both the turn and the river (the 4th and 5th cards turned up as community cards). So let’s say that you have two spades in your hand, but there’s only one spade on the flop. In order to hit your flush, you need “runner runner spades”, meaning both of those last two cards are necessary for you to make your hand.

  3. #3 Pieter B
    July 31, 2006

    Watching a summary of Chris Moneymaker’s WSOP win in 2003, I was struck by how many times he drew out when he was all-in with the weaker hand. Just goes to show that to win a major, you’ve got to be both good and lucky.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    July 31, 2006

    No question, Pieter. No matter who wins a tournament, you can look back at a few key hands when they either got their money in as an underdog and got lucky, or won a coin flip. In the short run, like a single tournament, luck is a huge factor. Over the long run, the luck evens out and skill tends to win out.

    One false perception that the public has is in equating Chris Moneymaker with Greg Raymer. Moneymaker was truly an amateur guy off the street. He’d never played a live poker tournament in his life. Raymer, on the other hand, was an accomplished tournament player who just wasn’t well known by the public. He hadn’t won the big $5-10,000 buy in events, but he had won a lot of smaller regional tournaments, particularly in the Northeast (Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, Atlantic City). Greg was a regular in the poker newsgroup (rec.gambling.poker), and he had a set of folks there who knew his talent and backed him financially in tournaments long before he won the big one. He’s a guy who spent a lot of years working really hard at becoming a great poker player to get to that point.

  5. #5 tacitus
    July 31, 2006

    I’ve watched a number of large multitable tournaments online at Party Poker and have been struck as to how much of a crap shoot those tournaments are. It appears to possible to play good p’ker (took out the “o” because of the spam safeguards!) for a while but as the blinds start to increase all the players other than the largest stacks are reduced to two moves: all-in or fold. You have to survive multiple all-in races (i.e. when someone calls your all-in bet) to have any chance of winning.

    I’m sure the blind structure is a little more forgiving in the WSOP Main Event (given the length of the tournament) but it is certainly true that you still have to get very lucky to advance to the final table in an event like that.

    I can certainly see why aggression is so important in no-limit. Making aggressive raises puts all the pressure on your opponent. Unless they have a monster hand, they’re the ones facing the tough choice of whether or not to call.

    In the Thorsson example above, he almost got caught out by his aggressive play, but considering how close his opponent came to folding instead of calling, it wasn’t really that bad of a bet. Even in play money games (the only sort I’ve dabbled in so far) where there is nothing on the line, it’s usually much easier to be the raiser than the caller.

  6. #6 tacitus
    July 31, 2006

    Regarding the above message I had to take out the word “h*ldem” before it got through the spam blocker. (Not sure if “poker” was a problem too.)

  7. #7 Kenneth Fair
    July 31, 2006

    Raymer’s expertise is apparent from his repeated cashes in the 2005 and 2006 WSOP, including his 25th place finish in last year’s WSOP main event. He’s not the best no-limit hold’em player around–as he himself admits–but he’s certainly no amateur.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    July 31, 2006

    In online tournaments, the blinds generally go up every 10-15 minutes. At the WSOP, the levels are two hours long, so that really minimizes the effect of the blinds going up and maximizes skill. The larger problem there is simply bad play. Amateur players generally don’t know when to fold, and they may be much less willing to fold against a big name player. In a recent interview, Greg Raymer noted that his bluff equity is virtually nil in this event, at least in the early stages. Most players go there knowing they have little chance of winning, but they’d love to be able to go home with a good story. So they’re much more likely to call a big bet from someone like him with a marginal hand so they can go home and say that it took a world champion to knock them out. So in the early stages of the WSOP, he just doesn’t try and bluff unless it’s against a player he knows is smart enough, and motivated by winning, to lay down a marginal hand. Later in the tournament, when they’re getting closer to finishing in the money, that will change. Then players will be thinking that they have a shot to win money and they’ll be motivated more by that than by leaving with a story, and they’ll be playing much tighter.

    As for the hand above, I think Thorsson made one big mistake. Yes, you want to push people around with a big stack, so the first raise is fine. But when it comes back to you reraised twice more, you have to know that you’re not gonna be able to push that last raiser off their hand. When someone three bets the pot in early position, you’ve got to put them on aces or kings (or less likely, queens or AK). So the second raise before the flop was a terrible move with the hand he had – you aren’t going to be make them fold, and you’re a huge underdog if you get called. Now, after the flop it’s not such a bad idea to raise again. You’ve represented aces and there’s an ace on the flop, so if your opponent has kings, queens or AK, you may make them lay it down. The only hand you’re not gonna chase out is aces. And at that point, you’ve already got $7000 in the pot, you’ve got a huge stack and you’re against a much smaller stack, and you know that the only way to win that pot is to make them lay down their hand. So given all of that, the raise after the flop is a good one. The caller probably should have put him on aces and laid it down. So frankly, I think both players played the hand badly. Thorsson should have laid it down preflop when it came back to him reraised twice, and his opponent probably should have laid it down either pre or post flop.

  9. #9 James Taylor
    July 31, 2006

    It’s all just a dice throw until the field trims down. Players are motivated to take risks for wildly variable reasons early in the tourney. Skill and game theory can’t really take over until the variability in player behavior settles down and the chips start to accrete around sufficient chipstack masses. Luck is the single most important factor early and remains important throughout the tourney. As my roomate says, “10% is still 10%” meaning as long as you don’t have a dead hand, anyone can win. Probabilities only show the likely outcome, not the inevitable one.

  10. #10 tacitus
    July 31, 2006

    You’re right, Ed, the preflop re-raise was a loose one.

    Some of the best TV moments come from loose calls, whether they fail or suck out. The indignation of the more volatile pros at being called when they believe they’ve played their hand “perfectly” (even when they are bluffing) can be most entertaining.

    Has Moneymaker done anything since his victory in 2003, or is he still living of the fame of his WSOP title?

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    July 31, 2006

    tacitus wrote:

    Has Moneymaker done anything since his victory in 2003, or is he still living of the fame of his WSOP title?

    He finished second in a World Poker Tour event at Bay 101 a couple years ago. I suspect that without all the sponsorship money he gets, he’d be a memory by now.

  12. #12 DRR
    July 31, 2006

    That Moneymaker victory back in 2003 is the reason I started watching the WSOP. That was a great ride.

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    August 1, 2006

    Ed, do you really believe in “luck”?

  14. #14 Ed Brayton
    August 1, 2006

    Roman wrote:

    Ed, do you really believe in “luck”?

    Only in the purely statistical sense. If someone gets the one card out of 40 that will help them, we refer to that as getting lucky, which just means that the result was against the odds. I don’t believe there’s anything more to it than that, as in some people being luckier than another. Luck is merely a function of short term variations in probability.

  15. #15 DJ
    August 1, 2006

    Personally, I believe in “luck”, if by “luck” you mean a coincidental confluence of factors that randomly happen to be in your favor at an optimal moment.

  16. #16 James Taylor
    August 1, 2006

    I only used the term luck to define winning hands that the player is not supposed to win based on the initial probability. Luck is what Ed said.

  17. #17 Kenneth Fair
    August 1, 2006

    An even luckier win from Day 1A of the WSOP main event. Jack Mahalingam went all-in for $5,000 and was called by an opponent in late position. Mahalingam showed 8s-8c and his opponent had 5h-5c. Mahlingam was therefore a 4-1 favorite before the flop.

    The flop came 6s-5s-5d, giving Mahalingam’s opponent quad 5’s. Mahalingam’s only chance to win was with a straight-flush; he needed the 7 of spades and either the 9 or 4 of spades on the turn and river. That’s four permutations out of a possible 1980, meaning that Mahalingam was a 494-1 underdog after the flop.

    The turn came 9s, giving Mahalingam a gut-shot straight flush draw. The river was the 7s, giving Mahalingam the straight flush and the hand.

    Now that’s luck!

  18. #18 Ed Brayton
    August 1, 2006

    Wow, I missed that hand. Unreal. The worst beat I ever took was in a tournament at Soaring Eagle in Mt. Pleasant a few years ago. I had AJ in the cutoff seat and it was folded to me. I raised and got called by the big blind. The flop came AAJ. Big blind checked, I bet, he raised, I reraised all in and he called me. He flipped up KQ of clubs and the AJ of clubs was on the board. River was the 10 of clubs for the royal flush. But that’s still only about 25-1.

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