Poker in Lake Wobegon

Garrison Keillor described Lake Wobegon as a place where “all the children are above average.” Although Lake Wobegon is fictional, psychologists have found that the “Lake Wobegon effect” is very real. In surveys most people consider themselves above average drivers. When married couples are asked how much they contribute to household chores, their answers always sum to more than 100%.

Poker has its own version of the Lake Wobegon effect. Nearly every poker player believes himself to be an excellent player beset with bad luck. This belief is so universal that, if you took their word for it, you would have to conclude that all poker players are unlucky. But poker is a zero-sum game; one player’s bad luck is always someone else’s good luck. Clearly all poker players can’t be unlucky any more than all children can be above average.

Why does everyone feel unlucky? It seems to be tied to the need to feel exceptional. If they took their results at face value, most poker players would be forced to accept that they’re not any better than their opponents. This turns out to be far more painful than finding ways to see yourself as unlucky. Since poker is a complex game with many unexpected twists and turns, this is never very hard to do.

One common tactic is focusing on the point in the hand where you were ahead, ignoring all the other points. For example, a player might get all-in pre-flop as a slight dog, hit a great flop that makes him a big favorite, only to end up losing on the river. Of course from the strategic point of view you should only be concerned about the odds when the money goes in, but this rarely stops the player from complaining about how unlucky he was to lose after being so far ahead on the flop.

The “bad beat story” is a classic poker archetype. There’s always someone eager to explain how unlucky he got, usually to the intense boredom of everyone else. When I hear a bad beat story about a hand that I witnessed, I almost always notice that the player has changed the hand – sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically – to make it seem more unlucky than it actually was. The changes often multiply in the retelling: the opponent goes from 6 outs, to 3 outs, to 1 out…

There are no “good beat” stories. Even when players recognize their instances of good luck, they tend to see them as well-deserved but inadequate payback for their constant bad luck. Or they find a way to explain that it really wasn’t good luck at all. “Sure, he was ahead when the money went in, but he can’t expect to win playing like that.”

Some players are so wedded to the idea of their own bad luck that it almost seems like they play poker purely for the purpose of feeling aggrieved. For them, poker becomes a sort of cosmic game of chicken, where they are determined to test the limits of the universe’s malevolence towards them. This can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy as they play worse and worse, leading to worse results which must be explained by even more bad luck.

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