Do You Still Rely on Superstition to Make Decisions?

June 27, 2017, Scott  

Most pros would say that superstition is for the newbies and the bingo players. They would say that they used to have favorite hands and strange rituals to increase their win rate, but that they grew out of all that a long time ago. Pros, of course, are logical machines hard-wired to make +EV decisions at the poker table.

Or are they?

It pretty much goes without saying that superstitions make their way into any game that requires a little more than just skill. There is a whole science behind superstition, but basically, when we can’t control the outcome of something, we look for variables that aren’t there as a way of taking back control. We would rather trick our brains with elaborate stories about the color of clothes that we wear, or how a certain hand always (or never!) wins for us, than accept the truth that we just have no control; the cards fell how they fell and there was nothing we could do about it.

As poker players advance, though, they shed their superstitions in favor of a more knowledgeable approach to the game, making decisions that are based on what they have learned from books, videos, studying the math of the game, and analyzing their play. Yet, I would argue that superstitions still slip into the minds of most players, and even a small psychological hiccup can be costly.
First, there are blatant influences of lucky numbers – an age-old problem. The weak or new player may claim that 7-3s is their favorite hand, having won by fluke with it at some point. This is never something that a pro would do, but consider that some cards do seem to look nice together. You may have been guilty of overplaying hands like 7-9s or 8-9s in situations where you might not play 10-8s–a minor influence of superstition, but one that could be costly. The same applies for cards of the same color that aren’t suited, such as hearts and diamonds. They may look more attractive being both red, but they are unsuited and should be treated as such. If you play online, you can turn on the “4-color deck option” to avoid confusion.

The next major superstition that needs to be addressed is “the feeling." Anytime you have “a feeling” about something, and are basing your decision on nothing other than that, you are falling victim to a harmful superstition. Players do this in individual hands, pushing all in on a good feeling or folding a big hand on a bad feeling, and during entire sessions.

Another aspect of this superstition is to expect a win or lose because it’s due –either in a hand or in a tournament or session. For example, you may not have been dealt a playable hand for a long time, but suddenly you are looking down at 9-9. You are ready to play, but the pre-flop action is a raise and a re-raise. In normal circumstances, you would fold, but as you haven’t played a hand in a while you might think this is the moment to go for it. This is faulty thinking based on the idea that you “deserve” to win because you have waited long enough. Poker doesn’t work like that.

This expectation can also work in the opposite way. Let’s say you have lost a few hands in a row in bad beats. You are now expecting to lose. You land a decent hand, but you feel scared that the same outcome will happen again and that your nemesis across the table will get the best of you for sure. You play softly to avoid conflict. Faulty thinking...

The reality is that poker is a game that takes more than just pure skill. Your job is to make the best decisions that you can make based on your knowledge and experience of the game, combined with your observations of the other players at the table. Statistical variance does the rest and is beyond your control. No superstition can remedy that, whether you wear red underwear or overplay 7-9s. Remember, superstitious thinking can creep into your game even if you are an experienced player. So, take a calm and emotionally controlled approach to poker, and apply your rational wisdom to win the game.