Cruel Math And Fickle Poker Gods

Smoke rises from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea, Nov. 23, 2010. AP Photo

This report by Ken Adams is part of a series for CBSNews.com chronicling his run at the 2005 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
It will take me weeks to go through the three notebooks I filled during my two weeks at the World Series, and to organize the material in a way that makes sense to me and will be useful in preparing for next year. Until then, here is a short report on how it feels now that I have been back in the "real world" for a few days and away from the pressure cooker of the WSOP.

To set the stage, here is what I wrote to you the night that I busted out of the main event:

I played great for two days. Today I got almost nothing to work with for 11 hours. Never a single pocket pair of aces, kings or queens (I did get jacks once, and won a good pot with them). Not even an ace-king.

I made the most of the junk I was dealt. I started the day with $34,725 in chips. At one point I was down to about $20,000. Even without being dealt any good hands, I worked my chip count up to $65,000. But then the constantly increasing blinds and antes really started eating up my stack and I had to capture any and all opportunities to try to "steal" the blinds and antes. In the end, I tried to do that with king-queen and I ran into pocket aces.


Fifteen years ago, when I began working in earnest to become a better poker player, my poker mentor at that time (none other than Chip Miller) helped me to strive for the Zen-like emotional state you must reach in order to play the game seriously without going crazy. Chip was already there fifteen years ago. I am still struggling to get there.

I am talking about an emotional state in which you trust the statistical reality that over the long term everyone gets the same mix of strong and weak hands, and each player's results in the long term depends on how skillfully he or she plays each hand -- how much do you win on your winning hands, and how little do you lose on the losing ones?

Every serious player of the game knows that in his or her head. The challenge is to trust it in your heart, to the point that you do not become so frustrated and angry at the injustice of short-term bad fortune that your game deteriorates, causing you to lose more than you should on the days when the statistical curve is curving away from you.

One of the things I feel best about is that I was able to do that on Sunday. As Day Two of the championship event wore on, time after time after time (roughly 425 times to be precise, based on 45 hands per hour times 9.5 hours of playing time) I picked up either unplayable or marginal hands while other players at my table were showing aces and kings and queens and ace-king.

Still, I was able to channel the frustration into a confident belief that if I just held on long enough, eventually the cards would have to even out and I would be able to accumulate enough chips to make it to Day Three.

The statistical likelihood of not being dealt a single premium hand in 9.5 hours is so low, that I told myself it was going to be sweet when the rush of cards finally came as it would have to in order for the inexorable long run probabilities to hold true.

While waiting for the statistical probability to work itself out, I focused on capturing every opportunity to pick up chips in order to keep the increasing blinds and antes from eating up my stack before the cards turned. As you know, I was very successful in doing that, and actually built up my stack from $34,000 to $65,000 before I ran out of time and luck.

Has my faith in the long run probability been dented? No. And here is why.

After I busted out, and got a good night's sleep, I found myself with 12 hours on my hands before my flight home was due to depart. So I went over to the tournament area to get the final results from the night before and see how my friends had fared.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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