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Playing a Rush

The psychology of the situation

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: May 21, 2008

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It seems to be a generally accepted poker axiom that when you are "on a rush" (catching a lot of winning hands in a short time period), you are supposed to take advantage of this nice situation by altering your play. Yet, I have seen many players make a huge switch from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when on a rush, usually giving back a large amount of their winnings -- or more -- in the process. It is almost as if they have a guilty conscience for being so lucky, and they act like a criminal trying to make restitution for his crimes.

Before going into how I think you should play a rush, let's talk about what causes a rush. Luck does not come from an evenly metered dispenser. It would be highly improbable for an event that was 9-1 against happening to occur exactly every 10th opportunity for occurrence. Luck, both good and bad, more often comes in batches.

Assuming that the game is on the square, the odds on your picking up a good hand are not affected at all by whether you have been holding a long streak of bad hands or an unusually high number of good hands. The poker expression describing this is, "The cards have no memory." Past luck in card distribution has no effect on future luck in card distribution.

Most people remember poker sessions better if they had either really good luck or really bad luck. Let me tell you about one of my most memorable poker evenings, when I had both. This happened about a quarter-century ago. I was playing in a no-limit hold'em cash game at Binion's Horseshoe during the World Series of Poker. Even though I had not taken a bad beat, my starting hands were dreadful. I had been in the game for about seven hours without picking up A-K or a decent-sized pair, and was stuck nearly $500 just on overhead. Then, all of a sudden, my luck radically changed. I picked up pocket kings in the cutoff seat and raised some limpers. One of the blinds called, and this brought a couple of the limpers. The flop brought a king and two queens, and I doubled up through a player who had a queen and made a full house on the turn. The next hand, I picked up pocket aces on the button, raised the pot, and flopped set over set, doubling up again. In the space of two hands, I went from being stuck to being up about three grand. I finished up about four grand by the time I cashed out. In poker, you never know when your luck is going to change. There is absolutely no reason for it to be either all good or all bad for an entire session.

Science says that neither the "due theory" nor the "streak theory" has any merit. However, there are many gamblers who pay no attention to science, and believe there are mystic forces at work, controlling destiny. Here are some typical reactions to rushes:

Some opponents behave as if the "rusher" is empowered by a mystical force, so they avoid gambling with a player on a hot streak. Thus, a rush will cause a few opponents to tighten up.

There is an opposite response to rushes that one also sees. Its thinking goes something like this: "That guy is going strong right now, but he has used up just about all of his good luck, and is ripe for an accident. He's cruisin' for a bruisin'. I would like to be there when that accident comes."

Some people react by appointing themselves the administrator of evenhanded justice, becoming the game's sheriff. "This dude thinks he is the king of the hill, but he can lose just like anyone else. I'd like to take him down a peg and give him a taste of reality."

Then, there is the analytical response. "This guy is on a lucky streak, and knows it. He is very likely playing a lot of hands that he shouldn't. There is a better-than-usual chance to catch him without the usual strength that his betting indicates. I have a chance to catch him out on a limb and take a bite out of his chip stack." I admit, that is how I usually react to an opponent's rush.

As you see, these reactions are a mixed bag of how opponents will react to a rush. Yet, three out of four of these reactions are in the direction of giving a player on a rush more action, rather than less. My poker experience says that when a player is obviously on a rush, the net result is that he will get more action from his opponents.

I do not think you should fall for the psychological feeling that you get when on a rush -- the feeling that you have gone into a telephone booth, put on your blue and red costume, and only kryptonite can stop you. Such an attitude will cause you to be overaggressive at a time when people are already in the mood to give you more action than usual.

You should base your rush decisions on the psychology of the situation, rather than the expectation of additional good luck. The psychology says that you are going to get more action than normal. I see nothing wrong with seeing more flops than usual, provided you can do so cheaply. When your implied odds go up, you can be involved more often. But, don't overdo it. Good position will be even more important, because it is a lot easier to cash in on a lucky flop when your opponent acts first.
Should you be raising more pots than normal when on a rush? Well, you can be more active, but make sure that you have good position.

I seldom bluff when on a rush. Why bluff when people are real eager to call you? I remember one time, I had just been moved to a new tournament table, and I raised the first hand I was dealt. No one called. I raised the second hand, got a caller, bet the pot, and won. About two hands later, I raised again. Someone played back, I moved all in for a small amount more, and got called. One of the players chuckled, and said, "Now we'll see what you've been raising those pots on."

"Oh no you won't," said Bill Smith, who knew how I played from many Dallas home games. "This time he's gonna show ya about two kings." My pocket kings won the pot.

Chips won from a rush should be treated with the same respect as any other chips.

Bob Ciaffone has authored four poker books, Middle Limit Holdem Poker, Pot-limit and No-limit Poker, Improve Your Poker, and Omaha Poker. All can be ordered from Card Player. Ciaffone is available for poker lessons: e-mail thecoach@chartermi.net. His website is www.pokercoach.us, where you can get his rulebook, Robert's Rules of Poker, for free. Bob also has a website called www.fairlawsonpoker.org.