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Don’t They Know?

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Jul 11, 2012

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Steve ZolotowI was talking with long time friend and steady winning player Neal Einfeld about some young player who had been on an incredible winner two years ago, and was now broke and trying to get staked. Neal’s comment was, “didn’t he know he’d won the game?”

Imagine a Super Bowl game which develops into an explosive offensive struggle. One of the teams has been forced to use its backup quarterback for nearly the whole game. This virtually unknown player has produced a superstar performance. Late in the game, he has just driven his team the length of the field to go ahead by 4. He has nearly set the record for yards passing (he is five short) and points scored (he is 4 short) in a Super Bowl. The other team takes over on their own 20 yard line with less than a minute to go, and immediately fumbles. He comes back on to the field. All he has to do is kneel twice and his team will win. He starts to think he might be the best QB ever and that he’d really love to break those Super Bowl records to try to prove how good he really is. So instead he of kneeling, he attempts a pass into the end zone. It is intercepted and the other team runs it back to score the winning touchdown as the clock expires. If you prefer a golf image, think of the movie “Tin Cup” in which Kevin Costner’s character self destructs in attempt to prove his greatness by trying to shoot over a water hazard rather than lock up a victory by going around it.

All poker players would view these athletes as insane. Why would one risk a win with some anti-percentage play for ego reasons? Yet over and over, one sees some young gun on the poker scene get off to an incredible start. He kills the cash games as the stakes he plays for rapidly escalate and/or he takes first in a huge tournament or two. Within a few years, he has gone from being a nerdy kid who plays games to being a superstar on the poker circuit with a bankroll of several million dollars. What has been the cause of this meteoric rise, and what should he do now?

The first thing to do is to take a little time off and try to figure out how this could have happened. Then he can plan an appropriate strategy. Let’s say he is one of five possible cases:

1. He is a real superstar, definitely better than almost anyone else, and perhaps one of the top five players in the world, and his luck have been about average over his career.

2. He is a great player, who should beat all but the toughest players in the world. Let’s say one of the top 100, but he has been a little lucky in key spots and against his toughest opponents.

3. He is a very good player, and is capable of being a steady winner, but still must take care to select good games and manage his bankroll. He has been lucky the last few years.

4. He is an above average player, but still needs to improve quite a bit to become a high stakes pro. He has been extremely lucky during his short career.

5. He is at best average and perhaps slightly below average, but he has been incredibly lucky during his successful run.

The vast majority of players are at the skill level of the players in group 4 and 5, but haven’t had their luck. Some advance to group 3, but not that many. If there are five million players in these groups, then there are 50,000 who have had the top one percent of the luck, and 5,000 who have had the top one tenth of one percent of luck. It has to be that much more likely that he is part of this incredibly lucky group of 5,000 than that he is part of a group of 100 or less, especially since a lot of spots in this group are already filled by players with long records of success. Obvious very few make it to level 2 and virtually no one can achieve level 1. Yet, nearly everyone who experiences great results for a few years becomes convinced that he is in category 1 or at worst 2.

What should our hero do, given that in cases 3, 4 and 5, he will almost certainly go broke if he continues to play at the stakes he has been playing for against the players he has been beating? He should take a big chuck of his money off the table, and invest it. Taking 80 percent of his bankroll and purchasing a combination of stocks, bonds and real estate would be appropriate. His other safe choice is to continue to play for high stakes, but to be ready to cut back sharply in the event of a losing streak. It is a lot more shameful to throw away a big bankroll, than it is to move down from the ‘big’ game to the ‘medium’ or even a small one. If he belongs in group 3, 4 or 5 he can work on improving his game, and perhaps grind out some more winnings over the years. More importantly, by following this plan he will have avoided the tragedy of ending up broke after being way ahead.

But you (and he) might think that following this strategy will cost him a lot of money if he is really a top (group 1 or 2) player. First of all, he is unlikely to be this good. These are very small groups out of a huge pool of players. But even if he is, all he has done is to delay his upward trajectory by a year or two. Above all he needs to know that he’s “already won the game.” ♠

Steve “Zee” Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful games player. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A — Nice Guy Eddie’s at Houston and Doc Holliday’s at 9th Street — in New York City.