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What To Do When You’re Card Dead

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jun 08, 2016

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Ed Miller“So I went maybe two hours barely playing a hand,” was how she started the story. “My stack was slowly draining away, so I decided to do something about it.”

The something she decided to do was open 7Club Suit 6Spade Suit for $20 in a $2-$5 game from middle position. Two people called behind, as did the big blind.

The flop came AHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 4Spade Suit, and she bet the flop to “represent the ace” with her gutshot-straight draw. She bet again on the turn when she missed. And on the river she spiked a 5 and beat someone holding A-K for a stack.

“I know I got lucky,” she said, “but I felt like it was the right thing to do, given the situation.”

Well, it wasn’t the right thing to do. But I’ve heard variations on this line of thought repeatedly, so I figured it was time to write about being card dead.

1. Your Cold Run Could End At Any Time

Here’s the first concept. Every hand is independent. If you have been dealt offsuit junk ten hands in a row, that doesn’t affect what you’ll be dealt on the next hand. Each new hand is completely fresh. Totally random. Could be more offsuit junk. Could be a pair, something suited, whatever. It’s random.

I think after a period of getting worse-than-average cards, many people begin to get acclimated to these hands as the new normal. Like the rules of mathematics have warped like space-time to keep aces far, far away from you.

It can begin to feel that way very quickly—and I think part of the reason that feeling is so common has to do with how our brains learn. (Learning frequencies by experiencing hands is more powerful than doing the calculations.)

But the reality is that the rules of mathematics are completely unbending. There is no such thing as being card dead. There is only “has been card dead.” It’s not a thing that exists in the present, only the past. It could end literally with every new hand. Every time you get a new hand, you have just the same chance to get a good one that you always do.

So, in that way, a cold run of cards is a sunk cost. It’s over with. Even if it feels like it’s ongoing, it’s not. It’s always in the past. It’s not a thing that carries forward to the future in any way at all.

If you are mathematically-minded like me, you are probably nodding your head. “Of course. Bad cards can’t follow you into the future. It’s all random.” But I can tell you from experience that it is very easy to begin to think of yourself as “running bad” rather than “having recently run bad.”

Resist the temptation. Remind yourself that random is random, there is no such thing as being “card dead” as it pertains to the future, and what happened in the past is over and done with.

2. Don’t Overestimate Your Image

So the second concept is not as universal, since it depends on human psychology. But I would say as a general rule, the vast majority of players overestimate how much their card-deadness will affect the perceptions and play of their opponents.

“I hadn’t played a hand in half an hour, so I figured they’d respect my raise this time.”
Nope. Most of the players at the table are likely vaguely aware (at best) that you haven’t been playing hands. Moreover, if you happen to find opponents who are paying attention to such things, there’s a good chance they also happen to know that anyone can run cold for half an hour and it really doesn’t mean a whole lot.

So when you say, “I haven’t been playing, so I figured they’d give me respect,” you’re really saying that you think your opponents live in this magical space where they pay close attention to what you are doing (even when the whole point is that you’re not doing anything), yet don’t pay enough attention to know that often the first hand players play after they’ve been card dead for a while is a bad one—precisely because card dead players get bored and also because they think they’ve convinced the table how tight they are.
Don’t make this error. If you haven’t played a hand in a while, chances are your opponents will barely adjust, if at all.

3. You Don’t Have To Make A Move

So here I have to draw a distinction between tournaments and cash games. In cash games, where your stacks are relatively deep compared to the big blind, there’s absolutely no reason to start playing more hands just because you’ve been card dead for a while. If you do loosen your standards or if you play hands more aggressively than usual (e.g., reraising preflop with a hand you’d normally just call with), chances are these plays will backfire more often than not.

So if you play cash games, my advice is fairly simple. Sit tight. Don’t worry. You’ll get some hands to play eventually. If you’re bored, take a walk, make a phone call, or do something else to break things up. If your table is not-so-good to begin with, consider changing tables. This is not because doing so will change your luck—random is random.

It’s because a not-so-good table is usually worth moving off anyway, and if doing so also gives you a fresh look at a new game, all the better. You’re certainly less likely to be bored at a new table than if you stay at the old one.

In tournaments, things are a little more complicated. That’s because stack sizes are short, and every round you go without playing much will significantly alter the size of your stack relative to the blinds. In general, the shorter your stack, the more hands you should play.

However, this is not because you “must make a move” to win in tournaments. Instead, it’s because the actual math of poker changes when you’re playing five big blind stacks versus 10 or 20 or 50. Also, since most tournaments have antes, the tournament structure simply requires you to play looser than you would in most cash games.

So yes, in a tournament you do have to play looser if you go card dead for a while, but it’s only because you’ll be playing a shorter stack, and those often require looser play. And you shouldn’t force the issue by calling raises light just because you “can’t let yourself get blinded away.” Be patient and play good tournament strategy.

4. Final Thoughts

So what should you do when you’re card dead? Mostly nothing. It will turn around eventually. And, more importantly, you usually have little to gain and more to lose if you start trying to mix things up. In cash games, you can take a break or change tables if you can’t handle it. In a tournament, obviously you have less control over your situation, so just do your best to play your stack, as it is right now, the best way you can. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.