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Luck, And All It Entails

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Feb 24, 2021

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A couple months ago, I wrote an article expressing my excitement about the heads-up match between Daniel Negreanu and Doug Polk. The battle has lived up to everyone’s expectations so far (except for possibly Daniel), and has produced some entertaining moments.

The highlights have been shared in different livestreams by Joey Ingram, Upswing Poker (Doug’s training site), and GGPoker (Daniel’s sponsor). They all have their strong points. The commentators on Upswing have been knowledgeable and entertaining, Joey has brought the memes and incredible energy, and Daniel appears in post-game interviews on the GG stream to reflect on each session. It was one of those post-game interviews that lit a fire under Doug that couldn’t help but boil over on Twitter.

Daniel spent the interview ranting about how unlucky he had been in the challenge so far, complete with lots of profanity and references to meat with all the corresponding knowledge you would expect of a person who has been a vegan for decades. He feels as though he has missed more draws than he should. In addition, his all-in EV (the expected amount he should win in situations where all the money is in the pot and there are cards to come) is less than projected by a few buy-ins. Therefore, if his luck would turn, just a little bit, he would be winning this battle.

Doug hit back with a rant of his own, explaining what he thinks about the relative luck of the match so far with a much different view. He referenced long stretches of the match where he didn’t stack Daniel, and that he’s been dealt pocket kings against pocket aces three times (he did win one of those, however.) While Daniel calls Doug incredibly lucky, Doug says that Daniel has been the luckiest opponent he’s ever played heads up.

So, who’s right? Well, I’m not entirely sure to be honest. They both have information that I don’t have, such as their hole cards throughout the challenge. It will be interesting afterwards if either or both release the hand histories so the match can be analyzed. But regardless of who is right or wrong, I think Doug takes the better approach to the question.

Doug said, “This whole, ‘We’re just going to bitch about luck every day,’ it sounds like you’re a $1-$2 fish when you do this. This is what fishes do at $1-$2, they talk about bad beats.”

No offense to the $1-$2 players reading this column, but he’s right. It’s a losing mentality to play poker and focus not on how you played or what your approach to the game was, but instead on how unlucky you got or how lucky your opponent(s) got.

Doug is also quick to admit that he thinks Daniel has improved quite a bit over the time they’ve been playing, so Daniel is obviously doing things he wasn’t at the beginning of the challenge. To me, this implies that Daniel is spending a lot of time working hard at making himself a better player. That is, whenever he’s not complaining about his luck on a livestream.

So, why then, is he focusing so much on the luck factor during the recaps? I’m sure we can all relate at some point during our poker career. In my opinion, Daniel is frustrated that he’s losing (down $707,000 as of publishing) and is trying to find a reason for that. After some time to reflect and look at the way he’s playing hands, I’m sure he realizes that the best way to improve his results is to plug his leaks and study. However, in the moment, when play has just ended, it’s very difficult not to think about the pots that “should have” gone his way.

Of course, you don’t see the same reaction after he wins a big session. Just four days after the session that prompted the above rant, he won $390,000. In the post-game interview, he did not mention the luck on his side. He talked about how he tried to play some hands sub-optimally in order to increase variance and try to win the challenge, which is a topic for a different article, but as far as I can tell, he didn’t go on a “sausage” rant about how good his luck was.

This is an attitude I see in both winning and losing players all the time. When you win, it’s because of the great decisions you made. When you lose, it’s because you didn’t get good enough cards or you got unlucky in big spots. It’s something you have to learn to grow past if you want to progress as a poker player. If you can’t clearly see how your session went beyond how the cards broke for you, then it’s impossible to get better.

Of course, Daniel is a professional, and one of the game’s best. In the clear light of day, he is getting past that mentality and improving despite how unlucky he has been, and that bodes well for him in future difficult poker situations he might encounter.

We can all take a lesson from this. You are not a victim of the cards, no matter how much that can often feel like the case. Bad luck, or a bad run of cards, isn’t something that happens only to you. The earlier in your poker career you realize that, the better you will become.

It can be frustrating to lose, especially if it happens regularly. It’s okay to feel emotions, but when those emotions subside, you must go back to the hands you’ve played and analyze them to see where your mistakes are. One session does not a poker player make. It’s important to understand how to separate the results from your play in order to know where you need to improve. ♠

Gavin GriffinGavin Griffin was the first poker player to win the Triple Crown, capturing a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, and World Poker Tour title, and has amassed more than $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG