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Evolution Has Failed Us

by Greg Raymer |  Published: Feb 09, 2022


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Evolution has failed us… at least as far as playing poker.

Amongst all our human traits, one that stands out dramatically is our ability to detect patterns. We are exceptionally good at this, and notice patterns well before there is enough data for those patterns to have any real meaning.

We have all seen this at the poker table. If there is a five on the flop in several consecutive hands, somebody will inevitably comment that “Fives are hot,” or “I’m going to play any hand with a five in it.”

Noticing the appearance of a pattern is never a bad thing. The problem arises when we start to believe in a pattern, or find meaning in it, even when we shouldn’t.

Our ability to quickly detect patterns served our ancestors quite well. For example, it is time to go on a long hunting trip, and we have noticed that for the last two years, there have been lots of migrating wildebeest in the valley to the east at this time of the year. Unless there is more information to consider, then it would be better for us to travel east in search of game, rather than some other direction.

Of course, two occurrences of this pattern are not enough. The wildebeest might not be there at the same time this year. They might have come through earlier, not be there yet, or are taking some other route this year. We can’t be sure. But, it is still a survival advantage to have noticed this pattern, and taken it into account.

Unfortunately, our evolutionary ability makes us believe in a pattern, at some emotional level, even when our logical mind says there is no pattern. Or, more commonly, that the pattern is meaningless.

Picture the roulette table at the casino. The tote board above the table shows that the last six spins have all been a red number. Two players are at the table, arguing with one another. The first says, “We have to bet on red. Red is hot!” And then their companion says, “You’re crazy. We need to bet on black. Black is due!”

I find it amusing that they both think at least one of them is right, while both are actually wrong.

We all know, intellectually, that the past pattern of roulette wheel results has no bearing on predicting the next spin. A typical roulette wheel has 18 black numbers, 18 red numbers, and 2 green numbers. The odds of the next spin being a red number are 18 out of 38. The fact that the past six spins were all red does not change this. It is still 18 out of 38.

We all know this to be true. Yet, our innate pattern-mapping ability influences our perspective, and makes us believe otherwise. It can even make us believe something we know just isn’t true.

It is the same reason people believe in lucky socks, or rally caps, or any other superstition. They noticed something happen a few times, and then assign meaning behind it. Hey, I just realized that the last three times I wore these socks, we won the softball game. So, I wear them again. If we win, this outcome will greatly reinforce my belief. If we lose, I will likely start to look for something else that influenced the pattern. After losing that fourth game, I realize that the last three wins, while wearing those socks, were on even-numbered days of the month, while the loss happened on an odd-numbered day. Maybe the lucky socks only work on even-numbered days? Later, when we lose while wearing the socks on an even-numbered day, I may look for some further cause that has influenced the pattern. And so on.

Our brains wants to believe in any and all patterns it notices. It wants the pattern to be real, and meaningful. But the truth is, there are always patterns to be found. And many of those patterns do not have any meaning, and were simply the result of randomness. The six consecutive red numbers was a random result. If you write down the outcome of a million roulette wheel spins, you can review those results and find hundreds of patterns. Six consecutive red numbers here, eight consecutive odd numbers there, etc. But we know that these patterns, as they were happening, contained no useful information. None of them helped us to predict what the next spin would be.

In poker, make sure you are not letting this ingrained pattern mapping skill lead you into making mistakes. Don’t decide to call a raise with A-5 offsuit because “fives are hot.” Don’t let any such meaningless pattern impact your decisions. Stick to the math, and the proper strategy. In order to be the strongest player we can be, we must overcome some of these ingrained biases. The better we do that (and dozens of other things), the more we will win.

Have fun, and Play Smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He recently authored FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.