Superstition has also become a habit for many poker players
People have held superstitions since time began and, while we tend to put less and less stock in them as societies continue to evolve, we’ve still managed to keep them going. One such worldwide example is the ‘knock on wood’ or ‘touch wood’ superstition that sees us doing exactly that after a positive statement to express a hope for our good luck (or avoidance of bad luck) to continue. And why did this superstition begin many moons ago? It derives, apparently, from the belief that malevolent spirits inhabited wood, and knocking on wood was supposed to prevent them from hearing us.
It might seem counterintuitive, given how ludicrous the above example is, to think that ostensibly logical, level-headed poker enthusiasts – in considerable numbers – hold a place in their approach to the game for superstitions. Moreover, it happens to the point that not only their behaviour but their actual decisions in a hand can be influenced by them. Of course there are unknowns and chance in poker, but the facts and probabilities remain constant, and within finite parameters. Why on earth would we trust in there being magical external factors coming into the equation?
Yet the poker world is awash with superstition, and we might be surprised that such unscientific habits are absolutely not restricted to amateurs and weaker players.
Note that our superstitions as poker players tend to be habit-oriented rather than involving serious compromises. A popular one, for example, is the ‘lucky’ card protector. Ask a player why they have a lucky dollar or a keyring from Vegas or a rabbit’s foot, and they’ll probably have a specific reason why they feel it brings them luck (By the way, I’ve never seen anyone with a rabbit’s foot, but I couldn’t resist including such an age-old cliché; and, surely, that’s unlucky for rabbits). However, players keep using them habitually for years despite results remaining essentially non-newsworthy.
Indeed, these are essentially token superstitions. Unless someone actually wants to let a card protector have an impact on their decision making while a hand plays out, they have no direct impact on players’ behaviour or approach. For other superstitions, in contrast, this is not the case…
Some, for example, tend to revolve around habitual, repetitive behaviours that players might claim are more an attempt at routine than superstition per se. Multiple WSOP bracelet winner, Jason Mercier, has in the past during a tournament made a point of repeating certain aspects of a successful previous day, no doubt in the hope that this in turn would lead to the same good result. Not only did this extend to having the same meals, but he even literally retraced his steps by taking the same routes to the venue. This kind of thing might seem a little extreme, but it’s not by any means limited to the poker world. Pro golf players have been known to maintain the same habits as a tournament progresses. Meanwhile, I’ve personally seen this kind of habitual superstitious behaviour in my days as a pro chess player. Again, there’s an argument that such an approach is merely to formulate a practical routine but, when presented with perfectly reasonable alternatives, or when for whatever reason the would-be magical pattern is broken, the negative reaction this elicits can be one of fear and even panic, like a spell has been broken.
Deciding to wear the same clothes while on a winning streak through fear that changing a shirt (for example) might jinx a good run is more common than we might think. Obviously, even the best players will see such a streak come to an end sooner or later, in which case it’s (literally) all change. However, not allowing ourselves to change clothes when running well seems rather extreme, not to mention potentially unpleasant for those sitting nearby in a bricks and mortar environment.
Oranges and Cigarettes
This brings us nicely (or not so nicely) to a so-called superstition of a poker legend. To combat another potentially unpleasant situation in the days when smoking was allowed, the great Johnny Chan decided to bring along an orange, which he would sniff away at to enjoy citrusy smells instead of smoke and so on. Despite emphasising this specific, practical reason for bringing an orange along, after winning two WSOP titles he continued the habit, prompting others to do the same, and it assumed the status of being lucky…
Ironically, another famous player, Sammy Farha, had his own smoking-connected superstition, and if we thought bringing an orange to the table a strange habit, this is on another level! Despite playing second fiddle to the aptly named Chris Moneymaker by finishing runner-up in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, Farha certainly did make an impression by habitually having an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Bizarrely, we were to find out that he was a non-smoker! Legend has it that he was once offered a cigarette during a losing run and, although he wasn’t a smoker, he accepted. As luck would have it, his fortunes were subsequently transformed and, not wishing to mess with the poker gods, he continued with became his trademark lucky charm.
Everyone is, of course, free to choose how they approach the game, and many poker superstitions are simply insignificant and have no real influence over those who feel (more) comfortable or confident in, for example, wearing (or not wearing) certain colours, or bringing a would-be lucky charm that might have some kind of special personal significance to the table. However, there is a danger that if we take superstitions too seriously they can affect how we actually make decisions, or we create superstition-related conditions that we adhere to so obsessively that the result is detrimental to our behaviour or day to day practicalities. This is where the line could be crossed, and why the soundest advice might be to simply avoid superstitions altogether.
Have fun at the tables!