Updated on 09/17/2011 10:56PM

Ignore the odds at your peril


If your perception of what it takes to win at poker is based solely on watching televised tournaments, you might well have come to the conclusion that the game requires very little knowledge, preparation, or mathematical facility. All you have to do is show up, combine bravado and instinct in equal parts, slip on some sunglasses and headphones, and bluff and outguess your opponents all the way to the final table.

The truth is much less glamorous, but perhaps more appealing to horseplayers and other devoted game-players and gamblers who are thinking of taking up poker. While intangibles count for a lot, and there are times when seemingly irrational play is strategically correct, the bedrock of poker is arithmetic and probability. No one can succeed past the point of short-term luck without a thorough knowledge of the math behind every hand and decision.

When the poker telecasts profile a winning celebrity player, they emphasize his mannerisms and eccentricities and stress the conventional "human interest" aspects of his biography. Viewers are encouraged to think, "Hey - that could be me!" because of the apparent ease of success and seeming lack of expertise required.

What these profiles usually neglect to mention, however, is that most of these winning players paid their dues and built their bankrolls through thousands of hours of mind-numbing play in $10-$20 and $20-$40 limit games, exploiting their knowledge of basic poker probabilities to grind out a profit at the expense of tourists and other lazy or uneducated players.

Consider a typical starting hold 'em hand that a novice player probably thinks is an especially promising one: suited, connected middle cards such as an eight of hearts and a nine of hearts. It looks awfully pretty when you pick it up and you can't help seeing a world of potential winning hands in it - it seems you're already 40 percent of the way to making a five-card flush or straight or maybe even the rare and all-conquering straight flush. There's an extra appeal to playing the hand because it's not a conventional strong starting hand like A-K or a high pair, and your opponents are less likely to guess or deduce what you have.

So many a player will go ahead and play his suited 8-9 under any circumstances just because it seems like an interesting and potentially explosive combo. This is exactly like betting on a slightly intriguing horse regardless of his price or his actual chances of winning a race. Bad horseplayers will do it every time, and bad poker players will play the suited 8-9 every time.

The first problem with the suited 8-9 is that it just doesn't pan out that often. You end up making and winning with a flush or straight only about a combined 15 percent of the time, and the elusive straight flush is a 500-1 shot. Yet if you asked a novice playing a suited 8-9 how often he'll make one of those hands, he'd probably guess two to three times more often than it actually happens.

Let's say that one conservative player raises from early position, everyone else folds, and it's up to you whether to call with the suited 8-9. The guy who raised never does so without A-K, A-Q, or a high pair. Do you want to call and take even-money on your suited 8-9? Bad players do, and this is what allows better players to win, because it is a horrendous proposition.

Let's say that Mr. Conservative Raiser has a pair of jacks. What are your chances of beating him with the suited 8-9? To be a winning player, you have to know that the answer is that you are only 20 percent to win the hand. Even if he just has two unpaired overcards (two cards higher than your 8 and 9), you are only 40 percent to outdraw him, and why would you want to take even-money if you are a 40-60 underdog? Do you think it's smart to take $4 or $4.10 to win on a horse who has a 20 or 40 percent chance of winning?

There are plenty of poker books and websites that will outline the probabilities of success with various starting hands, and software such as The Pokalyzer that allows you to run full simulations of the millions of possible outcomes to a suited 8-9.

The kings of poker on ESPN may look and act as if they don't know that a suited 8-9 vs. J-J is a 4-1 underdog, but of course they do. Don't quit your day job until you do too.