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The Devil Went Down To Vegas: Remember The Numbers

Stephen Allan, a recently graduated columnist of The Chronicle, has moved to Las Vegas with dreams of becoming a professional poker player. He will be kind enough to impart on us his gambling wisdom in this biweekly column—The Devil Went Down to Vegas—which will run every other Tuesday. (We welcome any better names for the column, by the way.)

In today's edition, Stephen crunches the numbers and says that Mike Krzyzewski made the right decision with Hayward's shot, and he learns from at a bad beat at the MGM Grand. Enjoy. — Andy Moore

For days after Duke’s fourth national title, pundits and experts debated whether or not head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to tell Brian Zoubek to intentionally miss the free throw was the right one. Many people pointed out that Butler’s Gordon Hayward nearly made the shot, and if that had happened, well, people would be talking about the real-life Cinderella story.

But there’s an inherent flaw in that thinking—it’s results-oriented. In any decision that will involve elements you can’t control, being results-oriented will cause you to miss the process behind the result. Far more often than not, the people who are results-oriented are the ones who over the course of their work will not succeed as much as those who focus on the process and decisions.

I don’t think this could be more true than what I’m doing for a living right now—namely, playing poker professionally. The stereotype of poker is that whoever gets the hot run of cards is the winner that night, but that’s results-oriented thinking. Poker isn’t a game of cards—it has them, but it’s not that. It’s really much more a game of numbers and understanding your opponents’ motivations and tendencies.

Consider, for example, two hands on the opposite end of the texas hold ‘em spectrum—two aces versus a seven-three. The aces are going to win over 75 percent of the time, but that also means they are going to lose just under 25 percent of the time. If I get my aces beat by the 7-3 two hands in a row, does that mean I should stop playing aces? On the contrary, it means I should be playing them more aggressively if my opponents are willing to put their money in on weaker hands.

If I were results-oriented, I would say, “aces are unlucky today,” or, “man, I’ve gotta play the 7-3 more often.” But as I outlined earlier, that’s ignoring simple probability and percentages. The process-oriented perspective is arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of any good poker player. You can win a session or even a full-day tournament ignoring the numbers and playing “on your gut” but in the long run—which is as hard to define as anything in poker—that will only cause you to give your money away.

I had to take this attitude to heart the hard way my first day out here. I sat down at a $200 buy-in no-limit hold ‘em game at the MGM Grand, eager to get my career underway. I looked down and say two red kings. “Nice!” I thought. I was even more excited when I saw someone before me raise. I re-raised him, knowing I was behind only one hand—pocket aces. When it got back to him, he shoved and after some thought I called. He showed pocket jacks, which meant I was about an 82 percent favorite to win.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. A jack fell on the board, and within five minutes of being out here, I was down $200 just like that. But, rather than get upset and leave or steam more money away, I just reminded myself, “you’re going to win that hand over four-fifths of the time. Just keep at it.” I ended the session down $89 for the entire day, but had that hand held, it would have been a $311 profit day. At that rate, I’d be pulling down six figures a year!

Obviously, it won’t be like that every day. But with the right mental approach, I can come as close as possible to that. And the next time you see Coach K make a decision that backfires, ask yourself, “if this scenario played itself out multiple times, would it work more often than not?” Applying this attitude to all your work will, ironically enough, begin to produce better results.


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