Dara O’Kearney – The Reason Most People Lose Playing Poker

  • Successful gamblers utilize a meticulous approach, often using the knowledge of others
  • In contrast to those with experience, recreational poker players reveal more to opponents
  • These players are mystified by the success of others, struggling to replicate live wins online
  • There is no substitute for hard work, with online poker simply providing a greater sample size
Person with head on poker table
VSO News’ Dara O’Kearney has explained why most people lose playing poker, along with the real key to success. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Professional gambler?

Towards the end of my running career, the PA announcer on one starting line introduced me to the crowd as “a professional gambler.” This annoyed my wife no end, as she felt it summoned up the image of a degenerate at odds with what I actually did for a living. But of course, it’s precisely what I do for a living, although I confine my “gambling” strictly to poker.

we’re gamblers continually backing evens shots at 5/4 or better

What separates the professional gambler from all other varieties is that we confine ourselves (or at least try) to gambles where we believe we have a legitimate edge. Yes, we’re gamblers, but we’re gamblers continually backing evens shots at 5/4 (+125) or better. Most non-professionals are doing precisely the opposite.

From a gambling theory perspective, the key to long-term success in poker is simple: it’s the ability to identify or estimate with reasonable accuracy the actual odds in any given scenario and then compare them to the odds being offered. If you don’t know how often your flush draw is going to come in, or how often your pair will flop a set, then you’re just a mug gambler betting randomly on horses whose form you cannot assess.

A meticulous approach

The fact that I’m pretty much a fish in all forms of gambling other than poker these days was brought home when Paddy Power gave me a €50 ($56.84) free bet. Not realizing that in these cases you don’t get your stake back, I made the rookie mistake of backing the closest thing to a certainty I could find (the boxer Katie Taylor to win) thinking I was locking up €58.33 ($66.30) in equity. My friends more familiar with the ways of the bookie shop quickly set me right on that one. Oh well, at least Katie won and made me €8.33 ($9.47) richer.

Although I’m no longer a competitive runner, I still watch a fair bit of athletics. One of my friends Neil Channing, who is a very astute sports bettor, sometimes asks me for my thoughts on distance events. The fact that he turns to me for this advice has underlined in my mind why Neil is a successful sports bettor. He has a similarly meticulous approach to his craft as a poker player (at which he is also ridiculously successful).

you just have to know the right questions and people to ask

The key is not that you have to know everything: you just have to know the right questions and people to ask. At every stage of my poker career, I’ve been lucky enough to have the right people around willing to answer my questions.

Signs of a recreational player

I recently had my first live poker outing in a while.

The most interesting aspect of the weekend was listening to my fellow competitors talk about poker. The standard was considerably lower than at a typical live event in Ireland. A common characteristic of what are sometimes referred to euphemistically as recreational players (or enthusiasts) is that they comment both on their own play and that of others at the table much more than experienced players do. In doing so, they run the risk of basically opening their playbook up to the scrutiny of these opponents.

downright bizarre and counter-logical

A lot of the ideas expressed are not just counter-intuitive: they’re downright bizarre and counter-logical. One guy explained to an opponent that “you should have known I had the best hand when I raised: if I thought I had the worst hand I’d just have called.” Folding didn’t seem to be an option in his world, or the idea that calling when behind might not be long-term profitable.

Another player kept picking up the blinds with aces and massive opens designed to tell the world he had them. Each time the “steal” got through, he’d show the aces and express delight that everyone had folded because “aces get cracked more than half the time.” So apparently aces are an underdog to any old random hand – who knew?

Two different games

To hear players from different ends of the skill spectrum talk about poker, you’d swear they were talking about two different games. And in a sense, they are. One of the great things about any complex game such as poker is that there are many ways to look at it, many different ways to play it well, and an even bigger number of ways to play it badly.

I’m told by friends who have more experience of playing live with recreational players that quite a lot of them are mystified by the success of myself and others who make our living from the game. They tend to ascribe it either to luck or online being rigged. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been approached at live tournaments by someone who says the following:

(1) I’ve done very well in the past few months live but….
(2) I just can’t win online

My inner translator parses this into: “I’m a luckbox over a meaningless sample size of a few dozen live tournaments but when I play online over a more meaningful sample size, variance catches right up on me.” I don’t say this of course. That sort of bluntness wins few friends and is a good way to go about getting a gratuitous hiding. Instead, I usually just stand there smiling and nodding while they go on to give me their theory as to why they lose online (at this point, it’s nearly always a conspiracy theory I’m listening to and smiling and nodding at).

The real secret

Sometimes they try another tack and ask me for my theory on it all. Again, if I were a more blunt individual unconcerned about attracting unsolicited beatings, I’d probably just say: “You lose at poker because you’re bad at poker. Well, maybe not bad, but just not very good, and certainly not good enough to beat it long term over a meaningful sample size. You might get lucky over a sprint sample size of a couple of dozen live tournaments, in much the same way that I might walk into the shop tomorrow, pick up a lottery ticket and win. But if I do that a statistically meaningful number of times, like a few million, then I’m just burning money. As are you if you play enough poker online for variance to work itself out.”

I often get asked for advice on what they need to do to win online. As I stand there gazing at their expectant face I can almost imagine they’re hoping to hear just one phrase or word or concept or site or software tool that will turn it all around for them, and I find myself at a total loss as to what I should say.

I’ve got nothing other than this: work harder

The reality is if you lose online, it’s because you’re not good enough. The only solution is to get better. The only way to do that generally is to work really really hard at it. But that doesn’t seem to be what people want to hear. They want to hear about some secret shortcut or killer concept. Maybe there’s one out there, but if there is, I don’t know about it. Even after typing all this up, and thinking about it some more, when faced with the question of what advice to give people who want to get better or how to stop losing, I’ve got nothing other than this: work harder.