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I’m Just Playing My Rush

We’ve all seen this one: Some guy wins a couple of hands in a row. He starts telling jokes, high-fiving friends, and gleefully stacking chips while announcing to all just how good he really is. To some extent, we all do this. It is almost irresistible. We’ve all been on a “rush;” it’s a real high. We feel invulnerable. We believe that it was our skill that led to this tsunami of chips now in front of us. A little later reality may force a return to a more sober assessment of our game, but for now we feel pretty damn good about ourselves. Winning a whole lot of chips is great fun and if we can’t enjoy these moments, what’s the point?

But, on many an occasion the guy on that rush will now do something very interesting. He’ll look down at his cards on the next hand, call an early position raise from a certified rock and say, almost sheepishly, “hey man, gotta play my rush.” In short, he will be making a strategically poor play on the grounds that he is “running good” and therefore should play these (and virtually any) cards.

Is this a sensible thing to do? Is it smart to play a rush —- in the sense that, in the long run, doing so provides additional profits? Or is it stupid —- in the equivalent sense that it costs you chips in the long run? There are three fairly obvious reasons why someone might want to play a rush.

  1. I’m playing my rush because I’m “running good.”

Most poker players believe this is correct. They are wrong; it isn’t. Rushes can only be seen in your rear view mirror. You win one big hand. Neat. Is this a rush? Nope. Okay, you win two in a row. A rush? Hmm… maybe… Three? Four out of five? At some point it’s going to feel like a rush —- but only in retrospect. You’ve won one in a row lots of times. Mostly you don’t win the second. So, no rush. Get the point? Rushes can’t be predicted and, logically, their end can’t be predicted either.

So when you say, “I’m just playing my rush,” you’re really saying that you believe what happened in the past will continue into the future. Mathematically this is wrong. Each hand is independent of earlier hands and the probabilities of particular holdings are not changed by previous success or failure. There is no increased likelihood of winning the next hand because you’ve been “running good” —- just like there is no increased likelihood of losing the next hand if you’ve “running bad.”

  1. I’m playing my rush because I’m sharper when I’m winning.

This argument has a bit more going for it. Most poker players play better when they’re winning than when they are losing. Winning bolsters your confidence; it wakes you up and, usually, increases your aggressiveness. As Mike Caro wisely put it, “aggression is rarely wrong in poker and when it is, it isn’t wrong by much.” So, there is some reason to play a rush if your game is sharper than usual when you do.

Of course, this argument has nothing to do with being on a rush. It is based on the simple fact that, if you are like most recreational players, your game is better when you’re winning than when you’re losing. So, if you want to play your rush because you’re up on the day and playing like a champ, that’s fine but appreciate that it is not the “rush” that’s responsible here. It’s the simple fact that most of us play better poker when we’re ahead than behind.

  1. I’m playing my rush because I can dominate the table.

Now we’re beginning to make some sense. This last justification is, I suspect, the only one that makes contact with reality in a meaningful way because most poker players do not understand the previous two points. The key is that most players actually believe that rushes are real, that they will continue and that the “rusher” is going to ride his wave of good fortune as long as he can. When someone goes on a serious rush a chorus of refrains will be heard from others at the table. “Man, you’re really on a roll; no way am I playing a hand against you till this thing runs out.” Or, “I’m just gonna stay out of your way for a while, okay?”

When you’re on a rush and you hear stuff like this, you know, you absolutely know, that you can push this guy off his hand. You’ve got control over him simply because he believes that somehow your rush is magical and is going to continue and he’s unlikely to stand up to your aggression. This gambit works, of course, not because rushes are real, but because your opponents believe they are.

So, should you “play your rush?” Well, yes and no. If your opponents act like folks who believe in the reality of rushes, then you might want to simply because they will fear you and not play their optimal game. It works, not because rushes are real but because others believe they are.

A short aside on “hot hands”

There is a parallel phenomenon in other sports, the so-called “hot hands” effect. Virtually everyone who plays any organized sport believes in this. You hear basketball coaches yell it out, “Get Joey the ball, he’s got the hot hand.” You see baseball managers manipulate their lineups to get the guy with the “hot bat” an extra turn at the plate. Golfers enter extra tournaments when they think that they’re “driving the ball good.”

The psychologist Amos Tversky got interested in this issue some years back. He analyzed every shot taken by several basketball players over a full year, looking for evidence of a “hot hands” effect. He found little. Players got “hot” about as often as a random number generator got “hot.” If a player shoots at a 50% average overall, we would expect to see runs of shots made and missed —- and we can calculate just how many runs we ought to see, how long the runs should be and how they should be distributed over the full year of play. If another player makes 45% of his shots, we should see a different pattern, but one consistent with his level of skill. And this is pretty much what Tversky found.

Sure, there were occasions where Joey hit 9 in a row and seemed to be ablaze for an entire half. But, it turned out, these “rushes” happened just about as often as we would expect given that Joey is a good player who makes about half of his shots from the floor. So, no hot hands.

But, interestingly, several follow-up studies suggested that there might be something in the data that Tversky missed. Occasionally longer runs occurred than one might expect, statistically speaking. The reason, however, appears to be because the other players on the team believe that Joey’s got the hot hand. They start setting effective picks for him, trapping opponents to allow him to get free, passing him the ball in optimal spots on the court. When these kinds of things happen they will increase the likelihood of Joey continuing to make shots. It isn’t that Joey really has a hot hand; it is, like at the poker table, that the others in the game believe he does and they adjust their play.

Fascinating, yes?

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