Hot Hands in Poker: Real Effect or Illusion?

Jerry Yang

Recently we discussed "rushes" at the poker table - those sublime moments that emerge mysteriously and end unpredictably but that can be one sweet ride when we're on them.

In the previous article, we examined the mathematical and psychological features of a rush and found, not surprisingly, that the psychological elements are more important than the statistical.

There is a parallel phenomenon seen in many contexts, the so-called "hot hands" effect.

Basketball players can't miss; all net from any spot on the court. Hockey goalies are unbeatable; they just "know" where the puck is heading and stop anything thrown at them. Quarterbacks are on fire; pass after pass finds downfield receivers clean in stride.

Poker players sit wrapped in a Zen-like state and deftly control the table.

Are these moments real? That is, real in the sense that when they occur they are mathematically or metaphysically special?

In the Zone

I'm not trying to split hairs here; this is a serious question. When an all-pro quarterback seems to be in that "zone," is he really in a zone, or is this just the kind of performance we can expect and should see on a statistically determinable basis?

When a good poker player takes control of a table, manipulating his opponents and reading situations nearly perfectly, is this something special, something transcendental or merely a momentary state that will pop up with predictable frequency?

To try to answer these questions, we need to drift away from poker for a bit. But stay with me here. If we can understand what's going on, we'll get additional insight into rushes at a poker table, appreciate their psychology a bit more and, of course, help our game.

If you talk to people who play sports seriously or follow them with any passion, virtually everyone will swear these effects are real.

Basketball coaches issue instructions: "Get Joey the ball, he's got the hot hand." 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 "hitting the ball good."

And, yes, poker players play more hours or enter more events when they believe they're running good. But is there really is a "hot hands" phenomenon? Are bats really "hot?" Do poker players really "run good?"

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Rushes Happen as Often as You'd Expect

The psychologist Amos Tversky got interested in this issue some years back. He reasoned that if Joey really had a "hot hand," on that day we should see a statistically aberrant performance where he was, indeed, making far more shots with far more regularity than his norm.

So Tversky analyzed every shot taken by several dozen 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 42% 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 they 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 nine in a row and seemed to be ablaze for an entire half. But, it turned out, these "rushes" happened about as often as we would expect given that Joey is, overall, a good player who makes a tad better than 40% of his shots from the floor. So, no hot hands.

Other psychologists did similar analyses in a host of sports and found pretty much the same thing. Quarterbacks get "hot" about as often as their long-term statistics suggest they should.

Sure, an all-pro like Tom Brady seems to have the "hot hand" more often than a journeyman backup but, statistically speaking, he should.

For the moment, Tversky and his colleagues seemed to have won the day.

Not a Simple Effect

But, as usually happens in science when a topic is interesting, people began doing deeper and deeper analyses and, interestingly, several follow-up studies suggested that there might be something in the data that Tversky missed.

Occasionally longer runs of baskets or completed passes or shutouts in hockey were occurring more than one might expect, statistically speaking.

But - and here's the fun part - it wasn't clear what was causing them. It turns out to be difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart a "real" hot hands moment from the belief that others have that one is occurring, because the latter can produce the former.

That is, if Joey seems to be on fire and if his team mates believe he's got the hot hand, their behavior changes. They start setting effective picks, 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 - and, for a short time, Joey is going to rack up statistics that defy expectation and fall outside his statistical norm.

Do we want to conclude that Joey really has a hot hand or that everyone else, by virtue of their beliefs, conspired to make life easy for him so that it looks like he's got the hot hand?

Not only is there no way to know, it doesn't make sense to try to find a definitive answer, because there isn't one. The hot hands effect isn't a simple effect. It is an interactive one, where the beliefs of all the participants combine to produce the patterns of observed events.

The lesson for us poker junkies? Simple. For us, "hot hands" is "running good" or "being on a rush."

How real these are, and their impact on our bankroll, are dependent more on the conspiracy of beliefs of everyone at the table than on any mysterious, occult phenomenon.

My advice? Encourage appropriate beliefs in your opponents!

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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