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The Truth About Playing "Rushes" in Poker
We've all been there.
We've all been there.
We win a few hands in a row and, predictably, start telling jokes, high-fiving and gleefully stacking chips while broadcasting our genius to all within earshot.
It's almost irresistible. We're on a "rush." It's a real high. We feel invulnerable. We believe it was our skill that led to this tsunami of chips in front of us.
Eventually reality will tiptoe back in, but who cares? Of course, there isn't anything wrong with this. 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 who just went on that rush will then do something very interesting.
He'll look down at his cards on the next hand, call an early-position raise from a tight player and say, almost sheepishly, "Hey man, gotta play my rush" and proceed to make what he knows is a strategically poor play.
Is this sensible? 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 money in the long run? In short, are rushes "real?"
The answers are tricky. I can think of at least three fairly obvious reasons why someone might want to play a rush, not of all of them convincing.
1. I'm playing my rush 'cause I'm running good.
Most poker players believe this is correct. They are wrong; it isn't. Here's something to keep in mind. Rushes can only be seen in your rearview mirror. You win one big hand. Hey, 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 you only knew it 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 you think what happened in the past is going to continue into the future. Logically, this is wrong.
Each hand is dealt out at random. Filling two flushes in a row doesn't change the basic probability of completing one on the next hand. It is exactly what it was before.
Each hand is independent of the previous hand(s), and the probabilities of particular holdings are not changed by previous success or failure.
So, this argument is just wrong. 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 been "running bad."
2. I'm playing my rush because I'm sharper when I'm winning.
This one has a bit more going for it. Almost all of us play better when we're winning than losing. Winning bolsters confidence and, as discussed in an earlier column, increases your aggressiveness. So, there is some reason to play a rush if your game is sharper than usual when you do.
This argument, of course, has nothing to do with being on a rush. It is based on the simple fact that you tend to play better poker when you're winning than when you're losing.
In fact, the problem of maintaining a high level of play when getting smacked around the room is so important that I'll devote a later column to it. 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 the "rush" is only indirectly responsible.
3. I'm playing my rush because I can dominate the table.
Now we're making some sense. This last justification makes contact with reality in a meaningful way. The reason, however, is not the rush itself, but the way that others think about rushes. It works because most poker players do not understand the two earlier points.
Most players mistakenly believe that rushes are real; that they will continue. A chorus of refrains will be heard, like, "Man, you're really on a roll;" "The 3-seat is smoking;" "No way am I playing a hand against you till this thing runs out;" or "I think I'll just stay out of your way for a while."
Now the cracks about "being on a roll" or "smoking" are not very interesting. They're just comments made to acknowledge the obvious.
The latter two kinds of remarks are the keys. When you're on a rush and you hear someone say one of these things, you know - you absolutely know - that you can push this guy off his hand with a raise.
You've established control over him simply because he believes that somehow your rush is magical, real and enduring. Hence, he is unlikely to stand up to your aggression.
Note again, this gambit works, not because rushes are real, but because your opponents believe they are.
So, the answer to the question "Should you play your rush?" is "Yes and no."
If your opponents have read this column, then "No." If they look like they believe in the reality of rushes, then "Yes" - but only because they will fear you and not play their optimal game. The key is not that rushes are real but that others believe they are.
A Short Aside on "Hot Hands"
Rushes in poker have a parallel phenomenon in other sports: the so-called "hot hands" effect.
Basketball coaches yell, "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.
Likewise, poker players enter extra tournaments when they think they're "running good."
Are any of these dynamics real? Maybe, maybe not. Tune in next week for a short exegesis on the topic.
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 poker players. 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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