The Truth About ‘Run Good’ and ‘Heaters’ in Poker

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 "heater." 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?

Are There Really "Heaters" in Poker?

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."

poker run good
Is it smart to believe you're on a rush?

He'll then 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.

3 Reasons to Play a 'Heater' in Poker

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."

is run good real
Are you sharper?

2. I'm Playing My Rush Because I'm Sharper

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.

hot hands in poker
Are you really in the zone?

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. But not because rushes are real; 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" in Poker

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. But 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?

Playing Poker "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?

poker heaters
Run good happens ... about as much as you'd expect.

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.

"Run Good" Happens as Often as You'd Expect

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.

Deeper Analysis Shows Something Missed

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.

how to run good in poker
Even the best get hot hands.

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.

Is Run Good Real?

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 DigestCasino PlayerStrictly 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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