Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Day 21: The Rush

Every poker-player is familiar with the term. You are "on a rush" when you get hand after winning hand, when even the rags you play turn improbably into riches, when you are dealt giant cards over and over, when despite getting your money in the middle way behind you nonetheless pull out a win against the odds. People often advise the lucky person who is on the receiving end of this kind of good fortune to "play the rush," to keep betting any two cards since they seem to be winning no matter what.

Probably the only sensation in poker better than being on a rush is pulling off a successful bluff for a huge pot or your tournament life.

There's even such a thing as a meta-rush ~ generally referred to as "running like God" ~ when you win game after game in a statistically unlikely fashion even for the highly-skilled. This is the kind of rush that builds bankrolls and makes careers. Some of poker's household names, while no doubt excellent players, first became famous thanks to magnificent sustained meta-rushes in tournament play.

No matter how many times you may tell yourself that a rush is as much a part of variance as being card-dead or on a major downswing, it is almost impossible to not really enjoy a rush. It just feels really good. The cliché is "better than sex," but I'm not prepared to go that far. Let's just say, damn good. The rush, and its whopping endorphin payload, is a prime contributor to the addictive nature of games in general. And because of the admixture of a skill component, and the indeterminate ratio of skill to luck in any poker win, it's easy to psychologically "own" the rush, to take credit for it (at least partially), and to thereby become even more confident about one's game.

Confidence makes it easier to be aggressive, and selective aggression is a key element of successful play in poker. Properly channeled, the aggression born of success can feed into a virtuous circle that will buoy the player along ~ maybe even until the next rush hits.

This isn't a merely psychological phenomenon. In competitive sports and games, winners (or the winning team, or even just the team's fans!) experience a spike in testosterone levels and the losers' testosterone levels drop. Increases in testosterone are ~ surprise, surprise ~ linked to increased confidence and aggression. (Yeah, and it'll make you horny too; it may not be better than sex but it sure makes sex seem like a better and better idea, if that's possible.) And, in case you're wondering: women have testosterone too, although at much lower average levels than men, and they experience the same effects when their levels rise.

All of this is to say that, as the saying goes, success breeds success. While it is possible to go on "winner's tilt," and I'll address that at some point, there is no disputing that a string of victories can build a monstrous head of momentum. It is good to be the King.

I don't "play my rush," although I'll egg others on to do so. I know that a good run of cards is just a statistical blip, and promises nothing for the next hand or the one after that. I love it when people get that lucky feeling and start playing trash because they think the good luck fairy has sprinkled them with lucky-dust. Those same people, however, will often have an almost superstitious fear of a person whom they perceive to be on a rush, and will stay out of hands with them when they otherwise would have contested them. So I'll frequently play up my rush for show, to take advantage of that common reaction; or, if they're the more analytical type, I'll lead people to believe I'm playing ATC (any two cards) because I'm on a rush, in hopes they'll play back at me light. Tonight, for example, when we were short-handed I raised and then showed three huge hands in a row (I rarely show my cards) precisely because I wanted people to believe I was on a rush and to fear my raises. Paradoxically, this allowed me thereafter to both get my opponents to fold to my aggression and to wonder if I was now playing napkins and stealing. Perfect.

By now you've probably gathered that I've had my own little rush. This is true; I have now won three tournaments in a row in my A League. I came back from way behind in my first game today, and then absolutely dominated the second from about halfway to the end. As with any tournament win, I got lucky when I needed to and didn't get unlucky when I could have. I am reminding myself, despite all current evidence to the contrary, that I am not a poker goddess.

Is it a little warm in here, though?

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