Victoria Coren Mitchell, the European Poker Tour’s first two-time champion, once wrote: “It is odd that poker players are quite so superstitious as they are. They spend half their lives patiently explaining that poker is not ‘gambling’ like roulette or the Lottery: it is a game of skill, judgement, perspicacity, and wisdom. They spend the other half carefully balancing a lucky rabbit’s foot on top of their chips.”
While today’s modern crusher will claim they’re not superstitious in the slightest, dig a little deeper and you might see some peculiar behavior. Here are the most common poker superstitions still present at the tables.
Card protectors serve a practical purpose. Placed over your hole cards, they prevent the dealer from accidentally mucking your hand if they think you’ve folded.
So far, so good. In this case, a simple chip or coin does the job. But if practicalities were the only motive, why do players, both recreational and pro, bring such elaborate card protectors to the tables?
Take a look around any casino and you’ll find plenty of players using card protectors that have a significant personal meaning, whether it be traditional luck symbols like the horseshoe or clover, national flags, or figurines of their favorite Star Wars character.
Costa Rican pro Humberto Brenes, a two time WSOP bracelet winner with $6.1 million in live winnings to his name, was known for bringing his shark figurine card protector to the table, an obvious statement to other players that he was ready to gobble up their chips.
Johnny Chan had an unusual lucky charm, often bringing a full sized orange to the poker tables. Chan introduced his signature citrus fruit during the 80s and 90s during the days when everyone was chuffing away in casinos. The orange provided Chan with a fresh aroma, a break from the smokey environment.
A collector of fossils, Greg Raymer would bring rare and interesting specimens to cover his cards. The fossils often became talking points, and earned Raymer his nickname, “Fossilman”.
Card protectors, then, skirt the line between practical accessory, poker superstition, and a bit of fun.
Lucky and unlucky hands
An affliction general experienced by recreational players who have not yet drilled down on the basics of poker strategy, and a common conversation starter at home games – what is your favorite hand?
And the answer is always… Pocket Aces, if we’re talking about Texas Hold ‘em pre-flop starting hands. Why wouldn’t it be?
Apart from sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes players can have a favorite hand that is less than… erm, favorable. Yes, we all know that 9♥ 7♥ looks very pretty, and that one gap suited connectors are very playable when stacks are deep. But favorite hand, really?
This concept stretches a whole range of poker superstitions. I’ve heard friends tell me that they’d rather have Pocket 9s than Pocket Aces, and then proceed to justify the reasoning for twenty minutes. Because they “always lose with Pocket Aces”.
Another common poker superstition is that you shouldn’t win the first hand of a cash game or poker tournament. Some players would even fold a monster on the first hand and then feel safe knowing that they have just avoided walking under a metaphorical ladder.
Lucky items of clothing
We’ve seen some famous examples of signature clothing over the years. John Hesp wearing his now-famous (and quite ridiculous) suit en route to a fourth-place finish at the 2017 WSOP Main Event, for example. Or Sebastian Sorensson picking up the nickname ‘scarf guy’ after wearing a Miami Dolphins neckpiece throughout his 2017 PokerStars Championship Barcelona Main Event (which he took down for €987K).
Aside from style, there may be a practical reason why seasoned poker players opt for certain items of clothing. Sunglasses, for example, can help to conceal physical tells and prevent “soul reads” by other players. The issue is so controversial that some casinos have banned sunglasses during play. Hoodies may play a similar role of concealment, or at least help players to feel more comfortable and less exposed.
Yet when it comes to poker and luck, even the items of clothing a player wears may be a result of superstition, incorporating lucky colors and symbols or, again, holding a personal significance. In the Far East, for example, the color red symbolizes happiness and good fortune.
A poker superstition around clothing could arise if a player, say, wins a major tournament whilst wearing a certain shirt, pair of socks, or even underwear.
Poker players have occasionally been known to take lucky clothing to the extreme, choosing to wear the same (unwashed) clothes for days on end after hitting a hot run in the casino. Please don’t.
- John Hesp at the 2017 WSOP
Stacking chips in a particular order
This is another poker superstition that is hard to pull apart from mere fidgeting, or worse, from deliberate foul play.
Players may have a certain style in which they like to stack their chips. This can manifest in many different ways. For example, a player may choose to stack alternate colors, or have 10 chips in every individual tower.
There’s very little harm in this kind of poker superstition, as long as it doesn’t disrupt other people’s play. Done well, it can actually make it easier for you (and others) to read stack sizes – again demonstrating that some poker superstitions may be grounded in practicality.
However, casinos have rules and etiquette about how to stack chips. If you break these rules, you can expect to be told to stack your chips more appropriately.
You shouldn’t, for example, hide bigger value chips at the back behind mountains of small value chips. You also shouldn’t mix up chips in a way that makes it difficult for other players, or the dealer, to know how much you are holding.
As long as your poker superstitions don’t cross the line into unfair actions, you’re all good.
Lucky players and their lucky chips
You might think that poker players, at least winning ones trained in the art of logical thinking and focused decision making, wouldn’t be so superstitious. Yet even experienced players are susceptible to magical thinking, as is very much the case with the myth of lucky chips.
Here’s roughly how it plays out – after playing poker together for a while, one or more players at the table emerge as the “lucky” ones. They may be playing well, or running good, or both. Whatever the case, they are doing well for themselves accumulating chips.
Here’s where the logic takes a leap. Other players at the table may start to believe that taking this player’s chips will transfer the luck. If they do win chips from the “lucky player”, they’ll do everything they can to hold on to them, even if this involves keeping them separate from the rest of their stack.
Out of the superstitions on the list, this lucky chip myth tends to be the most harmful for strategy, causing players to make decisions based on which other players they deem to be lucky, and then doing everything they can to protect the lucky chips they win from these players. Daft.
The lucky chip poker superstition can also take a simpler form. Players may consider rare poker chips as a kind of lucky charm.
Card shuffling superstitions and blaming the dealer
Anyone who has played a few games of live poker can relate to this one. Players who believe in luck in poker (not variance, pure luck), tend to believe that the way in which the cards are shuffled is directly translating to their hot or cold run of cards.
Who is it that shuffles the cards? The dealer, of course. You may have heard players applauding or negating a particular dealer, or increasing and decreasing tips based on whether the dealer has “given them good cards”.
Of course, the shuffling of a deck is random and, like many occurrences in this complex existence, the outcome of that shuffling is not directed towards giving you an easy or hard time. All players are subject to the same range of outcomes and variance, no matter how the deck is shuffled.
In online poker, this extends to blaming “rigged” random number generators, despite the fact that these algorithms have no way to favor particular players and are, in fact, more “random” than a human shuffle.
Poker superstitions around card shuffling can be detrimental to strategy, causing players to change their betting habits according to whether the deck or dealer are favorable. So watch out for that!
Why are poker players superstitious?
From a psychological perspective, superstition relates to the feeling of wanting more control or certainty over events and circumstances.
In the case of poker, which just like life involves a mixture of both incomplete information and unknowable outcomes, it actually makes a lot of sense why players utilize superstition. Yes, they may be trained to think logically, but they are also dealing with a lot of uncertainty.
Studies have shown that positive superstitions such as lucky charms can actually reduce anxiety and lead to clearer decision making. Poker superstitions could have a mental purpose, and not necessarily a detrimental one.
However, if superstitions are left unchecked they can cause obsessive behavior and anxiety. Imagine the poker player who showed up to a live event only to realize he’s forgot his lucky underwear. Some poker superstitions, as is the case with lucky and unlucky hands, also directly impact decision making and so reduce the potential for strategic improvement.