Hung Le and the Beginner’s Luck Phenomenon

Alex Weldon : July 5th, 2016


Yesterday, as the final leg of Event #54: $888 Crazy Eights 8-Handed No-Limit Hold’em prepared to get underway, I wondered whether Loni Harwood would come out on top, making it the best year for women at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) since 2004. Well, she did not. Instead, she finished in a respectable 6th, but what we got instead is an even better story. 53 year-old, first-generation Vietnamese immigrant Hung Le from Dayton, Ohio was perhaps the least likely person at the final table to come out on top, but that’s exactly what he did, taking home $888,888 and the bracelet.

What seems incredible about Le’s story is that it’s not only his first WSOP cash, nor merely his first WSOP event, but in fact the first time he’s played a poker tournament of any significance, and his first time cashing anything whatsoever. He’s the father of five kids, and owner of a struggling nail salon which the whole family operates together. This win almost certainly represents more money than he would have made in the rest of his life put together. When kindergarten teacher and first-time WSOP player Lisa Meredith came third in the Millionaire Maker for $500,000, it seemed that would be the feel-good story of the year, but Hung Le’s improbable victory trumps hers, hands down.

What’s funny about these stories is that they never fail to surprise us, yet similar things happen every year. Last year, it was Christian Pham – coincidentally, also a middle-aged, working-class American of Vietnamese descent – who impressed and bemused the poker world with his win in the $1,500 2-7 No-Limit Single Draw event, a game which he had never played before, and for which he had signed up accidentally.

The concept of “beginner’s luck” is at least as old as poker itself, yet the idea that any one player can be inherently luckier than another is the sort of thing that gets derided by nearly all serious poker players. If one did a poll of experienced players, asking for an explanation for why we see such stories year after year, I suspect that most answers would involve some combination of random variance, the unusually amateurish fields brought out by low buy-in WSOP events, and confirmation bias on those observing and writing about these results. But could there be more to it than that?

Certainly, it’s impossible to believe rationally that a beginner is more or less likely than an experienced one to get lucky in a specific situation. If a player has eight outs to hit a flush on the river, they will hit that flush a little over 17% of the time regardless of who they are and how they’re playing. That said, there are actually several good reasons that a very inexperienced player is more likely to win an event than someone with a little knowledge but a long way to go. Le demonstrated considerable self-awareness in that regard, explaining in his post-victory interview how his lack of experience factored in to his overall strategy.

You can’t get lucky if you don’t try

The first reason that beginners seem to get lucky more often than intermediate players is simply that they find themselves in more spots where they need to get lucky. The beginner is poor at assessing the value of his hand, so he finds himself putting in chips while behind more often. Paradoxically, this is also true of the best players, whose aggression means that they are often floating or bluffing with some showdown equity, and consequently seeing additional streets with hands that an intermediate player would have folded. In both cases, the player appears to be drawing out on his opponents more often than others, though it’s not actually the frequency of hitting which is any higher, but rather the number of trials.

Nor is this necessarily a bad plan for a beginner. When a player holds the edge on her opponents, she should be seeking to reduce her variance, but people often forget that the opposite is equally true. When outclassed, the best strategy is in fact to take the most luck-dependent line possible. For example, imagine that we are playing heads up with even stacks and you flop a flush draw against me. I go all-in, and folding would leave you with 40% of the chips in play. The beginner likes his flush draw and calls, without really understanding the odds. An intermediate player, on the other hand, knows that his draw is about 33% likely to hit, sees that this is worse than his estimated 40% chance of winning if he folds and plays on with the shorter stack, and consequently makes the laydown. The clever player, however, assesses who has the skill edge and by how much, and factors that into the decision. If I happen to be the much better heads-up player, then depending on stack depth, that 33% chance of hitting the flush may be better than your odds of winning at a 40-60 chip disadvantage.

Thus, whether he realizes it or not, the beginning may in fact be improving his expected dollar returns by taking high variance spots, even when those spots are lossy from a chip EV perspective. In Le’s case, he knew exactly what he was doing, stating that he had explicitly come to Vegas to “get lucky,” and knew that he would have to take a lot of crazy gambles to overcome superior opponents. One can question the wisdom of entering a tournament in the first place with that understanding, but once you’re in there, in Le’s position, that’s exactly what one should be doing. You see this in other activities too, whether it’s an underdog fighter swinging for the fences, a losing football team throwing Hail-Mary’s, or a little brother simply mashing buttons in a video game against his older sibling.

Predictability is worse than spewiness

Taking high-variance lines may make beginners more likely than early-intermediates to win a given event, but the former may actually hold an edge in individual pots as well, simply by virtue of being erratic in their behaviour. A beginner is potentially capable of doing almost anything with almost any hand; on the one hand, that makes them easy enough to beat by just playing the odds, but by the same token, it’s impossible ever to feel totally confident of where one is at in a hand, or whether a particular bluff or value bet is likely to work.

Conversely, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and players who’ve started to learn the fundamentals of the game can be much more predictable and therefore easier to beat consistently. For instance, if you have a player who has recently learned the theory behind semi-bluffing and therefore has begun playing her draws aggressively, and she check-calls a flush draw flop, then when the third Heart falls on the turn, you can expect that she will rarely have the flush herself and can probably be bluffed if you barrel the turn and maybe the river. A beginner, on the other hand, could have just about anything in that spot, and you’ll find yourself in much muddier waters.

Veteran players understand the need to throw curve balls once in a while to avoid being readable; Chinese martial arts feature a style known as zui quan, or “drunken fist,” with erratic, awkward-seeming movements that somewhat resemble the staggering of a drunk. Though these are deliberate and, in fact, highly technical, the inspiration for the style is drawn in part from the fact that a belligerent drunk can be very dangerous due to his unpredictability and diminished instincts for self-preservation. It’s the same in poker, and while the poker expert is analogous to the zui quan master, the beginner is the actual drunk. He may be as likely to hurt himself as anyone else, but there’s no telling what can happen when you enter a pot with him.

Don’t second guess your gut

Some may disagree with me on this, but I believe that strong gut instincts are more important to a poker player – a live, multi-table tournament player at any rate – than any amount of theory. I’ve trained in boxing for several years and have pretty solid technique, but I’m not sure you’d be want to take me in a fight against a guy from a rougher upbringing who’s been brawling his whole life without any formal training. Sure, my footwork will look prettier until the first time he lands with a haymaker, but ultimately his practical experience are reflexes are probably going to come out on top.

Not everyone has any instinct for fighting, but nearly everyone has some when it comes to guessing at whether others are telling the truth or lying, because that’s something we all deal with from a young age. Beginners listen to this instinct because they have little else to go on. They don’t know how their hand stacks up against their opponent’s range, because they don’t know how to put her on a range in the first place. Instead, they’ll just make a read and fold if they think their opponent is strong, and call if they think it’s a bluff.

Obviously, no one can rely purely on their instincts, because opponents are not always going to be easy to read. However, most of us do from time to time feel a strong sense that we know what our opponents are trying to do, and both beginners and experts pay attention to that sense – the beginners because they have no choice, the experts because we know that sense is almost always right. In between, we go through a phase of second-guessing ourselves, and being reluctant to make a move we’ve been taught is “wrong” simply because we have an inexplicable feeling it would be right in this case.

The hand with which Le won the tournament is a prime example of this. He limp-called preflop with a pair of Deuces, then called the flop again when it came out Ace-Ten-Four with two Diamonds. The turn brought the Eight of Diamonds, completing a possible flush, and his opponent Michael Lech checked. Le now bet, and Lech check-raised all-in.

Probably most of us wouldn’t have played the hand as Le did even up to that point, but facing the check-shove on this board, I’d wager that an overwhelming majority of players of all experience levels would lay down the Deuces. We beat nothing but a complete bluff, could easily be drawing dead, and even when we’re ahead, chances are that our opponent holds one Diamond and two overcards to our pair, and we’re still only 70% or so to win. For Le, the calculation was different: His opponent was all in, and if he called and was good, he would win. Meanwhile, his gut told him that his opponent would not check-shove with a flush, but rather try to reel him in more slowly. The rest of us realize that even many of Lech’s bluffs beat Le’s hand, but for Le, a strong sense that his opponent did not have a super strong hand was enough to make the call: And he was right. Lech had Queen-Jack for a gutshot, with no Diamonds, and Le managed to dodge the 10-outer to win the tournament.

It wasn’t a good play by any means, but it was a good read, and if Le had been an experienced pro and holding something like a Ten, we would be praising it as a great call. In the end, his win wasn’t down to beginner’s “luck” at all, but rather a combination of understanding his situation, trusting his instincts, and a certain well-timed bit of naivety that happened to work out in his favour.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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