What's Your Sign?

Updated: May 17, 2007, 5:05 PM ET
By BLUFF | Jeff Madsen

When all is said and done, I'm not a person who believes in superstitions. I think they're unlucky. And although that is a corny and overused joke, it is actually a statement I believe to be very true. What I mean is that when a poker player starts blaming his bad luck on the fact that he forgot to tie his right shoe, or that it's the 13th of the month, or that he "runs bad against redheads," he has taken the first step down the road to Excuseville.

Even worse is when a player rationalizes bad play by citing certain superstitious circumstances (say that 10 times fast). What players need to realize is that a stretch of bad or good luck is just part of the probabilities and odds in the game of poker. And a stretch of bad play… well, these players might never admit they play poorly before first insisting they lost because of the color of the chips or the meal they just ate.

During what I would call my semi-slump, from after the World Series until now, I have made sure to avoid thinking superstitiously or believing that it was all because of bad luck. It wasn't. Recently I made a decision that has allowed me to be less stressed, better focused, and more clear-headed when it comes to poker. What decision? Maybe I'll discuss that in a future column. The point is, although I don't believe in superstitions, I certainly believe that your thoughts and state of mind always will affect how well you succeed in poker, and in life.

I also believe in signs. What kind of signs? They are everywhere … all you have to do is pay attention. When it comes to poker, some are more obvious than others. Hence, a recent, more obvious sign: I had made the money in a $1,000 buy-in tournament at the L.A. Poker Classic. I was happy because it was my first cash in a couple months, and the first since my big "decision," although I was short stacked with $21,000 in chips coming into Day 2. I looked down at the chip count summary on Day 2 and realized I happened to be 21st in chips out of the 30 or so remaining. Hmm. Strange. After playing solid for a few hours to stay alive in the tournament, I eventually busted in 21st place. Odd. My tournament had ended, and upon returning home I discovered that at the stroke of midnight, it was, in fact, the 21st day of February. Also, for those who don't know, I happen to be 21 years old.

What did it all mean? It felt like a good omen. I had just stepped into a new chapter of my life, as a 21-year-old poker professional at the beginning of his career, and I felt that this was a sign of success to come.

Another boost to my confidence that more success was on the horizon was that I finally received my prize for winning Player of the Year for last year's World Series. What was the prize? Well, imagine any 21-year-old's dream destination and you'd be right on the money.

That's right, the Playboy Mansion. Finally I would be able to see what all the fuss was about, as my four guests and I would be attending the WSOP/Milwaukee's Best Light party there. Upon arrival, I noticed that at the Mansion everything is made of chocolate and tears turn into blueberry gumdrops. Well, not exactly. But, there were many naked females, so it kind of reminded me of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for adults. But I digress. Back to poker.

Enter San Jose and the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Stars Championship. This tournament was sort of a strange experience at first for me: Being designated a "Shooting Star" bounty, I received a hundred times more attention from fans than I would receive playing in any other tournament. I have never seen myself as someone who really could be a "celebrity," so signing autographs and taking pictures with the many people watching the tournament was a little off-putting. Nonetheless, I certainly had my game face on as I was determined to get my first cash in a $10,000 buy-in event.

My tournament start was somewhat rocky, since at the exact moment that the tournament director was announcing me as a Shooting Star to the crowd watching, I had pocket aces, and I ended up losing half my chips to an opponent's 8-9 off-suit. After that first hit, however, my chips went upward consistently and smoothly. I had doubled my starting stack of $20,000 in chips after a few hours, and got lucky against WPT Player of the Year Joe Pelton when we got all in on a flop of Q-8-5, all spades. He had flopped a king-high flush with the K-10 of spades against my flopped set of eights. As usual, I sucked out when the board paired the five on the turn, bringing my stack close to the $100,000 mark.

From that point, I continually built my chips throughout the day. I was thinking with a clear and focused mind, and somehow the game seemed so easy for the next few days of the tournament. In addition to playing better than I think I have played in quite a while, I ran into good situations like outflopping opponents in key pots, hitting set over set, or having A-A versus K-K before the flop. I pretty much ran into no difficulties besides trying to compete for the chip lead with my buddies -- David Williams on Days 1 and 2, and Joe Sebok on Day 3. Life was good.

On Day 3, a day that began with me as the chip leader and Joe in second, I managed to build my chips rapidly in the beginning stages, and then lose some ground as the field narrowed from 36 to the low teens. When the field had been whittled down to the final eight, we all took a break. I was still second in chips with $1.3 million, and yet I couldn't help but think about the fact that I had dropped from a monstrous $2.1 million earlier.

Suddenly, my clear and focused thinking turned into a clouded bubble, and all I could think about was, "What if I don't make the final six for the TV table?" My mind had shifted from poker, to the tournament itself, and this was bad. Real bad.

After the break, I simply lost chips at a continuous and consistent pace, just as I had first earned them. It was strange, but I noticed Sebok sliding with me at the same pace. Finally, the end: I had dropped to a measly $400,000 in chips, pushed all-in over a $45,000 bet with A-10 of diamonds, and was called rather quickly by the A-6 of clubs (a questionable call). I lost to the nut flush, and my thoughts had become a reality: I had bubbled the WPT TV table. Well, actually, Joe Sebok was the true bubble boy. His bust-out in seventh was a disappointment and a comfort at the same time.

The point is that my disappointing finish had nothing to do with luck, superstition, or even the "signs" we think we see in the world. It had everything and only to do with the thoughts I had in my head. Final realization: Poker is 100-percent mental. It would be hard to dispute that claim.

Sigh… eighth place … that's better then nothing. Semi-slump over!

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