The Winning Hand is Not to the Swift …

The author of Ecclesiastes would have understood the World Series of Poker

You’ve got to feel bad for Brian Meinders. Earlier this month, in Event 23 at the World Series of Poker (six-handed limit hold’em, $2,500 buy-in), he did the right thing and still lost. If we’re muted in our sympathies, maybe it’s because the same thing happens to us so often.

After three days of play, Meinders was in the fight of his poker life. He was alone at the table with Russ “Dutch” Boyd, who had whittled away Meinders’ two-to-one chip lead. The two men had been playing heads-up for hours when, at about 1 a.m. June 14, Meinders got what seemed a lucky hand: a pair of queens. When the flop came down a rainbow queen/king/jack, he looked to be in a good position. With no immediate flush draw, he had a strong hand: three queens. There wasn’t much with which Boyd could beat him.

Things still looked good when the fourth community card, the turn, was dealt: a four. He was still cruising when the final community card, the river, was dealt: an ace. After Boyd checked, Meinders raised. Then everything fell apart.

Boyd re-raised Meinders, and the New Jersey native immediately knew that things probably wouldn’t go his way. He called the bet, then tossed away his pocket queens as Boyd turned over a 10 and a four. On the last card of the hand, he’d made a straight, beating Meinders’ three-of-a-kind.

Meinders didn’t do anything wrong. He just got unlucky when, out of all the cards that could possibly have come up on the river, an ace popped up, completing his opponent’s straight. It was a long shot, but poker, like life, is all about long shots, whether they fit the script or not.

Boyd went on to win the tournament and claim $234,065, a World Series of Poker championship bracelet and the acclaim of his fellows. Meinders got $144,650 and second place. That’s not bad a bad payday for three days work, but if that last card had been a 10 instead of an ace on the river, he’d be a WSOP champion.

This wasn’t a freak draw. It would be rare to find a poker tournament in which everything went by the percentages and players who started the hand with the strongest cards won all the time. That wouldn’t be poker at all. One of the reasons, perhaps, why poker remains such a popular game is that it mirrors life; both are unpredictable and there’s no guarantee in either that you’ll be rewarded for doing the right thing, or punished for doing the wrong thing.

In other words, poker isn’t always fair. Of course, it’s all about perspective. The best hand at the showdown wins the pot. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the best hand pre-flop, or that someone with a better hand folded on the turn, or that your opponent made a miracle draw to fill his inside straight and won a pot he had no business playing for. That, as they say, is the luck of the draw. And it has absolutely nothing to do with whether you’re a better friend, lover or parent than your opponent, or whether you need the money to save a life and he’s just going to blow it at the craps table. The cards have no conscience.

But don’t take a poker player’s word for it. The author of Ecclesiastes, according to legend King Solomon in his old age, was grappling with this problem more than 2,000 years ago.

“I have seen something else under the sun,” he writes in Ecclesiastes 9:11. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise, nor wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

In other words, anytime you’re holding pocket aces, watch out—the guy sitting across from you just might make his flush on the river. This doesn’t mean you quit the game. After all, Ecclesiastes 4:5 tells us, “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.”

You don’t have to have the wisdom of Solomon to know that we must steel ourselves against bad beats, suckouts and plain awful luck, because the flip side is that even though the cards can work against us, they can work for us. There’s really no balm for bad luck, except for admitting that it’s just bad luck. Life goes on.

And so does poker. That, perhaps, is the attraction. If we can play the next hand after getting a bad beat, and maybe even win, we can face anything that life throws our way.

That’s small consolation to Brian Meinders, and everyone else who’s seen their luck go south with the turn of a card. But it’s reason enough to keep playing.