Why the rich get richer & the poor get poorer in poker

Barry Carter uses the economic theory The Matthew Principle to explain why virtuous and vicious cycles happen in poker.

virtuous and vicious cycles
Success makes future success more likely

I have a theory that anyone who stuck with poker for more than a week probably ran extremely well at the beginning. Those of us who are part of the poker community will have experienced ‘beginners luck’, enough to keep us interested in the game long enough to start learning how to play well. We all got to experience what it was like to win at the start, and that was enough to keep us playing when we lost, and the new players who also ran badly at the start probably gave up quite quickly.

To expand on that, I actually think winning itself has the power to create further winning in the future. Not in everybody of course, but some people were able to use one win to influence the next win, and so on (Think of recent Main Event champions like Joe Hachem, Ryan Riess, Joe Cada, Joe McKeehen and Jonathan Duhamel who were unknowns before their Main Event win but have all since won other major titles).

This is explained by a theory in economics called The Matthew Principle, which explores the cumulative advantage of economic capital. You will have heard it described as "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Vicious and Virtuous Cycles

virtuous and vicious cycles
Simplified virtuous and vicious cycles

Basically we are talking about virtuous and vicious cycles, which really can be profound in poker. Many years ago, when I was complaining to a coach about how badly I was running, he told me about two students he had at $1/$2 whom he believed were of equal ability when they started working with him. One of them went on a good run, quickly moved up to $5/$10, started coaching other players and started learning at an accelerated rate. The other went on a bad run, dropped down in stakes, started doubting himself and never really improved. The difference between them was tiny at the start, but because one was getting the rub of the green, it was opening more invisible doors for him to get better that the other player was not privy to.

At the top end of things like this you see the best players getting sponsored or other media opportunities. The best players in the world now don’t even have to risk their own money, people pay them to play. Or the best players get invited to the biggest games in Macau. Look at a player like Fedor Holz, who no doubt has ran extremely well but also clearly has parlayed his good run into becoming an elite player. The rich get richer.

On the flip side of things, we have all seen how devastating a downswing can be. We all lose with Aces now and then, but if you are losing with Aces on the bubble or in the super deep pots against the reg that always beats you, it is about way more than the hand you just lost. Just as winning can breed more winning, a downswing can make you play worse in general, which breeds more losses, which breeds mental game issues, which causes more mistakes. The poor get poorer.

Downswings are the ultimate vicious cycle

virtuous and vicious cycles
A downswing can really snowball if you are not careful

Human beings have a deeply in built tracking mechanism monitoring how we are doing in a given pursuit. When we do something right, something that feels like progress towards a goal, our brains release serotonin, which rewards us and stabilises our mood. We feel more confident and it gives us a much clearer path to the next win. This is one of the reasons why we nostalgically look back on when we first started learning poker, because that’s where we had the biggest improvements in our games, so we experienced more ‘wins’.

This is also why it is important to have formats where recreational players can win with a reasonable amount of frequency, because they will otherwise stop playing without that seratonin (and financial) boost.

The lesson here is that we are all in danger of getting caught in virtuous and vicious cycles if you don’t recognise them. In particular, when things are going badly, it is probably important to get some ‘wins’ in your life even if you can’t at the tables (hit the gym, eat healthier, do something productive, tidy your room, wake up earlier, study poker more). There are lots of ways to 'win' as a poker player if you are not results orientated (especially if you enjoy studying) and it is important to book as many wins as possible to stop a vicious cycle before it spirals out of control. 

Do you have any examples of vicious or virtuous cycles in your own poker career? Let us know in the comments:

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Comments (6)

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  • sherriffatman


    Interesting article - I particularly like the final paragraph - food for thought right there!
  • R3n3g4T3


    That's f...king True!!
  • nickdega


    Very interesting!
  • VorpalF2F


    When you win, you build a bankroll, and at some point, you are playing entirely with other people's money. This changes your attitude toward risk-taking, and the ability to take risks is essential to winning at poker.

    Passive players who "call hoping to hit" get eaten alive -- ask one who knows :(
  • 5y1vinho


    very true.
  • AthleticAZ


    Hmm ... serotonin boost. I wonder if that would be higher at PLO than at NL Holdem. Maybe that is why recreational players would likely prefer PLO over Holdem.