Saturday, May 9, 2009

Poker isn't about winning and losing (Part I)'s about making the right decisions. Also sprach Doyle Brunson and given my current ROI I'm not going to argue with him.

In some ways the idea is self-evident. We play poker with the long-term goal of winning, but the way we actually get there is by making correct decisions. And extrapolating the concept we can reasonably conclude that the most successful poker players are the ones who make the most correct (either the largest number of correct or the 'correctest') decisions.

I'd like to apologize for my pedantic and stilted prose today. This afternoon I spent 45 minutes talking to my insurance agent.

So how do I become a better poker player? How do I make more correct decisions?

I suspect if you asked poker players why someone like Chris Ferguson or Jen Harman is so good at the game the answers would include experience, knowing the odds, hand-reading ability...

I don't need to 'suspect' anything, I will go and post this very question at a poker forum. BRB.

Okay, it'll take a while to get responses so I'll just keep yammering on here and get back to that later. Irrespective of the answers I receive I think it's apparent that the Holy Grail which we seek is an explanation of why some poker players make better decisions than others. And equally clearly a large part of the answer is "they know more about the game than the poor saps who couldn't tell you the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come if you gave them a bit of paper that listed the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come."

So is that it?

I don't think so.

In fact I'm becoming increasingly convinced that what separates great poker players from good ones and good ones from donkeys isn't the depth of knowledge of the game at all. It's the ability to consistently make the decision that the player knows to be correct. This idea may sound silly, but so does setting fire to a leaf and inhaling the fumes. As a cigarette smoker of 30 years I guess I am well-placed to entertain the plausibility of silly ideas.

In any tournament or cash game the players will have differing levels of understanding of the fundamentals of poker, but in my experience these differences are not great. I used to play a lot of limit hold 'em around the $25/50 limits where essentially everyone knew the odds and the standard plays. The vast majority of players had decent hand-reading skills and knew situations where it was profitable to run a bluff or make a loose call to pick off a likely bluff. And yet some players were consistent winners while others financed my drinking problem.


The simple answer is the losing players were making all the classic poker mistakes. Playing too many hands, going too far with hands, chasing draws without the correct odds, and so on. And they made these plays despite 'knowing' that they were clear mistakes.

So why would anyone do such a thing? It may sound sufficiently unlikely that you are currently wondering if I am fabricating the whole thing as part of some cunning plan to make a joke about beavers. Well I'm not. Honest. In fact about thirty minutes ago I made exactly such a play myself. One of me watched in horror as another one of me clicked the "call" button. When I failed to hit the draw that I had no business chasing the one of me that was operating my eyes blinked at the screen. All of me then closed PokerStars and came here.

At this point one of you may be elbowing another of you in the ribs saying "oh, he's going to talk about tilt, we know all about that let's eat ice-cream." NOT SO FAST! Simply giving a name to a phenomenon doesn't explain anything. I want to pull this puppy apart and examine its intestines. Besides 'tilt' implies a deviation from a norm. Poker players making sub-optimal decisions even when they know better is the norm.

Let's play with some working hypotheses. Presumably when we make a poker decision that we know to be incorrect there is a reason. In the most general terms, there must be something about the incorrect decision that appeals to us. After all, the one of us who balances the check book at the end of the month is a pretty assertive character, so the one of us who is determined to make bad decisions must have a strong motivation to do so and have the ability to overcome the wishes of the check-book balancer.

Who is this bastard who keeps destroying my bankroll?

Since we've exonerated the mathematical, rational, logical me, it must be one of those characters who is frequently at a loss to explain himself. Possibly the one who will start crying at the sight of a Monet, or become unaccountably furious when examining the shape of a paper clip. We may never unambiguously identify him, but it seems that he has been spending far too much time hanging out with my unconscious. And that in itself produces something of a paradox because the unconscious knows a great deal about poker and could be a major asset if it wasn't for this business of whispering in the ear of the me that has the responsibility of clicking the "call" button.

In fact it's far more important than that. Because another thing the unconscious knows about is the unconscious of other poker players. And if we could get it to spill the beans we'd have the ultimate poker edge.

In Part II of these musings I'll suggest that the vast majority of the beans are still in the bean jar but that one or two have escaped. More accurately, one of me will suggest that.


  1. I really want to make an attempt at this, but I am not sure I am on your level. So, if you could entertain me, I will ask you a few questions.

    If you were to know the player in-depth, would it be easier to play them, as opposed to a player you knew nothing about?

    Secondly, is there such a thing as an 'irrational' response (in the strictest sense)?

    Lastly, does table talk influence how you play?

  2. The problem with knowing a player in depth is that in most cases they will also know you. But, yes, if you could somehow profile an opponent and understand their individual psychology you could exploit that information. In fact to varying degrees this happens at poker tables all the time.

    Irrationality is a fascinating topic. I guess we get into a definitional/semantic issue here. A simplified idea of what I'm getting at would be an "emotional" response perhaps? Making the "wrong" decision must be satisfying some drive. Since I take a mathematical approach to poker for the most part one idea I was playing with here is that I would always make the right mathematical decision if only my id would quit whispering in the ear of my ego.

    Table talk definitely has an influence on how people play each other. Even online table talk through a chatbox. The trick is to keep sufficiently detached so that the barbs of others bounce off the skin while at the same time interpreting their table talk to see into their souls.

    A poker forum where I moderate has a psychology section you might find interesting. Stop by and say hi.

    - Kat

  3. The last answer is very true, but I think the second is the most interesting. Suppose there was no irrational response, but instead we could understand the rationality of a response. Shouldn't we have gained something here? Obviously so. So, I guess we only have to understand how people think, and then we've have completed it all! Even your 'irrationality' can be explained. I'll let this sit and have you think about this a bit. You already likely have the answers.

    Anyhow, would you like to play a game of poker sometime with Jenny and I? I think we could take it as a game of education and have 50 dollar minimum, or something. I kind of want to learn something, and I need to drag along someone you know a bit better than me, so I am not so estranged.

    Either way, I will check out that website.


  4. So I might be at the proper mix now to explain my ideas. Who knows. I am very reluctant to expose myself to you, because, well, you are so much above me. Anyhow, here goes nothing.

    I think we first need to start at the idea of existence. How is it we know we exist? Cogito ergo sum? This should be very much a basis into a approach at explaining human behavior. This is surely the first step. We exist due to thought. (I will try to make this as brief as possible so I don't insult your intelligence.)

    Reality is defined by thought. Our intersection with the world (Idea, really) is what makes us more real. Don't we feel more elated when we understand the world around us with a greater accuracy? Don't true ideas inflame pleasure like no other drug could elicit? But why is this so? If we look back to the initial point, we would surely see that it is because it increases our reality. Life is about BECOMING real. Our intersections with the world are what drive us to continue on in our pursuit of knowledge.

    Now, how do we live after we are dead? How is it we make sure our existence is not destroyed? We either make babies (perfected clones) or create great ideas so that people can never forget us. Of course there are lesser ideas, such as charity and causes, that do much the same. (Like I said, this will be very brief and sort of hatchety.)

    So one can surely derive, contingent upon the previous statements being true, that a person would be likely to IMPRESS themselves upon others, even in the simplest of tasks. This is really the driver of competition. Sure, you can win money doing things, or EARN money doing things, but the real motive is to influence the people who watch or interact. See, if they remember us and recognize us as 'masters' we will live even beyond our death!

    So, in moments of 'irrationality', I think it is likely we are suffering other influences that cause us to act in a way to be remembered (girl problems, life problems) so that we are no longer mortal, but become idea. Also, should a lesser person be winning on things that should knock the tradition of skill, I find it likely that one would play more aggressively than normal. I think this has happened at WSOP tournaments before, e.g., Chris Moneymaker (even his name incites violent play).

    So, what I mean to say is that, seemingly irrational plays are actually rational when you consider the entire scope of things. And I believe the best poker player would be a player well aware of the odds, and of himself. Should you be able to understand what makes you rock, you could easily understand others, maybe...

    I could say a lot more, but I think I am trying to be brief, so to not waste your time. Anyway, I would love to learn how to play from you sometime.


  5. Oh, also, everytime I listen to 'The Lovecats' by The Cure, I think of you.

    Ha, that sounds odd...but you wearing your sweater was so odd, but yet appealing, to me.

    You will easily be one of my most remembered professors.

  6. Hmmm... In terms of food for thought you've provided a 5-course meal. Which will require some digesting. However, let's get one thing clear: I'll accept the notion I'm a better poker player than you, but any other general concepts of above and below are meaningless.

  7. I can accept that. I get fairly nervous when talking to people I don't know well, especially if I feel like I might be spouting off things that should have been seen immediately as illusion in mind's eye.

  8. Paul, I've been mulling this "living beyond our death" thing for a while. A few things came to mind. Clearly some players like the fame and recognition of their abilities. They use this both to buttress their egos and to intimidate others. Someone like Hellmuth is clearly a remarkably gifted NLHE player, but if I could suddenly disguise myself as Phil Hellmuth - adopting the identical physical appearance but maintaining my level of skill - I would get better results than if I played looking like me simply because of the intimidation factor.

    But do we really act in life (or should we) in order to ensure that we "live on" through our deeds and contributions? For our fame and/or notoriety?

    I dunno. Maybe nothingness is the perfect state. Being just contaminates the void.

  9. There should obviously be some sort of physical effect in this as well, or so I think. Competition is never a one-sided affair, even if the competition is in one event. So, in the case of poker - or any other mental event - there should be physical traits that have influence. Someone, such as Hellmuth, intimidates in the way that they are likely stronger physically. Of course not much attention is paid upon this because it isn't relevant to the game, but I would bet it is relevant to the subconscious. This also likely influences the job market as well.

    Rather than be humiliated, one would likely play...dead, or humble themselves when challenged (much like a dog or an unsure person like myself). Of course the structure of this would depend upon the hand, but bluffing someone who is physically intimidating is surely much harder than bluffing a nerdy looking bastard. I think you could shake this to work your way if you took the opposite path, although, with poker, you would have to completely change your strategy. I wonder if changing your image in a game would make a drastic effect. THAT would certainly be an interesting test.

    I think that we certainly do behave in a way that creates reality for us, but, I'm not sure if we should. I am not sure I am ready to discuss what we should do about most things...I am still building a bit.

    The last statement is certainly interesting. Anyhow, I'll get back to you when I define my thoughts a little bit more.


  10. Dr. A, I think we should meet to play a friendly game of poker, or to just talk. I am arrogant enough to think I can teach you something, and I'm sure I can learn from, I think it would be great. Of course, you could call it whenever you wanted to and I could walk away...but I think I can teach you something about people. You call it, and I'll be there. You are my test, I think.

  11. "Le coeur a ses raisons que la Raison ne connaît pas / say the old folks / It goes to show you never can tell." - Blaise Berry