Poker Players say the funniest things

GodsPlayPoker

“In a game of poker, I can put players’ souls in my pocket.” – Beausourire

“Poker reveals to the frank observer something else of import—it will teach him about his own nature. Many bad players do not improve because they cannot bear self-knowledge.” – David Mamet

“In the absence of any mathematical explanation, one thing is for certain; if you engage in games of chance long enough, the experience is bound to affect the way you see God. Successfully draw to an inside straight three hands in a row, and you’ve got to be blessed. But if you’re the person drawn out on, the one whose trip aces just got snapped for the third time, you will go home feeling cursed. ” – Andy Bellin

“Poker’s a day to learn and a lifetime to master.” – Robert Williamson III

 “Poker is a microcosm of all we admire and disdain about capitalism and democracy. It can be rough-hewn or polished, warm or cold, charitable and caring, or hard and impersonal, fickle and elusive, but ultimately it is fair, and right, and just.” – Lou Kreiger

 “In life’s poker game, the optimist sees the pessimist’s night and raises him the sunrise.” – Robert Brault

“Cards are war, in disguise of a sport.” – Charles Lamb

“No matter how much you may want to think of Holdém as a card game played by people, in many respects it is even more valid to think of it as a game about people that happens to be played with cards.” – Phil Hellmuth

“I believe in poker the way I believe in the American Dream. Poker is good for you. It enriches the soul, sharpens the intellect, heals the spirit, and – when played well, nourishes the wallet.” – Lou Kreiger

 

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Bad Beats – Seneca and Yerkes-Dodson

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

How do you deal with a bad beat? Do you shrug or tilt?

Phil Ivey or Phil Hellmuth?

Gus Hansen answers the question, “How do you handle a bad beat?”

“Some people don’t, but the best way is to just go ahead with the next hand, don’t worry too much about it, it’s just cards. It happens to everybody and sometimes you take and sometimes you give. Don’t worry too much about it,  just try to play as good as you can the next hand.”

Logically

1. You know you’re going to lose some time

2. You know it’s going to be unfair

3. You know you have been upset in the past when this happened

4. Therefore you are likely to be upset again in the future.

It’s not a surprise that you will have a bad beat at some time.

People will be upset. It has been happening for over 2,000 years;

Is any one surprised that he is cold in winter? That he is sick at sea? That he is jolted about on the highroad?” – Seneca – ‘On Anger’ AD 41

Seneca believed that a great deal of unhappiness was caused by ‘magic thinking’. People refuse to accept the inevitable;

You know something will happen yet still get upset when it does – it’s not rational. Deal with it.

Rationally you should have a process for dealing with this.

Why It’s Not Good to Tilt

 

TheYerkes-Dodson law shows that performance increases as anxiety/ arousal  increases to an optimum point beyond which performance declines rapidly. i.e. you perform better as you deal with a difficult situation until you reach a point where you rapidly decline. You manage the stress and anxiety well – then there comes a tipping point.

A strategy

You need a strategy – a strategy for dealing with failure. The strategy is about honesty and realism. The measure you use is ‘increase the speed of recovery’ – How quickly can you get back to full speed after a setback.

The strategy needs to be about honesty and  realism.

 Managing your anxiety

The more anxiety you can manage the better your performance, the better you can progress along the Yerkes-Dobson curve.

Anxiety is defined as the anticipation of pain. It’s not the actual pain. Poker players get anxious, a lot. The anticipation of a bad beat can often be worse than losing itself. So;

1. focus on NOW. Try not to think about 10 minutes ago or 10 minutes in the future.

2. focus on others – not yourself.

Both these strategies make it easier to take the pressure off yourself. You can regain control of the situation. No-one can  make you ‘tilt’ – only you can do this to yourself.

It won’t be easy – As you and Seneca know you won’t get it right first time. So, don’t be hard on yourself. Try gain – it gets easier.

This article first appeared in ‘Poker Shark’ – November 2011

Women Are Different from Men, Really

first published ‘Two Plus Two’ magazine – February 2012

Leo Margets: “There’s no difference between excellent men or women players although each will have their own style. It’s my observation that with lesser skilled players, men will make more mistakes being too aggressive in the wrong spots and women will be too passive.”

Stereotypes

Despite stereotyping getting a bad name, it is an extremely important part of people’s psychological make up and without stereotyping, it would be impossible to function. Stereotypes are natural, vital and helpful. If with each person you met you had to begin from scratch filling in their characteristics, you simply wouldn’t have enough time in your life.  Stereotyping allows you to fill in the gaps. It gives you a pretty full initial picture that allows you to add to, refine and remodel as you get more information.

For instance, you sit down at a poker table and you’re playing with players you’ve never met. One of these is a hotshot Scandinavian and another, a young blonde girl who doesn’t look old enough to get into the casino. I suspect you already have a different strategies planned for each. This may not be a conscious decision, and you may well think that you are approaching the game with a totally open mind, but that would be practically impossible. You will have already formed some stereotype, some “fixed, over generalised belief about a particular class of people”.

The assumption you have will be based on a number of factors including your upbringing, culture, media, beliefs, personal experience, etc.

In an interview Gus Hanson, Scandinavian player describes his stereotyping experience:

 “Every time I’m at a table with 8 players I’ve never seen before, they might have seen me on TV. They kind of already have it in their minds that the last time they saw me I was bluffing with 2-4 off-suit and called all in with this and that. So naturally they will give me a little more action because those are the hands that they’re seeing me play. But they might not have seen the fact that I won a big hand with kings a day earlier or whatever, so it definitely gets me more action that’s for sure.”

Your assumption of the young blonde girl who didn’t look old enough to get into the casino may be along the lines of Daniel Negreanu who writes about his first experience of playing poker against Jennifer Harman;

“I had my strategy all figured out: I wouldn’t bluff the crazy young kid, but I’d attack the poor little blonde girl. I thought, what is she doing playing so high, anyway? Well, she probably won’t last long, so I’d better get some of that money before it’s gone. That annoying little blonde girl was crushing me! Every time I raised, she reraised me, and every time I bluffed, she called. I was now stuck a little more than $9,000.”

Origins

Jennifer Tilly: “We are raised to be polite and honest. We are not raised to be most of the things that make good poker players.”

The typical stereotypical traits of a woman poker player are: passive, polite, non-competitive, honest, likely to fold in the face of any raise, quiet, slow….

There’s a fair amount deal of truth in a lot of this. There has been a great deal of research carried out in some relevant areas around gender differences. The research is fairly consistent and has been carried out over many years from a variety of sources. The most interesting from a poker playing viewpoint lie in the areas of competitiveness, problem solving and self esteem.

Competitiveness

Annette Obrestad “I’ve always said that girls suck at poker. I say that because they do. Maybe they just aren’t as competitive and don’t try to learn from their mistakes.”

This seems to be true, or at least, partly true. It does however, only tell half the story. Research by Hoygena and Hoygena suggest that women frequently compete as vigorously as males. However, there is an inherent stigma that seems to prevent women being seen to be competitive. This appears to come principally from centuries of social conditioning.  Throughout history, women have had to adapt to be taken seriously in a ‘man’s world’. For instance, the world of arts and writing has primarily been a male-dominated arena for centuries. The only way for some authors to get their work published has been to adapt. Mary Ann Evans had to change her name to George Eliot, and even recently Joanne Rowling was told by her publishers to use her initials J.K.as they felt boys would not read a book written by a woman.

It’s also been proven that women are significantly more likely to compete where they are unlikely to be discriminated against and where they believe they have an equal or better chance of succeeding. Highlighting this, one study by Robinson-Staveley and Cooper found that females outscored men in an isolated competition but men exceeded women when other people were present.

This would explain the influx of women to online poker.

Victoria Coren explains;

“Internet poker is the best thing ever invented for women. Everything that didn’t suit women about live poker was removed at a stroke. It allows you to be as competitive as you like and you won’t get men giving you funny looks. Live poker, broadly speaking, is a more masculine activity.”

Reframing

The stereotype of a passive woman is very strong. Stereotypes tend to be. Even in the face of contradictory evidence, people will cling to their stereotype. One way of rationalising this is reframing. Even when a person acts totally against the stereotype, others rationalise it.

In an interview Vanessa Selbst gave with Kirsty Arnett, she tells of her experience at the final table of a WSOP event. In the hand she was dealt the 5spade2spade. She raised preflop, got re-raised and then she pushed all in. Unfortunately, she was up against a pair of aces and lost. She continued;

Vanessa: “I got a ton of flack for it. I still get a ton of flack for it.
Kristy: “When I watched that hand, I was thinking, she is second in chips against the chip and leader, and this is absolutely brilliant and ballsy, because he has to fold almost all hands!”
Vanessa: “Yes, exactly. If he has A-Q he folds, and I look like a genius. If he has aces, I look like an idiot. That’s the way it goes.”

In a televised High Stakes Poker game, Phil Ivey played a hand that ended with him going all-in with 5 -2 against Lex Veldhius. This was described as “one of the greatest bluffs in the history of HSP”.

Problem Solving

It has long been established that men are more risk prone than women. Women tend toward a strategy of risk aversion and accept risk as a last resort. They would prefer to take a risk ‘when the benefits are maximised and costs minimised’. Men are generally more comfortable with risk-taking. Men tend to want to rush to a solution whereas women are more likely to spend time longer conceptualising a solution and then implementing it. In their research on competition, Daly and Wilson found that women tend to “develop elegant solutions”, rather than ‘good enough’ solutions.

In poker, as in life, there is generally a time limit around problem solving and quick, successful risk taking is widely admired especially in public. In strict time limit situations, men will more rapidly identify and select a ‘close enough’ solution and implement it. Women may feel more anxious and have performance issues, at least initially.

Both parties can learn and adapt to the situations. The better poker players are either instinctively more flexible in their approach or can learn quicker and adapt more effectively. In general, men have an advantage learning poker in public arenas. In many situations it is almost a mark of honor to play hyper-aggressively even if you lose big. Women tend to be more risk averse and initially at least, handle failure more personally.
Kathy Liebert talks about her strategy in the 2007 WSOP heads-up event;

“You have a series of events in your head already planned out at the beginning of every hand. So, if you see a line from a player, and it winds up being similar to how other players play the same hand, it makes it easier, especially heads up. You’ll see spots where it is pretty obvious someone is going to bluff, or where someone raises and you know they don’t have x, y, and z hands, or whatever it is, just from experience.”

Self Esteem

Clonie Gowen: “To be a successful player, you need a lot of confidence”

Another aspect of the female stereotype is that women lack confidence. There is a great deal of evidence to support this. This seems to emanate from childhood.

Studies on school children have found that girls’ performances are often strongly influenced by the way boys perceive them or the way the girls think boys perceive them. This will greatly affect their performance in the classroom. Many times, girls act naïve or hide their intelligence and abilities because they think this is the way to be socially accepted and popular with boys. Also, it has been shown that even when female college students have the same intellectual results as males, there are frequently huge differences in their perceptions of themselves. A recent example seems to indicate that this perception continues beyond school;

A senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000 a year. The advert did not attract one female applicant. However, when the same post was re-advertised for £35,000 a year they were overwhelmed with applications from women.

The way of building self-esteem seems to be a fairly reasonable and well-documented one. The way to build self-confidence is not by throwing them in at the deep end and hoping they can swim. The approach is a systematic series of small steps and confidence building.

Maria Ho: “I would have to say it was online poker that I credit with being able to jump so fast. I’ve always felt more comfortable playing higher online than I did live… I think I was just intimidated in the beginning. So playing online really helped me like get over that intimidation because once I became a winning player at the higher limits, then the limits didn’t intimidate me as much, so I was able to take that into the live arena.”

Finally

This, of course, isn’t true for all men all the time, or all women all the time. There are numerous examples of uncompetitive male players, females that make snap decisions, etc. However, the evidence indicates that there is a degree of truth in the stereotypes.

However, the learning is about playing the person, not the stereotype. For poker players, stereotypes can be dangerous and the better players will take advantage of them. Female poker players will happily play to this;

Kathy Liebert: “Most men treat women as stereotypes at the poker table, not as unique players. This makes it pretty easy to play with men that have never played with me before. Certain types of men check a strong hand because they want to be the “nice” guy. Other types of men might try to bully a “weak” woman. Whatever the case, I win bets. This is a huge advantage to me. There is less advantage against regular opponents of course.”

For women players, the learning here is that if you don’t feel confident playing poker initially, you’re not on your own. Online poker will help some people. Women-only tournaments will help some people. Ultimately, women are different from men, really. Whether the reason is genetic, cultural, behavioural, it really doesn’t matter. There are psychological differences. This should be recognised and acknowledged as it should be for all groups of people. Lucy Rocach’s thoughts on women only tournaments seem to be some of the most sensible on the topic;

“In any activity dominated almost exclusively by one group, there has to be a case for positive discrimination. In the case of live poker, the whole casino experience can be intimidating for the lone uninitiated woman, where the gambling industry is geared towards men. If you can get women used to going to a cardroom and have an enjoyable night out in a non-threatening atmosphere, half the battle’s won.”

Dealing With Upset

 

“Don’t make me angry”

There are times as a human being, or as a poker player when you will be upset. You may be upset with yourself, your opponents, the dealer, the cards, Lady Luck, just about anyone or anything. The usual time players get upset is when they’ve had a ‘bad beat’;

bad beat n. – comic —  When a very strong hand that is a statistical favourite to win loses to a much weaker hand that hits a lucky draw

Some “bad beats” aren’t really that bad—Your AK v 2 3 sounds like a bad beat, yet, statistically AK will only win 2 out of 3 times.  But sometimes a bad beat is a bad beat and this can, naturally, lead to some form of upset. The upset may take form of an internally (bad mood) or externally (a sulk or a rant). These techniques are rarely satisfactory and do nothing to achieve the objective of getting back “off tilt”.

A very useful way of getting off tilt is to understand why you were upset. It may seem straightforward but it really isn’t.

There are basically only 3 reasons people get upset. By understanding the emotion and rationale behind your upset you will be able to adjust more rapidly.

The first cause of upset is linked to a BROKEN AGREEMENT.

This can be written or unwritten, formal or informal, spoken or unspoken. It will include lies and perpetrations. This tends to occur in personal relationships.

If this occurs during a poker game it is usually best to move away from the poker table and attempt to resolve it in private. I don’t mean a gun fight or anything like that, but a discussion. For instance if you believe a colleague has lied to you or broken some kind of agreement you need to resolve it. If you don’t resolve it there will always be a friction and a difficult relationship between you – a “history”. This will invariably put you on tilt against them.

The second cause of upset is UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS. This would be the situation where you expect something from the game, people in the game, the organisation of the game, etc. that doesn’t happen. For instance you may expect a player to behave in a certain way at the table and they don’t. This will affect you. You now have a number of options:

  1. Address the situation
  2. Leave the situation
  3. Sulk, tilt and lose all your money

The order of the above is the preferred order.  If you can address the situation—do it. If you need to use others to help—use others. It will continue to affect you even if you think it doesn’t. You may not realise it until you’ve left the game and can think rationally about the situation.

The final cause of upset is BLOCKED GOALS. This is the one that is the most personal to you, and the one you can deal with most effectively.

This situation occurs when you’ve set yourself a goal, a target, and you don’t achieve it. Someone, or usually yourself, has stopped you reaching it. In this situation it is tempting to blame external factors for your lack of success: it’s the dealer’s fault, the opponent, the room, my table position, luck.

 

 

Once you’ve recovered from the initial upset it would be useful to look at yourself. Did you set a realistic target? Have you the skills to achieve this? Did you just have a run of bad luck? Do you consistently have a run of bad luck? Thinking about questions like these will give you some ideas to improving your game and perhaps adopting a more realistic approach to your game. It may be that you need to improve on some facets of your game in order to reach the next level. Or you could genuinely have had a run of bad luck. This happens.

If you keep having bad luck, and keep losing when you shouldn’t, you need to break out of that cycle. Looking at the cause of the upset will really help. Remember Einstein’s definition of madness:

“Madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Perhaps, eventually you’ll be able to handle triumph and disaster as well as Berry Johnston did at the 1985 WSOP Main Event:

“There were three players remaining: chip leader, Bill Smith, TJ Cloutier and Berry Johnston, nearly even in chips. TJ had Berry covered by a few chips, and Berry was all-in with A-K against Cloutier’s A-J,” Mike recalled. “The flop came A-7-3, and a jack came on the turn. TJ won that pot to knock Berry Johnston out of the tournament. I’ll never forget it because Berry handled that bad beat as well as anybody could possibly imagine. He didn’t moan, he didn’t cry, he just shook his head a little bit, ya know? And he got up, shook their hands, and wished them good luck. He walked over to his wife, who wasn’t much of a poker player, and she said, ‘Oh, honey, are you out now?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Oh, good.  Now, do you want to go get something to eat?’”

This article first appeared in Blind Straddle – December 2011

Feeling Lucky?

Old Entrance for MGM Grand Casino, Las Vegas

Those players identified a priori as being highly skilled achieved an average return on investment of over 30 percent, compared to 15 percent for all other players. This large gap in returns is strong evidence in support of the idea that poker is a game of skill.
– Steven D. Levitt and Thomas J. Miles 2011 – The Role of Skill versus Luck in Poker:- Evidence from the World Series of Poker in April 2011.

The almost universal accepted theory is that poker is a game / sport consisting of a mix of skill and luck. levitt and Miles analysis calculates that highly skilled players win 15% more money than other players. So, one interpretation of the skill / luck ration could be assessed as a ratio of skill / luck as 85% / 15%. This is different from the percentages suggested by another economist, Phil Hellmuth. He calculates that ;“Poker is 100% skill and 50% luck”

Another noted academic and psychologist, Fritz Heider suggests that performing any activity well consists of a mix of external and internal factors. The internal factors he identifies are; your ability to complete the task, and the effort you put into achieving the task. The external factors are the difficulty of completing the task, i.e your opponents play and luck. Heider suggests that you only have limited control of these factors. He feels you can control the internal factors by practicing hard, implementing successful strategies, etc.. but you have no control over the external factors, i.e. your opponents and your luck.

I would disagree with that. I believe you can influence your opponents, (although Heider would probably argue that that would be defined under your internal strategies) and more crucially, and controversially, that you can change your luck.
Heider would definitely disagree with that assertion I believe poker players can influence their luck, and they know it, and their behaviour shows that they frequently act as if they can. Rationally most players will argue this is absolute
nonsense. However, let’s look at the evidence. luck can be influenced and here are a number of arguments to prove it;

Argument 1: 3.5 billion people, or more, can’t be wrong,can they?
Half the population of the world believe in the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui which promotes good luck. A number of large Western Organisations are willing to invest a great deal of money respecting their beliefs;
The Disney Corporation shifted the angle of the front gate of Hong Kong’s Disneyland by 12 degrees to align the park for maximum prosperity.
The entrance to the original MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas was inside the mouth of Leo the lion, MGM’s mascot. However many Chinese gamblers avoided the casino or entered the casino through the back entrance to avoid the bad luck they believed they would have entering the mouth of the lion. in 1998 the entrance was changed. The architects of the Crown casino in Australia complex consulted 3 feng shui experts when building the $1.6 billion hotel and casino. it is also lucky for gamblers to wear red underwear. Oh, and let’s not forget the little prayer most poker players mutter when they’re all-in in a coin flip.

Argument 2: Animals can’t be wrong, can they?
Animals don’t believe in luck, do they? in an experiment carried out by B.F. Skinner he proved that animals, in this case pigeons, are superstitious at heart and will carry out a set of rituals, or superstitions in order to give themselves the best chance of success. Skinner set up an experiment which meant the pigeon had to peck the correct button from a number of options, to get some food. The pigeons quickly established this and learnt which button to peck. Skinner then changed the system and rewarded the pigeons randomly whichever button they pressed. The pigeons responded by behaving in an unusual way.
They developed their own mannerisms; twisting their necks, flapping their wings, pecking close to the buttons in a consistent manner in a bid to reproduce the luck they had previously had achieved by gaining food. In the article “Betting With Magic & The Use of Magical Belief Systems in Gambling” Bess Hayes and Dr. Tyler Jarvis conclude,“Despite understanding the probability and independence of events in gambling games, gamblers repeatedly exhibit actions that display their belief in an ability to control the outcome of an event in a game.”

Argument 3: Governments can’t be wrong, can they?
If the highest powers in the land acknowledged that luck could be influenced that would be some proof, yes?;
He (expert witness Roy Cooke) enjoys poker and agreed that there was skill involved, but he believes that luck prevails every time. He testified that he had seen a television poker tournament in which there was a hand that had a 91 percent chance to win and yet it lost to a hand with only a 9 percent chance to win. He opined that this was absolute proof that in poker, luck pre-dominates over skill.” – North Carolina Supreme Court findings summarizing expert witness testimony of Roy Cooke, July 2005.
Sweden’s Supreme Court Judge Goran Lamberth concluded that “cash games constitute games that primarily depend on luck as in the meaning of chapter 16, article 14 of the Criminal Code.”
In the Gutshot Poker Club case in England, the court ruled poker to be a “game of luck and so subject to the Gaming Act.”
The argument is as follows;
• Poker is a game of luck.
• Luck is by definition not consistent and must eventually balance itself out.
• Some players consistently win more than others over a substantial period
• Therefore these players must have an influence over the amount of good luck they have.

Argument 4: psychologists can’t be wrong, can they?
4a. An experiment was carried out with people who described themselves as “lucky”and another set who didn’t describe themselves as lucky. The test was given to these two groups of people. Both groups were given newspapers with hidden messages. They were asked to complete a task and during that task they could come across clues and hidden messages giving them instructions on how to win $100. People from the “lucky” group did far better than the other group. The psychologists conducting this experiment concluded that feeling lucky can help you it gives you positive vibes and a more optimistic viewpoint. Feeling lucky makes you more likely to see the good side and influence your behaviour.

4b. People can control their luck. Or, more accurately, people behave as if they can control their luck. Ellen Langer, psychologist, describes this as the “illusion of control.”

This illusion of control was illustrated in an experiment she carried out based on a lottery. The lottery is an acknowledged game of pure chance with each ticket having as much chance of winning as any other, obviously. One group of people were given lottery tickets with images of famous sportspeople on them. Another group were able to select which lottery ticket sportsperson they choose. Each ticket cost 1$. When scientists attempted to buy tickets from these groups, based on the excuse that there were no more lottery tickets left, they found that the people who had been given random tickets negotiated the sale of their tickets for on average, $1.96. Whilst the people in the group who had selected their own tickets sold them for an average of $8.67. Therefore the second group, who had chosen their own tickets, behaved as though they had more control of their luck than the first group who’s chances of winning was pre-determined.

4c. in a practical situation sociologist E.G. Coffman found that dealers who experienced runs of bad luck ran the risk of losing their jobs. He also observed craps players in action. He found that people tend to throw the dice softly if they want low numbers or to throw hard for high numbers, after, of course, blowing on the dice.

Argument 5: Sports stars can’t be wrong, can they?
Paul Azinger, golfer, always marks the position of his golf ball on the green with a US penny that features Abraham Lincoln. Not only that but he lines the penny up to ensure lincoln is looking at the hole. Wade Boggs, liked to eat chicken before a game at 5.17pm precisely. He then went and hit exactly 150 balls in batting practice. Serena Williams blamed her failure to win the 2007 French Open on herself: “I didn’t tie my laces right and I didn’t bounce the ball five times and I didn’t bring my shower sandals to the court with me.”

The “Illusion of control” is a great way of summarising the attempt to control your fate. On the one, rational, level it seems absurd. How can having an orange in front of you at a poker table possibly affect your chances of winning? However, one of the most important aspects of poker, or any competitive activity really, is feeling comfortable about it and getting yourself in the best frame of mind. if that means doing a little dance around your chair before you sit down, so what. Do what feels right for you.

“As long as their routine helps them get into that state of mind and doesn’t damage their performance, or that of anyone else on their team, then I would encourage them to do it. When it can become a problem is when it becomes an obsession that can be damaging.” Dr Tony Westbury, lecturer in sport, exercise and psychology at Napier University in Edinburgh. The dangers, as Westbury goes on to add, is that for some athletes, superstition can become dangerously close to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Conclusion
Perhaps the final word needs to come from Dylan Thomas, poet, not someone you would call a “lucky” person. in the foreword to his book of Collected Poems he wrote;
“I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: “I’d be a damn’ fool if i didn’t!”

This article first appeared in ‘World Gaming Executives’ December 2011

Trusting Your Instincts

Mike Matusow describing a situation with Carlos Mortensen;

“My focus was on Carlos, and when he raised me I was 100 percent sure he had nothing. So I re-raised him. He looked over at my stack and went all-in. I sat there and studied him for what felt like an hour. I had Ace-fucking-high. There was a million-point-two sitting in the pot. I knew he had nothing. As I got ready to call him, though, I wondered what would happen if I was wrong. I’d be the laughing stock of poker. I couldn’t take the chance. I folded, and he showed the whole world Q-8 off-suit.”

Asking top poker professional what separates them from others will inevitably lead 2 basic factors. One of them is understanding the game and the maths and the other is something a lot more intangible.

Andy Bloch sums up pretty well;

My play is a mix of instinct and mathematics. My instincts will tell me when my opponent may be weak or strong, whether a bluff or value bet might work, and I will incorporate those possibilities into calculating the best play.”

This instinct is incredibly difficult to define. If you ask most poker champions it will crop up somewhere. For instance;

Dutch Boyd; “There’s any number of things that are necessary for a poker player to possess. Card sense, instincts… I think you’re born with these things and you can’t learn them from a book.”

Jim Worth; “I’m not a strict math player. I’m more an instinct player. Probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned in the past years playing full-time is trusting my instincts. “

Instinct isn’t confined to poker, of course. In a number of sports champions, people use it to describe that extra something they feel they have. In his biography the greatest footballer of all time, Pele, attempts to explain how he was often in the right place at the right time and how he scored so many goals;

Pele; “…  that is what I definitely had – an ability to anticipate what was going to happen, slightly before everyone else. Even after I became a professional, people would say, “How did you see that coming?”, and I would reply, “I don’t know. I just did.”

So what is this ‘instinct’, this ability to understand what people are thinking, going to do? Is it something that can be taught, or is it something people are born with? The evidence suggests that what people refer to as ‘instinct’ comes from a lot of hard work, practice and analysis. Some people are definitely born with the ability to process information faster, better, than others but this is not enough and there’s a real need to work hard and make the most of what skills you’ve been born with;

Gary Player, golfer tells his story;

I was practicing in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, “You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” I holed the next one. Then he says, “You got $100 if you hole the next one.” In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” And I shot back, “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

In poker this frequently comes down to betting patterns and the ability to read people. So where does this ability come from? There is obviously a lot of experience involved but how come some people seem better than others at working this out?

In pure physical terms it is estimated that we take in over a billion pieces of information every second yet only have the ability to process 4,000 pieces of this data. We process what is important to us and make decisions based on this information. People focus on different information depending on their hard-wiring, the situation and what is important to them at the time. My guess is that successful poker players have learned what to focus on more effectively than others.

In a piece of research carried out with fire fighters Gary Klein, research psychologist, analysed one incident with a fire commander.

The previous night the commander and his crew had encountered a seemingly routine fire. Having started working on the fire the commander described how he had a ‘sixth sense’ and ordered the fire crew out of the building. As the crew reached the street the living room floor there had been working in caved in. It would have killed them. The commander was convinced this decision, based on instinct, was a form of Extra Sensory Perception, some kind of supernatural phenomena.

Klein investigated the situation and found that after a great deal of investigation the fire would have been burning beneath the floor. This would have meant that the water the crew used on the fire would have a slightly different effect, the fire would be slightly quieter and the temperature a degree or so hotter. Klein believes these clues were unconsciously processed by the commander and he made the decision to evacuate. This isn’t to undermine the commander but rather to illustrate that his senses were more attune to the situation than even he realised.

This is confirmed in an experiment described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Blink’. He describes a very simple card game. There are 4 packs of cards – 2 blue and 2 red. Each card in those four decks either wins you a sum of money or costs you some money, and your job is to turn over cards from any of the decks, one at a time, in such a way that maximizes your winnings. The blue packs are the more profitable although initially it looks as if there’s no difference. People tend to work this out eventually. After about fifty cards people start to develop a hunch about what’s going on. They’re not sure why they prefer the blue decks but they recognise that preference.  After about eighty cards, people can explain exactly why they prefer blue.  It’s a pretty straightforward example of how learning works – we develop an instinct, get more information and are eventually able to explain it.

The interesting aspect of this experiment was that the scientists running the experiment hooked each gambler up to a polygraph. This showed that after only about ten cards the people carrying out the experiment were already showing stress reactions to the red cards. They also started taking less red cards, even though they weren’t aware of it. In other words the behaviour of the people doing the experiment had changed to favour the blue cards even before they were aware of it.

It seems that people know things a long time before they can explain them. It’s similar to animals being aware of danger before it appears. Perhaps the better poker players are more in touch with their bodies than others;

Jennifer Tilly describes winning her WSOP bracelet in 2005;

“It was like a light had been switched on in the closet. I was playing really well, but had accessed a zone – some weird pocket of energy where I could read people really well. I just knew what they had.“

So, perhaps intuition isn’t as intuitive as it seems. Perhaps the top poker players aren’t magicians or mind readers but just a little more hard working, have different processing skills and perhaps are open to their subconscious more than others. It happens in life, whether you’re a card dealer, art dealer, drug dealer you can sense when something just doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t explain it.

It seems that experienced decision makers have a different view of things than novices and decide in different ways. In a sense they see things differently;

The Cuban World Chess Champion Jose´ Raoul Capablanca once remarked about his personal, subjective, experience: ‘‘I know at sight what a position contains. What could happen? What is going to happen? You figure it out, I know it!’’ In another occasion, talking about the numerous possibilities that less-skilled players usually consider on each board position, he bluntly remarked: ‘‘I see only one move: The best one.’’

The process involved isn’t about getting lots and lots of information. It’s about selecting what’s important and processing that. Frequently the biggest danger people have is an overload of information. After making a decision we second guess and talk ourselves out of it, as in the example of Mike Matuso at the top of the article. We have traditionally been taught to gather lots of evidence, analyse and make a decision. The problems with this is the time involved to process everything and the vast amount of information that often contradicts itself. Perhaps a different approach is needed;

At the Cook County Hospital in Chicago they changed the way doctors diagnosed heart attacks. They gathered less information on their patients. They focused on a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history. Cook County is now one of the best places in the world at diagnosing chest pain.

So what does this tell us? It’s about the quality of data rather than the quantity. We have to train ourselves to look for the key elements in reading people and situations.

This would help explain why some people consistently do well online where there is less information. It’s not about the quantity not the quantity. I’m sure this is not purely saved for live games. At an online site the focus will be on “betting patterns” and perhaps in some ways enable players to focus more on what’s available without other distractions. This was taken to the extreme in 2007 with Annette Obrestad;

To demonstrate her talent and expertise in online poker, she entered a four-dollar sit-and-go back in 2007, which she won without looking at her cards. As she says, she only peeked at the cards once, in a tough spot, in the rest of the time relying solely on her instinct and capacity to read her opponents.

Perhaps the lesson here is to simply trust your instinct.

 This article first appeared in Poker Pro – November 2011

Why women aren’t as successful as men at interviews yet in the future will probably take the majority of the seats at the WSOP Main Event final table

SOME FACTS

  • The female brain develops at a different rate to the male brain;
  • The corpus callosum is “the caring membrane in the brain”.
  • Girls’ CC is three times larger than boys’.
  • Boys frequently cannot demonstrate empathy unless it is related to a physical action.
  • Every report into education standards seems to reach the conclusion that girls consistently out-perform boys at school;
  • Girls tend to be more flexible in their approach to learning and adapt to different learning styles. Boys tend to prefer activities.
  • One report suggests that girls have more ‘sensory capacities and biosocial aptitudes to decipher exactly what teachers want’ – they are better at understanding people.
  • Boys tend to learn by doing. Girls tend to learn by thinking
  • When given a sheet of blank paper most girls draw animals, flowers, people. Boys tend to draw an action scene.
  • Observations show that when completing a jigsaw puzzle girls tend to ask for help three times as much as boys will.
  • In terms of competitiveness on equal terms, women tend to compete as aggressively as males – however there seems to be a psychological ‘brake’ on women competing due to societal upbringing – “ little girls –seen not heard”
  • The basic concept of problem solving is different from men and women; men tend to adapt a high risk high payoff strategy over a low-risk, low-payoff strategy adapted by women. So men will rush toward a ‘close enough’ solution, women like to conceptualise a solution then implement it
  • Some of the differences in problem solving is cultural as males tend to be admired for the ‘good enough’ approach

INTERVIEWING

Research shows that men are more successful than women at interviews as these traits continue in later life.

The more measured, considered approach preferred by women is frequently regarded as being weak and indecisive at interviews. Aggressiveness and risk taking is rewarded at interviews and often seen as being decisive and confident. This is often assessed by interviewers as the amount of time taken to answer questions at interview. Females tend to want to weigh up all the options whereas men seem happier to go with the likeliest. Women are less inclined to take guesses than men.

However in the work environment this gung-ho approach is seen less favourably. The female considered approach – longer thinking time, low risk, approach is favoured over the male instant decision, high risk approach. In many instances the male ‘do or die’ attitude is soon regarded as a negative trait.

However, these female traits would seem to have huge potential in the workplace; the benefits of achieving the task cooperatively would result in more motivated staff, more ownership of the work amongst the team, less task demarcation, etc… Also the targets are far more likely to be met as there are more people focused on achieving the result.

Women learn quicker and more effectively – because of their approach to learning. They learn by learning in a certain way – better – more considered. They learn more effectively when they are supported, have role models, are allowed to develop a make mistakes in a ‘safe’ environment.

Once they have learnt they are more likely to want to learn more than men.   Men tend to adopt a ‘need to know’ approach to learning.

Women entrepreneurs are financially more conservative, emphasizing profitability and profit over rapid growth, and their management policies seek to minimise work-family conflicts. Women’s businesses tend to grow more slowly than men’s, incur less debt and higher quality.

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions.” – The End of Men, Hanna Rosin

POKER

Unsurprisingly these same traits appear on the poker table, or the poker screen. Many men are very successful initially with the high risk, decisive approach. This is taken as a sign of strength, confidence and competence.

Women tend to want to take longer and initially this will appear as a weakness. It may contribute to the fact that this trait is seen as indecisiveness makes other players regard this as a weakness and play even more aggressively toward them.

It has long been established that in general women tend to be more co-operative that men. However looking deeper at the research it shows that women are more likely to compete where they believe they can succeed. It’s a phenomenon known as the cheetah complex. The cheetah cannot afford to expend energy chasing its food if there is not much probability of catching it. It therefore chooses it’s times of action extremely carefully and will only commit to the chase if the odds are heavily stacked in its’ favour. In some regard women regard competition in that light,

Female are far more likely to engage in competitive activities where the environment does not inherently disadvantage women, female are more likely to be successful. This would pretty much sums up the real, or perceived, growth in online gaming. This would appear to be a major reason for the steady growth and success of women over the past decade or so.

As men and women develop their poker skills they tend to be more aware of their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses and adapt their game accordingly. This element of learning is critical in the development of top poker players.

Men, in general, seem more comfortable learning in a challenging environment. They tend to be less concerned about taking a new approach and losing. Women are far less comfortable with this and tend to want to build their learning slowly and steadily in a safe environment. The advent of the internet appears perfect. Woman can learn skills anonymously without the stress and strain of failure having a big impact.

The area of development they seem to need to push them to the next level comes from the socialisation and developing the relationships they need. This is the stage many females seem trapped in, the step from online playing to face to face playing.  The environment is now no longer felt to be safe and a number of talented players will retreat to the safety of the computer.

One approach has been women only tournaments. This allows women to take the step from internet to tournament play in a safer environment and seems to be a sensible approach.

THE FUTURE

In an article in ‘The Atlantic’ last year, ‘The End of Men’ – Hanna Rosin looks at the cultural balance between men and women and the role they have in the future. The female traits of empathy, developing relationships, producing more workable solutions seem to be what businesses want and need these days. The concluding paragraph;

“Innovative, successful firms are the ones that promote women. The same Columbia-Maryland study ranked America’s industries by the proportion of firms that employed female executives, and the bottom of the list reads like the ghosts of the economy past: shipbuilding, real estate, coal, steelworks, machinery.“ –

It seems inevitable, to Hanna Rosin, that the future at the very top of businesses around the world, will be led by females. The skills and talents required have moved over the past few decades from the physical to the cerebral. The focus has changed from processes and control to creativity and people.

The poker world is no different.  At the very top level where everyone knows the rules, the odds, the techniques it’s not about aggression or experience. It’s about instinct and reading people. Traits women seem to have more than men.

* NOTE

In general this is what the evidence tells us.  It’s not every man and every woman – it’s nothing you can point to an individual and say – “this is how you are”. It’s a generalisation based on evidence. Evidence as a percentage – a majority – a best guess. There are many, many men and women who will not fall into the broad categories outlined below. I know this. You really don’t need to point this out to me.