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