I’ve been playing UKIPT satellites on PokerStars in the last couple of weeks. This is a two stage qualifying process for me because I can in no way afford to buy in for the round two stages at either £82($100) or £100 ($130).
Honestly? I can’t really afford the 1st round buyin at an average of $18 a pop, I’m only sensibly bankrolled for av $7.
When I started playing these satties, I knew I was making a decision with my heart (I want to play UKIPT London, cos it’s close to home) and not with my head (I can’t afford to play UKIPT London, with or without hotel costs).
I took the decision to peel £100 out of my bankroll and set it aside for these satties.
This has meant a pretty laborious grind, as when I do qualify for round two, I have to cash that seat back in two out of three times to make sure I have funds to continue in the endeavour. I have played 20 x round one, won 8 x round two seats and played 3 x round 2 events (seat-bubbled one… WAH!).
I don’t feel like I’ve been running well, (do I ever?) and I’m getting a bit depressed with the whole shebang. This has been compounded by a friend of mine, Warlord Warris, who is some sort of uncanny satellite GOD, telling me that he won his 6th £770 seat last week. No jealousy here, mate, well played, good luck, big love…etc etc
I have to accept that I will be coming up against better opponents than I’m used to in these games, and that due to my limited funds I am probably playing a bit more scared than I’d like.
That said, my HUD has informed me that in my last 10 all in pre-flop situations in round one, I either had a nasty cooler (of course the BB has AA when I have QQ) or actually had an overpair/dominating Ace cracked by an underpair/crushed Ace.
Normal mathematical variance, this shit happens, but I did start to feel that I was getting “picked on” by PokerStars, the Poker Gods, or possibly the entire Universe itself.
Logically, I know this feeling to be nothing more than a cruel human sensation that is entirely distinct from maths, but equally, I know I’m not alone in this feeling; I see and hear other poker players making statements that tell me they are feeling the same way
Why does it feel like I’m being singled out, when logically I know I’m not? How much poker study do I have to do before this feeling just buggers off and I remain emotionally unaffected about losing a hand where I really didn’t do anything wrong?
My brain is brilliant machine, and so is yours, and it is very good at taking shortcuts (referred to by psychologists as heuristics.) This is a type of cognitive distortion or cognitive bias, and we all use them, unconsciously, every single day to navigate a busy world that would be uncomprehendingly overwhelming if we didn’t.
What I wanted to find out is how relevant this is to my poker game particularly, and how these cognitive distortions might be negatively affecting me whilst I play.
Some low level research has shown me that this process is almost certainly coming into play when I’m at the tables, digital or real, and even my little monkey brain can work out that there are no shortcuts when it comes to poker.
I’ve chosen a few common ones that you will probably recognise in yourself too, and I hope I can stop using these shortcuts as a way to avoid sitting in front of PokerTracker and filtering my last 10000 hands in various ways to see that Maths/Poker/The Universe is not “picking on me”. I love my lazy brain, and I’m grateful for all the conscious effort it saves me, but when it comes to poker, I need to understand the machine I’m using, lest its mysterious workings affect my financial outcomes.
The Negativity Bias
Studies on humans of all ages, from as young as 3 months old, show a natural predisposition to remember bad stuff much more clearly than good stuff: it’s more likely to inform our instant access view of the world.
For example, you may have had 500 good or neutral experiences with a dog, then one bites you on the arse and you start to be scared of dogs. If you sit and think very logically about it, it’s ridiculous, but it’s not a bad psychological structure for an animal (which we are) to have.
A neutral or good physical experience is unlikely to hurt me, or cause my death, and thereby prevent the continuation of my genes/species. A bad one just might, so it makes sense for me to have greater and speedier recall of a bad event surrounding a particular situation than a good one.
Our modern world offers many situations that stimulate psychological/emotional responses that arise from situations that do not put us in any kind of immediate physical peril; poker is one such situation. It hurts when my AA gets bummed by 22, but it’s a very different pain than that which results from a child touching a hot iron, or my ancestors inquisitively petting a pterodactyl.
This is problematic in poker because I start to play scared. After getting an overpair cracked by an underpair four times in a row (not mathematically unlikely if that situation occurs 100s of times), I start to have the fear of it happening again the next time I know I’m in a good spot. Maybe I just call a 2bet with KK, because “the Ace always comes on the flop”, or I don’t 3bet the guy with the 75% VPIP because “I never hit a flop” or I check/call the flopped nuts because “they always outdraw me”.
The Negativity Bias is important in my life, but it’s costing me money at the poker tables, and that’s not just me being negative.
The Gamblers Fallacy and The Hot Hand Fallacy
It’s interesting that both of these appear to originate from gambling! They both relate to the human misperception of random sequences, that we believe something is more (or less) likely to happen because it has (or has not) happened previously.
“I’ve lost the last 5 races, I’ll definitely win this one.”
“He’s had it every time, he can’t have it again.”
“I must flop a flush with these shitty connectors because I haven’t hit a flop in two weeks.”
All of these statements mean I’m probably going to put money in a pot with the wrong kind of odds, and recognising them as my lovely brain’s way of trying to make sense of the huge world of maths will hopefully help me slow that down.
Irrational Escalation (The Sunk Cost Fallacy)
This is where you continue with a line of action, even when you have information that suggests previous decisions were not sound, but you don’t want to give up on what you’ve already invested.
There are many spots in poker where this is relevant, and sometimes it’s not just about the money invested, it’s about the pride/sense of self-worth invested in the pot.
I knew I shouldn’t have called that paired flop with my flush draw at that price, and now the rockiest guy at the table has bet again and I still don’t have the odds… what to do?
With a clear mind, it’s an easy fold, when I’m tilted by a perfectly normal run of bad cards/spots it would seem that my mind will play a well-meaning trick on me, almost an attempt to “save face” with my own self!
Knowing this could be happening should help me to “give it up” more often; I make mistakes at the tables, but there’s no need to compound those mistakes because I don’t want to look like a pussy, or because I just can’t believe/admit I shouldn’t have seen the turn in the first place.
The Hindsight Bias
“I knew that was going to happen!” I scream as AA all in pre against A2 sends me to the rail.
No. I did not “know that was going to happen” at that exact moment. I know that it will happen 10% of the time over a sufficiently large sample, and that’s all I can ever know.
This is a good response to “surprise”, like the surprise of my opponent’s 2 outer spiking the river, because it’s very disheartening for a puny human mind to admit that we have no control over the future. Although we can anticipate a possible set of outcomes from the position we are in, (applicable to life and poker) we cannot say exactly what will happen, so the sense of “creeping determinism” is a nice psychological analgesic to the pain of not always being master of our own immediate destiny.
This bias is dangerous to my poker game because it supports my Negativity Bias in the impression that I can predict the outcome of the cards, which no poker player can do (thankfully) and will cause me to make increasingly poor decisions.
There are many potential cognitive biases, and I am sure more than I have identified are affecting my poker game in more ways than I could ever understand. What I have learned is that when I’m studying poker, it’s not just maths and game theory that I need to examine; poker is a psychological game, and understanding even a small part of my own brain and its many clever operations will always be helpful.
I know some players, probably very few, will find the idea of their brain playing these tricks on them quite alien; there are people who are so coldly and brilliantly logical, they were meant to be the best poker players in the world.
I’m not one of them, and as a result, I have skills that people like that will no-doubt envy in other areas of life. I can work to re-train my brain for better use at the poker table, and enjoy the fact that not all poker study has to involve wading through pages of equations that make my eyes bleed.
Once I understand the tricks of my brain, I can stop being fooled by them so often, and the more control I have over my monkey brain, the better my game and my win rate will be; at least I know that when it comes to poker, facts beat feels every single time.
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