Poker vs Tennis: Career Trajectory, Earnings, Exposure, and Costs Are All Similar

(Cross-posted excerpt from research I did for Raising for Effective Giving.)

Professional-level poker and tennis are both competitive endeavors that take years to train for. The size of the player pools are similar. And the top players in each make millions of… while the rest either lose money or make only a marginal income:

  • Both poker and tennis have roughly 75-100 million recreational players worldwide.
  • Both have around 20,000 semi-professional / college players.
  • Both have on the order of 3,000 professional players.
  • Median professionals earnings are around $50k-$150k/yr.
  • In 2013, the top 10 ATP tennis players together earned $48 Million, and the top 10 GPI ranked poker players earned $47 Million.
  • Both are covered on US and UK TV over 500 hr / year.

Read the full article here.

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Poker’s Positive Economic Impact; Including over 119,000 jobs

(Cross-posted excerpt from research I did for Raising for Effective Giving.)

Amazingly, no one has ever calculated the full economic impact of poker. Some top line statistics on poker’s annual worldwide economic impact:

  • $5.16 billion in economic impact
  • 108,240 jobs created directly and indirectly from live poker
  • $1.25 billion in direct and indirect tax revenue from live poker
  • 11,660 jobs created directly and indirectly from online poker
  • $47 million in direct and indirect tax revenue from online poker

Read the full article here.

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REG player Martin Jacobson wins 2014 WSOP Main Event

Congrats to Martin Jacobson who won the 2014 WSOP Main Event for $10,000,000!

Both REG players at the final table, Jorryt Von Hoof and Martin Jacobson, navigated their way down to 3 handed play for monster scores of $3.8M and $10M respectively. Their wins will provide over a quarter million dollars for some of the world’s most effective charities.

What a great night for effective altruism!

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Raising for Effective Giving

Binking one of the daily deepstacks at the 2014 WSOP.

As an effective altruist, I’ve written before about how passionate I am when it comes to identifying and giving to the highest impact charities.

So I was really excited this summer to join REG, the new effective giving group for poker players. In fact, I joined right before I shipped a poker tournament for a few thousand dollars at the World Series Of Poker. So I got a chance to immediately exercise my new pledge and give 2% of my poker winnings to charity.

And guess what? It felt amazing!

At last count, there were already 70 pokers players giving with me through REG. But you should still join. Everyone is important right now. This movement is still small enough that each new member makes a huge difference. So check out REG and consider joining today — especially if you make your living playing poker.

And whether you’re ready to join or not, their site certainly has lots of great content. Make sure to check out their posts about rationalityeffective giving, and everything else they’ve written on their blog so far.

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23 Cognitive Mistakes that make People Play Bad Poker

Brain Fail

Like other complex activities, poker is easier to learn when you build skills in the right order.

So I’ve compiled the top 23 cognitive mistakes that make people play bad poker. I’ve listed these roughly in order of priority. In other words, if you don’t fix the ones near the top, it won’t really matter if you’re doing fine with the ones further down! You should think of this as the roadmap of errors that are preventing you from becoming a better poker player.

Ignoring evidence

Inattention is the tendency to fail to concentrate on information that could be useful for future decision making.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Focusing effect is the tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of an event; causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.

Availability heuristic is estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples.

Not knowing the math (Innumeracy)

Neglect of probability is the tendency to completely disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.

Base rate neglect is the tendency to base judgments on specifics, ignoring general statistical information.

Attitude problems

Loss aversion is people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

Self-serving bias is  the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.

Overconfidence is the state of being more certain than is justified, given your priors and the evidence available. For example, for certain types of questions, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.

Negativity Bias is paying more attention to and giving more weight to negative rather than positive or neutral experiences.

Optimism bias is the tendency to be over-optimistic about the outcome of planned actions.


Clustering illusion (Apophenia) is the tendency to see patterns where none exist.

Illusion of control is the tendency to overestimate one’s degree of influence over external events.

Gambler’s fallacy is the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged.

Just-world phenomenon is the tendency for people to believe that the world is just and therefore people “get what they deserve.”


Irrational escalation is the phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong.

Pessimism bias is the tendency for some people, especially those suffering from depression, to overestimate the likelihood of negative things happening to them.

Projection bias is the tendency to unconsciously assume that others (or one’s future selves) share one’s current emotional states, thoughts and values.

Mis-remembering reality

Outcome bias is the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

Hindsight bias is sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect, the tendency to see past events as being predictable at the time those events happened.

Consistency bias is remembering one’s past attitudes and behavior as more similar to one’s present attitudes.

Primacy effect is the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events.

Peak-end rule is how we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended.

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ClubWPT: The most hilariously bad online poker software ever

ClubWPT: When you only have the money to hire spokesmodels or programmers, but not both.

In an attempt to start playing online poker again and perhaps help find a better training tool for our readers, I recently tried out ClubWPT. Their subscription-based $19.95/mo model allows people to play online poker in the U.S. without violating any gambling or banking laws. Sounds great!

Instead of paying entry fees for every tournament you play, at ClubWPT, you pay a flat fee for as many tournaments as you want. There’s $100,000+ in real money given away every month in their tournaments. Sounds like it’s worth checking out!

But no… ClubWPT is not worth checking out! In fact, it appears the only positive decision they made was hiring Playboy model Alison Waite to promote them. Unfortunately, I think they also hired her to program their software:

  1. Windows Only – Are you kidding me? I had to install ClubWPT through Parallels on my Mac just to try it.
  2. Flash Based – Wow, they apparently found the last Flash programmer on earth and gave him a job… for a weekend. Their client takes forever to load, only selectively draws graphical features on the tables, and button clicks occasionally fail to register. It’s a complete nightmare.
  3. IE Only – Is it the ’90s again? Chrome, Safari, and Firefox are all prevented from working. Not because they can’t work, mind you. The developer just locked out all “non-standard browsers (circa 1998)” with pop-up windows warning you of incompatibilities even though your browser would work if not for the pop-ups. If you disable JavaScript to avoid this, the site just loads a message requiring you to install the Java VM. I’m trying to remember why I wanted to play on this site again…
  4. U.S. Only – Wow. Amazing. I’m an American, but since I’m traveling in Taiwan at the moment, I couldn’t even download the ClubWPT software until I installed Tor and started playing it through a convoluted proxy setup that routed my traffic back through 3 different countries and then into the US again. I’m not just in the 1990s… I’m also apparently a Chinese dissident now.
  5. 10 second timers – Taking a couple seconds to size your bets? Too late… your hand is already folded anyway! I especially like the brilliant “feature” that folds your hands on a timeout even if you’re not facing a bet. Guess I should have clicked “Check” faster! Thanks for the kick in the nuts ClubWPT. Nice touch.
  6. No games – You want action? ClubWPT has new tournaments starting up all time! Oh wait — you wanted to play for real money?? Never mind. But don’t fear, if you just wait 20-30 minutes, there should be another 300 player tournament with a prize pool of $20 or so for you to chop up. Wooo hooo! I just have to win 5 of these a month to win my subscription costs back.

In their defense, ClubWPT does have one thing going for it: Their players are every bit as crappy as their software. If the thought of slowly winning $1/hour by calling down manics who shove into 50% flops (just like TV!) excites you, ClubWPT is your dream come true! It’s also dream-like because of the nostalgia of having Internet Explorer open again.

So since we can’t use ClubWPT, I’m still searching for other online poker options. I’ve heard Carbon Poker is a good choice for US players looking to get back in action. I’m planning to sign up for Bodog too. What are other US players doing?

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“This is what 5% feels like.”

"This is what 5% feels like."

Today I’m going to give you an explicit technique to improve your rationality. But first, a short digression: Have you ever seen poker players on TV talk to themselves? It’s an interesting phenomenon and there’s a few different motivations behind it. Players like Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow might be doing it to avoid tilting when they get unlucky. But I’m more interested in another form of self-talk where players tell themselves out loud how likely they are to win hands. It’s something I’ve seen players like Phil Laak do a lot.

For instance, when Laak gets his money in behind, instead of moaning about his bad luck, he often says things like, “Wow. This is what 5% feels like” — pointing out that he still has a 5% chance to win the hand. Why would he do this? Is he trying to stay positive and upbeat in the face of long odds? Maybe. But I have another theory. Whether he knows it or not, Phil Laak is actually calibrating. As the cards are dealt, he keeps updating the verbal commentary to reinforce in his mind what different probabilities “feel” like. By the river, he might be saying things like, “This is what 2% feels like”. He’s calibrating his mind to instinctively know what it’s like to be a 50:1 shot.

This may sound ridiculous to you… especially if you’re already good with math. You might be saying, “I already know that if I’m 5% to win, I will win 1 in 20 times. What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that, by default, nearly all the modules of your mind either can’t handle probabilities or skews them in self-serving ways. Even if your deliberative mind knows the math, unless you’ve explicitly done calibration exercises where you’ve got something on the line, the rest of your mind will consistently overestimate how often high probability events will occur (such as 80% probabilities) and consistently underestimate the likelihood that lower probability events will occur.

If you haven’t played poker before, you may hear that some good outcome for you is 91% likely to happen and think, “That sounds fantastic!”. Since your mind want to believe it, it may even trick you into feeling like it’s almost a sure thing. But if you play poker, you’ll know that 91% is like trying to have your hand hold against a gut-shot with one card to come. You’ll know what that feels like. So you’ll know that 91% is far less automatic than it intuitively feels.

I highly recommend that as part of your rationality training, you calibrate like this while playing poker. When you get all in, immediately calculate your chances of winning the hand. Then say to yourself, “This is what XX% feels like.”

Over time, you’ll begin to intuitively sense probabilities instead of just hear a number and think you know what it means. This has ramifications for wider life rationality too. As with all biases, being mis-calibrated costs you utility. The more mis-calibrated you are, the more subject you are to the loss of time, money, and well-being. You’ll be more likely to be loss averse, risk averse, vulnerable to zero-risk bias, dutch-booking, circular preferences, or even neglect probability entirely when making decisions under uncertainty. If you’re mis-calibrated, the world will take advantage of you at every turn.  Remember: just like the poker economy, our real economy and even society at large is designed with your mis-calibration in mind. It will supply as much exploitation as your poor thinking will support. So calibration is a big deal. Make sure you’re well-calibrated to avoid this constant loss of utility!

Posted in cognitive biases, math, rationality, training | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Missing Message

It’s been a rough week for poker. Federal authorities went after the biggest three online poker rooms, arresting those owners they could find and forcing Full Tilt Poker, Poker Stars and Ultimate Bet to refuse real money action from United States customers. There are a lot of people debating what is likely to happen in various forums, and trying to discern the motives of those involved. I’m going to take a different approach, because I believe that the central and most important implication of these actions has been lost.

The charges against the poker rooms had nothing to do with poker. Continue reading

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Tilt as Moral Outrage and Limbic Override

This blog is about the intersection between poker, rationality, and life. Poker is hard far out of proportion to the strategic complexity of the game, because it is so good at invoking our irrationalities and biases. This makes it an area where the relatively rational have a competitive advantage, as well as a great training ground for rationality. So I’m going to post a series of articles covering different biases invoked by poker, how good poker players learn to overcome them, and how this transfers to life.

We’re going to start with tilt, which is one of the largest and most obvious of these biases. Today, I’ll cover what it is, why I believe poker invokes it, and how it affects the performance of poker players. In the next post, I’ll talk about minimizing tilt at the table, as well as understanding “life tilt” and how to reduce it.

Wikipedia states:

Tilt is a poker term for a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive…

Placing an opponent on tilt or dealing with being on tilt oneself is an important aspect of poker. It is a relatively frequent occurrence due to frustration, animosity against other players, or simply bad luck. Experienced players recommend learning to recognize that one is experiencing tilt and avoid allowing it to influence one’s play.

The most likely origin of the word “tilt” is as a reference to tilting a pinball machine. The frustration from seeing the ball follow a path towards the gap between the flippers can lead to the player physically tilting the machine (in an attempt to guide the ball towards the flippers). However, in doing so, some games will flash the word “TILT” and freeze the flippers, causing the ball to be lost for certain. The metaphor here being over-aggression due to frustration leads to severely detrimental gameplay.

I think of tilt as being a state where a person is overwhelmed by emotion – the limbic system has taken over from the neocortex. It’s the adult version of a kid’s temper tantrum, and it is (unfortunately) antithetical to rationality. As a LW commenter said (emphasis added): “People with sufficient limbic system activation (rage, disgust, sexual arousal, etc.) literally cannot think in a rational or sophisticated manner. Their ability to control and direct their behavior becomes impaired, and they tend to act impulsively.” This definition shows us how crucially important tilt is to rationality, since tilt is a physical phenomenon in which it becomes difficult or impossible to be rational.

Continue reading

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Good decisions rather than good outcomes

One of the many reasons why poker is a good rationality training game is that it contains randomness, and thus requires probabilistic thinking. We humans are very bad at such thinking. For example, our emotional associations are, by default, about outcomes (post-randomness) rather than decisions (correct pre-randomness strategy). In other words, if we make a bad decision and get lucky, the winning is interpreted by the brain as positive feedback, and we will tend to repeat the behavior. Over time, this may average out, but it makes the learning process much slower.

Below, poker professional & Less Wrong reader Taylor Raines discusses techniques for focusing on decisions rather than outcomes.

An earlier post says that the goal of poker is to gain utility, in terms of winning money. While this is the goal of the game, I believe that a more practical goal to have as an individual at the table is to make good decisions. Plenty of things will happen at a poker table that are beyond your control, and sometimes making good decisions isn’t enough to win the money, but over time the money will flow to the players that make the best decisions.

One of the problems, however, is that the reward mechanism is tied into winning money, not making good decisions. It’s easy to feel good when you win, and frustrated when you lose, regardless of the correctness of your choices in a hand. So take steps to rewire yourself. I spent a long time convincing myself to feel good when I played well, and frustrated when I played poorly, regardless of the outcome. One of the keys to this was finding situations of domination. Did I put a lot of money into a pot where I was dominated (especially when I was shown a better kicker), whether I won or lost? Should I feel good about a pot where I put in a lot of money as a big favorite, but lost due to bad luck? Personally, the former was easy, and I was able to correct my game to avoid dominated situations since the feedback was in sync most of the time, but I had trouble shaking the feeling of losing when I did just about everything right and lost.

So I turned to a different reward mechanism. If I lost a pot, but upon analysis decided I had played it well, I’d have a few honey roasted peanuts, altering some of my own reward mechanism. But if I decided I had made an error at any point in the hand, no peanuts. By rewarding myself only when I made good decisions, and ignoring the money, I became a much better and more focused player. And over time as I made better decisions, the money flowed.

Even now, after each session I will review my play, and see if I can find any errors. I tend to still find one or two per session, and it’s important to analyze the winning hands as well. It’s easy to think you played a hand correctly when you win it, but thinking about whether there were opportunities to make more money in a hand made me change a few of my tendencies, and help maximize my bottom line.

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Sportsmanship in the game of poker

Trash talk is the standard in online poker. Every player other than you is a donk or a fish.

This attitude is reasonable from some perspectives — poker is a zero sum game, your winnings can only come from other players, so why humanize them? I argue that treating your fellow players as human beings worthy of empathy is good psychological play as well as straight up good strategy.

It is so easy to start off of a table by wishing your opponents good luck. I usually start with a very simple “gl all”. Often I’ll get positive responses back, or a response about how I am wished some good luck but not too much. Sometimes I transition into a conversation about how I don’t believe in luck, so that my well wishes are practically meaningless.

The goal is to take proactive steps to lower my own emotional heights. Hatred of other players is a strong emotion, and I play better when my emotions are as numb as possible. I also believe it helps me become a player that people are ok losing money to.

Note that this perspective isn’t obviously correct. I’ve heard persuasive arguments for why you should try to make your opponents as angry as possible, but this isn’t what works for me in managing my own emotions.

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Quick Math Part 1: Introduction and Heads Up Win Percentages in Hold ‘Em

It is impossible to fully implement Bayes’ Theorem in all but the simplest circumstances, so we must settle for approximations. The key in most things is not to be exact but to avoid mistakes that can lead to large errors. Putting too much mental effort towards knowing the math behind a situation can be as damaging as putting forward too little effort as it has high opportunity cost and detracts from other aspects of your game or even your life. If you keep examining the trees, you may never see forest.

Continue reading

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Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias in action

"Why did I bet? I knew he had AK! I knew it!!"

Hindsight bias is our tendency to overestimate the obviousness of events… once they’ve already occurred.

“I knew it!” is a common utterance at the poker table. I hear it all the time. Often it will be right after someone calls a big bet on the river but loses the pot.

No. You didn’t know it. The fact that you are upset and surprised by seeing the winning hand makes it obvious you did not know the outcome in advance. Why did you call the bet if you knew you would lose? It doesn’t even make sense. So why do people actually believe themselves when they say things like this?

First, let’s recall the main reason why poker is such good rationality training. It’s the breakneck speed and frequency with which poker demands important decisions. It’s an amplified microcosm for real life. It’s a complete pressure cooker for your mind. Whatever bias is causing you to fail in poker, it’s the same bias causing you to fail in real life too. In real life though, things move much slower. You may only encounter this failure mode of yours rarely and under high-pressure, important situations — which is unfortunate because this is precisely the time when you can least afford to have your mind fail you. Even worse, it happens so infrequently that this small amount of “real world” feedback will rarely give you a chance to learn from your mistakes. Wouldn’t you like to be prepared for important life situations by training to avoid biases under pressure in a less important arena beforehand? That’s what poker is for. It gives you a place to find your failure mode and learn to overcome it by simply striving to become a winning player in poker.

The trick is you have to approach the game of poker looking for your failure mode. People who don’t approach poker with this mindset just repeat their failures over and over again without ever learning. So that’s why I’m telling you about all these biases that routinely come up in poker. Not so you can avoid them all, every time. No. You need to know what they look like before they arrive so that you have a chance to notice them because they are bound to occur. Remember, your biases won’t say “Hey, I’m ruining your thinking and clouding your good judgement.” It will just look like the normal kind of cognition you are used to. These descriptions are meant to give you clues so you can pinpoint your failure mode when it arises.

So the good news is that poker can uncover your failure mode and amplify it to the point that it should be possible to spot it if you’re looking for it. So what about hindsight bias? Lying to ourselves and saying that we knew the outcome of a hand all along serves the same purpose as self-serving bias: it seeks to limit our immediate emotional loss in a moment of pain and embarrassment. It salvages a small portion of our pride by trying to “prove us right”; clinging to a delusional shred of dignity in an otherwise total defeat. But it robs us of a golden opportunity to acknowledge our mistake. If we can’t acknowledge that we’re making a mistake, we can’t hope to learn from that mistake either.

If you’ve played poker and done this yourself, don’t feel bad though. Even top professional are notorious for claiming to have known they were beat once the cards were turned over. [Although I’d guess most of them don’t realize that this is a total failure of rationality.] So my final warning to you is that if you ever find yourself playing poker and you say out loud or to yourself, “I knew it!”, when you see a hand, the first step is not to ignore it! If you learn about this bias incorrectly, you can learn a dangerous lesson here. If you’re ashamed to be biased yourself, you’ll likely ignore it when it comes up! This is a whole ‘nother level of self-serving bias! Make sure you don’t go there. Never be embarrassed that you exhibited a bias. It’s good news! You just discovered something you can learn from and improve! Notice how your body feels and what’s going through your mind when you’re exhibiting bias. These associations will help you recognize it more easily the next time it occurs so you can properly navigate the situation without succumbing to it in the future. Remember to have vigilance and as many levels of self-reflection and analysis for your game as you can handle.

Quick exercise: When do you exhibit hindsight bias outside of poker? Do you ever consistently claim to have known how some event would turn out only after knowing the outcome? Can you think of outcomes you feel certain you predicted in advance but couldn’t imagine yourself betting $100 given the information you had before the outcome was revealed? Do you ever do this in situations where it’s obvious that if you really knew the outcomes in advance, you would avoid these situations all together? Post in the comments so we can look for places outside of poker to be vigilant for hindsight bias.

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Watch some “TV Poker” online

If you’re completely new to poker, watching some TV poker can be a fun, entertaining way to learn the basics about the game. I recommend this kind of learning since it’s easier to learn when you’re having fun.

TV poker isn’t ideal for learning advanced poker strategy because it’s usually played in a bizarre format you won’t often find yourself in: short-handed with only 5 other highly-skilled players. But you can still learn a lot about the mechanics of betting, raising, calling, dealing order, hand ranks, basic hand selection, and a number of other “beginner” topics that more advanced players sometimes neglect to cover when teaching newcomers about the game.

I like watching TV poker online at Poker Tube. They have a wide variety of content but I recommend watching some episodes of the more popular shows including old school episodes of the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker. If you enjoy them and start to understand the basics of what’s going on, I recommend watching Poker After Dark to get a better idea of what a real 6-handed tournament plays like. This show makes a point of broadcasting all the hands played instead of editing out all the “boring” hands… the ones that actually comprise the majority of a standard game and define how to play in them. Also, if you can find them online, the first 5 seasons of High Stakes Poker (but not season 6 or 7) are very interesting with unusually insightful commentary by Gabe Kaplan on the players’ decisions.

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Train to be rational?

Rationality is the process of coming to correct beliefs. Correct beliefs turn out to be really important. Being correct about how the world works gives you a huge advantage in achieving your goals. No matter what you want to do in life, becoming more rational will help you do it. Wouldn’t you like being right more often? Seriously, who likes being wrong all the time? Rationality is about being right, and being right is pretty damn indispensable.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of scientifically documented errors in thinking that all humans make called cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a predictable error your brain makes. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t say to you, “Hey, I’m systematically giving you horrible information”… to someone without rationality training, it looks exactly like information from anywhere else in your mind. You don’t notice anything is wrong. Often it’s easier for an outside observer to notice. You ever notice how you have all this great advice you wish your friends would listen to? It’s obvious to you that they’re making poor decisions in their lives but they can never see it. A lot of those sub-optimal decisions are caused by biases clouding their judgement.

The trouble is that you suffer from cognitive biases too. You make predictable errors in reasoning, beliefs, and life decisions as well. These errors pile up and are causing you to get sub-optimal life outcomes. So where can you try to counteract these effects?

One place you can start is with overconfidence bias. Overconfidence causes people to consistently overrate their own judgment and performance. In controlled psychological experiments, researchers who asked participants trivia questions found that people commonly report being “100% certain” only to turn out to be right only 40% of the time. Furthermore, even people who are told about overconfidence bias who are tested again only improve to 50% accuracy while remaining 100% certain! This has numerous implications for how to play poker.

If you’re unaware of overconfidence in poker, you’ll keep making lots of poor decisions. You’ll be “100% certain” your opponent does or doesn’t have a hand. You’ll call off a lot of money trying to win tiny pots or fold far too often to relatively tiny bets until you adjust your actions. Reducing overconfidence bias is just one form of rationality training that happens automatically as you adapt to become a winning player. Having a training ground like poker gives you an arena where you can feel what overconfidence is like, learn to spot it, and actually modify your behavior in the moment to route around it. Knowing your pot odds is useless if the judgement you use when weighing those odds to is systematically biased. As you gain experience in poker, you learn to spot the difference between the flawed, biased signals that lead to overconfidence and adjust your reasoning to have the correct amount of confidence to fit the facts.

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Poker as zen practice

As epitomized by poker television, the most dramatic moment in poker is waiting breathlessly for the showdown between two all-in players. I can’t help but do it in my own play — stare anxiously at the cards appearing in front of me hoping that only good cards will appear.

This does nothing to help me play better. As it is indeed the most exciting moment in poker, it temporarily heightens my sense of emotion and attachment. I really feel a lot more of something as I wait for the cards to be dealt to me.

Lately I have been using the all-in showdown as an opportunity to practice dulling my emotional attachment. Instead of investing my feelings and happiness in the outcome of a specific hand, I try to detach myself from deriving any sorts of feelings or emotions from the cards dealt to me by a random number generator. I want my positive and negative emotions, my internal reward, to come based on my desire to reward myself for good play.

My goal is to feel good for making good plays and bad for making bad plays. I have not yet reached poker enlightenment.

Posted in training | Tagged | 4 Comments

Correcting Self-Serving Bias

Follow-up to: Self-serving bias in Poker

We’ve noted before how self-serving bias can eat you alive in poker. Now we’re going to discuss how to correct for it. Yes, there’s actually a solution. It was developed by an online poker instructor named JimmyLegs so he deserves the credit.

The ‘JimmyLegs Theorem’ states:

Given that the Self-Serving Bias will cause you to take credit for your successes but blame luck for your failures, you should ALWAYS assume that you made mistakes in the hand, regardless of whether or not you actually won the pot, at least until it can be categorically proven otherwise.

Or, in short:

Whether you won or lost the hand, assume you f***ed it up.

As harsh as it sounds, in poker, this is a critically useful assumption to make. If you constantly keep this mantra in mind when you play, you actually have a chance to learn from your mistakes… instead of avoiding the pain of failure by ignoring them.

The theorem keeps you from blaming all your losses on outside forces like luck:

And it also lets you keeps your wins in perspective as well:

It may sound a little extreme to always be looking for your mistakes like this. But if you don’t do it, your self-serving bias will put your mind on auto-pilot. It will only tell you how awesome you are when you win (even if you got lucky or didn’t play well) and it will only tell you how unlucky you got whenever you lose. Having these one-way reactions to outcomes is the failure-mode that most losing players stay stuck in forever. Don’t stay trapped there yourself!

Stay active in your analysis. Counter the self-serving bias by assuming that you f***ed up every single hand. With practice, this constant introspective stance will allow you to see past your minds excuses for failure. You’ll gain the perspective you need to make timely corrections to your game and continue to grow. As you make these corrections, you’ll gain more and more experience in noticing when your self-serving bias is leading your mind astray. You’ll eventually even be able to correct for it in other situations in life as well.

Images courtesy: John ‘JimmyLegs’ Wray

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How a Betting Round Works

This is another introductory post for those unfamiliar with the basics of poker. It will be most useful for those who have never played poker or those looking to confirm their understanding of the game.

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Poker as a Transferable Skill

Several researchers have studied poker. Most of what they’ve concluded is that poker is a game of skill, not luck. Perhaps more interesting though is recent work that has been done on the transferability of the skills involved in poker. It appears poker players experience gains in other areas of life, particularly in employability and future life success.

Early investigation from ‘Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill’ (Journal of Gambling Issues):

Critical evaluative skills: The ability to appraise information and situations realistically, and to anticipate problems and difficulties, is vital in poker. To critically evaluate your playing decisions (“did I play that right?”) and those of others is common. These are also essential skills in the workplace— particularly in management.

Numerical skills: The ability to handle and interpret numerical and statistical information is an important skill in many areas of employability. In poker, there are many levels of numerical skill, such as the micromanagement of funds— every penny is important—or the cards themselves. Not many jobs require mathematical wiz-kids but many decision-making judgements can be based on the balance of probability or the ability to interpret data summaries.

Pragmatism skills: The ability to make the best of a nonideal situation and to work within preset constraints is a valuable skill in poker. For example, players need to accept what they cannot change (their cards) and play with what they have. Pragmatism is an undervalued skill within the workplace— most probably because it is more of an inherent skill than something that is learned. Success in almost any job will require good use of pragmatism.

Interpersonal skills: Knowledge of the mechanisms of social communication and the potential sources of interpersonal conflict can be the difference between a good and a great poker player. Being able to identify an opponent’s “tell” can pay huge (financial) dividends. Having good interpersonal awareness is not the same as being socially skilled (although it contributes). Interpersonal skills contribute to emotional intelligence, i.e., how to respond to different people in different situations. Interpersonal awareness skills in the workplace can make a difference in understanding and dealing with interpersonal problems. They may also help in telling whether colleagues are lying or trying to be economical with the truth.

Problem-solving skills: The ability to identify different strategies and approaches is of great benefit when playing poker. Problem-solving skills in the workplace are extremely important to anyone wanting to be successful in their career, especially when they are tied in with pragmatism skills.

Goal orientation skills: The ability to set goals and to formulate strategies to achieve those goals can be of benefit while playing poker. Being hungry and insatiable in the desire to achieve (i.e., winning) is a common characteristic of good poker players. Having goals gives people a purpose, which is very valuable in the workplace. It allows people to measure their success in some way, just as the poker player does when winning or losing.

Learning skills: The ability to continuously learn and not rest on your laurels is a valuable skill in poker (as it is obviously in almost all areas of life). In poker, being humble enough to learn from those more experienced and to take others’ expertise into future games is akin to other learning experiences in other environments—including the workplace. In poker, such learning can bring about objectivity. For instance, poker players should not act in haste but ponder and deliberate responses objectively. In essence, this is continuing professional development. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you find yourself in—learning from others is paramount.

Higher-order analytic and strategic skills: The ability to extract general principles from immediate or concrete situations and to formulate appropriate strategies can be very important while playing poker. For example, good poker players know not to let the cards get them frustrated or not to fight battles they can’t win. There are clear parallels in the workplace, including office politics.

Flexibility skills: The ability to adapt to any situation or to be opportunistic when a situation presents itself underlies skills in flexibility. In poker, adapting to your environment (e.g., who are you playing against, how big is your stack) comes with playing experience. The ability to look from several points of view is not something that can necessarily be taught but is certainly a valuable skill to an employer.

Self-awareness skills: The ability to play to strengths and acknowledge weaknesses is a common trait in many walks of life. In poker, such skills can be very important. For example, skilful poker players remember that bad luck doesn’t always last and good luck definitely doesn’t last. Poker players also know that there is no room for apathy or complacency (in winning or losing streaks). In the workplace, self-awareness skills will help employees succeed in areas of strength and delegate in areas of weakness.

Self-control skills: The ability to act with a cool head under pressure and to show the nerve and the mettle to cope under adversity is critical in good poker playing. Quite clearly, in the workplace, many team leaders and managers need such skills in order to get the most out of themselves and their teams. Such skills are also important in terms of stress management.

These skills form a useful basis for both epistemic and instrumental rationality. With so many potential skills to grow, poker seems like a useful form of training for a wide variety of people wanting to improve these capabilities.

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Poker Hand Ratings

Every poker site needs a page listing the way hands are ranked. If you already know the hand rankings, skip this post as it is here purely for reference.

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How to Win Poker Chips

In every hand of poker chips are placed in what is known at the pot. At the end of the hand, the player who wins the hand receives the pot; if multiple players tie they divide the pot.

In the beginning of the hand, the pot consists of the blinds and/or the antes. Antes are chips that all players are sometimes forced to contribute to the pot before the hand begins. The blinds are bets that certain players are forced to make. The players that pay the blind bets into the pot rotates around the table. This provides the incentive of players with less than the best possible hand to try and win the hand, so they can get the pot, which in turn gives other players a reason to fight them for the pot. Over the course of the hand, more money will usually go into the pot and often it will dwarf the size of the original blinds and antes.

The hand either ends after a fixed number of rounds of betting, at which point players can reveal their hands in what is known as a showdown. In this case, the player with the best hand wins the pot (if there is a tie, the pot is divided evenly), or when all but one player gives up by refusing to call a wager made by another player. A player who does so is said to fold, is out of the hand and surrenders their hand and all claim to the pot. The one remaining player then wins the pot without revealing their cards.

That process sounds simple enough, but there are two key parts of it that most players intuitively get wrong.

One error is that many players, especially new players, will try to win pots rather than trying to win chips. This is a case of scope insensitivity. It does not matter how many pots you win; what matters is how many chips you get out of those pots, minus the number of chips you gave up in antes, blinds and other wagers. It feels great to win the pot, but the pot is only valuable because it contains poker chips. Winning a pot is better than not winning the pot, since all the chips you wagered to win the pot are then returned to you, but not every pot is worth pursuing. When the cost to contest the pot exceeds the expected returns, including factoring in what may happen later in the hand, it’s time to fold and move on to the next hand. This ratio of the cost to the potential reward is referred to as the pot odds.

The other common error, and one that many veteran players continue to make, is a form of the sunk costs fallacy: They think there is a difference between the chips they’ve wagered and other chips someone else wagered. Players often feel the need to “protect their investment” or even “their babies,” and worry that if they fold all the chips they’ve put at risk will be lost. The moment a chip is wagered, it is no longer yours. It is part of the pot, and it is no different from any other chip. All that matters is how many chips are in the pot and whether that pot is worth trying to get.

Always remember The Objective of Poker. What counts is how many chips you’ll have to risk, how many chips you stand to win and with what probability you will succeed. Also remember that there’s potentially a lot more at stake than the chips already in the pot. On any given hand you can bet and lose every chip you have in front of you, or inflict the same fate on another player.

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Outcome bias and results based poker

I am a bad poker player and an aspiring rationalist. I’m very good for a bad poker player though, and I have quite high aspirations as a rationalist. My game of choice is micro to mid limit large multi-table turbos or even faster tournaments. My favorite tournament is the PokerStars $5+rebuy 2x turbo. I eke out a solid enough $15/hour at a type of game that I find to be decidedly more fun than ring games.

Such games are filled with bad players making bad decisions. This is because in a game that moves so extraordinarily quickly, you are often forced to make bad decisions, and beyond a certain point the game quickly degenerates to the point where the only proper move is all-in or fold.  The playable hand range in a turbo or 2x turbo is huge. Often, A9 is a monster but just as often it is nothing.

I consistently find myself internally rewarding myself for making the correct play based on what cards come; not based on what was the highest EV decision I could have made. If I reshove with A9 and my opponent turns over AJ and I won, it’s hard not to congratulate myself instead of reminding myself that I just got lucky and should stop making bad decisions. Similarly, during the early rebuy period when people are shoving with all sorts of hands and taking a coinflip seems like a good decision, I mentally reward myself for making the correct decision when I win, and when I lose I just rebuy with an annoyed grunt at how much the other player sucks at playing poker.

This is the Outcome Bias, which often results in people playing what is known as results based poker. This is the tendency to believe you made the correct decision by playing JJ against QQ, if and only if you win the pot.

What can we do? I work at reminding myself that results based poker is not poker. I try and congratulate myself for making the proper play even when the flop doesn’t go my way. Similarly, I try not to give myself too much mental reward when I win an all-in with the lesser hand. It’s hard to reconcile this with the extreme luck needed to win big turbo tournaments — I’ve never reached the final table in one of these tournaments without winning an all-in showdown with the worst hand.

As I continue to play, I notice myself relinquishing results-oriented thinking more and more. The changes are gradual but with each tournament I play, I’m becoming better able to mentally decouple the things I control from the things I can’t control. I’m able to take more pleasure in making the correct decision in a given situation and let the outcomes do what they may.

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Self-Serving Bias in Poker

Self-serving bias – the tendency to attribute success to internal or personal factors but attribute failure to situational factors beyond our control.

You ever notice how people who are late never say ,”Sorry I’m late. I’m lazy and irresponsible.” No. They say, “It was raining.” or “My alarm didn’t go off.” or “Traffic was awful today!” People will use any excuse to try and dodge failure. When failure occurs, they want it to seem like they had as little control over the outcome as possible. By rejecting that they had causal influence, they also reject the blame that would come along with it. How could someone be responsible for a state of affairs they couldn’t even influence? This wouldn’t be so bad, but people actually believe the excuses they’re giving others. It’s not an excuse to them — it’s the truth.

You know that little voice in your head that immediately and automatically offers excuses when things go wrong? That’s your self-serving bias. It reliably searches out the best excuse and presents that to your higher mind as the most likely reason why failure occurred. It happens in an instant — too quick to notice. And if your mind doesn’t believe the reason right away, it will keep repeating it to you as many times as it needs to. Eventually, it will convince you that it must be the truth. It’s our minds way of shielding us from outside consequences but also to protect our psyches from the pain of being failures.

What’s the harm in not wanting to feel like a failure? Isn’t it good to feel good about yourself? To a degree, yes. But the problem with avoiding this sort of pain is that it only insures that whatever influence you did have over the situation will never come to bear in preventing failures in the future. How can you improve your behavior if you don’t believe you have control over the outcome?

Much as in life, when people get beat in poker, they rarely accept responsibility. When they lose, instead of immediately saying to themselves, “How could I have played better?”, they instead have a deeply emotional reaction. Anger highjacks them and their self-serving bias kicks into high-gear. A reasonable sounding story bubbles out of their subconscious for why they’re blameless. In poker, the standard outside circumstance is luck. “I played it perfect but got unlucky!” Others will actually blame their opponents when they lose. “I bet all-in but this idiot called me!” or even “What a horrible call! Stupid donk!”

If you make excuses for your failures in poker, you can’t get better. All growth ceases and your game stops improving. How could it? If you listen to your self-serving bias, you’ll already know that there’s nothing you can do to improve your outcomes when you lose.

For now, just know that self-serving bias is your main opponent in poker (and not the others sitting with you at the table). In my next post, I’ll be detailing how to correct for this bias. As you learn to overcome self-serving bias in poker, you’ll also begin to see parallels to real life and learn to generalize this solution to other situations as well.

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The Objective of Poker

Rather than start with the rules themselves, the story of Rationalist Poker will begin with the objective.

The objective of poker is the same as the objective of everything else: To gain utility. While playing poker, this utility will usually be maximized in the form of money. Money in poker is usually represented by poker chips, which can be exchanged after the game for cold hard cash. Therefore the goal is usually to maximize the net number of chips won, or minimize the number of chips lost. To the extent that you leave with more or less chips than you sat down with, you have won or lost respectively. It is important never to lose sight of this, or you will pay dearly for your mistake.

It is important to note, however, that this is not the only thing poker players value. Most players to some extent value fun, however they see fun. There are those who primarily want to take risk, or pass the time, or hang out with their friends. Often one will be itching for some action, and participate far more than they themselves know they should. Many will value information about what is in your hand, or are seeking to gain experience. A few are experimenting to see what happens. A small number will even be seeking to improve their rationality. A great number will value pride. Some will seek to destroy certain opponents and help others. If you model your opponents as always seeking only to win you will end up with a poor model of their behavior, and that’s before all the biases they have!

There are also poker tournaments, in which the play continues until one person has all the chips and what matters is the order in which players lose all their chips rather than the number of chips you leave with after the game. This determines who finishes in what position, which in turn determines the prizes. Sometimes being the one left with all the chips and thereby winning is most important, sometimes it is not. Here opponents will have even more unique goals. Some will seek volatility, while others will seek survival. Some will want to make sure they win at least some prize while others will only care about winning outright.

There is nothing wrong with sharing many of these motivations, but in a serious game never forget to focus only on what matters: The expected value of your play in terms of chips and dollars.

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Knowledge of biases isn’t enough

Learning about biases is a great first step to becoming more rational, but ultimately, it’s not enough. Why? Because facts don’t change minds. To a first approximation, we actually never change our minds. So how do you expect to change the biases in your mind, buried deep within your most basic, hard-wired habits? Do you think you can just impose high-level understanding from your deliberative, conscious mind down onto these primitive parts of your brain? Using English? Do you think your habits know English? No — they don’t. But there are still ways to get the attention and compliance of your lower brain. The normal way this happens to people in their everyday lives (usually by accident) is when something serious impacts their health, status, or net-worth. Basically anything that triggers survival instincts can prompt humans into questioning what they’re doing and jolt them into considering a revision to their habits.

Since you’re human, one of your default habits is constantly expressing cognitive biases. If you’d like to change that, you can’t just learn more information about biases. You have to actually make your mind care on its deepest levels. Why not intentionally put one of those three things on the line to trigger your mind into caring? Gambling with your health is risky, so let’s not do that. Endangering your status is difficult and tends to be so viscerally terrifying that most of us can’t reliably do it. Do you really want to risk alienating your friends, losing your job, or getting thrown out of school as a shortcut to getting your mind’s full attention? Probably not. I recommend you instead risk a small portion of your net-worth playing online poker. The great thing about poker is that if you play it correctly, the habits you lock-in over time are the same ones that reduce your biases… all the way down to the deepest levels of your mind… where your biases actually reside.

There’s another reason you can’t just overcome your biases by “learning them away”. The feedback cycles are too slow. It can takes decades or entire human lifetimes for sufficient feedback (evidence) to reach you on its own accord. The pain from poor decision making is spread so thinly throughout your life that your mind will never feel the need to change. Rely on knowledge alone and you’ll be stuck with your sub-optimal, bias-filled habits forever.

Online poker is different though. There’s money on the line. The feedback is immediate. Your mind fully cares. The more rational you play, the more money you win. It won’t always be easy though. If you can’t adapt to form correct views quickly, you will be punished repeatedly with losses at the tables for irrationality. And if you are consumed by overconfidence, self-serving bias, gambler’s fallacy, or any other number of biases, you’ll play poorly and lose until you make corrections. On the other hand, if you put in the time, you’ll learn to conquer these biases and make more rational decisions. That’s when you start winning money on top of being more rational.

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Poker as Rationality Training

Looking for the best known form of rationality training? How about a fun, addictive game you can play from anywhere that rewards you with more money as you become more rational? Welcome to online poker!

Poker can be the key to conquering your cognitive biases. Not just learning about biases, but actually eliminating them. In upcoming posts, we’ll be exploring how online poker allows you to become more rational over time by systematically triggering, confronting, and overcoming your biases. Also, once you’ve progressed enough, you’ll also be on a virtuous upward cycle that provides you with more income as you gain rationality — a powerful and desirable outcome indeed.

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