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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2 Responses to Good decisions rather than good outcomes

  1. George Crews says:

    I agree with ignoring individual outcomes. However, let me take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of multiple outcomes.

    How do I come to KNOW that I make correct decisions? By the analysis of statistically significant numbers of outcomes. All theories of poker must be subject to experimental confirmation.

    IMHO, although following a mathematically correct strategy is necessary in order win at poker, it is not sufficient! I believe there is no one strategy that always wins. That is, for every strategy there is always a winning counter-strategy. (I find it quite easy to beat “by-the-book” players in tournaments.) In poker, you must be ready to adapt to the opponents’ styles of play. IMHO, it is this talent at adaptation that is key and that must be statistically confirmed.

  2. Xelaie says:

    This is why after the hand is done, it’s pointless to see what cards would come (if the hand was over before river), as people often insist on doing. Either you made the right decision or you didn’t, it doesn’t matter what card would have came up.

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