Alan Schoonmaker, PhD
Your Best Poker Friend
(Excerpt from Part One: Getting And Using Information)
Learning Poker Theory And Strategy
It’s not surprising that only a few poker writers understand and apply active-learning principles. Most of them just tell you their ideas and they may give you an example of two to clarify them. They do not give you practice and feedback on applying their principles while playing, and you cannot develop skills without practice and feedback.
The poker literature is not as bad as it used to be. Recent books are much stronger instructionally than older ones. For example, the books of thirty or more years ago contained hardly any quizzes, bot more recent books often contain them. Unfortunately, many readers don’t work hard (or at all) on those quizzes, even though they may be the most important part of the book. If you can’t answer the quiz questions correctly, you obviously don’t know how to to apply the book’s principles. And, if you can’t apply it’s principles, you have no reason to read the book.
Why don’t people work hard on the quizzes? Because, after a lifetime of passive learning in classrooms, they don’t know how to learn actively, and they may not want to test themselves. They may prefer to skim through the material, pretend that they have learned it, and then go back to playing cards. To learn how to play poker, select books that contain lots of quizzes and study until you get 100 percent on every one of them. A few months later, take them again to ensure that you still understand and can apply the principles. Take the next step by applying these principles to actual hands, then discussing them with other people.
Learning About Other People
Active learning is even more important for learning about other people for two reasons:
- Much of the information you receive is unreliable. Poker is a game of deception. Your opponents usually don’t want you to understand the way they play or the cards they hold, and they will try to confuse you.
- Forces inside you cause you to miss or distort information. You may see whaty you expect to see or are afraid of seeing. For example, your own biases and first impressions of anyone can cause you to ignore or minimize contrary information. If you have a certain image of someone, you may miss clear signals that you have misjudged the person.
Because you cannot rely solely on your own perceptions of people, you need help from others. You may find that Joe and Barbara see Harry differently than you do, and that their picture of him is much more accurate than yours. It happens to me all the time, even though I’ve been a psychologist for decades. I may be embarrassed by my mistake, but that embarrassment is trivial and temporary. The important thing is that talking to others improves my ability to understand people.
The Problems Of First Impressions
The effects of first impressions that we have examined are a major obstacle to playing well. We simply cannot win without accurately reading other players and their cards, and anything that distorts our readings is going to hurt our results. We get an enormous amount of information, and later bits often conflict with earlier ones. We must continually look for information and interpret it well to determine:
- How people play.
- What cards they hold.
Ignoring or misinterpreting later information because of our first impressions can cost us lots of money.
The effects of this tendency combine with one of my favorite subjects, the extremely common belief that we are more talented than we really are. Thousands of studies clearly indicate that people overestimate most of their abilities. Our first impresisons are probably not that good because we are not as perceptive as we think we are.
Every psychologist has been repeatedly irritated by people who say, “Do you think I could succeed as a poker player [shoe salesman, bartender, or whatever] if I wasn’t a good psychologist? I’m good at reading people.” I have had to fight hard to keep from saying, “Oh, no you’re not. You just think you are.”
That same overconfidence makes many people think they read cards much better than they really do. In Psychology of Poker I gave an extreme example of this overconfidence. The “Deluded Expert” has “extremely low skill, but extremely high confidence. He can’t read cards for beans, but he thinks he can. He is an amazing combination of ignorance, arrogance, and obnoxiousness.” You have probably met a few. They love to say, “I know you’ve got pocket aces [or whatever],” and some of their reads are hilariously wrong; they jump to conclusions without carefully and objectively analyzing the betting and players, then insist they are right.
Nearly all of us overestimate our abilities, and this increases the distorting effects of making quick judgments about people and situations. For example, if a stranger makes an apparent dumb play, we are quick to categorize him or her as a bad player. But, if we make a similar play, we may believe we did it for a good reason (we were “advertising” or “mixing up our game” or “playing the player, not the cards” or…). We tend to stereotype or oversimplify our first impressions of others but are much more forgiving (or defensive) about ourselves. After all, we know that we aren’t bad players, but we want to believe that others are. In fact, all of us have underestimated opponents and have paid dearly for it.
Because first impressions have such large effects, we have two critically important tasks:
- Reduce the way first impressions distort our thinking.
- Create false impressions for our opponents and magnify their effects.
A few simple actions can reduce both the distortions of first impressions and their destructive effects.
Recognize your own limitations
Poker is a macho game, and self-confidence is essential for success. If you don’t have confidence in your judgment, you can’t win. Unfortunately, you may have too much confidence. You certainly don’t have as much training on analyzing people as psychiatrists, but the research clearly proves that even they are misled by first impressions and other psychological factors. If highly trained specialists should be cautious about relying on first impresisons, so should you.
Doyle Brunson took the opposite position: “Stick to your first impression. Have the courage of your convictions.” Since he is an immortal, and his advice supports what many people want to do, they have fallen into the trap of sticking to their first impression and ignoring any contradictory evidence. It makes them feel “macho,” and they may even look down at people who don’t have the “courage of their convictions.”
If I had Doyle’s “feel,” I would follow his advice, but I don’t, and you probably don’t either. You may think you do, but research clearly proves that most people overestimate their abilities. Unless you have extremely clear evidence that you’ve got great feel, don’t always trust it. Instead, keep you mind open and be willing to change it. Once you put someone on a hand or decide that he is a certain kind of player, you’ll overemphasize supporting evidence and minimize or ignore conflicting data.
Consider Many Possibilities
Instead of jumping to conclusions, David Sklansky suggested a different approach to reading hands, and the same general method applies to reading players:
Do not put undue emphasis on your opinion on your opponent’s hand. I know many players who put someone on a certain hand and play the rest of the hand assuming he has that hand. This is taking the method of reading hands too far… Instead you must put a player on a few different possible hands with varying degrees of probability for each of these hands.
Keep Your Mind Open
You may not want to consider other possibilities because doing so implies that your judgment is faulty. An essential step toward improving your reading skill is becoming open-minded enough to reconsider your position.
Do everything possible to make yourself receptive to later information. Regard you first impressions as just starting points and revise them as you get more information. Look especially for contradictory information, for actions that would not occur if your first impression was correct.
Test Your Hypothesis
The search for contradictory information is absolutely central to scientific research. Virtually all scientists are taught that a good theory is “testable.” If you can’t create conditions that would disprove a principle, it is not a scientifically acceptable theory. Theories are tested by deriving hypothesis, then creating conditions in which certain events should occur. If they do not occur, then the theory is wrong. You can use the same general method while playing poker.
Make predictions (hypotheses) based on your read. Then check, bet, or raise to see how your opponent reacts. If he does not react the way you expected, your reading could be wrong. Your opponent may have different cards or be a different kind of player than you thought.
Look For Patterns
Of course, incorrect prediction does not mean much because so many factors can affect someone’s reaction. However, if you consistently test your hypotheses, you should see a pattern. Your mistakes will tend to be in certain directions, and those directions could say a lot about you.
For example, when confronted by identical information, optimists usually see what they hope to see, while pessimists see what they fear. One player, Dave, raised this issue in a whimsical, but insightful, post on an Internet forum. “Let’s say you raise preflop. Most fish… put… you on A-K. However, they are willing to reevaluate their opinion based on the flop. If the flop is 5-6-T, they continue to assume you have AK. If the flop is 7-T-K, they … change their read to AQ. If the flop is A-T-6 and they have an ace, they change their read from A-K to K-K. That is, they change their read to whatever gives them an excuse to keep playing and hoping.
In a reply to Dave, another player, Richie, pointed out that weak-tight playter have the opposite reaction. They are so fearful that they put you on whatever hand gives them the best excuse to fold. He wrote, “The Fish hope you have a certain hand. The Weak-tight fear you have a certain hand.”
You must guard against undue optimism, pessimism, and all other distorting emotions. Do whatever it takes to see what is really there, not what you expect, hope, or fear.
Recognizing a pattern is just one step toward reducing these distortions. The critical question is: Why were you wrong? You may not be a hopeful fish or a fearful weak-tight player, but you certainly have biases. How can I be so sure? Because everyone has them. A critical step toward reducing their effects is learning what they are.
Everybody’s thinking–yours, mine, Freud’s, and the world’s greatest poker players–is distorted by first impressions and other biases. These distortions are so central to our nature that nobody can completely escape their effects. To minimize them, we must resist the temptation to jump to conclusions, keep our minds open, and understand and adjust to our own biases.