In the past few months I’ve been spending a little more time with people from the advantage gambling community. Advantage gamblers are people who win money gambling (sometimes a lot of money) playing games against the casino, in the sportsbook, at online casinos, or sometimes in other venues. For instance, they might bet sports, play blackjack, play video poker, or play any of a number of other games that offer the player an edge under the right circumstances.
Some of these guys are very, very sharp, and they have won hundreds of thousands from their pursuits. But a thing I’ve heard from more than one of them is that they tried to win at online poker… and failed.
I’ve also heard of a different group of sharp people who have sometimes struggled with poker—chess players. A number of top chess players, including those who have achieved the highest ranks of Grandmaster and International Master, have taken up poker with varying degrees of success. Some have done quite well, while others, I understand, not so well.
So the question has been gnawing at me lately. Why do these sharp people who have what it takes to be wildly successful gambling and/or playing a different strategy game sometimes have such a tough time with poker?
I don’t know the answer. If I get some time, I may interview some people from these fields to see if they have insight. But I want to use the rest of this article to speculate wildly.
Lack of Psychological Mastery
My first theory revolved around the psychological aspect of poker. My view is that poker is essentially a math problem. But in most cases it’s an extremely complex math problem, which makes it difficult to “solve” the game in the same way that tic-tac-toe and other simple strategy games and casino games can be solved. Canadian poker at www.pokersites.ca with topics in game theory. Since it’s a math problem, you don’t need psychological insight to play this game well. You can just solve the math and go from there. (This is why bots, which have essentially zero psychological insight, can win at poker.)
But for the overwhelming majority of human beings, solving the math is very tricky. An understanding of psychology can simplify things and create straightforward solutions to what would otherwise be complex problems.
For instance, when someone bets $30 on the turn, I often know exactly what sort of hand to expect from them. Why? Because I understand how they think about the game. I understand how their emotions guide their decision-making. And therefore I know that this sort of hand they would be $30 with, this sort of hand they would bet $80 with, and this sort of hand they would check. These hand-reading shortcuts allow me to make accurate decisions without a lot of data points on a player and without reverting to a potentially complex game theory-derived solution.
When I coach students, I often realize that these little psychological shortcuts I use are very much learned. I was not born knowing that players shade their bets smaller when they feel a certain way about their hands or that players will tend to react to excessive 3-betting in a certain, predictable way. I learned these shortcuts through experience and likely a little bit of aptitude for acquiring these insights.
This psychological part of the game, however, plays nowhere near the role in many other gambling games or in chess. Blackjack, for instance, is 100 percent math. There is a computer-generated solution to every situation, and one must simply memorize the answers. There is of course some psychology in dealing with the heat one might get from pit bosses and other casino administrators, but a robot could easily play the game itself perfectly.
So I’m guessing that some of the sharp people who fail at poker don’t have quite the same aptitude for understanding the psychology of the game, so during their experience playing, they don’t acquire the right shortcut insights. To speculate even more wildly, I would imagine people who win at gambling by understanding market movements (a skill sometimes relevant in sports and parimutual betting) might have more aptitude on average than blackjack or video poker players.
All successful gamblers understand that winning a bet doesn’t mean you did it right and that losing doesn’t mean you did it wrong. The goal in gambling is to get a consistent edge on a long series of bets. How any individual bet comes out is irrelevant.
So I would expect any successful gambler to realize that if your opponent bets, and you call with a draw (getting correct odds) and miss, you’ve still done it right, and you should make the same decision again in a similar situation.
But the variance in poker is more subtle than that. Poker requires you not only to slap probabilities on what cards will come, but it also requires you to estimate hand ranges for your opponent. Say you get the money in and your opponent shows you the nuts. Ouch. Did you do it wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you estimated the hand range correctly, and you just got unlucky to run into the nuts. Or maybe you estimated incorrectly, and your opponent would actually have the nuts more often than you estimated.
Say you make a bet and your opponent folds. Good, right? Not necessarily. It’s possible that you overestimated the chance that your opponent would call with a weaker hand, and therefore your bet ended up being -EV.
Running into the nuts or getting too many “bad” folds with your bets can give you false feedback on what you’re doing. This is the sort of feedback that may trip up people used to other gambling games.
Reverting To Emotional Decision-Making
Nearly everyone wants to play poker a certain way. Generally risk-averse people like to play tight, make cautious folds, and feel confident that they’re doing the right thing when they put the money in. Generally aggressive people like to bluff and force the action.
The math of the game, however, requires that you strike a balance between these “styles.” The psychological shortcuts of the game require that you switch between these modes (and some others) to take advantage of the systematic errors your opponents make.
Again, I think that people are able to fight their natural emotional inclinations if they have convincing evidence that doing so is correct. But poker offers up enough confusion, enough confounding signals, that I’ve found virtually everyone ends up playing the way that makes them feel good rather than the way that makes the most money.
I think success at poker requires proficiency in three major areas: analytical ability, psychological aptitude, and emotional control. It is an incredibly frustrating, yet intellectually demanding game. It stands to reason that people can be proficient in pursuits that require one or two of the major poker skills, but struggle with the others.
If you have any thoughts about this, please comment.