Failing at poker, and related thoughts

by PokerAnon ~ March 5th, 2012. Filed under: Gambling, Poker psychology.

Ed Miller, aka notedpokerauthority, is one of the poker experts that I’ve long been an admirer of. The math and practicality of his poker instruction is always clear, logical, and well explained, but another one of the reasons that I like to read Ed is that sometimes he writes about poker-related topics rather than only giving poker instruction. His February 2011 blog post Why Sharp People Sometimes Fail At Poker is one example. In it Ed writes about advantage gamblers, those who win betting sports or playing other games against the casino in the right situations, and, about top ranked chess players, and about how both groups have had players who have struggled trying to play online poker.

Then he postulates why these types of intelligent, savvy people might be having difficulty with poker. He theorizes 1) lack of mastery of understanding the psychological aspect of the game and he uses bet sizing and bet frequency as examples, 2) bad feedback, which I interpret as variance combined with more variance as well as mixed with some psychology, and 3) emotional decision-making, where Ed gives as an example playing poker using a style that is most comfortable for you rather than mixing up styles or using the style that will win you the most money in a given situation.

If my summaries don’t make sense or if you want to read more, I encourage you to go to Ed’s article.

The article itself is interesting, but a couple of comments to the article triggered responses in me as well. First, a comment from a rated chess expert:

When I played a series of games against friends who were around 1100 strength, I had trouble at first. I was making defensive moves but what I was defending against were threats that these 1100 players didn’t have any chance of seeing.

After a while I learned which threats I needed to pay attention to, and which ones I could ignore (as in “he’ll never see that”). Then I started winning faster and more easily.

I suppose this makes sense. It’s the equivalent of out-leveling yourself in poker, or FPS; Fancy Place Syndrome, where you make plays or worry about your opponents doing things or being able to read your plays, when in fact your opponent hasn’t got a clue as to what you’re thinking. But somehow this seems much simpler in a chess context than in a poker context. Somehow it seems much easier to say, oh, he’ll never see that opening that I left him and then ignore it, or, he won’t see the fake move that I want to do to draw his attention over there so there’s no point trying to make that feint. Because each hand (or battle) is short compared with an entire chess game, and because there’s so much randomness in the cards, and because it’s so difficult keep track and to manipulate players within a session (I don’t want to use the word “meta-game” because I don’t think the term applies in a single session) on top of the randomness, I think that it’s much more difficult to manage these kinds of adjustments in poker. And even if you do make these adjustments variance may not choose to reward you, and you may not receive the positive reinforcement that the chess player will receive with much more regularly.

On another comment Ed himself replies:

I agree that having gamble certainly seems to help… at least it seems to help get you to the highest levels of poker.

This comment resonated with me. I really don’t have much gamble in me, and more and more I think that not having gamble in me becomes more and more of a reason why I’ve never continued to move up in stakes no matter how many buyins I accumulate in my bankroll. I think it remains an issue when I started playing this level with 6 buyins but am now playing with 120+ buyins and am still hesitant to move up. I never had any interest in playing the “highest levels of poker”, and it shows.

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