‘Pay attention’: Hard lessons from the poker table

Poker is like real life. Every game, every hand, is a fresh scenario, with certain constraints. Some elements known, some unknown. Partly based on the probabilities of the cards. Partly based on the skills and personalities of the players who come and go from the table. Partly based on the room you are in, the distractions, how well you slept. Whether you are winning or losing. Like that.

My father Leif Holt had lived in Russia, Norway, Sweden, England, and Canada in times of peace and war. He knew firsthand the horrors of the Russian Revolution and Nazi occupation, as well as a time of surprising peace and prosperity in England during the Hungry Thirties. A born competitor, he knew that cheating, of any kind, was the road to eventual ruin, not just for the cheater but for the political and economic system that allowed it to continue.

Although Leif was a man of few words, when he spoke, people listened, because he had a knack for pulling out the telling detail – the seed of the future. A competitive athlete in his younger years, he loved games, especially those that combine logic and psychology. Chess, bridge, and poker were his favorites — especially poker. While he calculated with ease, his true edge was as an observer, calmly watching the game in front of him, his opponents, and even himself.

I thought of him the other day when I read The Biggest Bluff: How I learned to pay attention, master myself, and win, by Maria Konnikova (Random House 2020). The book is about poker but at a deeper level it’s a humbling voyage of self-discovery by a psychologist, an expert in human behavior whose specialty is decision-making and human biases.

The book contains a series of cameos that by themselves could fill a book. Mathematician and all-round genius John von Neumann sits at the table testing out his new theory of games, which still has a few flaws. Known as the smartest man of his generation, he’s not a very good poker player. On the upside, he meets Klari, another brilliant mathematical mind who will eventually become his wife.

Konnikova is a self-described freelance writer with a regular gig at The New Yorker, not bad for a someone who, like my father, was born in Russia. Along the way, she earned that PhD and wrote bestselling books like The Confidence Game, about con artists and their suite of deceptions that tend to work again and again.

Konnikova’s move into poker began with asking Erik Seidel, one of the world’s best players, to tutor her for a year. He agreed. Although she didn’t even know the rules of the game, she was a fast learner whose goal was to move into the professional ranks. End goal: to see what she would learn about herself in playing Texas Hold ‘Em, a difficult game, then write a book about the experience. It helped that both she and Seidel lived in New York City, although Seidel was often on the move to tournaments, and she would be too if she made it into the pros.

She learns a lot from the mild-mannered Seidel, whose even temperament has allowed him to stay in this high-stakes game for decades. He has one aphorism he repeats over and over: “Pay attention.” This is not as simple as it seems, because poker is a game of many dimensions, including math, psychology, strategy, and basic stuff like maintaining a healthy lifestyle. As Seidel tells her, the object of poker is not to make a lot of money. Rather, it is about making good decisions. Even the best players have runs of luck, both good and bad.

Here’s the essential point: real poker, as all real players know, exists only when you are playing for real money, and facing real players across the table at a real tournament.

Online poker is not that. It’s played for money and it’s a good place to learn strategy (including probabilities), but it removes the distractions and the emotion that come from looking your competition in the eye. Here you must master not only the cards but also the shifting (and shifty) characters who come and go from the poker table. And you have to deal with luck, where over the long haul a hot streak is more dangerous than a cold one because it gives you an inflated sense of your own abilities.

The big money comes from playing in sanctioned tournaments. Here players pay to play and all comers are accepted. But “fish” (weak players with delusions about their own competence) are quickly eliminated, but their money stays in the game. The better you get, the stiffer the competition. The game is played in a network of casinos from Las Vegas in the United States to Monte Carlo in Europe to some wild venues in Asia, including Macau, now a part of China, whose fantasyland excesses make Vegas look tame.

While luck is involved, poker is a game of skill so it is not gambling, as Konnikova stresses in her book. (Although state laws on gambling are all over the map, depending, she says, on the power of industry lobbyists.) Roulette, on the other hand, where you have no control over the outcome, is gambling by everyone’s definition. “Poker is not gambling because it is about precision,” she says. “Gambling is about chaos.” Although much of the book is about luck. Go figure.

Meeting Seidel in cafes and restaurants in New York for tutorials, she practiced online at cafes across the river in New Jersey where, unlike New York, online poker was allowed. As the weeks and months went by, she attracted more teachers, more coaches, improving not only her math skills but her knowledge of human psychology and — ultimately — of her own tendencies and biases. As a psychologist, she knew that even the most logical humans have biases. In poker, the goal is not to get rid of yours, which is impossible, but to manage them as best you can. The fatal weakness is to believe you’re above all that.

Poker is rife with metaphors. Seidel’s favorite is that a poker game is like a jazz performance, with players with different styles coming and going from the table. Incidentally, many of the great players have nicknames they have picked up along the way. There’s Amarillo Slim, Action Dan, and, in counterpoint, Chewy, known for his patience and calm, who practices yoga, tai chi, and qigong.

She learns the lingo. A few examples:

“Tilt,” a state of frustration in which a player adopts a weak strategy, usually by becoming overly aggressive. From pinball, where tilting the machine causes some games to flash the word “TILT” and freeze the flippers. “The most common cause of tilt is losing, especially being defeated in a particularly public and humiliating fashion.”

“Bad beats,” when one puts a lot of chips in the pot with the best hand and still loses. The right mindset calls for the player to understand “poker is a game of decisions, [of] making the right bets over a long period of time.”

It is also possible to go on “winner’s tilt,” the result of a run of good luck, which can be just as detrimental to one’s play as a run of bad luck. Some advanced players admit it is still a “leak” in their game. “Once tilt begins, players are advised to leave the table and return when emotions have subsided.”

To keep at the top of their game, some players rely on a mix of caffeine and sleeping concoctions. Most have a healthy lifestyle. The game is hard enough at the best of times. While casinos offer free booze to keep you at the table and, generally, losing, the pros avoid the stuff.

In psychological terms, the problem with a tilt is that “you may revert to your worst self.” In one game, Konnikova loses her cool, triggering a memory of her first day in school in New York not long after her family arrived in the US from Russia. The only English word she could spell was her own name. When the teacher gave her the wrong name on a name tag, her fragile sense of identity in this new land was threatened. She cried and cried.

As a psychologist, Konnikova is on firm ground as she points out some common biases and potential remedies relevant to the poker table. The “planning fallacy,” where we believe so strongly in our detailed plans that we don’t change course as needed. The “sunk cost fallacy,” where we don’t want to walk away from a previous investment. The self-explanatory “status quo bias.” The Dunning-Kruger Effect, where inexperienced players have the false confidence that comes from the “illusion of knowledge.” As psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, the remedy for these is not to stay in a game for too long trying to recoup your losses.

At a deeper level, the “Ludic Fallacy” suggests that games provide useful models of real life. According to Nassim Taleb, mathematician and investor, we can’t use games as models of real life because in life the rules (any rules) eventually break down.

“We tend to fight against the grain of what is healthy for us,” says Phil Galfond, an elite player who is also an “emotions coach.” Like Seidel, he is based in New York and available for face-to-face meetings. With elite clients from the worlds of poker and chess, sports and business, he focuses on human psychology as a key part of overall strategy. Know your opponents, yes, but know yourself first, he says. In poker, you’re a person, then a player.

The psychology of the game is the hardest lesson to learn. One day Konnikova realizes she had been easy prey for a smiling charlatan. She realized that after losing hand after hand, he had been setting her up by pretending to be her ally in a game where he was a supposed novice and she was the only woman at the table. Ouch!

She reflected on the many times in her life she had been taken advantage of by people who had played her in search of their own ends. It had taken a game of poker to teach her, a trained psychologist, about this lifelong weakness. Good to know because, after all, this was the goal of her poker journey.

At the poker table, as in life in general, try to discover your own tendencies and blind spots, one coach tells her. Learn from critiquing your own experience. Avoid trying to blame others for your own mistakes. Do a self-assessment every day. Even if you show up well prepared for a tournament, if you wake up tired or out of sorts for any reason, it may be best not to play.

Every game has a narrative, her coach tells her. In poker you are both a detective and a storyteller. Besides keeping track of what is going on, you need to develop an awareness of what is omitted, what isn’t there. Ask yourself: what are my opponents trying to hide? That will help you figure out their story, their motivation.

As with top athletes and indeed successful people in most fields, even the most rational players can be superstitious, mocking themselves even as they wear their lucky socks or a random knickknack given them by a friend just before a winning streak began.  Ultimately, poker is like life. The best players still lose, sometimes even when holding the best cards. Agency versus luck — it’s hard to tell the difference, she writes. Indeed, it is a miracle to be born. The biggest bluff is that skill alone can ever be enough.

Credit: Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash.

SOURCE: THE BIGGEST BLUFF by Maria Konnikova, Penguin Books (2020)

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