Variance is very good at tricking the human brain.
Things that seem unlikely, highly improbable, or impossible happen all the time, whether in poker, in the weather report, or even in a professional basketball game.
The highly improbable occurred recently in the National Basketball Association. The Golden State Warriors lost to the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday, March 6th. Before the game, GSW was either the best or second best team of all time.
On the other hand, the Lakers, led by 37-year-old Kobe Bryant, are the worst team in the Western Conference and the second worst team in the whole NBA. They didn’t have a chance, right? Yesterday www.pinnaclesports.com, one of the most reputable and reliable bookmakers when it comes to betting lines, had GSW -6000/LAL+2400. For those of you new to sports betting, that means betting $6,000 on GSW would have won you $100, while betting $100 on the Lakers would have yielded a tidy $2400. Here is a vig free odds calculator that assigns a no-nonsense percent on the likelihood of each team winning:
For a reference to poker, it is 16% more likely that you river a set to beat an overpair than for the Lakers to beat GSW, according to the bookmakers:
To some, those seem like enticing odds. For instance:
Now, I am not an expert on sports betting, nor do I pretend to be one on the Internet. The person who placed this wager could have easily been a sharp sports bettor who saw an edge and decided to capitalize on this edge. Or maybe this person regularly just bets for fun to make the game more interesting.
The most likely scenario, however, is that this person fell victim to a cognitive bias that tricked him into thinking this bet was easy money. These cognitive biases affect people’s thinking about many things, including poker hands:
- In Zero-Risk Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-risk_bias), people equate small amounts of risk to no risk.
- In Hindsight Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias), people act as Monday-morning quarterbacks, claiming to have been 100% confident that they knew the result of something all along. It seems like things with a small percentage chance of happening never happen.
- In Confirmation Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias), a person’s mind searches only for information that reinforces one particular position (In this case, the person may have solely focused on outcomes and metrics that supported GSW not losing to a team as bad as the Lakers).
Or maybe it was a combination of biases. Whatever the case, the reality is that everyone is susceptible to them, no matter how smart, experienced, knowledgeable, or old. At age 27, I have been playing poker – having tremendous success and winning millions of dollars – for almost a decade. I even employ a mental game coach who helps me pinpoint and focus in on my mind’s logic flaws, fallacies, and biases. I am generally interested in the mind, how it operates, and where it fails. I read books on the subject, my favorite being:
Nonetheless, every single day is a struggle for me to avoid the narrow perception of reality that my mind presents. If you are somehow superhuman and can avoid these biases with ease, bravo to you.
The rest of us should constantly be wary, especially when money is on the line. Most poker players aren’t so rich that they are immune to the swings of the game, and some people play poker for a stream of income. It’s easy to lose money and confidence over a long period of time and have those events negatively influence happiness, mood, self-worth, and so on. The problem is these feelings are unfounded. They are products of short-term noise (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistical_noise).
Beyond basketball and poker, these cognitive biases are pervasive in other walks of life. Take for instance weather forecasting. Meteorologists intentionally report that rain is more probable than it actually is. Why? It’s because of the Wet Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wet_bias).
The Wet Bias boils down to this. Say there is an 80% chance of sunshine and a 20% chance of rain on a Sunday in the summer. If there is an 80% chance of sun and the weatherman reports it as such – and it turns out to be sunny – everyone is happy.
If, however, it rains (studies have shown that in the 20% of time that meteorologists predict it will rain, it does in fact rain) people will feel lied to. They had planned to go out to the park and have a picnic and now their day is spoiled. Their cognitive bias has equated 80% to 100%, so they are now upset at the weatherman – not because he actually made a mistake or lied but because of their logical fallacy. What ends up happening is that meteorologists deliberately bump that 20% chance up to 40%, making it look more significant. This covers meteorologists’ butts – if it rains, potential picnickers are less upset since they more clearly saw it as possible.
I am telling you all of this because I want you to know how pervasive, powerful, and subtle cognitive biases are.
Another example shows the cognitive bias problem specifically in poker. The above image is a big sample of hands I played online. The green line is how many big blinds I’ve won, and the yellow line is how many big blinds I’ve won in expected value. In other words, if I get all-in with [AK] versus [QQ], then the green line will go up or down based on how much I won, whereas the yellow line will go down slightly because [QQ] is slightly stronger than [AK] preflop.
I’ve been combing this graph for a little while now, looking for my biggest downswing. It happened between hands ~950,000 and ~1,035,000. I lost about 61 buy-ins. On the whole sample – almost 2 million hands in total – I am 96 buy-ins below EV.
Think about that. This graph is basically up and to the right. It’s a massive sample. My friends are some of the best poker players in the world. I was basically built to play poker and worked incredibly hard at it.
But if you or I lost 61 buy-ins and ran 96 buy-ins below EV over the next week, we’d probably lose our minds. However, you aren’t on a downswing because you suck at poker during this period. You are on a downswing because poker is really fucking noisy in the short run, governed in very large part by luck. Despite being 100% certain you are a winning player and tons of evidence to support that fact, if you play enough poker, or do enough of anything, then something improbable will happen – just like the Lakers beating GSW.
Like with the cognitive biases I described above, your brain isn’t wired to look for, let alone find, the signal. It responds to the different inputs with equality, leaving your consciousness responsible for sifting through the data.
I will, however, say that some people are naturally better at this than others. It is a spectrum. Evaluate and find out where you are on that spectrum. Either you’re indifferent to results and playing for pure joy of the activity or you’re losing two buy-ins and going on raging monkey tilt, and act accordingly. As you are more prone to tilt taking over, the more vigilant you must be in adhering to predetermined rules to keep you – and your biased mind – in check.
How do you do this practically? Your job as a poker player is to take a step back, take a breath, and honestly and objectively evaluate your situation. Realize that asking friends (or us) for advice can also help. Here are a few other things you can do to avoid being consumed by the noise:
- Play overrolled. Play with twice the number of buy-ins you think you need to.
- Play lower stakes. Compete for an amount of money completely inconsequential to your life situations or emotions.
- Do things to balance your lifestyle. If you obsessively play poker, then you will likely put your mind in a burned-out state of some sort. Go outside. Hang out with friends. Do something, anything, that is very different and will take your mind off the game and plan it before you start playing.
- Exercise. I have found that my emotional control is at least double when I have a consistent exercise regime.
- Take a break. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. I have gone six weeks without paying poker because I thought the emotional turmoil was too great. The games will always be there – people on the whole love poker so it is not going away any time soon.
And don’t bet on the Lakers versus Golden State, and please consider the weather report very carefully this weekend. Good luck!