phil hellmuth poker ego illusory superiority

Stop Letting Your Poker Ego Cost You Money & Happiness

What’s going on, Upswing fam? Today we’re mixing things up with a guest post that aims to help you with your mental game.

Konstantinos “Duncan” Palamourdas is an award-winning math professor from UCLA who specializes in the mathematics of poker, as well as in poker education. He currently teaches poker classes at UCLA extension which always fill up early and have long waitlists.

His goal is to provide his students with a deeper understanding of the game (whether philosophical, psychological or mathematical) and help them formulate a winning strategy by themselves — not by blindly copying the pros. This often involves dissecting complicated concepts into digestible parts, a challenge that Duncan accepts happily.

Be sure to give Dr. Duncan a warm welcome in the comments section at the bottom of the page! 

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Tommy Angelo once famously joked that “75% of players think they are better than the other 75%.”

Alice — a poker pro — finds this quote incredibly insightful. This idea has its roots in what social psychologists call “illusory superiority[D1],” a cognitive bias causing a person to think they are better at a given task than they actually are.

This has been documented across various domains. For instance:

  • Most people think they have healthier than average habits.
  • About a quarter of the population thinks they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others.
  • The overwhelming majority of drivers think they have above average skills
  • Almost all professors think they are better than half of their colleagues.

The list goes on and on and on.

There are numerous reasons for this phenomenon, ranging from pure egocentrism to a variety of judgment biases based on self-incompetence. One needs competence to assess their own incompetence. In other words, being bad at something often means that we are also bad at judging it.

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The Importance of Falsifiability

What is interesting, however, is that all of the above claims are easily falsifiable[D2], a concept first expressed by the philosopher Karl Popper. In general, a theory is falsifiable if it allows for its own refutation through observation or experiment (the theory can be proven wrong).

For instance, the statement “All humans are less than 10 feet tall” is falsifiable while the statement “All humans are mortal” is not.

For the first statement, it would only take the existence of a single human who is taller than 10 feet to refute the claim. The second statement is more complex. To refute it, we would need an immortal human.

The issue is, however, that immortality cannot be tested within a finite environment, not even in a hypothetical setting. A human would need to indefinitely survive infinite tests to truly prove its absolute resistance to death, something not technically possible within our restricted time frame. In that sense, no test (not even a hypothetical one) could ever disprove the claim.

Unfortunately, “More Rake is Better” is not falsifiable.

Falsifiability is important regarding illusory superiority because it can help break the illusion. For example, it would only take one driving test for everyone to see their true skills compared to everyone else, or one evaluation from students for professors to see where they truly stand in relation to their peers.

In other words, part of the reason we humans generally lack the skill of self-evaluation is due to the absence of legitimate evidence pointing in the other direction. We tend to fill in the blanks however we see fit, usually in our favor. But in the presence of overwhelming evidence – barring some initial denial – we must embrace the truth and readjust our assumptions. That, or we ignore it at our peril.

Illusory Superiority in Games

Returning to games, delusions such as those described are notably absent in games of pure skill like chess or go. There, no matter what opinion one may have about one’s own competence, the results do not lie. There is no fuzziness or ambiguity.

If Bob loses at chess against 90% of his competition, he is in the bottom 10% of that pool. And if Charlie beats 70% of his competition, he is in the top 30% of that pool. In games of pure skill, only half the players will feel that they are better than average while the other half will not. As they both should!

Unfortunately for poker, things are not so clear. That’s because chance is involved. Players have an extra layer of “excuses” to justify their bad plays. For instance, it is very tempting for Bob to say that Alice got lucky every time she wins and that he played great every time he wins.

jamie gold illusory superiority

Jamie Gold (a relatively inexperienced poker player) won the WSOP Main Event for $12 million in 2006 and subsequently chose to play against some of the world’s best players on High Stakes Poker — an apparent example of illusory superiority.

Add the “unfair” factor[D5] of the game into the mix, and we have an ugly, unsorted agglomeration of different plays, ranging from terrible to brilliant, all looking so dangerously similar to one another that only a thorough examination under the “analysis” microscope could reveal their true nature.

Alice is fully aware of that subtlety. As a consequence, she never evaluates a hand she played based on its outcome. In other words, Alice tries not to be “results-oriented.” Who wins each pot is irrelevant to her, because it involves information she has no access to during the hand (namely, her opponent’s hole-cards).

Instead, she focuses on whether she made the correct decision based solely on the information available at the time. She can incorporate new information and adjust her strategy accordingly.

For instance, if Alice folds a big hand to Bob because she knew that Bob rarely bluffs, this would be the correct play. It would still be the correct play even if Bob shows her a bluff. Besides, how could she know beforehand that Bob had decided to change his strategy? She could not. However, she can now update her mental database with that new information and be ready to face Bob in all future hands (now expecting him to bluff more than she initially thought him capable of).

Conversely, if Alice wins a hand, it does not mean she played it correctly. She will still put it under the microscope after the session is over to make sure her play was indeed the right one. This strict, evidenced-based, self-evaluation process is probably the biggest factor separating Alice from average players.

It is worth noting that Alice loves the fact that her opponents vastly overestimate their own skills. This not only reveals an underlying incompetence but, more importantly, it shows a lack of awareness of serious shortcomings in their strategy. This lack of awareness results in an inability to correct errors and improve their strategy, dooming them to repeat the same mistakes and leak money in Alice’s direction.

It is said that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer. That is certainly true in poker. 

Why should I care?

Even if all of the above makes sense, there is still one more question to answer: How could that help us become better poker players?

Most of us will likely agree that acknowledging our shortcomings is the first step toward correcting them and improving. However, before we do that, we need to stop clouding our judgment by using luck as an excuse for mistakes. We need to ignore it entirely. This includes our opponents’ holdings since it is a factor we do not have access to.

Instead, we should concentrate on everything that is available to us (patterns, betting, sizing, history, stacks, board texture, relative position, pre-flop action, etc…) and solve the puzzle in a vacuum as if our opponents would never show us their hands in the end.

Not only this can take a lot of emotional pressure off of our shoulders, but it will help us develop a more objective approach to poker strategy, independent of any punishment/reward system.

If someone bets Alice even money that the next 4th of July is going to rain in Los Angeles, she will happily take that bet each year, even if she loses it 10 years in a row (assuming it’s a truly fair bet).

This is the mentality of a successful risk-taker that avoids results-oriented thinking. They embrace unfavorable chance as “cost of doing business” and continue to make wagers that are statistically favorable in the long run. 

Any questions? Comment below!

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About the Author
Konstantinos "Duncan" Palamourdas

Konstantinos "Duncan" Palamourdas

Duncan is a math professor from UCLA who specializes in the mathematics of poker, as well as in poker education. He currently teaches poker classes at UCLA extension that always fill up early and have long waitlists. In his book Why Alex Beats Bobbie At Poker, he uses simple language to scientifically explain how and why money flows from poker amateurs to professionals. Preorder the book here!

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