I’m reading a book by Mario Livio, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein — Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. As the title implies, it’s a study of how even history’s greatest scientists have committed enormous mistakes in the course of their work.
In his introduction, Livio writes, “We often blame the absolutely wrong causes for our misfortunes. This misattribution, by the way, is one of the reasons that we rarely actually learn from our mistakes.”
If you’ve spent more than, oh, about five minutes hanging around the poker world, I think you’ll see the face of just about every poker player reflected in the mirror of that general truth.
Surely, then, the necessary first step in fixing poker mistakes is a correct understanding of what went wrong.
Step 1: Make the right diagnosis
The problem is that we poker players, like all humans, find it far easier to blame somebody — anybody — else for what went wrong, than to engage in deep, honest introspection for how we might have been responsible.
Let me give you three examples of the most common kinds of attribution failure in poker:
- Your buddy calls you to complain about the bad beat that knocked him out of a tournament — but he says not a word about the long series of decisions that caused him to be short-stacked, and thus vulnerable to being eliminated with the turn of a single bad card.
- A player at your table gets mad when a drunk guy calls his bluff with some unbelievable hand like bottom pair. “How could you call me with that?” he sputters in anger. You notice, however, that he assigns no blame to himself for underestimating the likelihood that this particular opponent would call.
- You drive home from the casino, still upset from losing your entire stack on a coin-flip type of situation. Your self-pity — “I never win flips!” — prevents you from asking yourself whether you could have waited for a spot to get all the money in with substantially better than a 50/50 chance of winning.
Your doctor has little chance of saving you from your about-to-rupture appendix if he mistakenly concludes that it’s just a bout of indigestion for which you need a dose of Pepto-Bismol. Similarly, you’ll never fix the leaks in your game if you misdiagnose the trouble as dumb luck, or other people’s flawed decision-making. After all, you can’t change other people’s bad play, and you can’t change how the cards fall. The only thing you can change is how you play.
Step 2: Find the right correction
I realize that this is kind of in the “Well, DUH!” category. But while it may be trivially obvious as a generalization, it is not trivially easy to apply.
A guy I used to play with occasionally in Vegas had a strange habit of making prohibitively large opening preflop raises if, and only if, he had pocket aces — in the range of $50 in a $1/$2 no-limit hold’em game. Once in a great while, he’d get a call or reraise from pocket kings, but by far the most frequent outcome was a cascade of folds. He’d happily pick up the $3 in blinds, plus maybe a few bucks from a limper or two. He would show his bullets and say something like, “If you want to crack these, I’m gonna make you really pay to do it.”
He was entirely open about the reason for this move: He had gotten tired of losing big pots with aces, so he had decided to make literal the old saying, “Better to win a small pot than lose a big one.”
The problem, of course, is that the way he corrected for his problem utterly fails to maximize the winning potential of the best starting hand in hold’em. His chosen method is indeed close to 100% effective at protecting him from the pain of losing big pots with aces. But that shouldn’t be the goal. The objective is to maximize the average profit from rare premium hands. His solution was a dismal failure by that metric.
Okay, so if you’ve made the right diagnosis and applied the right corrective, what else is left as a third step?
3. Get another opinion
It is unwise to assume that you have correctly analyzed the problem and fashioned the right plug for the leak. We are much better at spotting other people’s mistakes than our own.
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has revolutionized our understanding of how people make decisions. He says, “I am not very optimistic about people’s ability to change the way they think, but I am fairly optimistic about their ability to detect the mistakes of others.”
Although he made this principle the subject of scientific study, it’s hardly a new concept. Two thousand years before Kahneman, we already had the biblical aphorism about being able to see the mote (i.e., speck) in our neighbor’s eye while not noticing the beam (i.e., log) in our own.
Writing a daily poker blog for several years, I had many occasions in which I described in detail how I had played a hand, and gave what I thought was a brilliant analysis of what I had done right and wrong — only to be brought up short by readers who pointed out important factors or options that had completely escaped my attention. It’s human nature.
Go to people whose candor and poker-analysis skills you respect. Find out if they have anything to add to your own conclusions about what went wrong. Weigh carefully what they have to say — especially if it hurts, because the most important truths about the mistakes you have made are apt to be painful and embarrassing. The surgeon can’t remove that inflamed appendix without cutting you pretty deep.
The silver lining of the blunders that Livio describes in his book is that when the errors were eventually brought to light and corrected, either by the scientists who made them or by others who came along later, the corrections led to important conceptual breakthroughs — hence the title’s “brilliant” blunders.
Your poker mistakes, too, can lead to major leaps forward in your skill and profit, if you analyze the problem correctly, figure out the right remedy, and check with a trusted advisor to be sure you’re not just deceiving yourself. These steps are simple, but they are never easy.
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.