Poker Cats

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Impulse and the Blink impression

The people who can binge, gamble or try hard drugs and get away with it have a native cunning when it comes to risk, this and other studies suggest. They are prepared for the dangers like a mountain climber or they sample risk, in effect, by semi-consciously hedging their behavior -- sipping their cocktails slowly, inhaling partly, or keeping one toe on the cliff's edge, poised for retreat.

"These are highly self-directed people," said C. Robert Cloninger, a professor of psychiatry and genetics at Washington University in St. Louis and author of "Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being." "They have goals and are resourceful in pursuing them."

Those who are upended by their own impulses, by contrast, are more likely to trust their first impressions implicitly and absolutely, the studies suggest.
-"Living on Impulse," The New York Times, April 4, 2006

At least in the gambling context, this seems very suspect and the reasoning is very back and forth. It points to the general preconception that gambling is a bad behavior. Of course that applies to negative-EV games but also to losing poker players, one of whom, a self-described losing player, wrote an interesting article in this month's 2+2 magazine.

The concept of the tight-aggressive player pretty much torpedoes these three paragraphs. First there might be a "native cunning" in people, but the tight-aggressive player, the most likely to be able to "gamble ... and get away with it," is largely self-taught, as Alan Schoonmaker points out in "The Psychology of Poker," primarily for the difficulties in being aggressive and having control over it at the same time. Most people are passive and the aggressiveness is not second-nature. The natural professions of tight-aggressives -- fighter pilots and police officers -- are trained to be this way, he says.

We're only "prepared" for the dangers by experience -- absorbing other people's knowledge from books and forums and by thousands and thousands of hands online. The only "hedging" we do is in the form of not betting when we don't have the edge. Hedging is way too passive for us.

I don't think it's true that trusting your instinct will result in upending ruin. For weeks I've wanted to write about Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" and how it relates to poker.

The book is about the mysterious processes of the subconscious and how we're quickly able to size something up when that same process might take us hours or even days if we tried to figure the same problem out rationally.

It's a condition that I'll call the "Blink impression." How exactly do you know that a guy is bluffing when you have no other evidence otherwise? How do you know the small bet is one with the nuts? It's similar to when Doyle Brunson and others implore us to "trust your instinct" and that the first impression is usually the right one.

In the book, a lot of how we develop this instinct is from our daily lives and our development. Gladwell points out that this instinct, if not nurtured properly, can lead people astray, such as not hiring black people because they're not the same ethnicity as you or not thinking a female lead orchestra player is qualified, because she is a woman. It's catastrophic to fold to a huge bet just because your instinct is he or she has the nuts. Mark and I have a running joke from the old Emory Game because once I put a big semi-bluff on a player who said "I have to fold because I don't have the nuts." Well I didn't either, but it still was a nice pot.

But like poker players, Gladwell says the instincts can be honed through constant training and experience. By practicing all the time, police officers are able to make correct decisions of when to shoot at a suspect when he or she may only have a second to decide. Gladwell talks about a time when a firefighter was able to call his colleagues out of a building seconds before it collapsed because "it just didn't add up." Doyle and the pros can trust their instincts because they have years of experience. Their subconscious runs the numbers and probabilities for them. They've pretty much seen it all.

Gladwell calls this the "mind-valet." The mind allows you to focus on a problem by figuring other things out for you. Your experience keeps you on track and lets you decide whether the instinct is an appropriate one for you or not.

It may make total sense to fold if something doesn't add up to the way the weak bettor makes his move. I see it as similar to how Howard Lederer tells you to work the hand back to the beginning -- does the end move make any sense to the way your opponent was playing the hand preflop?

Another important thing the book conveys is why practice is so crucial -- once the heart rate starts to speed up, the body naturally starts to shut down in order to provide blood to critical body systems. You end up with tunnel vision and if you're heart is pumping fast enough, soon your options are to fight or flee.

Gladwell implies this may be a reason why police officers end up beating up a suspect after catching him. There are no other options left once this tunnel vision sets in. I think being too excited or worried in poker, especially in NL when all the chips are out on the table, can lead to rash decisions you'd otherwise not make.

People think it's moxie or luck when it comes to gambling and winnings. But like in "Rounders," it's skill. It's not "native cunning" but education, knowing how to walk the tightrope and making it look easy. No wonder those who spend little time on gambling or the game are easily confused.


  • Great post.
    I feel like outside influences that may cause subtle tilt (playing tired, work stresses, family problems) often don't directly affect my play, but they hinder my instincts.
    When I look back at hand histories, I can't find what I did wrong in the hand.
    But when I'm on my game and playing well, I feel like I can make crucial folds or all-in bets based on reflexes tuned over hundreds of thousands of hands.

    By Blogger Mark, at 3:50 PM  

  • In a recent 4 part article of Alan Schoonmaker to ("Planning your personal Development") he tries to guide players to accomplish their poker goals by taking among other things their assets and liabilities. Its very good, and you should read it.

    I think that being a poker player is very much like being a good leader. Is the leader born or made? According to different courses that i took during my military years, neither.

    I think if we ask the same question about poker players on most online forums the larger pecentage would say "made". But I think they would be wrong. I think the answer is neither as well.

    The same goes for pilots. When we started the military pilot training we were 64. All very good cadets (3 years of proof), with all the medical and psychological abilities needed to become pilots. Only 23 have a license today. The other's had to stay in the ground.

    Now, some people say "everyone can learn to fly" and inmediatly they add "with enough time, money and discipline". And I somewhat aggree.

    But to become the best? Then, I think, others factors appear. Some factors that you cant learn, or get with time and practice.

    I'll write more on "the poker pilot".

    By Blogger Victor_Enriq, at 9:47 PM  

  • I look forward to reading it. These are both good comments.

    By Blogger kurokitty, at 2:30 AM  

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