How your brain betrays you at the poker table

07:58 Nov 24

Have you ever felt that the world, no the Universe itself doesn't want you to win at poker? Let me share a secret with you; the Universe and our very own human nature have, indeed, made every effort to prevent us from winning.


Cognitive distortions


What are the qualities that define an ideal poker player? Among them are objectivity and rationality. But, unfortunately, we can't be like this because of human nature.

We perceive reality and the world around us through a kind of prism. Rose-tinted spectacles, put on our noses by evolution. Thanks a lot evolution!

Without evolution however, we wouldn't be where we are in the Universe. And yet, to allow us to evolve, we traded our ability to perceive reality the way it really is. Our brain sees the world with some distortions. In science, they are called cognitive distortions.

The reason is simple; in order to evolve, we have to adapt to our environment. A distorted perception of reality helps us reach certain decisions in situations where accuracy is not as important.

Poker is no exception. Everything that happens to us at a poker table is perceived differently by our brains and our consciousness. In other words, there's  one thing happening but our brains think it's an entirely different thing. But we, as poker players, can't let anything cloud our judgement, otherwise we can't play our A-game.

To take off these evolutionary spectacles, we must first find out how they work. What are cognitive distortions anyway? In this and other articles, I'll tell you about most notable ones that concern our poker play.


The fear of loss


We often refuse to act profitably only because we're afraid to lose. We are naturally risk averse.

When all other conditions are equal, we try not to lose something, as opposed to gaining something. For people, the pain of loss is far sharper than the satisfaction of profit. It has been measured that our losses feel 2.5 times more painful compared to our joy in victory.

This explains why we feel worse after losing $50 right at the end of a session, than we feel pleased with $100 profit, when we should be happy about winning $50.

Here's another example. We're at the river, the pot is 300 big blinds, and we have 200bb. We think that our opponent will fold in 50% of the cases. Looks like we have an obvious profitable all-in bluff, however most of us (even some very good players) would choose to check in this spot to save money we still have.

There's also something we call "the myopic fear of loss". Researchers found that investors receiving short-term reports on their investments inclined towards more conservative and less profitable decisions, unlike those investors who were receiving long-term reports. In short-term reports, investors more often than not felt that minor losses reached their consciousness deeper than the compensating profit. Despite that, the end result could be the same for both types of investors. The short-reported investors had far more pessimistic views about their investments, so they chose less profitable but more reliable options.

It says something about poker, doesn’t it? Tell me, how many times have you checked your results in Hold’em Manager during your last session? Do you understand why all poker experts actively discourage you from peeking at the results?


The anchor effect


Another important distortion is "the anchor effect". It's supported by many researchers.

For example, during one such experiment, students were asked to recall the final three digits of their phone numbers. Then, the same students were asked about when the Visigoths sacked Rome (the correct answer is 410 AD). The students whose digits were higher tended to name a later date, compared to the students with lesser digits. In other words, the last three digits of their mobile numbers served as an "anchor" which "dragged" their estimates one side to the other.

This is easily explained by the neurological network inside our brain. When some neurons are activated, the adjacent ones become prone to activation as well. The neurons responsible for big numbers are closer to each other than the small-number neurons. So both the order and type of activation directly and significantly affect the way we think.


Marketing experts have been fooling us for a long time


This can affect poker in many ways. For example; You called a bluff with Аce high and won the pot. In a few hands, you are in a similar situation but against another opponent. We can agree that the probability of another Ace high bluff catch has improved but, the thing now, is that it's easier for you to convince yourself that your opponent is bluffing. The bluff you successfully exposed previously has become your anchor.

By the way, that's why you should be glad when a weak player, that often makes mistakes, plays badly (e.g. draws against all odds) and wins the hand. This win will impress on him like a stone around his neck and will drag him down many times in the future.

This distortion can also be spotted in session analysis. When analysing a losing session shortly after it's finished, it's more likely you will find more reasons to prove and support some of your decisions, and they will look better. The thing is, your conscience at that point is tied to your perception of itself during play, and it's harder for you to be objective. However, if you look at this session on the next day, you'll see how unrealistic your suggestions were, just like the conclusions you achieved.


Grigoriy ‘ahlinpoker’ Skrypnik works for He works on editorial and educational poker material for their Russian community.

Article by

comments powered by HyperComments