If you’ve ever tried your hand at online poker, you already know first-hand that true poker is not just gambling. True poker players know this is a game of skill, discipline, and experience. Only those betting to lose think poker is played as a game of luck alone.
In any given poker game, you will be faced with numerous decisions to make and these decisions play no small part in whether or not you walk away victorious or significantly worse for wear.
The question is: how do you make the best decisions possible? Is there a key or some easily followed rubric to know just how to make what decision and when? And more importantly, is this a skill that can be learned and employed – not just when you’re browsing the web at home, but when the stakes are high, and the game is on?
In his paper, “Social and psychological challenges of Poker”, Kyle Siler searches for just the answer to these pertinent questions.
He analyses the risk and aggression in decision-making for roughly 27M hands in small-, medium-, and large-stakes online poker to determine if there truly is a best way to approach these pressing decisions when they matter the most.
Siler uses what he calls “strategic demography” as a way to see how the most successful hands are played and exactly how many risks and how much aggression is used as a way to mitigate the odds. He finds that tight-aggressive strategies are the most prevalent among winning hands, especially as the stakes increase.
This show of aggression mimics the way humans behave on a very basal level, even down to the economic behavioural level, where this aggression is termed “animal spirits”.
The animal spirits in us make it such that there is a level of emotional play in every decision made, especially the ones with high stakes.
However, as I’m sure most experienced players know, there is a fine line involved when emotions are at play alongside you. That aggression, passion, and focus can quickly turn into foolhardiness and overconfidence. So, Stiler likens the tight-aggressive strategies to animal spirits which have been refined, cultured, and channelled strategically and intelligently.
Of course, between confidence and overconfidence, it is hard not only to find but also to maintain a perfect balance – likewise with the best use of animal spirits and aggressive strategies.
Still, both are best used in situations of “Knightian uncertainty”, or in situations where there is a lack of measurable knowledge and some integral degree of limitation and unpredictability in future events.
In the realm of poker (and casino card games in general), this is usually just referred to as the element of “blind luck” and there is no way to completely removed the element of luck from the table. The best way to ensure as much consistency in victories is simply to mitigate this luck-based portion with as many well-thought-out strategies and experiential plays as possible. So, to be successful, a player must regulate and channel these natural human impulses.
When the stakes are high, the most elite players tend to turn to loose-aggressive strategies, but research shows these methods tend to have a high amount of outliers – that is to say, even though the average wins or winning hands is high, quite a few of the positives may be “false positives”, with the winners still having more luck or skill to contribute to their winning rates, rather than their level of aggression.
It is thought that even a large number of sub-optimal players can experience a large level of success and see many winning hands simply due to the nature of the game.
Poker draws a huge number of players across every level, so it’s easy to see that even in a test among thousands, suboptimal players may slip through due to the incompetence of the relative competition. Unlike a pure skill-based game like chess, there will always be some people to buy in and try their luck at poker due to its inherent Knightian uncertainty basis.
According to research, there are relatively few, relatively modest competitive edges to be had in high-stakes games, although it is difficult to get practical research on the highest limit games because the only way to get information on folded hands would be from poker companies themselves. And, as you might have guessed, they are quite reluctant to release this information.
This inability to obtain complete data for folded hands naturally skews the data a bit and can introduce some interesting paradoxes.
Most research tends to point to some variation of a willingness to take “high variance marginal gambles with favourable odds” as the difference between good and great gamblers. That is to say, the great players identify and take that rare hand more skilfully, adding more (albeit, sparse) large pots to their overall winnings, thus increasing their average success.
This is more a show of decision-making skills than of aggressive tendencies, as in these cases, it is equally important to be willing to decisively fold as well.
Of course, the paradox here is that it only takes one of these high-variance marginal gambles gone wrong to make a player go broke. Accordingly, just as they can increase their winning average, the great players are also likely to go bankrupt (and possibly more than just once) in their careers. These players must have an equal amount of reverence and disregard for both the game and their money.
The stoic robotics with which the greats handle bad losses and monetary instability is the secret to becoming a simultaneously daring and caviller tactical strategist. Sadly, this leads to a psychological paradox amidst this stressful, risk-seeking atmosphere called alexithymia, or difficulty in identifying and expressing feelings.
This psychological wellness quandary is quite common among gamblers and especially poker players, as such a large part of the game revolves around a high emotional environment in which few to no emotions should be displayed.
The line between ruin and riches is so incredibly narrow, even being great does not guarantee success.
In addition to the psychological challenges posed by the concept and need for “stoic aggression”, poker poses its players with several cognitive challenges also.
Much like large rare wins can override and skew the average winnings (and data research capabilities) of talented players, great players must also learn to properly weigh small regular winnings with the potential for large rare losses.
As stated in the previous section, even if a player is seeing relatively consistent wins, small, regular wins can quickly be neutralized by the existence of just one large loss. It is this phenomenon that accounts for many (sometimes repeated) bankruptcies of even the greatest and most skilled poker players.
Equally important and cognitively challenging, great poker players must learn to accept that same gamble and not swerve during mental games of “chicken”, as there is also a likelihood that a high variance marginal hand could be one of the rare large wins that sets skilled players apart from the rest of the crowd.
Part of the challenge here is to fully distinguish, even with some humility, what exactly is the result of skill and experience versus what is the result of luck. In distinguishing between the result of skill and luck effects, players can learn more about their game, their play, and their realm of control. This is the only way to continually refine strategies, especially as it relates to aggression and the use of animal spirits.
It is this kind of “rationality work” which plays a large part in mitigating and dictating the balance between confidence and overconfidence as it relates to emotional work.
It is technically impossible to perfectly parse out the roles of skill and luck, however, and it is found that very often losing players will gladly overemphasize the role of luck when explaining their losses. While this does allow the player to maintain some amount of self-image, in the long run, it only serves to perpetuate the role of incompetence and inexperience, leading to additional losses.
On the other hand, more competent players are known to more regularly attribute both their wins and losses to personal responsibility at a greater rate.
In this way, poker creates a playing field where many players can be both unskilled and unaware, making for easy targets for those of medium and high levels of skill and experience. Since the skill-basis is one of the relatively few realms of control in the game of poker, being unskilled and unaware becomes especially dangerous quite quickly.
The Risk Meta
Humans are a naturally risk-averse species, especially when it comes to the realms of finance and potential loss. To overcome this, one must essentially rewire innate compulsions to become risk-neutral, or even risk-tolerant or risk-loving.
Adopting this risk-positive mindset is one of the initial and inherent challenges of poker, as this disposition (in addition to the variety of economic, social, psychological, and emotional pressures) is key to maximizing the expected value of each hand and every risk involved.
Most people and everyday situations do not call for the same gain maximization and loss minimization processes that poker do, and this running background of cognitive processes serves to increase the difficulties involved with becoming a great poker player.
As such, it tends to serve the player to have a sort of “low-lying” or “background-running” risk desire as the cognitive and psychological processes at the forefront of the mind do not allow for much more. It requires an immense amount of effort to override and reconfigure these deeply rooted human preferences.
No one can debate that poker is a very difficult game requiring an immense amount of skill, cognitive faculty, and psychological and emotional perseverance to master.
It is this nature that makes simply “mastering the card game” such a small part of mastering the game itself or becoming a great and successful poker player, especially with consistency and for an extended period.
The rationality aspect is vital and skill and experience must always be taken into account if you want to last; still, it must be taken into account that many times this involves directly contradicting the very ways that humans are innately programmed to behave.
Involving monetary practices and economical behaviour, poker players must adopt strategies and dispositions towards risk and uncertainty that simply do not or would not serve the best interests in any other realm, situation, or environment.
Players must learn to accurately do the impossible, correctly separating the difference in effects between blind luck and their own aptly applied skill – acknowledging what can and can’t be controlled as well as leading down a progressive path toward victory, not loss.
Great players learn to apply aggression and “animal spirits” in a timely, strategic manner – being both daring enough to take great wins, but also deliberate enough not to take great losses.
They mask their emotional state regardless of the state of their finances, even to the point of psychological ineptitude in some cases, and they control their confidence with as much skill as any other part of the game.
It is no small task to becoming a poker-playing great; in many cases, the greatest challenge is in overcoming self.
The work and challenges poker players face can either be emphasized or diminished by their personality, strengths, and preferences, but rest assured, all players will need to look into and make changes to their mindsets and dispositions at one point or another.
In truth, it can be said that the ability to adjust one’s disposition and to maintain the adjustment in high-pressure, high-stress, and high-stakes situations is the key to differentiating mediocre players from the okay and the great.
Skill can be increased. Experience can be acquired. Gains and losses both happen regardless of the success level of the player in question.
So the real question is this: Can you gain and lose yourself?