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.
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.
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.