Life Lessons from Poker is a seven-part series of articles about how the things we learn in our efforts to master poker can turn out to be indispensable life tools away from the felt. If you’re coming to the series for the first time, Part 1 can be found here.
In the last two instalments of Life Lessons from Poker, we looked at the decision-making process in poker, and how the same thought processes useful there can help us make better decisions in regular life as well. But there are two halves to every choice in life: deciding what you’re going to do, and then evaluating and reacting to the outcome.
When planning out this series, I classified the decision-making aspects as “cognitive behavior,” and dealing with the outcome as “emotional intelligence.” Any psychologist will tell you, however, that these aren’t really two separate things, but deeply intertwined. Practicing the right cognitive behaviors will help you control your emotions (to an extent) rather than being controlled by them, while a stable and self-aware emotional state will help you make better decisions.
Our topic this week is variance, and as anyone who’s played much poker knows, this is a tricky one to wrap one’s head around. Pattern recognition is fundamental to intelligence, but the downside of this is that our brains are hyper-developed in that regard, picking out patterns even where there are none. That, in turn, leads to confusion about the limits of our agency, and to obsessing over big things which we can’t control, rather than focusing on the smaller things we can.
This isn’t unique to humans, or even mammals. The renowned behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner proved that even pigeons are susceptible to developing superstitions. Placed in a cage with a device which would dispense food at regular intervals, the pigeons would eventually note that they happened to have done something – hopping, bobbing their head, moving about the cage in a particular way – at the time the food was dispensed. Concluding that they had made the food appear, they would proceed to repeat the behavior over and over in the hopes of producing a repeat occurrence.
Humans, in many situations, aren’t much better than those pigeons. The problem is so deeply ingrained in our psychology that even a solid theoretical understanding of randomness doesn’t provide immunity. Nor does the desire to control the uncontrollable manifest solely in the form of harmless time-wasting. It can be actively self-destructive: Consider, as an extreme example, the valuable material sacrifices some of our ancestors once made in vain attempts to influence the forces of nature.
Big pots are smaller than they appear
Usually when the topic of variance in poker comes up, it’s in relation to bad beats, because this is what beginners struggle with the most. When you get your pocket Aces in preflop against the other guy’s Kings, you’re going to lose that big pot one time in five. A single instance of that is often enough to put a beginner on tilt, and while more veteran players understand the math, when it happens several times in a row it can be hard to take.
Variance runs much deeper than that, however. First off, the player with the Kings in that scenario is also suffering from variance; the fact that you happened to hold Aces doesn’t make his play bad, as usually getting the chips in with Kings will be a profitable play. Looking at the situation more neutrally, both of you are involved in an inevitable clash of the sort that occurs periodically in No-Limit poker; once every few orbits, two players at the table will be dealt hands they cannot possibly get away from, whether preflop or post-flop. In those situations, who gets the pot is almost entirely a matter of luck, both in terms of who is dealt the bigger monster, and in whether or not it holds.
In that regard, the biggest pots are often the least important in the long term, and the least interesting strategically. Look at any poker strategy forum and you’ll find plenty of threads from novice players wondering how they could have avoided losing all their chips in a set-over-set or flush-over-flush type situation; most of the time, the responses to these will be some version of “you can’t, that’s just poker.”
Avoiding tilt is one thing, but tilt is, at least, a temporary condition. The fixation with big pots is one that can do more lasting damage in its impact on the way we review our play. After a session, it’s normal to find oneself going over those moments that a large number of chips changed hands. Yet, even in those cases that the big pot isn’t an outright cooler, it’s often not as important as it appeared at the time. As I said in Part 2 – Statistical Thinking, the most excruciating decisions are often difficult precisely because both options are similar in expected value. If that’s the case, then despite their short-term consequences being large, these spots will even out in the long run.
Small mistakes add up
Professional poker often players talk about identifying and plugging “leaks.” These are small, systematic mistakes that crop up frequently, and focusing on those is perhaps the biggest difference between pros and amateurs. Perhaps you call the turn too liberally with one-pair hands against tight players. Or maybe you default to semi-bluffing all your draws, wasting chips in spots where you have little fold equity and would be better off calling. One especially common one in moderately experienced players is failing to polarize their preflop 3- and 4-betting ranges, putting in those raises only with value hands and never as a bluff. Fixing any of these problems should be worth far more in the long term than making the correct decision in one large pot.
The size of the pot, or of the bet in question, is most players’ metric for evaluating how important a decision is, but the reality is that it’s only one of three factors. The other two are the percentage margin by which one option is better than the other, and the frequency with which the decision arises.
As an example, let’s say we’re facing a pot-sized all-in of 80 big blinds. We need to win 33.3% of the time to make the call. Say we call too loose, such that we’re winning only 30% of the time. The statistical cost of this mistake is 8 big blinds. If we’re making this error once in 400 hands, it amounts to a loss of 2 BB/100. Meanwhile, a too-loose opening range in early positions could easily produce statistical losses of 0.5 BB per orbit, which amounts to 5 BB/100, or a problem two and a half times larger than our tendency to pay off in large pots on the river.
It’s safe to assume that every player at every level has a large number of these persistent leaks, though the magnitude of those leaks gets smaller the better the player. If you listen to my podcast, we do tend to choose large pots to analyze during our strategy segment, but the key lessons turn out, more often than not, to relate to decisions early in the hand rather than the final call, jam or fold… and that’s true whether it’s one of my hands we’re looking at, one of Andrew’s, or one played by top-level pros.
Cooler-type situations arise in life as well, where there is really only one sensible course of action at the time the decision is made, yet it turns out badly due to unforeseen, uncontrollable circumstances which arise later on.
As one somewhat contrived example, imagine you have a car which is getting on in years and will eventually need to be replaced. Some minor problem arises which will cost a few hundred dollars to fix, and with that done, you imagine the car will serve you well for another year or two. Given the cost to replace the car and the frequency with which you ordinarily tend to do so, it probably makes sense to have the repairs done and get some extra life out of the car. However, it may be the case that the transmission blows just a couple of weeks after the smaller repair, forcing you to scrap the car after all and get a new one.
When such a thing happens, it’s natural to feel regret over the “wasted” money and wonder whether it would have been smarter to sell the car immediately rather than have it repaired. But assuming the decision was well thought-out given the information you had at the time, this is not so different from wondering whether you should have folded your Kings preflop, simply because your opponent happened to have Aces.
The correct way to look at this situation is that your decision created a statistical savings of whatever amount it happens to be: the cost of changing cars more frequently minus the cost of doing the repair. What happened afterwards is a separate event, beyond your control.
It’s also useful to remind yourself that such events are relatively rare, and to average the cost over that timescale. Running into large, unforeseeable one-time expenses is part of life, but even if you were to hit a $1000 bump in the road every year, that amounts to less than $3 per day, far less relevant than other, more frequently recurring costs.
Of course, $1000 is still $1000 whether you pay it all at once or at a few dollars per day. When you reframe one-off unexpected expenses as a daily cost, they cease to be unexpected. As a poker player, you don’t know exactly when your Aces are going to get cracked, but you know it’s going to happen about 20% of the time. Likewise, it’s impossible to know exactly what life is going to throw at you, but it’s inevitable that things are going to come up. How much those things are likely to cost depends on the lifestyle you lead – if you own a house or a car, for instance, your “random bullshit budget” is going to be higher than someone who doesn’t – but they can certainly be estimated; after all, this is what insurance companies do every time they sell a policy.
Despite the image conveyed by a few top players, the majority of people who succeed in making a living at poker are huge life nits. After all, there’s not really any difference between squeezing out an extra $10 profit at the table and saving that much on dinner.
It’s in that regard that reframing random one-off expenses as a statistical cost is particularly beneficial for one’s emotional wellbeing. Unless you’re already the ultimate penny-pincher, it’s not going to be hard to find a $3 daily leak you can plug: Perhaps it’s making short trips by bike to save on gas; paying closer attention to sales when grocery shopping; packing a lunch a few times a week instead of buying one every day; or any number of other possible adjustments.
Once you’re conscientiously plugging your life leaks and making your day-to-day life more streamlined and cost-effective, it’s not just financially easier to absorb variance, but emotionally easier as well. When the bill comes, it suffices to compare your actual situation to an alternate universe in which you were just another “life fish,” bleeding unnecessary dollars on a daily basis. Whatever the source or magnitude of the expense, if you do the math, you’ll probably realize you’re better off than someone who’s luckier in life, but stops at Starbucks every day instead of making their coffee at home and just grabbing a travel mug.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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