leisure, sports

Poker and cognitive bias

Poker players know better than most that life is subject to randomness, you need to focus on the process, and you should value wins and losses the same. For example, great poker players refer to their chips as “units” while pedestrian poker players like me refer to them as “dollars.” Or the notion of adding randomness to your play by selecting between two equal options depending on if your watch second hand is currently between 0 and 30 or between 31 and 60.

In fact, you can learn a lot about how to overcome cognitive bias and bad decision making by getting deep into poker, and following really good poker players on blogs, articles, etc. If you want to know some basics about types of cognitive biases, this article is a nice primer:


But even in poker and even with the best players, it is hard to fight the bias off all the time. I have been watching the WSOP Main Event on ESPN getting ready for the November Nine final table, and just in a few episodes, I saw:

  • A player who properly folded an inside straight draw on the flop after some heavy betting grimaces in visible pain when the next card would have made his straight.
  • An announcer salutes a player for folding AK preflop (when it was the best hand and an all-in could have easily been justified) when the board runs out and that hand would have lost, meaning the end of the tournament for that player.
  • A former Main Event final table player making another deep run, attributed his success this year (after a few off years since his final table appearance) to going back to wear the same sunglasses he wore the year he made the final table.

I was going to focus on the last one and title this post “superstition and cognitive bias” but I realized it would have been more of a blog about me since I tend to be a bit superstitious. But all of these show some form of outcome bias. So even these players who are always calculating odds, and have no problem risking their entire bankroll on a bluff if the situation calls for it, can struggle with cognitive bias.

Me, on the other hand, will continue being visibly uncomfortable when bluffing twenty “dollars” because I didn’t wear my lucky hat and I figure the player always knows I’m bluffing when I stack my chips with my left hand.


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