During my few years as a poker pro, I have become fascinated with how the human brain works.  Specifically, I have enjoyed learning about the subconscious and conscious mind and how we go about making decisions.

It turns out that there are many biases hard-wired into our brains that act to hamper our success as poker pros.  An excellent video series on cardrunners titled “Brain Fail” discusses many of these tendencies and how they affect our decision making processes.

  • Loss Aversion – Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.
  • Apophenia – Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.  Many problem gamblers fall prey to apophenia.  Casinos even exploit this tendency by displaying the previous 20 spins on the roulette wheel, for example.
  • Information Bias – An example of information bias is believing that the more information that can be acquired to make a decision, the better, even if that extra information is irrelevant for the decision.
  • Self Serving Bias – This bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control.

Despite all of these hard wired biases, studies have shown that our unconscious mind can greatly aid our decision making process, specifically when we are presented with a complex decision involving large amounts of data.

In one experiment , Damasio gave subjects four decks of cards. They were asked to flip the cards, picking from any deck. Two decks were rigged to produce an overall loss (in play money), and two to produce a gain. At intervals, the participants were asked what they thought was going on in the game. And they were hooked up to sensors to measure skin conductance responses, or SCRs (which are also measured by lie-detector machines).

By the time they’d turned about 10 cards, subjects began showing SCRs when they reached for a losing deck — that is, they showed a physical reaction. But not until they had turned, on average, 50 cards could they verbalize their “hunch” that two decks were riskier. It took 30 more cards before they could explain why their hunch was right. Three players were never able to put their hunches into words — yet they, too, showed elevated SCRs and they, too, picked the right decks. Even if they couldn’t explain it, their bodies knew what was going on.

One thing I have experienced repeatedly while shifting back and forth between heads-up and 6-max is that I always feel that my ‘killer instincts’ become enhanced when I’m playing a lot of heads-up, and get degraded when playing 6-max.  I think I can attribute this to a few things.
  • Usually when I’m playing heads-up, I am focusing 95% of my attention on that single match so am much more keyed into the game flow and the timing of my opponent’s actions.
  • Usually my heads-up opponent is one-tabling vs me, so the timing of his actions are much more reliable in terms of timing ‘tells’.
  • In 6-max games, I am usually multitabling and not paying as close attention to my opponents and the timing of their actions.
  • In 6-max games there are obviously way more opponents to pay attention to.

I think I can improve my instincts in 6-max play by paying closer attention to the game flow and how my opponents are playing RIGHT NOW.  I think I fall prey a little bit to the information bias in that I try to use stats to inform almost every one of my decisions.  It is really difficult for me to pay much attention to game flow when I am constantly clicking on my opponents’ HUDs.  I am interested to hear what you other poker pros have to say about this.

I leave you with this hilarious video from JimmyLegs which perfectly demonstrates the information bias. Make sure you check out the player names – pure brilliance!