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Poker Mental Game & Planning

Cognitive Biases and How They Apply to Poker: Part Two

4,530 Views on 31/1/20

Here we continue our look at cognitive biases and how to notice them if they are affecting our play

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Cognitive biases can cause havoc with our thought processes when playing poker. They interrupt and distort our thinking leading us to feel we are making rational decisions when in fact the opposite is true.

Here we continue our look at cognitive biases and how to notice them if they are affecting our play.

Survivorship Bias

This is a form of selection bias. In this case it manifests when you focus squarely on success stories rather than opting to learn from the failure of others.

Selection bias is seen in many supposedly scientific studies when choosing candidates. The group ends up not being a truly random selection

It often makes sense to focus on those who are successful, but not to the exclusion of those who aren’t.

Poker players who only pay attention to the winners are putting themselves in danger of not choosing the best individual path for themselves.

The Dunning-Krueger Effect

The Dunning-Krueger effect is easily understood and observed. It is the overestimation of one's skill level.

This is seen in all mind sports and was touched upon without mentioning by name in Jared Tendler’s excellent book “The Mental Game of Poker 1”.

The first stage of competence is “unconscious incompetence”. This is the starting point for any skill where you are totally incompetent and are unconcious of the fact. You have absolutely no idea why you are so bad.

This results in you attributing your poor results to some external factor related to luck.

For poker players, the light should really start to turn on when you reach the second stage of competence “conscious competence”.

At least now you are learning why you are bad and can do something about it. Don’t get stuck at stage one believing you are not at fault.

Pro-Innovation Bias

This bias only subtly affects poker players but it is still something to be aware of. The real world definition is:

…a pro-innovation bias is the belief that an innovation should be adopted by whole society without the need of its alteration.”

In poker terms this is analogous to a player discovering 3 betting and seeing it as a gift from the gods. The drawback is excessive optimism towards the new concept without understanding what the drawbacks and weaknesses are.

A 3 bet pot is larger than a single raised pot and so any errors are magnified.

Being biased towards always 3 betting when a cold call might be more prudent is something to be aware of.


We’re all guilty of this, both in real life and at the poker table. This is when we expect a specific group to behave in a certain way.

During the poker boom when most players were terrible it used to be common to advise against bluffing fish because they never fold. This is terrible advice and each case should be taken upon its own merit.

This bias is probably down to evolution and gives us a shortcut to quickly decide who might be a threat.

Assuming that all members of a player type will behave the same is a recipe for disaster. 

Ostrich Effect

Yet another cognitive bias that is seen with a high frequency in the real world. People often make their mind up about a decision while they are still digesting any relevant information. Any negative information that shows up is ignored and like an ostrich the person buries their head in the sand.

This is a terrible problem for poker players where often small subtle pieces of information make the difference between a profitable play and a losing play. When you get that gut feeling that you shouldn't call the river jam in a 3 bet pot it’s usually for a good reason.

Closing your eyes and clicking call is a perfect example of the ostrich effect.

This letting your emotions drive a piece of decision making is a disaster for your win rate.

Availability Cascade

This is the bandwagon effect when people love to follow the crowd. This mob mentality is often the driving force behind the strategies that filter down from the top of the game. Once more and more people start to copy, it gains more acceptance.

Poker players must avoid this temptation and evaluate every new strategy that they implement into their game. Sometimes a weaker player will observe one or more high stakes pros making a play without fully understanding the reasoning behind it.  

The top guys, especially in the live scene will sometimes go completely off grid and make a play that makes no sense whatsoever, unless you factor in metagame.

When somebody starts to try and make sense out of it by making up random reasoning, and the group follows, poor strategies end up being disguised as common wisdom amongst micro stakes players.

Illusion of Control

The illusion of control is responsible for many a poker player losing his mind of the game. The failure to accept that poker is a fusion of skill and luck drives many to the brink.

Accepting bad luck is a part of the game. Most regular poker players know just how important the mental game is today. We need every edge we can get.

It also doesn’t take much study of poker to begin to understand when you are truly unlucky and when it’s your fault.

Make sure you are comfortable with the feeling that you are not always in control. Bad sessions are not always your fault

Also, after you go on a huge tear up, do not think you were in control and it was all your doing. 


Mark Patrickson

Mark Patrickson is a professional cash game player grinding stakes up to 100nl 6 Max NL Hold'em13 years experience of poker, across MTT SnG and cash, FL PL NL.Currently living in South East Asia and trying to make it back to mid-stakes befo ... Read More


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