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Poker Mental Game & Planning

Cognitive Biases and How They Apply to Poker: Part One

6,064 Views on 3/1/20

There is a long list of biases that affect our results, but unfortunately most of us are unaware of how they affect us

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Every living person is biased to some degree. We all make daily decisions that are influenced by some kind of cognitive bias. Poker players are not immune from this phenomena either. 

There is a long list of biases that affect our results, but unfortunately most of us are unaware of how they affect us.

What Is a Cognitive Bias?

A cognitive bias is when a person makes a decision that is different from what they would have made from a rational point of view. This difference occurs because our perceptions lead us towards a certain expectation.

This all happens because our brains are continuously processing information from our senses and memory. The sheer amount of information means that we have this in-built mechanism that works as a shortcut. This process is called heuristics.

Heuristics are the strategies derived from previous experiences with similar problems. These strategies depend on using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings, machines and abstract issues.”

Here are some cognitive biases that affect poker players with some advice on how to avoid their negative effects.

Gambler’s Fallacy

Also known as Monte Carlo Fallacy, this cognitive bias assumes that just because something happened more than expected in the past, it will happen less in the future

You only have to witness people trying to make money at a roulette table to see how easy some people fall for this.

The reality of the situation is that the probability of a future event is unaffected by what has happened in the past

A simple poker example could be that you lose a coinflip situation with AK versus pocket queens five times in a row. If this happens in quick succession then some players will no longer get their chips in pre flop with AK any longer, even when they know it to be correct.

Don’t let this basic psychological leak ruin your win rate.

Confirmation Bias

This is another common cognitive bias that affects people all over the world. It results in people only listening to information that agrees with their preconceptions

The net result is people giving more weight to what they thought was true before, rather than analysing the situation to see if they should change their point of view.

This is almost certainly the most commonly seen cognitive bias on a daily basis. We all know how frustrating it can be to argue with a friend that steadfastly refuses to change their mind on a particular point.

In poker terms this manifests when a player correlates their skill level with the result of a small sample size. We’ve all seen a player who thinks they’re King of the Hill after tearing up a table for an hour or two. 

Conversely, it’s not uncommon to see a player having a mental breakdown after a short, intense run of bad luck in a single session.

The Peak-End rule

This cognitive bias has a similar result to confirmation bias, and is extremely common amongst poker players.

Human beings have a tendency to focus on the peak of a particular experience. How many times have you ran insanely hot at the end of a session to pull yourself back from a huge loss, only to think that you played well overall.

This can happen after winning only two or three coin flips in quick succession, and it skews your perception of what really went on before.

Selective Perception

This one is still common but not as harmful as the cognitive biases above. It shows up when a poker player starts to change their strategy because of a previous result.

A good example is when a player picks up their favourite hand and deviates from what they know to be the correct play, simply because, well, they always do well with this hand, don’t they.

This is more of a bad habit than a crushing leak, but it should still be avoided if you are a serious player who is determined to achieve the best possible results.

Conservatism Bias

Similar in some ways to confirmation bias, conservatism bias is when people favour older evidence and methods over modern ones.

Just think how long people still thought the world was flat, even after science had forced the church to accept the new findings. 

People generally hate changing their minds and don’t enjoy the thought of being wrong. 

Poker players will also cling onto old strategies because they worked for them before and can’t face the reality that a change is needed to keep up with the ever-evolving game.

Availability Heuristic

Availability heuristic is when people start to cherry pick information and overestimate its importance in the debate

A real world example is when a rare event such as shark attack happens and you start to overestimate the chances of it happening to you. This greater availability in your memory of the experience is what causes it.

In the poker world you find players who are convinced they have an unlucky dealer simply because they had that dealer recently in a losing session or more.

They would not attribute the same importance for a losing session a long time ago.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias is another gambling classic. This is when we judge the quality of a decision based on the outcome rather than an analysis of the thought process.

Poker players face this almost every session, usually in the form of a hero call or an outrageously aggressive bluff.

When they get the hoped for result they automatically attribute it to their own brilliance.


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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