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Poker Mental Game & Planning

Uncertainty - The Bane of Poker Players

6,368 Views on 16/9/21

In this article, we're going to discuss how much the uncertainty is affecting your brain

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"A tough way to make an easy living" - that's how many experienced players often refer to poker. From the outsider's perspective the life of a professional poker player seems pretty great. You get to spend most of your working days in the comforts of a live casino or your own home, playing your favorite game. You're practically printing money and if you're an online player, you don't even have to wear any pants while doing it! What could be better than this? In reality, there's a good deal of bitter cynicism included in they aforementioned saying.

Experienced poker players know that playing cards for a living, presents its own set of unique challenges that amateurs have no idea about. The amount of uncertainty associated with playing poker can only be compared with running your own business in an extremely volatile field. Most people - going from one steady paycheck to another - can't really comprehend how said uncertainty can weigh on one's mind.

Truth be told, even poker players underestimate its impact. We all know it's there but we often dismiss it as just "part of the job". In this article, we're going to discuss how much the uncertainty is affecting your brain.

Uncertainty Will Paralyse You

There's this idea in game theory (and some political ideologies - namely libertarianism) that human beings are rational actors that make decisions with their best interest in mind. This assumption - while noble - is also untrue. We could list a whole host of reasons, but for the purpose of this article we're going to focus on one - people hate uncertainty. We aren't built for it. We associate the uncertainty with danger because that's what allowed our ancestors to survive back when a good percentage of other beings living on the planet tried to eat them. Imagine if you will, an alternative poker reality where you risk being eaten alive by a 700-pound tiger if you lose enough buy-ins at a poker table. That's pretty much what living felt like for your forefathers.

Going back to game theory, a phenomenon called "Ellsberg paradox" pretty much confirms the picture that we pained in the previous paragraph. Without going into boring details "Ellsberg paradox" states that people overwhelmingly prefer the bets where the odds are known rather than bets with ambiguous odds - even if the known odds are poor. On top of that a study from 2005 conducted by neuro-economist at Caltech, Colin Camerer, suggest that it not just a matter of preference - it's a matter of survival. Camerer had his subjects play two variations of a simple card game while monitoring their brain activity. Turns out that the variation of the game with known odds stimulated the subject's reward center of the brain, while the alternative with ambiguous odds made the amygdala - the part of the brain associated with fear conditioning - run wild.

We're programmed to feel fear in the face of uncertainty.

Poker and The Grey Area

Why are the above findings important for poker players? Isn't poker all about figuring out the exact odds of a certain play before making it? Yes and no. It's true that the act of playing poker will often stimulate the reward center of the brain. After all, an experienced player knows every card in the deck, they know how to calculate the odds and they know which plays are good and which aren't.

However, there's this thing that a famous poker author and thinker Tommy Angelo called "The Grey Area". It's the idea that, in many cases, we can never know the exact odds of the play that we make at a poker table. This issue isn't as pronounced in simple spots. Let's say you're betting on the flop with AK on an AT3 board against a recreational player. It doesn't matter that you can't name the exact calling range of your opponent because it's so easy to imagine that the expected value of this play is overwhelmingly positive.

Now, let's consider a spot where you're trying to figure out if your middle set is good against two PLO opponents on a wet board in a deep stack situation. Boy oh boy, isn't that a conundrum? Situations like that are so ambiguous that you could get the top ten omaha players in the game to discuss them for hours and then likely end up with something like a 6 to 4 split decision in favor or against making the play. This is the grey area in a nutshell and we're all affected by it.

The grey area affects many other aspects of poker beside the hand evaluation. Let's take win rate, for example. We've already discussed in numerous articles that it's practically impossible to know the exact bb per hundred hands value of our win rate. Sure, we can make some pretty solid estimations, especially when we enjoyed a long and successful poker career and we have access to hundreds of thousands or even millions of hands in our poker database, but poker landscape is changing so rapidly and long-run is so... well, long... that by the time we gather a sample size large enough to figure out our win rate, both our skill level and the environment we're playing in, would've changed enough to render the sample size unreliable.

Then there's the issue of downswings and break even stretches, the length, and severity of which we're unable to predict. When it comes to uncertainty, playing poker is basically as close to the fear of getting eaten by a 700-pound tiger as you can get in the modern world.

How To Deal With Uncertainty

Now that we know how big of an effect the uncertainty associated with playing poker can have on our lives, let's briefly discuss a few ways of counteracting that. While we can't exactly eliminate the effects of thousands of years of biological conditioning, we can certainly affect the way we feel about uncertainty in poker.

Embrace it! You already made the first step on the path to dealing with uncertainty in poker by reading this article. Now that you're aware of the phenomena you can start acting accordingly. Accept the fact, that there's such a thing as "the grey area", make peace with the fact that - until poker is completely solved by our new robot overlords - you can never know the exact numbers behind your plays or your win rate. All that we can do is get better at making educated guesses, and the better we become the less uncertainty we'll have to face.

Be deliberate. It's easy to become paralyzed in the face of uncertainty when we don't know our destination. A bad session can cause us to skip the next one, a bad downswing can cause us to take a long break that will only exacerbate the issue. While you can't control the frequency of bad sessions, you can eliminate the uncertainty from the aspects of play that you have complete control over. You can decide how many sessions you're going to play in any given month, you can decide when you're going to play them. You can't control the changes in your bankroll but you can devise a precise strategy for managing it in the face of said changes. Poker is uncertain enough as it is, don't add to that fact by being sloppy when it comes to planning.

Plow through! Even though being in the middle of a downswing might feel surprisingly close to the aforementioned fear of being eaten alive by a giant cat - guess what, this isn't going to happen. There's no tiger waiting for you at the end of your plummeting graph, trust me, I checked, numerous times. One of the basic cornerstones of the cognitive behavioral therapy is the idea that you shouldn't avoid the things you fear, you should do them in spite of fear. If you force yourself to maintain a steady schedule in the face of a long, anxiety-inducing, downswing you'll get progressively better at dealing with that anxiety. It may never go away completely but "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger", Poker gives us plenty of opportunities to exercise our mental muscles, and while this process isn't always enjoyable it's certainly valuable.

Poker and uncertainty go hand in hand. We should all learn to accept and respect that fact. Playing cards for a living might seem like a simple matter of clicking buttons on the screen, but in reality, it's an act of defiance in the face of thousands of years of conditioning. Becoming a professional poker player requires a lot more bravery and mental fortitude than most of us would assume.

So next time, you hear that age-old saying about a "tough way to make an easy living" try to appreciate the hidden meaning behind the message.


Matt VIP

Matt is predominantly a mental game and planning expert, with a terrific knowledge of science, meditation, practical methods of improvement and of course, a good level of poker skill! Look out for his strategy articles and follow him for hi ... Read More


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