Life Lessons from Poker is a seven-part series of articles about how the things we learn in our efforts to master poker can turn out to be indispensable life tools away from the felt. Part 1 can be found here.
Life was complicated for our ancestors, as it is for us, but in different ways. The stakes were generally much higher for early humans, and life-or-death decisions far more frequent. Our brains are adapted for that world, not the modern one, and that has numerous consequences on the way we think, particularly in terms of how we reduce complex situations into simpler ones.
The amount of information we receive through our senses every waking second is enormous, so much so that actively considering it all would make even the simplest decision overwhelming and impossible. Fortunately, we have lots of support from various unconscious layers of our brain, particularly in terms of transforming raw input into symbolic representations (“I see a tree. I hear the wind.”) Even that’s not enough to make decisions more complicated than where to put our feet when we’re walking or whether we should put something in our mouth; higher-level decision-making requires additional shortcuts at a sort of semi-conscious level, and it’s here that our prehistorically-evolved brains often do us a disservice, in various forms of cognitive bias.
The fact that literal life-or-death decisions were so frequent for early humans is most likely the reason that even now, in the comparatively safe world we live in, we have a tendency to focus unduly extreme outcomes when contemplating a decision. The reality, of course, is that most decisions we make – even the ones which seem really important – don’t often have consequences which are life-changing, let alone life-saving or life-ending. It’s not that extreme outcomes are impossible: Yes, hypothetically, taking that ski trip could result in either a fatal accident or in meeting one’s future spouse. It’s just that these outcomes are extremely rare and all but impossible to predict, while far more often the outcome of a decision falls closer to the middle of the desirability spectrum and its net impact on one’s life is small.
Typical vs. extreme scenarios in poker
This sort of thinking is often seen in poker among beginners, both in terms of fixation on improbably good outcomes, and on improbably bad ones. Preflop, for instance, the fact that any two cards can hypothetically catch a huge flop leads some people to play way too many hands. Conversely, fear of being outflopped leads other players (and often the same ones) to bet too much with their big hands, like pocket Aces.
Of course, the reality is that Seven-Four offsuit doesn’t smash the flop very often, while Aces usually are still the best hand on the flop. Whatever cards one has, and whatever cards the opponent has, there are two scenarios that are by far the most likely for each player: that the player has a one-pair hand, or the player has a high-card hand.
It’s the differences between how various hands play in these scenarios that determine their actual value. Ace-King doesn’t flop a pair any more or less often than Seven-Four, it’s just that when both players make one, Ace-King will always have the best one (barring pocket Aces for our opponent and a King-high flop), while Seven-Four rarely will. Meanwhile, when it comes to the value of suited and connected cards, there we’re mostly looking at how well they fare when they fail to make a pair; if they don’t make a pair, then they often pick up some sort of equity to draw to a straight or flush. That opens the door to semibluffing, and leads to the more coordinated hands winning the pot more often when both players fail to make a pair, or even when the opponent makes a pair but a poor one.
Another example comes at the other end of a hand, on the river, when a player has to decide whether to bet for value or not and if so, how much. Beginners check the river far too often or bet too small because they’re afraid of the various monster hands the opponent could have. But assuming typical action on the previous streets, monsters will usually be unlikely, and especially when it comes to bet sizing, those cases don’t really matter: When the opponent is holding a big hand, she’s always going to call or raise, and when she’s on air, she’s almost always going to fold.
Here, the strategically correct thing to be thinking about are the hands towards the middle of the opponent’s range, particularly if we’re also towards the middle of ours. It’s when facing the hands slightly better or slightly worse than our own that our river betting decisions have the greatest impact on our long-term winnings. Say we have King-Queen on a Queen-high board; whether our opponent could have a set, or could have gotten here with air is not our primary concern. Much more important is the relative number of slightly worse pairs he could have versus, say, Ace-Queen and various two pairs which beat ours. From there we need to consider how much we could bet and expect to be called by the worse ones, or how much we would need to bet as a bluff to make the better ones fold.
The commonality between these two situations is that the best- and worst-case scenarios are of minimal consequence, because they’re so rare and not really within our control. Rather, it’s counterintuitively the most average outcomes which loom largest in the long run; an average outcome which is slightly better than zero makes for a winning player, while one which is slightly negative makes for a long-term loser.
Typical vs. extreme scenarios in life
Similarly, in life, extreme outcomes exist, but most are so unlikely and so far beyond our control that they aren’t really worth worrying about. Yes, you could win the lottery tomorrow, or die suddenly of an undetected heart condition. But thinking about how you’d spend your hypothetical millions, or indulging in hypochondriac worrying aren’t the best uses for your mental energy. Sure, doing your research in advance might lead to making better financial decisions if you did win the jackpot, and getting every test imaginable might turn up some preventable health risk, but even though these benefits are large in magnitude, they become tiny when multiplied by the vanishingly small odds that your numbers will actually hit, or that you do happen to have an organ secretly preparing to fail on you.
Chances are that the situations you find yourself in tomorrow will be far more moderate and more foreseeable. Making sure your decisions produce favorable results in those common, middling situations will reap more happiness for you in the long run than chasing after the luckiest possibilities, or trying to prevent the unluckiest.
To move or not to move?
Most of us are not chronic worriers or wishful thinkers when it comes to day-to-day life. We implicitly understand this principle when it comes to doing our jobs, looking after our families and so forth. It’s when it comes to seemingly big life decisions that our brains most often trick us into thinking extreme outcomes are more likely than they really are, and prevent us from optimizing for the median-case scenarios.
The example that’s on my mind these days is that of moving to a new city, since my wife and I are strongly considering moving from Montreal to Halifax, possibly as soon as this coming spring. I can write from anywhere, of course, so career-wise there’s little difference for me, but my wife will have to quit her job in order to move, and is naturally worried that she won’t be able to find work out there.
But Halifax has slightly higher employment than Montreal, and lots going on in fields that are of interest to her, and her conversant but imperfect level of French will be an asset in largely-anglophone Nova Scotia, whereas it’s a hindrance here in largely-francophone Quebec. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely that she will not find any work whatsoever, but it’s likewise a longshot that she’ll stumble into some kind of dream job. Rather, the most likely scenarios, wherever we live, is that her next job will be slightly better or slightly worse than her current one, and my belief is that the odds of finding something slightly better are higher out there than they are here.
For my part, I can get caught up in fantasies about how much better our lives will be living near the ocean and close to nature, and in a part of Canada where we can afford a house rather than being stuck in perpetual apartment-living. Conversely, she is worried about possible emotional crises living far from our families, or the possibility of financial disaster that comes with home ownership. The reality is probably that an improved quality of life will be offset by distance from family and friends, and the transition from apartment rental to home ownership will likewise have upsides and downsides that balance out to produce a life that is either slightly happier or slightly unhappier than the one we have now.
I’d be kidding myself if I thought it was likely that everyone’s moods will be hugely improved, my wife will find a much more satisfying and lucrative career, and that our home will be unproblematic and surge in value. At the same time, it’s equally unlikely that we’ll all be lonely and depressed, that she’ll be out of work, and our roof will cave in the moment we finalize the purchase.
Looking at life like a poker game, we’ve got something along the lines of King-Jack suited, and most of the time we’re either going to flop one pair or else have a couple of overcards and maybe a bit of drawing equity. The question is, given our position and stack size, can we play this hand profitably in those kinds of situations?
When you look at life like that, you realize that the toughest decisions aren’t tough because they’re hugely consequential, but rather because they’re not. If the dream or nightmare scenarios were really likely to occur, the decision would be obvious: The reason it’s hard to choose is precisely that the most likely outcomes are that either you will have managed a small improvement, or will find you’ve made a small mistake. And that, in itself, is a valuable realization, as it’s one which will spare you a lot of unnecessary anxiety.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
(c) Part Time Poker – Read entire story here.