Haseeb Qureshi

The Philosophy of Poker, Chapter 5: Cognition & Self-Awareness

Hey all,
Looks like I was late on my update again, haha. Sorry.

A week per chapter, it turns out, is pretty brutal when you’re taking full time classes five days a week with lots of reading and essays to do. This chapter also required research in order to write and structure it effectively, but I think I can stand by it pretty confidently. If I had to say, I think this is perhaps one of the most valuable chapters in the book.

Mental coaching is going along well. I’ve recently started reading through the Routledge Handbook of Applied Sport Psychology, which occupies an interesting space in its application to poker theory. A lot of the methods and techniques discussed therein I was already aware of, but there are some really interesting insights and experiments. I’m going to try to apply some this stuff to my mental coaching where I can as well. [Once again, you can contact me at haseebcoach@gmail.comif you’re interested in mental coaching.]

Life is chugging along. Right now I’m taking a class on fiction writing and on the art of the short story, which are both endlessly fascinating. But it’ll be nice when the summer term ends. In the fall semester my load will be a lot lighter, so I’ll have more time to devote to other pursuits, especially to physical training and writing projects. But I want to try to get all the chapters of this book finished ideally before the end of September. I don’t know how feasible that is, but I’m going to do my best. Feel free to push and prod me however you can! I respond well to guilting, haha.

I

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates accounts his infamous allegory of the charioteer. According to his allegory, man’s soul is seated at the head of a chariot, driven by two winged horses. The first is a white horse, “whose breed and character are noble,” while the second, a black horse, is the opposite—brash and temperamental. These two are portrayed as locked in an eternal struggle, like good and evil, pulling the chariot each in their own direction, perpetually thwarting one another forever. The noble horse, of course, is Reason, or Rationality. The ignoble horse is Passion, or Emotion. The idea predates even Plato—it has long been believed that that reason and emotion are fundamentally opposed.

Is that right? Is emotion the opposite of reason? What is the relationship of poker to emotion?

It turns out that the common dichotomy between reason and emotion is the wrong one to make. The relationship is more complex than one of diametric opposition.

But what we can say is that, at least in poker, reason is the goal. We do want to follow the horse of rationality, to give it as much control over our chariot as we can. But what deters against that path is not emotion, but rather irrationality.

It is misguided to frame the struggle chiefly against emotion. I say instead, poker is the battle against human irrationality.

What do I mean by this? Hopefully this will begin to make sense over the following two chapters.

But first, one cannot wage a war without knowing one’s enemy. In order to understand irrationality and its sources, we must delve into the way our own minds work, and how our mental processes operate within the context of poker.

II

Let us begin by framing the way the brain functions. This is not going to be a rigorous explanation of neuroscience—although that is an interesting and important topic, a thorough study of it would be unnecessary for our purposes. Instead, I will provide a very cursory framework for how the brain works.

The basic unit of the brain is the neuron. Each neuron is connected to other neurons through large networks, known as neuronal networks. These networks are formed by many individual neurons forging inter-connections, each of which can be either strengthened or inhibited by how often they signal to other nearby neurons. Two neurons will be strongly connected if they signal one another repeatedly. It is on this basis that neuronal networks of increasing complexity are formed.

This strengthening and inhibition of neuronal connections emerges in higher-level behavior as the concept in classical psychology known as conditioning. There are two main forms of conditioning—classical conditioning, when two stimuli are mentally associated with another, creating an expectation or reflex, and operant conditioning, when the behavior’s consequence, either positive or negative, reinforces or inhibits that behavior accordingly. Conditioning is one of the basic ways in which we learn high-level behaviors.

Not all neuronal networks or systems of behavior are created or learned from scratch, however. There are many functions which exist in pre-programmed modules of the brain. For example, the regulation of your internal organs, your sensory perception, and your survival instincts all come without having to be learned. But there are other parts of our brain which are highly plastic, and therefore are very changeable in structure.

Let’s zoom out and look at cognition—that is, thinking. For our purposes, there are two main forms of cognitive errors we must aware of: learned errors, and pre-cognitive or inherent errors. Learned errors are generally easier to correct, having been learned, they can be un-learned by the very same neuronal mechanisms of reinforcement and inhibition—but inherent errors are more tricky. They are often embedded deep into the structure of our cognitive modules. We generally call these inherent, usually universal cognitive errors cognitive biases.

Don’t worry, we’re going to end it there. (I could feel you starting to sweat.)

It is vitally important to understand the nature of how the brain functions, or at the very least to keep these structural blueprints in mind. Although the brain is vastly more complex, and is composed of many more components than the aforementioned, it is nevertheless the case that almost all of the vastness of human experience, intelligence, and action comes just from neurons firing, signaling each other, simply from strengthening and inhibiting their mutual interconnections. It is magnificent, mysterious, and mesmerizing to consider.

This is also where all of poker comes from. The game of poker, after all, is not simply a game played with 52 cards on a board and so on—it is a game played among humans. That is, we are part of the game of poker as it is actually played. And so the game does not end with the cards. The game lifts off the table, and continues on into our brains. To understand poker, you must understand the way weoperate, the way that we think, reason, bargain, and occasionally fail.

So, as we move forward, when we think about learning, about cognition, about emotion, about strengthening and extinguishing habits, I encourage you to keep this framework in mind. Of course, it is impossible for us (not to mention for neuroscientists) to intelligibly reduce cognition to a mere network of neurons, but nevertheless, these concepts will help you to make sense of the patterns and logic that underlies the way that cognition functions. What is after all composed of neurons must be understood and treated with respect to that composition.

III

The term “the unconscious mind” has acquired unfortunate connotations in intellectual history. It is almost impossible to talk about the unconscious mind, so phrased, without thinking about Freud. The term has become loaded with notions of repression, secret motivations, sexual obsessions for family members, castration complexes, and a host of other pseudoscientific sensationalisms. Freud of course has long since been repudiated as scientifically unsound, to say the least. But the unconscious mind that he proposed is nevertheless very real, albeit in a different way than he originally imagined it.

I want you to think of the unconscious mind then, not as some repressed, angst-ridden alter ego that wants to eat junk food and have sex with your mother. As charming as that idea is, there’s little evidence that something of that sort actually exists.

What we want to do instead is draw a distinction between the conscious mind and unconscious mind. Defining consciousness is notoriously difficult, and there’s no need to get lost in the bogs of language and philosophy here. Let us simply say that the conscious mind is the part of your mind that you are aware of, and over which you have direct control. The unconscious mind then is the part of your mind of which you are not aware, over which you have no control, which governs automatic processes, actions, and thoughts.

The way that most people conceive of their own minds and the way they work (often termed “pop psychology”) is, by and large, misguided and erroneous. Admittedly, for most people, it’s fine to be somewhat wrong about the way your brain functions; there are worse things to be ignorant of. But if you want to be a first-rate poker player, it is essential that you understand the way your brain works, since it is the final interface between yourself and the game.

The first major point is this: the mind is not one continuous thing. It is disparate, composed of many different parts, separated not just in space but in circuitry. Your conscious mind, along with its constructs, is only one element out of many that compose your mental circuitboard.

There are many classical psychological experiments to demonstrate the disparateness of the brain. The classic example, which was once the treatment for intractable epilepsy, is that if you sever the corpus callosum in a patient (the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain) you see very dramatic effects. In these “split-brain” experiments, if an image is shown to the left eye only, the subject is unable to vocally name what he or she is seeing. This is because the speech-control center is generally located in the left hemisphere of the brain (the left visual field is sent to the right side of the brain; the opposite side). Because severing the corpus callosum has cut off communication between the two sides of the brain is inhibited, the patient is unable to name what he is seeing—but he seems to still recognize the object. If asked to pick up and grasp it, he will be able to do so. So he can touch and manipulate the object, but cannot access its name if it’s located in its left visual field—but once the object moves to his right visual field, he has no problem.

This is of course only the tip of the iceberg. Although direct experimentation on functioning human brains is impossible (that is, unethical), we have learned a great deal about the way the brain functions through incidental experiments—i.e., due to the accumulation of information through accidents and injuries, there has been at least one patient at some point in medical literature who has had their brain damaged in every imaginably specific way. By seeing how somebody who has had only one segment, or another segment of their brain damaged, and then seeing how it in turn affects their behavior, we have gained great insights into how the brain functions, and how modular it is (that is, how different parts control different highly specialized functions).

Other telling examples can be seen in aphasias (impairments in language processing)—for example, Broca’s aphasia, in which a subject becomes unable to form and comprehend sentences, although they can still understand the meaning of individual words. Or on the other hand, Wernicke’s aphasia, in which the subject can speak perfectly, but becomes unable to make sense of any language he perceives, whether heard or read. These phenomena show that there are very specialized modules of the brain that pertain to highly specific elements of language function.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we see how fragmented it is. Evolutionary biology sheds even more light on this, as we see how our brains developed out of reptilian and neo-mammalian brain architecture. The neo-cortex, the seat of consciousness, cognition, and “rationality,” is the newest addition to our brain structure, but much of our movement, behavior, and so on is already regulated by non-conscious structures of our brain. Consciousness is, in a sense, a late-comer. For pre-human mammals and proto-humans, chances are, consciousness was very much an epiphenomenal byproduct that played a smaller role in their brain processes than it does for us Homo sapiens sapiens.

Another telling example is the phenomenon known as blindsight. Blindsight is a rare neurological phenomenon that occurs in subjects who have had damage to their primary visual cortex, such that they believe they are blind and claim to have no conscious experience of vision. However, when presented with visual stimuli and forced to guess the location, or movement of a visual stimulus (such as a red square on a screen), even though they will insist that they have no awareness of any visual perception, they will wind up making very accurate guesses. This is a striking finding. It demonstrates that these subjects they have severed the connection between their consciousness and their visual apparatus, nevertheless their unconscious brain is still processing and responding to visual information—even to the extent that they can competently manipulate and grab objects that they claim to have no visual awareness of.

So what is consciousness? I want you to seriously imagine this now. Consciousness is this newly arisen faculty in your mammalian brain. Centralized in your neo-cortex, it is continuously synthesizing your sense perceptions, your emotions, your memory and your cognition into one seamless experience. But as effective of a flashlight (and abacus) as consciousness proves to be for the outside world, why should you assume it would be one for your interiority as well? Why should you assume that consciousness is designed to perceive the vast unconscious circuitry of your brain? In fact, what little of the rest of your brain it perceives, the conscious mind filters through its own concepts and frameworks. Evolutionarily, there is little need for more than that. And as your consciousness is busily chugging away, the rest of your brain is involved in all manner of other neuronal activity, in the hurried business of keeping you alive and functioning.

Here is the second important conclusion: the conscious mind, then, is separated from the other vital elements of the brain not because of some failure on our own part, ignorance, lack of self-reflection, or anything of the sort. In reality, we are not aware of the rest of our brain by virtue of the architecture of the brain itself. It is not our “fault.” It simply is the way it is. Our conscious experiences are negotiated primarily through our neo-cortex, yet we feel like our conscious selves must be “who we are.” But in fact, our brain is comprised of many more elements than the conscious part, and by extension, we are ourselves much more than our conscious minds.

IV

One of the greatest mistakes that a thinker can make is what I call the conscious fallacy. The conscious fallacy is the mistake of equating oneself with one’s conscious mind, and assuming that as long as one is fully oneself, that one will retain the level of consciousness that one has when one formulates the intention to do something. In other words, to commit the conscious fallacy is to misunderstand the role of consciousness in our mental life. The reality is, most of our lives are navigated unconsciously.

What do I mean by this?

It might sound like I’m suggesting that we spend our lives in a walking daze, unaware of the truth of what’s going on around us. Perhaps the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a conspiracy theorist.

Actually, in a profound sense, it’s true.

Most people still believe in what’s called the “mind-body” divide (even if they don’t believe it explicitly, this is subconsciously the theory they operating with). They believe that they are a mind (or a soul) inhabiting and controlling a body—the “ghost in the shell.” This idea would give you the impression that you are continuously in control of yourself, and therefore any mental failing would be attributable to your conscious agency. Well, if you want to identify “self” as your conscious self, then in a very real way, in biological terms “you” are only one among numerous participants in your mental life.

In other words, to take full account of “yourself,” you must also consider the unconscious elements of your mind as part of that equation.

Have you ever told yourself you were going to do something in the future, and felt completely sure you were going to do it—yet when the moment came, you ended up not following through? Here’s an obvious example. Say you tilted off a lot of money, and in the aftermath of your session, you tell yourself: “the next time that I’m down 4 buyins, I’m going to quit my session immediately. No ifs, ands, or buts.” You feel completely sure, with all the resolve of your mind, that you will do this next time. After all, you are in control of yourself, and you want to do it. Why wouldn’t you? But when the moment comes, you keep playing past four buyins, and tilt again.

This is the conscious fallacy. You presume, because in that moment your conscious mind is dominating your mental life, that in future points in time it will also dominate. Of course, there’s no reason for that to be the case, especially so in situations like tilt, when your limbic (emotional, unconscious) brain is agitated. In order to overcome the conscious fallacy, you must recognize that full conscious command of your faculties is not the norm, but the exceptionin human life, and to plan for that.

This sort of thing happens not just in poker. It occurs in every facet of your life. Again and again, you expect things of yourself, believing deep down in some kind of continuous agency, some deep belief that “you” are really in control. But the truth (and hopefully you have probably learned this by now) is that your conscious mind is not enough. Not in the sense that your conscious mind isn’t strong enough; but more specifically, that the conscious mind itselfis not strong enough. Nor is it a matter of willpower, or “mind over matter.” You are logistically, biologically, neuronally constrained. Your conscious mind is not running the show, although it is naturally convinced that it is.

This sounds pretty pessimistic, doesn’t it? Perhaps it sounds like there’s nothing we can do. How can we progress from such a fatalistic premise?

Despite all of this, you are not willing to cede control. Do you want to improve at poker? Do you want to be the best? Then you must then take hold of the mantle, in spite of these facts. Abandon, as much as you can, your sense of association with your purely conscious mind. You are not just your conscious mind. You are your entire mind—your conscious mind is only your most active and fluid negotiator. Your goal then, is to condition your unconscious mind by training it through whatever means available to you, in order to cultivate the abilities you need as a poker player.

This conditioning and shaping is led by the conscious mind. After all, it is the only part of yourself over which you have meaningful control. But ironically, although it is very good at helping you to change your external environment, your conscious mind is not very effective at altering your unconscious mind. Having hopes, desires, and expectations is all well and good—but your unconscious mind doesn’t care, or is often oblivious—that neuronal network is going to sit there and keep doing its own thing, largely un-phased by your desires. This puts us in something of a catch-22. Our conscious mind wants us to change, but our conscious mind alone can’t change us; it’s only good at changing external things.

This is the essence of the conscious fallacy. It is mistaking the conscious mind’s ability to act on external objects as an ability to affect the unconscious mind—at which it’s pretty poor.

So in a sense, we cannot affect ourselves directly. But we still want to be our own masters. So what do we do? Well, we must be a little sneaky.

Instead of expecting your conscious thoughts to change your unconscious mind, you must be circuitous. By co-opting your environment, which you can change, you can use the environment to train your unconscious mind in the direction of how you want to alter it. Thus, the goal in conscious self-development, in poker as in everything else, is mediated through the environment. We create the environment that cultivates our growth, more than merely trying to consciously strong-arm that growth ourselves.

The “ghost in the shell” metaphor is not a bad one. But like all ghosts, consciousness is not visible all the time—it only comes out at odd hours, when the conditions are just right. What do we do the rest of the time, when our conscious mind, with its desires, intentions, its “rationality,” has dissipated? Well, by creating an environment that mirrors its desires, intentions, and expectations, we create an emissary for it—the ghost of the ghost, which lives on when our conscious mind disappears, continuing to influence and change the animal mind of our unconscious.

So the first goal is to create the conditions for growth by consciously changing one’s environment. The second is to understand your entire mind-system; not merely your conscious mind (which is immediately and easily accessible through introspection), but your unconscious mind as well. Survey honestly your unconscious habits, tendencies, and proclivities, and only then will you be able to work to overcome your weaknesses.

V

You may have noticed the suspicion with which I use terms like “rationality” and “reason.” There is an old idea that we as human beings are the exemplars of Rationality, the stewards of Reason—a notion that can be traced back chiefly to the Enlightenment. By now, those ideas have become outdated. The accumulation of psychological research over the last 150 years has shown us more and more how truly far from rational we humans are, by our very nature.

Again, the most fruitful perspective to take is one of evolutionary psychology. Instead of taking the brain as a perfected tool for instantiating our rationality, let us instead think of the brain and its functions as having evolved to fulfill some evolutionary need. Therefore, what we should expect is notrationality in and of itself, but whatever it is that would help us best survive. If the brain simply evolved to help us survive (in the environments in which primitive humans and proto-humans would’ve inhabited), then it should come as no surprise that there are many finer aspects of rationality and logical thinking for which the brain is not intrinsically attuned.

Of course, we must take our brains for what they are. They are all we have. But as tools for thinking, they are inherently flawed. Our brains tend toward errors—errors that may have served some purpose (or may have been inconsequential) in their times, and may even serve some purpose now. But in more intellectually rigorous contexts such as poker, these errors are detrimental to us. The only way to avoid these is to inform ourselves of them, to be aware of them, and to try to overcome them through the conscious oversight of our mental life.

There are two main notions we want to consider here. The first is bounded rationality. Bounded rationality is the idea that rationality, as it’s available to humans, is bounded by three factors: the information available to a person, the cognitive limitations of their mind, and the amount of time available to them in making a decision. Although we might desire some theoretical ideal of “perfect Rationality,” which takes into account all of the possible factors, weights them perfectly, and indifferently applies inferences to choose the best option—human beings do not and cannot do that. It’s simply not how we make decisions. Therefore, the best version of rationality to which we can realistically aspire is a boundedly rational one. “True” rationality is a fantasy; it doesn’t exist. The best we can do is only a partial version of rationality, as approximated by our mental apparatus, and time constraints.

The second notion, one we’ve already encountered, is what’s come to be known as the cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are consistent patterns of widespread cognitive errors which occur in specific situations for most human beings. Again, cognitive biases are best interpreted as evolved mental behaviors. We would do well to assume there is some discernible advantage as to why these biases manifest in our cognition in the way that they do.  For example, it may be that they are beneficial to cultural or emotional well-being (such as the in-group bias or the egocentric bias), or because they function as heuristics, allowing us to make ordinary decisions much faster and more efficiently.

There are many values which evolution seems to have privileged over rational integrity, such as speed, efficiency, and obviously survival. This has the result that our evolutionary evolved cognition sometimes prefers convenient delusions over reality. But we are poker players, and the values for which evolution selects, and the values for which poker selects, are different.  Poker values indifference and cold rationality. There is no space for delusion in poker—the closer we get to reality, the closer we get to true and objective renditions of the external world and of ourselves, the better we can become as poker players. This is the irrationality we must fight against. So in order to approach that level of reasoning, we must resist some of the natural inclinations of our faulty cognition. Let us then analyze cognitive biases with respect to that.

There are several major cognitive biases that every poker player should be wary of. The first bias is the anchoring bias. The anchoring bias simply states that if an idea is presented to your mind, even in a totally irrelevant context, it will “anchor” your subsequent cognition near the vicinity of that idea.

For example, say we take two test groups, and we make the first test group write down the number 1000 on a piece of paper, and ask the second test group to write the number 10—noting to each that the number they’ve written is completely arbitrary and irrelevant—and then we ask them each to guess how much the average guided tour of London costs. The first group will consistentlyguess a significantly higher number than the latter group, simply because they wrote a larger number in a completely irrelevant context. In other words, their later cognition was, unbeknownst to them, “anchored” around the number they had previously encountered, and the number that they guessed was swayed in that direction. If you think about the structure of the brain, perhaps this makes a bit of sense—when neurons become activated, nearby neurons are more likely to be activated as well, and the neurons which go into thinking up larger numbers are nearer to one another than those for smaller numbers. This bias shows us that the order and way in which your neurons are activated profoundly affect the way you think.

You might ask, what does this have to do with poker? A lot, actually—the anchoring effect manifests in poker talk, as well as in gameplay. Of the former, I will discuss later, in the chapter on the poker community. As for the latter, let me provide an obvious example. Say that you are playing a player who’s tilting badly, who constantly makes suicide bluffs, and who’s just throwing his stack into the most unorthodox spots where no one else bets, and you’re calling him down easily. You stack him, he leaves, and some other regular joins, and let’s say you get to a similar river spot as one in which the tilter made a ridiculous suicide bluff. Guess what the anchoring bias would predict?

Of course—and you can probably intuit this. You’re more likely to call, even though what happened with a previous opponent is completely and utterly irrelevant to how this opponent plays; for some reason you’re just more able to imagine him as bluffing in this spot. It’s simply easier to call. This is the anchoring bias in effect. There are many other ways to get yourself into such a mental space—analyzing a hand, talking about poker, imagining a hand, reviewing an old session, watching a video, or even engaging in something away from the poker table that makes you think about “aggression” or “passivity” or whatever—all of it has the potential to irrationally affect your decisions.

Of course, we can’t sanitize our minds from everything. To a certain degree, we must simply accept this bias, as we must with many of these biases—they are inherent to our mental architecture, and we must learn to live with them. But being aware of them, especially in obvious cases as in the example I showed you, we can try to consciously counteract them somewhat, and try to force ourselves into a more objective frame of mind.

We’ve already discussed the projection bias (see chapter 3, section IX).

Another bias of note is the innumeracy bias. The innumeracy bias refers to our inability to accurately process very large or very small numbers using our intuition, or to effectively compute cumulative probabilities in our heads. In poker, this can be a fatal mistake. The most obvious example is when it comes to exploitation. People tend to overvalue winning or losing big pots, and tend to assume that if they are winning or losing the big pots, that determines if how much they’re exploiting their opponents. The swings immediately after big pots are very salient, of course. But first-rate players know that often times, your biggest edge comes from taking down lots of small and medium sized pots, which over a few hundred hands, often comes to equal more than what you’re winning or losing in big pots. This is simply by slow accrual, which your brain is notintuitively designed to perceive.

The brain is also very bad at grasping risk/reward situations which rely on close margins. For example, in a spot where you’re bluffing 3/5 pot on the river with a missed draw and he’s bluffcatching you 60% of the time on the river, your brain is likely to intuitively make you feel like this is a bad play. This is in no small part because you are losing more than half of the time, which means more than half the time your brain experiences a negative event. As it happens, your brain is pretty bad at “grading” these negative events—meaning, you don’t feel appropriately better or worse depending on what odds you were given on your negative event or what margin of EV you were capturing. The brain is not designed to deal in terms of such numbers—but that is precisely what poker requires of us. The reality is, of course, that for a 3/5 pot bet, you need 37.5% fold equity to break even, so if he’s folding 40% of the time you’re netting EV. In order to be able to routinely capture such close (or deceptive) margins of EV, you have to try to train your intuitive, unconscious mind to become more in line with your conscious understanding of odds and probabilities. If you force yourself into more situations where you’re capturing a close margin of EV, yet losing more than half the time, your unconscious mind will gradually start to catch up. (This bias becomes even more pronounced when it comes to something like having a 10% chance to win 15x your investment and 90% chance to lose it, but this is less of an issue in poker.)

A closely related cognitive bias is the loss aversion bias. Simply stated, the loss aversion bias points toward people being inherently irrational with regards to taking risks—they overvalue averting losses, and undervalue new gains. For example, if you’re in a 300bb pot, and you have 200bb behind with which to bluff shove the river, and you think that he’s folding 50% of the time—what do you think you’d do here? Turns out, the majority of people check back, even with that assumption, because their mind is inherently biasing them toward keeping what money they have. The 200bb they already have feels more valuable than the 300bb in the middle. Another way of saying this is that losing 200bb hurts more than winning the 300bb in the middle feels good. Losing feels worse than winning feels good.

The reality of course is that, in most cases, every dollar should be equal to every other dollar. A dollar gained should be equally as good as a dollar lost is bad.

This bias is one of the most difficult to overcome, because ultimately, emotion plays a huge role in how we make internal decisions in poker—not simply in terms of strategy, but also in terms of how we play, when we play, and who we play. But to combat this bias, you must force your rational mental processes to overcome and influence your unconscious mind. If you tell yourself—it’s okay that I lost two buyins, because I had a good shot at three buyins that was hugely +EV—and learn to accept this as a valid justification, you will counteract the natural impulse of your mind to inhibit whatever behavior led to the loss.

The overconfidence bias and the superiority bias are also closely related to one another. The overconfidence bias refers to the bias of assuming an overly high degree of confidence and accuracy in one’s own judgments. One study showed that when given tests of commonly misspelled words, when subjects wrote that they were 99% sure that a certain spelling was correct, they were wrong a whopping 40% of the time. This manifests in poker as the tendency to be overly confident in your own reads, your own assignments of probabilities, and the robustness of your strategies.

The superiority bias is the bias of overestimating one’s skill at things one excels at, and exaggerating weakness at things one is bad at. As you can imagine, it’s quite a widespread bias—the vast majority of people think of themselves as being “above average” at most things, while obviously only half of everyone can be above average. But notably, when it comes to skills at which people are poor, they tend to think they are terrible. In poker, this can manifest in different ways, depending on a player’s conditioning history. Most mid to high stakes players tend to have a vastly overinflated sense of their own skill. This is because, if you take their personal conditioning history—objectively speaking, they have managed to become very good (within the top .001%) of players at this difficult game called poker. They have also managed to, with time and putting in hard work, overcome all of the players in the past whom they are now better than. In a way, it is not unreasonable for them to think that they have unlimited potential. But as a result, many of these players tend to think they are better than they really are, and think that out of the well of their creativity, they can pull something out that is going to beat a much stronger opponent. This results in an undue sense of superiority, an unchecked ego, and a warped sense of their relative skill level, which often gets these players into trouble. The other kind of player is one who has faced more hardships in their career—perhaps they play lower stakes after playing for many years (and maybe they played higher in the past, but can no longer hold their own at such stakes), or perhaps they are bumhunters. Because of these players’ conditioning histories, they are much more likely to undervalue their own skill level. They will assume that most other regulars are better than them, and the ones who are, they will assume are much better than them. Both of these types of players have inaccurate perceptions of their own skill levels. Perceiving your own skill level is very difficult of course, but it is an essential part of the journey of being a poker player.

You can see in the aforementioned example how players who have done historically well tend to think that they are really great and capable, whereas players who have historically struggled tend to think that they are very limited. These are, of course, learned self-perceptions, and they are reinforced in large part by the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias is the tendency to search for and pay extra attention to information that confirms one’s own prior beliefs. For example, the player who thinks he is really great will see every won match as evidence of the fact that he must be really great, and the player who thinks that he is mediocre will take every losing session as evidence that he needs to tone it down and bumhunt harder—but it may well be that both of these players are winning and losing the exact same percentage of their sessions. What matters much more is how much cognitive weight they are giving to each of these events. People are much more likely to give cognitive weight to information that affirms their own beliefs, presuppositions, and worldviews.

Confirmation bias crops up all over the place in poker talk and theory discussions, but I will explore that topic, along other errors of cognition such as illusory correlations, in more detail in the chapter on the poker community and poker language.

Finally, the last cognitive bias we will note here is the hindsight bias. The hindsight bias is the tendency to see past events are more predictable than they really were at the time they happened—the “I knew it all along” effect. The most salient examples of this tend to be in gameflow. If someone bets twice in a row in back to back big pots, it is often the case that if you end up calling the second time and he has the nuts, you think to yourself “God, that was so obvious, nobody ever bluffs twice in a row like that” but if you fold and he shows a bluff, you think to yourself “Oh man, I knew it, that’s such a good bluffing spot, my gut was telling me to call, too.”

As a word of advice regarding this bias—go easy on yourself. Things and people are often not as predictable as you think they are. Ultimately this bias is very difficult to overcome, because poker is a game of hypothesis-generating and testing, and of course, it is hard to play poker without the (perhaps somewhat delusional) underlying belief that people and events are predictable if you look hard enough. Perhaps then, this is just one of those things that we must temper as best we can, but learn to accept as part of our cognitive inheritance. Perhaps we were simply not meant to be all that reasonable.

VI

The journey of a poker player centers on the process of improving, gradually getting better little by little, until one leaches a level of mastery. The ultimate goal, of course, is scaling the mountain of poker. But how does one reach that peak? How is mastery acquired?

Mastery is endlessly fascinating to us. From Wolfgang Mozart to Albert Einstein, Gary Kasparov to Michael Jordan, masters have always intrigued and captivated the human spirit. Given how much they inspire us, it should be no surprise that social scientists have intensely studied mastery over the last 100 years. Compared to the old vague and aristocratic notions of inborn genius, we now have a much better idea of how mastery is cultivated. Scholars have posited a four stage process for attaining mastery of any subject.

The four stages of mastery are as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

Unconscious incompetence is how one begins in any new activity. It is the tabula rasa—the blank slate. To be unconsciously incompetent means that one is bad, and does not know that one is bad, how one is bad, or why one is bad.

For example, imagine the first time you sat down at a poker game. You probably were playing hands like Q6 and A3 and 45o, minbetting or overshoving into tiny pots, not knowing whether any of those things were good or bad. This is unconscious incompetence.

In neuronal terms, unconscious incompetence is when your brain is dealing with a new external system, and has not yet built a complex internal network corresponding to each state of the external system. For example, the first time you come to your poker game, your brain has not built up mental associations with Q6o yet to know whether it’s good or bad. It is only through the accrual of information and feedback that one passes beyond this stage, and the brain starts building up distinct and meaningful categories relating to each external state (such as each poker hand you can be dealt).

The next stage is conscious incompetence. Conscious incompetence is when one begins to be aware of one’s own incompetence. It is, in a sense, to know just enough to know just how bad you are.

One example might be in speaking a foreign language. Imagine a foreign language which you can somewhat speak, but are far from fluent in. Chances are, you are consciously incompetent in this language. You know you are not getting the accent right, not pronouncing everything correctly, speaking too slowly, and perhaps your grammar or diction is slightly off. You are not oblivious to these things, which means you’re past the stage of unconscious incompetence, but you are still nevertheless incapable of changing them. Your brain has not yet conditioned your vocal cords into the sweet spot of nailing that accent, your vocabulary is still disparate and disorganized within in your brain so it takes a long time to retrieve the right word, and so on. One passes through this stage just the same in speaking a language, in playing piano, sculpting marble, and playing poker.

The third stage is conscious competence. Conscious competence is the first stage of competence. In this stage, if you think about it, you’ll know what to do. You are now making the right play in a poker match—you’re no longer calling that flush on the river when the board double pairs; you no longer make plays that you “knew you shouldn’t make.”

You are aware now of all of the elements that are going on in a poker match, the nuances of betsizing, betting patterns, timing tells, and so on. But these things are all processed consciously. You have to actively think about all of these things. When you are playing well, all of your mental processes are engaged. Neuronally speaking, your conscious centers (the neo-cortex) are actively engaged in retrieving and organizing the information you’ve accrued. In this stage, if you slip out of conscious focus—if you start zoning out, or auto-piloting, your play will deteriorate considerably from when you’re fully conscious.

The final and ideal stage is unconscious competence. Unconscious competence is when you are unconsciously doing the right play, without really having to “think” about it.

The most obvious example of this is in driving a car (or if you can’t drive, substitute riding a bike). Most people who have been driving a car have been doing it for many years, such that they are by now in a stage of unconscious competence. While driving, they never have to consciously think about changing gears, which pedal to push and how hard to push it, how to maneuver or effectively signal their lane changes, and so on. They can do things like carry on conversations, actively think about something, or pay attention to an audio lecture while still carrying on the activity effectively. This is a signature of unconscious competence.

In poker, the stage of unconscious competence is usually when you immediately know what you’re going to do. You don’t sit and think, try to think about board texture or how he’d perceive your bets, or anything like that—you simply immediately click your buttons, without giving it any thought. Almost always, this is a sign of an unconsciously competent behavior.

Moreover, there are two other major elements researchers have found when it comes to attaining mastery. They are, famously, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, and an experienced mentor. We will look at both of these elements in closer depth in the chapter on learning.

VII

Now, you might say—okay, so there are these four stages of mastery. So what? How does that help me?

Well, there is a profound relationship between the stages of mastery and the process of learning poker, and understanding this relationship will help you to guide your own learning and improvement. First, let us try to understand the differences between conscious and unconscious thinking.

Let’s begin with the obvious. In your conscious thinking, you are aware of everything that you are processing, and you experience all of it. In unconscious thinking, you are not aware of everything that you’re processing, and you experience only a fraction of the data that your brain is working through. For example, you might have some vague awareness of yourself as “playing poker,” but if you’re using your unconscious mind, you’re not actively thinking about every bet size, every card on the board, and so on. Things become vastly condensed, the same way they do when you’re driving a car and not needing to think about how to steer, or use your turn signals, etc.

Most importantly, conscious thinking tends to be discursive. It is process-oriented, and is often mediated through language. If you are consciously thinking out how to play a hand, there’s a good chance that you’re thinking in a step-by-step process: “okay, he raised here, so that means he can only have X, Y, Z hands, but he bet this much on the turn so he can’t have Z, and if he had Y then he’d probably have 3-bet preflop,” and so on. Unconscious thinking, on the other hand, tends to be more instant. It is intuitive, and does not generally rely on such step-by-step processes to derive the answer; the unconscious mind directly connects the stimulus to its appropriate response. If you see a J98 flop, your unconscious mind immediately decides what to do; it has one response to that problem, which it applies without needing to derive it.

The implication of this is a very important one—because of this discursive, step-by-step process, conscious thinking is slow, and unconscious thinking is fast. I’ll repeat this again, because it’s vitally important: conscious thinking is slower, while unconscious thinking is faster. This may make some sense—your unconscious mind is what controls your most basic motor skills, internal organs, and so on. It needs to be fast, and needs to know exactly what it needs to do at any given moment, so once your unconscious mind is trained in any task, it operates with similar speed and certainty. Your conscious mind, on the other hand, can take some time. It can dally a bit, question itself, and be more process-oriented.

So to determine if a spot is being negotiated by your conscious mind, there are several key signs: if you are experiencing every element of its process, if it is being mediated through language (usually in your head), if it is taking place step-by-step, and if it is slow, then it is probably your conscious mind dealing with a spot. If, on the other hand, your experience feels very condensed, if you seem to automatically know the answer, and if it is fast, then it is probably your unconscious mind dealing with a spot.

One interesting experiment you can do to elucidate this is through self-talk (which we will discuss in more detail in the chapter on learning). If you make a conscious effort to say everything that you are thinking out loud and trace your thoughts verbally, most preferably to somebody else who’s also proficient in poker—what you’ll notice is that the majority of what you say will be related to the conscious spots you’re facing. You are likely to pass over the unconscious parts of your poker thinking, such as interpreting (what to you are) obvious board textures and betting patterns, or making obvious plays. Those tend to be relegated to your unconscious mind and aren’t rendered in language. Your conscious mind, because of its tendency toward being discursive and negotiated through language, will tend to bubble up, will be easily accessible to your verbal centers, and will wind up being most of what comes out of your mouth.

You will also notice this phenomenon in poker videos—oftentimes, when great players try to talk about poker and strategy, all that they will talk about is the processes of which they are conscious. As it happens, first rate poker players tend to have a huge part of their game relegated to unconscious competence, since they have played so many hours of poker, and are already situated in extremely effective unconscious habits. So perhaps you’ve noticed sometimes that really genius players, when they talk about their play, seem to say nothing that you actually want to know—this is the reason. It is easy and intuitive when engaging in self-talk (in this case, when narrating on a video) to say whatever is on the cusp of the conscious mind. But there is another skillset required to be a great teacher, video-maker, or coach of poker—one must also be able to probe one’s own unconscious processes, to pay attention to not just one’s own perception, but how a situation would be rendered through the eyes of a student’s perception, and to try to see what a student would not understand. This is why the best poker players are oftentimes not the best teachers for low, medium, or even certain high level players.

So this analysis of the speed of conscious and unconscious processing gives us a new way to interpret timing in poker. Think about it—what does it mean when someone calls time to make a decision? Really what it means is that they are re-running their conscious discursive process on the same hand (sometimes repeatedly, when they are taking an extra-long amount of time)—they are repeatedly running their internal “poker theory program” to see what results it gets. This means that either their unconscious mind doesn’t know what to do, or that they don’t have confidence in their unconscious decisions for spots of a certain nature (such as big pots, or strange pots), and so they want to “double check” their unconscious reaction against their conscious, discursive processes.

It also gives us a new way of thinking about timing tells. Why is it that in certain spots, people act really quickly, but in others they slow down? This is exactly why. Because conscious thinking is slower than unconscious thinking, spots where people are forced to take time are spots where they are forced to recruit their conscious mind to figure out a spot. This also ties us back to the circle of centrality—the more central a spot is, the more it can be dealt with by the unconscious mind, which is fast and self-assured. The more non-central a spot is, the more it is dealt by the conscious mind—and once one leaves the circle of centrality, you can instantly notice a difference in your opponent’s gameplay and thinking—this is the difference between his conscious and unconscious mind.

But how different exactly are the conscious and unconscious mind when it comes to the same activity? Is it really possible that your conscious mind would tell you to do one thing, and your unconscious mind tell you to do another?

In fact, as we have already learned, the two systems are structurally separated. Imagine them as two separate networks in your brain, separated in space and neuronal circuitry—though there is certainly interplay between them, they are architecturally distinct. In a very real sense, there are two poker players inside you—your conscious mind, and your unconscious mind, and they each would have different tendencies, frequencies, and habits if they were exclusively called upon to play poker.

VIII

There is an old debate as to whether or not poker should be considered a sport. Personally I think the whole question is tired and immaterial, but nevertheless, I do believe there is a certain insight that can be gained by classifying poker as a sport. If we say that poker is not a sport, then we run the risk of thinking of poker as a “purely mental” game. It vaguely implies that since you are not constrained by physical limitations in such a game, “you can do whatever you want.”

In reality, this is not the case at all. True, unlike a traditional sport, in poker you are not limited by your muscularity, your height, and so on. But you areconstrained by the physical limitations in your brain. If your brain structures have not been properly attuned and calibrated by thousands and thousands of hours at the poker table, then you are, in a literal sense, physically incapable of making the right plays. Remember, making the right plays means to have the right neurons fire in the right order—which you cannot do unless you’ve already built a calibrated and complex neuronal network.

Neurologically speaking, there are two very different sorts of “knowledge” encoded in our neuronal networks. The first is what we traditionally think of as knowledge: fact-based or propositional knowledge. The second type is know-how (also known as non-declarative knowledge). Propositional knowledge is knowledge of a proposition, like “I should 3-bet KK preflop.” Know-how, on the other hand, is your brain’s knowledge of how to internally execute a behavior. Rather than a proposition stored inside your brain to be recalled, know-how contains all of the information about how to coordinate from your perceptual cues, how to send the right signals to motor neurons and muscle fibers, how to calibrate your movement and balance, and so on, in the process of performing an action. For example, how to properly throw a Frisbee is a matter of know-how. You don’t need to know anything propositional about how to throw a Frisbee—you don’t need to know that you should hold it with one grip or another, or some rule of thumb about how to adjust according to wind speed and direction—your body learns this automatically, without your conscious mind ever formulating it into propositional knowledge.

The crucial insight is that actually playing poker largely is a matter of know-how, not of merely of propositional knowledge. When you learn poker and become good at it, your brain is building internal structures of know-how that are unconsciously coordinating your perception with your motor reactions. This is not obvious, because we don’t think of poker as a physical game, but the way you learn poker is nevertheless the same as with any sport.

If you are a football player, it is certainly helpful to learn football theory, but the only way you get good is by developing your know-how, your body’s internal awareness of the game, your muscle memory and calibration, by playing a lot football and being out on the field. Though the systems can affect one another, football theory and football play are not the same. This is the same within poker. In other words, the system in your brain that contains poker theory is structurally separate from the system that governs your play.

Let us draw then the distinction between poker theory and poker know-how (or “poker play”).

Poker theory is a conscious network that you have in your mind. You train and deepen this network by talking about poker, by studying poker videos, by going over other people’s hands, by reading poker books, by doing poker math simulations, and so on.

Imagine it as a computer program that you’ve built in your mental circuitry. This program started off quite shoddy (since we all start with a weak grasp of poker theory), but it’s gotten more and more complex the more you’ve learned about poker. If you input all of the variables of a hand into your poker theory program, it takes it all in, crunches it, and then spits out an answer as to what you should do. This program is slow, as we discussed before, since it is discursive and has to run through many lines of code, and so it’s unlikely that you’ll use this program for every hand you play—but in the really tough hands, you almost always consult it. So what you are really doing when you call time in a hand is to run this program, sometimes more than once, to try to ascertain whether you’re making the right play according to your version of poker theory.

We can say then that your poker theory system is trained by taking poker hands and deriving their solutions. We practice this over and over again—through videos, forum hands, looking at hand histories we and our friends have played, arguing over poker theory—and gradually building up the accuracy of this internal program, and its correlation with true poker theory (which presumably exists somewhere out there in poker, and is embedded in the feedback we get).

On the other hand, when we actually play poker, we are engaged in something different. We are not calling upon the propositional knowledge or discursive processes that are contained in the poker theory part of our brain. What we are executing is our poker know-how—our unconscious mind’s “muscle memory” system that gives us immediate reactions, gut feelings, intuitions about what the right play is, about what a bet size means, about whether this hand is strong enough to call in this spot. It’s what tells us what to do, and instantly moves our fingers toward clicking a button, or folding on a turn card, or going all-in.

Our poker know-how is what actually constitutes our poker perception. That is, the way we see a Js9s8s flop or the hand AJo is created by our poker know-how. In a very real sense, you perceive a hand like AJo pre-rationally—mathematics, hand charts, and your conscious mind never come into it. You have a “sense” of how strong this hand is, of how it works, of how it should be played, and so on. Of course, you can try to reconstitute this perception, by running through your internal poker theory program, perhaps trying to figure out how AJo does against a certain range that you put him on using his preflop stats—but the vast majority of time, you simply function with whatever perception your poker know-how seeds you.

Poker know-how is trained primarily by playing. As with any other physical activity, like swimming or riding a bike, you cannot learn poker know-how by reading a book or by watching somebody else do it. Poker know-how and unconscious reactions are learned chiefly by direct experiential feedback. Your unconscious mind responds and calibrates itself according to reward and punishment. Now, this reward and punishment can be administered in many ways—it can come from making a failed or successful play, obviously; but it can also come from criticizing yourself on a play that you think was bad, from getting criticized from someone else who is looking over a hand you played, from watching a video in which the chosen play differs from what you’d do, and so on. But with each of these three latter examples, the further you get away from the actual experience of poker play, the more you are engaging your conscious mind, and the less you are developing your know-how.

In other words, the further a source of feedback is from the native context in which you are going to use it, the less effectively that feedback is going to influence your behavior in that context. We will discuss these ideas in more detail and many more in the chapter on learning, so we will leave it at that for now.

To sum up, we can see how there are two very distinct poker systems that exist within our mind—the conscious system, which contains all of our poker theory, and which is related to our propositional knowledge of poker; and the unconscious system, which contains our poker know-how, and is what we are doing most of the time we actually play poker. They are two distinct systems, separated in our brains, and most significantly, they are learned and cultivated differently.

The next time you play, pay attention to these differences. See if you can spot what sort of situations your conscious mind is consistently being engaged, and which parts of your game are being relegated to your unconscious mind. You might be surprised.

IX

Distance yourself, then, from your conscious mind. Step off from the throne, and inspect the entire system with objectivity. Look here. This is who you are. This is how you think. Not just the surface, but beneath it as well.

You must become your own psychonaut, exploring the landscape of your inner psyche. After all, your brain was not designed to play poker. Your brain resists poker. Probabilities, uncertainties, cognitive biases, illusory correlations, and the ever-present hailstorm of stress and downswings thwart your desire to wrap your mind around this complex, beautiful, infuriating game. To make poker fit into your brain is to shove a square peg in a round hole.

But you are okay with that. You accept it. You will do what it takes.

Poker is, in the end, the battle against human irrationality. To master poker is to master the brain—to master the human apparatus. This is also the journey.

And perhaps if it weren’t so hard, if it were easy for you to learn poker, then poker wouldn’t be such a dynamic, lucrative, and vibrant world. Perhaps you should be grateful that it is the way it is.

So you must face the challenge. Survey yourself, and let your eyes tell you the truth, like the eyes of a beginner, as though seeing yourself for the first time.

Tell the whole, the ugly truth. What do you want? What are you good at, what are you bad at? What are your failings, your successes? What are you lying to yourself about? Nobody will answer these questions for you. You are alone. You are free to lie to yourself of course; no one will stop you. There are no shortcuts; there are no secrets.

Do you know what you tend to assume about others? What you’re afraid of? What you want most? What is it like to play against you? If you can’t find these things, ask those close to you. And if they don’t know, ask your enemies. Somewhere in the middle of all their perceptions and your own, is the reality of who you are—and it is that reality you are tasked with understanding.

The question demands itself. Who are you? Poker will ask you this many times over your career. But it is up to you whether you are willing to truly answer it.

X

 You may have noticed a continuing theme throughout this exploration of cognition: it would appear we are not quite in as much control over ourselves as we’d like to believe.

This is something of an uneasy conclusion, especially for an aspiring poker player invested in his own growth. Understandably so! It should make you a little uncomfortable. But nevertheless, you must pull back the camera, and learn to look upon your brain from an outside perspective.

Currently, most prominent theorists of cognition use the metaphor of seeing the brain as a computer, and you’ve noticed this metaphor crop up a few times in our discussion. It’s a good analogue of how our brains work, so let’s extend it to its logical completion. We’ve agreed that our conscious poker theory seems to work like a complex computer program, but we can say that our unconscious poker know-how is like a sort of program as well—just one that is more simple, acts much faster (perhaps more like a database-lookup than as a discursive problem-solving process), and so on. But as we are sitting at a table, playing with limited conscious awareness, this know-how program is buzzing away in our brains, ordering our fingers where to click, interpreting our perceptions, and responding to feedback.

But as with any program, our internal programs are constrained by their code. If there are errors in your internal code which cause you to make mistakes, then in a sense, you cannot “change” those mistakes. They will keep happening, over and over again, until you fix your internal code. You are constrained by the way your mental programs are written.

Now, you might point out that this sort of thinking doesn’t allow room for being able to play better or worse at any given time, which we clearly do. How can one account for that? Perhaps you will accuse this perspective of being overly reductive.

But I challenge you—when you sit down at a table to play poker, what are you really in control of? It’s important to realize that at any given moment you’re playing, the set of all strategies that you’d use in a response to any situation is already embedded in your neuronal network—that is, the code of your internal programs is already written. In the moment of playing, you have no conscious control over that. That is, you can’t suddenly “decide” to use a strategy that you don’t know is a good strategy, or “decide” not to make a mistake in a spot where you’re mentally predisposed to making a mistake.

Over time, sure, you can change these predispositions, alter your neuronal networks, rewrite your mental code—but it is a gradual, piece-by-piece process, as you slowly break bad habits and form good ones.

In any moment, the factors over which you exert genuine conscious influence are surprisingly small. And what are they?

First, you have control over your initial game selection standards—that is, what standard of how bad of players or tables you’re willing to sit down with. Note the word “initial”—if you reach a state of tilt, chances are, your game selection will go out the window. Tilt is guided mostly by the limbic brain system, thus it will forcefully background your conscious processes. So all you really have conscious control over is how bad of tables you’re willing to initiallysit in on. But if you’re a bad tilter, then you have no control over that 5% of the time when you go on bad tilt—it’s simply a 5% that may or may not arise depending on how bad you are running, and other factors.

The second thing you have control over is when and in what state of mind you start to play. Perhaps you will elect to play mornings, nights, on days when you haven’t had sleep, before you’ve eaten breakfast, when something stressful has just happened to you, and so on. You can see clearly that each of these variables is likely to affect how well you play, and these are all fully within your conscious control.

And third, you have control over what rituals you choose to implement before or during playing. This is vitally important. Rituals would include things like reviewing hands before a session, watching a poker video, reading something inspirational or instructional, doing exercise, reciting a mantra, stretching or doing a breathing exercise, and so on. It also includes things that can take place duringa session, such as forcing yourself to take breaks at certain times, or quitting at a certain time or when down a number of buyins, forcing out distractions, and so on. Implementing rituals are a means of co-opting your environment to enact your conscious goals, as discussed in section IV. Even if the ritual takes place in the middle of a session and catches you at a point when you’re not consciously alert, it will nevertheless force you back into alignment with your conscious intentions. The rituals I’ve mentioned are examples of some the major ways in which, even if your unconscious mind is poorly trained, you can exert influence over how well you play in a session through the conscious mind.

So there are several things we have meaningful conscious control over. But beyond those few things you can control, in a profound sense, almost everything that happens in a poker game is out of your control. Who sits at your table, how bad they are, how long the fish stays, how many KK vs AAs or AA vs KKs you get, how many times you soulread the fish, how many times you bluff off a stack to your table nemesis—these things are only in your control as much as these three factors are in your control. Everything else is simply permutations that were already there; they are simply one of the many possibilities that could happen given your brain structures at the time you go into a session.

So, where does that leave us? What does it mean to play well, and how can we go about doing that? How do we navigate the internal experience of actually trying to play poker?

I will explore those ideas in more detail in the following chapters. Though we have explored much in the realm of poker, there is much yet to go. Next, we will explore creativity, fear, and the role of emotion in poker.


We’re getting to the halfway point—and it only gets more interesting from here, in my opinion. Also, if you have any questions or criticisms, please do post a comment below!

[Note: this is from the rough draft of my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. If you like what you read, consider buying the completed book—it’s tightly edited and contains new material! Hope you enjoyed. :) ]

-Haseeb
  • ile

    Thank you again, Haseeb.

  • Brilliant job.
    The identification of I with your own conscious mind is serious flaw for poker player.AGREE
    “I” – the core thought(s) of our mind.
    The core thought which is censor and filter of all thoughts stream.

    Howe ever after reading your stuff I come to conclusion that you did not fully appreciate this concept.
    You do not seem to see the very strong correlation between “mind” identity and control -general ability to affect the conscious and the unconscious mind.
    You wrote “they believe that they are a mind (or a soul) inhabiting and controlling a body”
    There is huge fundamental difference between somebody who identify himself with mind vs his soul.
    Anybody who identify himself with separate entity from his mind has MUCH more control over his mind (conscious and unconscious).!!!!
    Such “I” believe give him space to make choice- to fuse or not to fuse with his mind -emotions(thoughts).

  • Great chapter again.

    Do you have a list of non-poker books/articles that would help with or be relevant to poker? For example, I’ve been working through Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which so far seems highly relevant to poker cognition. What else would you recommend? Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness”? “The Black Swan”? Gary Klein’s “Sources of Power”? The Routledge Handbook of Applied Sport’s Psychology? The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance?

    I also have some questions/feedback on chapter 4 which I have gotten around to posting yet. Will do that asap.

  • @ile, Thank you. :)

    @MeMyselfIfAndI, I’m not sure how I feel about that difference. I think the Cartesian notion of a soul is essentially identical to the dualistic notion of “mind” (as opposed to body/brain). I believe this can be traced back to Aristotle, who in his Psychology made a study of what he called a soul, but what we would essentially call the mind – the seat of intellectual faculties, thought, and perception.

    @GSam, To be frank, part of my purpose in this book is to try to melt down all of the extraneous information from other disciplines and perspectives that a poker player ought to know to excel in the game – so my (admittedly hubristic) intention is that there’s little outside what I will be talking about that a poker player will really get that much help from.

    But if you are simply curious or want to make a thorough study of these ideas, I would recommend Kahneman for sure, Fooled by Randomness, anything on sports psychology or psychology of performance, and on the psychology of learning is good. Other than that, I think there’s very little that is necessary in the strict sense for a poker player to really know. (A thorough study of the process of mastery is, although interesting, not very practically useful to one’s game.)

    Most of the rest of a poker player’s education should come from playing the game, and interacting with other poker players and direct poker materials, IMO.

  • a pleasure to read. this is such a fascinating area.

    i wonder whether it’s possible to make a link between certain “default” poker behaviors (which would be common in beginners) and evolutionary advantages?

    for example: being risk averse is good for survival > unconscious mental processes which minimize risky situations are selected for by evolution > in poker this results in an instinctual preference for (low-variance) calls rather than (high-variance) raises

  • Yes, and that’d be why very good players are all quite aggressive, bc people make errors by folding too much and being too conservative ?
    :)

    very interesting read again, especially the latter parts

  • Since your writing is gold, I will take you up on your invitation to “feel free to push and prod [you] however [we] can,” haha. Can’t wait for the next update.

  • Sorry, haha, I’ve been super swamped with classes and homework and whatnot, but now that my summer term has finished and I have a couple weeks off, I’ve gotten back to working on this. I’ll hopefully have the next chapter finished in about a week, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer. :)

    Haseeb

  • He suddenly appeared in the party.Bottoms up!Do me a favor? He was married to a friend of mine.What’s up? Do you think you’ll be able to go to sleep fight away? Do you think you’ll be able to go to sleep fight away? Show your tickets

  • Hello, thanks for sharing your opinions in this post. This is actually a cool blog.

  • Greg

    I was just re-reading this chapter and had a question. In your discussion of hindsight bias, you say “Things and people are often not as predictable as you think they are.” But in your “The Two Things About Poker” article on your old Cardrunners blog, one of your “two things” was “People are bad at being random.” I know you dealt a bit with randomness in Chapter 3, but these two statements seem contradictory and I didn’t find a reconciliation of them in Chapter 3.

  • @Greg

    That’s a good question, and it gets at two quite separate concepts.

    Hindsight bias is essentially second-guessing a decision you made. We might theorize it at being something like: at time T1 you deliberated carefully and thought that decisions X and Y were both 50% likely to be optimal, so eventually you guessed and chose one randomly. Say you chose X, and X turned out to be wrong. Hindsight bias occurs if and only if at time T2 you say to yourself, “I should’ve chosen Y, because Y was clearly more than 50% likely to be true. It was obvious.”

    Essentially, hindsight bias is when you change the narrative of the past to fit the present facts. It may have been true that IF YOU CONSIDERED THE RIGHT VARIABLES, Y would have been clearly the right choice–but the reality is, given the variables you considered, you ascribed equal likelihood to either decision.

    Hindsight bias then speaks to the fact that, in the moment, we are not really capable of discerning what the best decision is. But in retrospect, knowing the facts suddenly changes the terrain so much that we believe it must have been easy to see–and so we change our version of the past. We lose sight of the actual process of uncertainty, which a poker player must always be attuned to.

    Now, to address the second part of your question–people are absolutely bad at being random! This is implied in the section where I dismantle game flow. Game flow and randomization are skills–one for which humans are innately ill-equipped. I understand why it seems like those two claims conflict, but they don’t, because they deal with different situations. People’s being bad at being random is, in a sense, behind the veil–you have to see HOW they’re bad at being random in order to take advantage of it and outplay them. However, just about everybody is subject to hindsight bias, even if they have no sense of how to lift up the veil and see how nonrandom people are really being.

    So the existence of hindsight bias doesn’t necessarily mean that people are unpredictable. It simply means that WHEN people fail to correctly predict situations, they presume that the prediction was easier to make for them than it really was.

    In short, hindsight bias reflects a very common desire–the desire to believe that people are able to predict things that they just can’t. But those things aren’t necessarily unpredictable for a better calibrated predictor.

    I hope that makes sense!
    -Haseeb

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  • Greg

    @ Haseeb – Makes sense now, thanks for clearing that up!

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