Fish Psychology Part 2: Self Deception in Poker

Psychology, Strategy

September 13, 2007

In the Fish Psychology series, I explore the reasons that losing players continue to play, and look at ways to keep them coming back for more.

Our first explanation for long run losing play is that the player does not in fact believe they are losing. Notice that I’m talking specifically about the long run. It’s very easy in the short run to believe your expectation is positive when in fact it’s not, and we’ll talk about that in another article, but I’m more interested in cases where people continue to believe they’re winning when any rational examination of the evidence would indicate they’re not.

I think true long term confusion as to whether or not you’re winning is very difficult, at least from a rational point of view. Simply put, any effort to keep records will reveal you’re losing, and any effort to maintain or build a bankroll will be shown as a lie when you have to add more money to continue playing. While it would in theory be possible to play without any attempt to keep track of money, I’ve never known any player to operate that way. There may be one exception, however: in big tournaments, a large portion of a player’s expectation comes from winning the tournament or placing highly. If that happens to a losing player early in their tournament career, I could see them believing they were winners for a long time in spite of no results. Jamie Gold & Chris Moneymaker, anyone?

For everyone else, actually being rationally uncertain about whether or not you’re winning is pretty much impossible in the long run. There’s a close relative of confusion, however – intentional deception. Simply put, a lot of players lie to themselves and others about their results. I don’t find this terribly surprising. In fact, it’s one of the warning signs of addictive gambling, but I suspect the motives of most players differer from those of the addict. The addict is trying to hide the money lost and the damage done to their lives. The majority of losing poker players have suffered no such terrible consequences, but they likewise are trying to hide. Specifically, they’re trying to hide that they’re unskilled. In other words, it’s a way to defend their ego and their self-image. As such, it’s not uncommon to meet players who hold two seemingly incompatible beliefs:

1) they’re a winning player

2) they’ve lost (big number) dollars over the last (long time) of play

These players see themselves as being on a career-long unlucky downswing despite statistical evidence of enormous weight indicating that in fact they can’t beat the game. You’ll see people who really believe this on any internet poker forum.

From a self-psychology perspective, it’s important to avoid this kind of sloppy thinking. Reccord keeping plays a key part but just as important is to know, and really believe, this fact:

Given a history of losing over all your play (whether for a short period of time or a long one) at any game combining skill & luck, the hypothesis that you are unskilled is more strongly supported than the hypothesis that you’re unlucky.

In other words, if you’re a lifetime loser at any form of poker, while it’s possible that you’re unlucky, it’s more likely you’re unskilled. And it becomes a near-certainty you’re unskilled as the amount of data collected becomes larger. If you accept this fact, self-deception becomes much harder.

This series, however, is not primarily about self-psychology. The real goal is to understand your opponent’s psychology so that it can be exploited. Luckily, opponents who lie to themselves about their skill level are easy to keep around. Simply beating them out of lots of money isn’t going to get them to quit. They’ve rationalized it to the point where that doesn’t affect them much. They may stop playing on a given day, but they will be back. What may make them quit for good is exposing their lack of poker skill. No one likes to be made a fool of but with people who have gone to such great extents to deceive themselves, it’s particularly embarrassing. And people try to get away from things that embarrass them. So avoid initiating any kind of table talk about strategy or any criticism of their play. Think about it – if you make a sufficiently strong argument that they misplayed, they might actually change their mind and then you’ve lost a customer. On the flip side, if they start a strategy discussion, it’s best to simply agree with and absorb their “sage advice” since this will just reinforce the self-deception. To this end, when someone else makes a strategy pronouncement at the table, I will always agree with it if I say anything at all. It’s also worth it to honestly praise these players on the occasions when they do actually play well, because that just piles on the reinforcement. While praising them when they play badly might also be effective, it’s hard to do with a straight face and I recommend you don’t bother trying. Too often it will come out as sarcasm and have the opposite effect from what you intended.

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