Top three poker biases and how to avoid them

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Although we are the dominant biological species thanks to our brain mostly, it’s that very same brain that puts the biggest limits to our thinking and decisions.

Here is how:

You might have heard about the Cognitive biases – they are close friends of ours but this friendship does not help our critical thinking and decision-making process when playing poker.

Cognitive biases are flaws in logical thinking that clear the path to bad irrational decisions. They are shortcuts that our brain chooses to take to get to a conclusion, but often that shortcut is misleading.

Here are the three most common biases in poker. I believe you came across at least one of them while playing and you will recognize it immediately:

  1. Sunk cost fallacy

You play against a passive villain. Fou find yourself at the R and he bets. You know that you made a few not too smart moves so far and you don’t have enough value in your hand to call. At the same time, half of your stack is on the table already so you decide to make an emotional call instead of folding.

Why would you do that?

The answer is in your brain.

Your priority as a professional poker player is to perform proper and logical math-based reasoning and evaluate your chances with maximum accuracy. Normally you’re skillful enough to do it with ease, but something gets in the way now and you can’t give it a logical explanation. You’ve already put a lot of money at the table and now you feel obliged to keep on putting more in an attempt not to lose the amount that went out of your pocket at first place.

This is the so-called “Sunk cost fallacy” in all its beauty. Your brain chooses the easier way – to keep the inertia of previous decisions and remain consistent with them.

While your priority is to apply logic, the priority of your brain is to conserve energy.

Both don’t go well together and your biology makes the decision for you. This brain activity is very common. Actually, our heads run on autopilot most of the time to preserve energy in case an emergency situation occurs. With cognitive biases, we observe a clear example of this biological phenomenon.

The sunk cost fallacy is most dangerous when we have invested a lot of time, money, energy, or emotions in something. This investment becomes a reason to carry on, even if we are dealing with a lost cause. The more we invest, the greater the sunk costs are, and the greater the urge to continue becomes.

Sounds familiar?

This is one of the most popular cognitive biases that blocks our critical thinking and affects negatively our poker performance. You can read more about it in the book “The art of thinking clearly” by Rolf Dobelli.

!!! Note that the concept of sunk cost fallacy should not be confused with pot commitment. Being pot committed is defined as creating situations in which you’re a long shot to win a hand, but you’re still getting sufficient odds to make the call. In other words, being pot committed is not the emotional “feeling” to make a call simply because there’s a lot of money in the pot. This is not a good enough reason. You have to do the math to be certain and if you do that and you’re still confident that you have enough value in your hand – then definitely demonstrate pot commitment.

What I find fascinating about biases is how often we fall into them without even realizing it. At the same time, we rationalize and try not to admit the fallacies of our thinking at all costs.

But the key to improve our thinking lies elsewhere – keep reading to find out.

We continue with the next bias:

2. Gambler’s fallacy

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This fallacy brings into the thought process the incorrect belief that if a particular event occurs more frequently than normal during the past it is less likely to happen in the future, or vice versa. The fallacy is associated with gambling, where it may be believed that the next dice roll is more than usually likely to be six because there have recently been fewer than the usual number of sixes.

It is also named Monte Carlo fallacy, after a casino in Las Vegas where it was observed in 1913.

You may have had similar experiences too. Let’s say you play against an opponent that demonstrates significant luck in the last 300 hands. You keep on playing against him because you are certain that this luck will come to an end sooner or later.

Although this may seem “logical” to you, there is a huge misconception at play here. As comforting an idea as it is, there is simply no balancing force out there for independent events. ‘What goes around, comes around’ simply does not exist (and someone has to tell Justin Timberlake).

There’s nothing much to say here – it’s just a matter of clear thought to realize that pure randomness is exactly what it sounds like – unpredictable. We just have to accept it with a cold heart and not waste energy in trying to predict the “likely future events”.

3. Illusion of control

Here is a beautiful example from Dobelli’s book:

“Every day, shortly before nine o’clock, a man with a red hat stands in a square and begins to wave his cap around wildly. After five minutes he disappears. One day, a policeman comes up to him and asks: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m keeping the giraffes away.’ ‘But there aren’t any giraffes here.’ ‘Well, I must be doing a good job, then.”

That’s a nice illustration of what psychologists call “Illusion of control” bias. This is the tendency to believe that we can influence something over which we have no control. Probably you came across the famous saying that we can pray to poker Gods for good hands. Some players even believe that they can influence opponents’ decisions with the power of their minds.

Oh, well…

I know I may disappoint the Harry Potter inside of you, but unfortunately, the only thing we can control for sure is our thought process and our decisions.

Which can create a lot of magic, don’t get me wrong!

Yes, our decisions will influence the other person’s actions and we can predict with some accuracy the behavior of people thanks to the discoveries about the population tendencies. But we should still stay clear-minded on what we can and can not control to keep our sanity.

Otherwise, we risk losing focus, overthink our moves and overreact when things don’t go as we want them.

But I guess you wonder how to avoid all those biases and improve your game…

Here is what science has for you.

There is no magic formula to make you more self-aware about those biases, you have to do the work and hack your brain.

The first thing is to be able to pause.

When we find ourselves in the crazy dynamic of playing against a tough opponent or playing on multiple tables, we are at the highest risk of falling into those biases as our brain is overwhelmed with info. The key here is to be able to pause and take your time to think. Neuroscience says that we have only a few seconds before our brain slips into a bias or autopilot so we have to be quick.

Take a deep breath and stop for a second. Ask yourself one of those 3 powerful questions.

1. What is the solid argument for my decision?

Then go through all the rational steps you made to get to that decision. There should be no flaws there. Make sure it all makes sense and there is no emotion that obscure your thinking.

2. If I had to exclude my gut feeling and only use my rational thinking, what is clearly the best move to make?

Use this question to remove any delusions and return to the solid ground of your analytical skills. Although sometimes you may “read” the villain, here we talk about removing any mistakes from your critical thinking process. So we keep the focus only on the rational aspect of play.

3. Despite my wishful thoughts, what are the actual data points that I’m dealing with here?

This will help you remove any assumptions that are irrational and will leave only the solid data on the table for you to analyze. Pay attention to what is real data and what is “wishful” data. Avoid trying to predict the opponent’s luck or even worse – calculate how much you “deserve to win” compared to previous hands.

I know it might be hard to catch those biases and remove them from your decision-making process while playing but it’s worth the effort!

Stay tuned for the next 3 common biases and how to avoid them in the next article!

By the way, which common poker biases would you add to the list? Drop me a line at Discord to share your ideas – Karina Karagaeva#7899

Sincerely yours,

Karina – Mindset Designer and a mindset coach 🧠 🤩

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