As a competitive sport, poker is one with a major focus on the mental game. This is something every player understands, as the act of reading and outplaying your opponents is a cornerstone of what sets poker apart and makes it so special. What many players underestimate, however, is that being a great player means not only understanding others, it also means understanding yourself.
In many ways, human beings are machines, and our minds are complex computers. Often these computers can get buggy, fall into poor patterns, and end up hurting our chances in the long run. By understanding the common ways these errors and issues occur, we can combat them, and vastly increase our chances of better long-term performance.
Knowing this, today we want to go over some of the most common cognitive biases, how they apply to poker, and what we can do to mitigate their effects.
Perhaps the most common form of cognitive bias, and one which can be a real killer, is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is something that applies to many facets of our lives and can be simply explained as when we only pay attention to or internalize something when it agrees with our preconceived notions.
In poker, this could occur in many different ways, both in terms of supporting and doubting ourselves. For example, a player who goes in believing the table is ganging up on them will take much greater notice of moves against them than they would otherwise. Similarly, a player who goes in believing they are the best will pay much more attention to their own winning hands than other players.
Both of these examples play into a frame of mind that hurts a player, and both should be avoided. Instead, try to keep an objective measure of outcomes in your head, so the fantasy doesn't escape the reality. This can be tricky, but practice can make the action significantly easier.
The Gambler’s Fallacy
Specially named for people at the table, the idea of the gambler’s fallacy is one which most players would have experienced at some time or another. This bias is based around the assumption that, when a player sees a pattern emerge several times in a short period, this pattern will then appear less in the future.
This happens constantly for players in any number of games, including any variant of the game you could possibly imagine. Helpfully, most poker variants are found at many online casino sites, meaning that there are now numerous more avenues for players to experience fluctuations in odds and probability.
For example, when discussing probability, people see a player get a great hand off the flop two or three times in a row in Hold'em, they could disproportionately bet against it happening again on the next hand.
In reality, odds and probabilities do not work in this way. In poker, like in most casino games, an outcome of a previous round does not affect the probability of the next round. By understanding probability properly we can overcome this cognitive bias, as difficult as it might be.
An Outcome Bias
What is called an outcome bias is a simple concept relating to the final result of a game or hand. This shows its head when a player judges how good a decision was, not based on how they arrived at a conclusion, but in the results of that decision.
In poker, this happens consistently with newer players who pull off overly aggressive bluffs. Even when a bluff might have been statistically foolish, players with outcome biases will still rank their decision-making as well-considered or even genius if it results in a win.
This form of bias is best overcome by not resting on your laurels after a big game or hand. Rather than instantly congratulating yourself, consider the steps taken to reach this point, and the actual chances you had going in, so future decisions might be more balanced.
The Peak-End Rule
The final cognitive bias we want to look at is called the peak-end rule. With this bias, players place far more consideration on situations of extreme fortune over how the average game went, and then use this small period to draw their conclusions.
Players often do this after a few good hands, where they internalize success as their default level of play. Again, introspection is the best cure for this, as we need to consider the whole game over the upper-most peaks.
The unfortunate part about cognitive biases is that they are the simple result of the human brain. We are built to recognize patterns, but sometimes these patterns just so happen to be bogus. However, by understanding our own biases, and taking advantage of how they affect others, we can make great strides in improving our play, and our future outcomes.
It will take practice and hard work but, as any dedicated poker player knows, this is an unavoidable part of growing your game.