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Incomplete Information

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Feb 22, 2012


John VorhausI was in Sweden once, looking for an underground poker club. Not being the sort of person to take taxi cabs anywhere I don’t have to, I had ridden the Stockholm Metro to the station nearest to where I thought the club might be. Emerging from underground armed with a map of Stockholm, a scrawled street address and some sketchy directions, I found myself in a six-way intersection with all the street signs in Swedish, of course.

As I turned in slow circles, trying to figure out which way to go, I realized, with the force of sudden revelation, “I am in bliss.” And it was true. I was happy, deliriously so, because I was trying to solve a certain sort of puzzle. I was trying to make an accurate decision using incomplete information, and for some reason that sort of problem-solving really gets me off.

I bring this up because lately I’ve been pondering the question, “Why do I play poker?” It’s not for the money. Poker for me is a middling money-maker at best, and while my records show I’m a net plus player, I have neither the bankroll nor the timeroll (a word I just invented, meaning free time) to extract meaningful profit from the game. So the answer to the question has to be, “Because I enjoy it.” But why? Well, because in poker as in Stockholm, I have to try to make accurate decisions using incomplete information. For me that’s the buzz of poker. Not winning pots. Not taking home extra cash. Not making my opponents weep like children. Just solving problems, and doing my best to solve them correctly.

Where are you at with this? Can you state clearly and succinctly why you play poker in the first place? Any reason is a good reason, I suppose (bar compulsion; if compulsion is your reason for playing poker then you have a different sort of problem to solve).

Maybe for you, as for me, it’s the problem-solving buzz. Maybe it’s a social thing – you just like hanging out with your friends. Maybe it’s a hybrid reason: You’re good enough to make some money at the game and you take pleasure in the sort of job where you set your own hours and are your own boss. Maybe, even, you go to the club because they’re showing the big pay-per-view fight on the big screen and you can’t get that at home. Maybe you like outcomes, and just flat-out take pleasure from hitting a monster flop or seeing your flush come in. Like I said, any reason is a good reason – so long as you know it.

If you don’t know why you play poker, if you can’t tell yourself openly and honestly why you do what you do, then this is something you need to address, for it’s a signal that two things are missing from your game: honesty, and self-awareness. It’s always weird to speak of honesty in poker, since poker is such a liar’s game, but the fact is that there’s no quality more important for a poker player to have. Honesty keeps us from playing when we’re sick, tired, cranky, or otherwise off our game. In the name of honesty, I will tell you that I sometimes take refuge in the poker clubs when in-laws flood my house and I’d just rather not be around. This is not a good reason to play poker, and thanks to my honesty I know it. This doesn’t mean that I don’t go play poker, it just means that I play smaller stakes than usual, and monitor myself closely to make sure that the poker is drowning out the in-laws, and not the other way around.

Self-awareness, of course, is useful in every part of a person’s life. It’s particularly useful in poker, for with self-awareness we can detect when we’re making bad decisions, emotionally disconnecting, or going on tilt. Absent self-awareness, we can’t know where we’re at in a game, and we’re at risk for making big, costly mistakes. My self-awareness, for example, tells me that I’m on tilt by noting that I no longer care about outcomes. When I stop wanting to win and hating to lose, I make rash decisions and, of course, pay the price. If my self-awareness is working, I leave the game before that happens.

Look, no one is honest all the time. No one is self-aware all the time. You might be playing great for hour after hour, and then suffer the sort of bad beat that puts your brain into a temporary cloud. In the confines of that cloud, you start to make bad decisions, and your session spirals down. At least that happens to me. If it doesn’t happen to you, then you are blessed. But tell me you’ve never simply gotten tired in a poker game, so tired that you can’t see yourself clearly anymore and your decision making starts to suffer, starting with the decision to keep playing poker when common sense would tell you to stop. As has oft been noted, “The trouble with too far is you never know you’re going till you’ve gone.”

No two players have the same experience of poker. For me, clearly, the appeal of the game is the challenge of making the best possible decision based on the best available (and always at least partially incomplete) information. For you it may be that or it may be something else. What we have in common, though, is the need to know our motivation for playing the game and deep understanding of where we are when we’re engaged in it.

Otherwise, we’re just going to stumble blindly through the experience and sooner or later pay the price by being careless, or uncaring, or inattentive at a time when it matters most. And that’s no good, because the other thing we have in common is the desire to win. Everyone (except a few sad masochists) would rather win than lose. This is self-evident. What’s not self-evident, and therefore problematic, is that winning poker doesn’t begin with strategy, psychology, or knowledge of odds. It begins with honesty and self-awareness. With these things, greatness is possible. Without them, I don’t even think you can win.

So check yourself next time you go to play poker. Deeply analyze why you are there and what you hope to get out of the experience. Don’t just tell yourself, “I want play well and win.” Know which parts of the game gets you off, and which parts of the game are pitfalls for you. That’s self-awareness, and that’s something you can take to the bank. Even if you’re in Stockholm and you don’t know where it is. ♠

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from