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Taking Shots and Counterparty Bias

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jan 17, 2018


A few issues back I introduced the concept of counterparty bias. The basic idea is that gamblers live in a competitive environment. Many people are looking for the good gambles—and that includes good poker games. The very best gambles often have intense competition. This competition tends to burn opportunities out. Only so many people can get a bite of the pie before it’s all gone.

This competitive effect causes all gambles that actually make it to you—the poker games you can actually sit in, the hands you actually get to play, and so on—to be biased against you. Sometimes this effect is weak, and sometimes it is stronger. But if competition is reliably picking off the very best opportunities quickly, then any opportunity that you don’t have to fight hard to get will naturally be not quite as good.

The reason this effect is so important is because we all have a heuristic for deciding what a good gambling opportunity is. Say you’re at the World Series of Poker in the cash game room. You’re looking around at 100 different poker games to try to find the best one for you to play. How will you choose?

Maybe you will look for games with a lot of money on the table. Maybe you will look for particular players you recognize and want to play against. Maybe you don’t recognize anyone, but you look for particular demographic characteristics—stereotypes really—that you associate with good poker games.

I think most people would admit that these heuristics are imperfect. It’s really not possible to survey 100 poker games in a reasonable amount of time and reliably order the games in profitability from 1 to 100.

There’s one heuristic that is perhaps more powerful at finding the good games than any of the ones I listed, though. It’s the wait list. Say there are three games going. One is a $5-$10 game with three names on the list. One is a $25-$50 game with no waiting list. And one is a $10-$25 game with 24 names on the list. Which one is probably the best game?

Obviously, all other things equal, it’s the game with the huge wait list. While I suppose it’s possible there is some other explanation for this waiting list anomaly, by far the most likely is that the players who regularly play these limits have evaluated this game and all want to get into it.

Probably just as obviously, if you put your name 25th on the list, by the time the call gets to you, whatever it was about the game that made it so good will probably be gone.

Unless you can find a way to skip to the top of the list, you’ve probably missed this opportunity.

It’s here, however, that many players make what I consider to be a substantial gambling mistake. Let’s say you normally play $5-$10, but you see this $10-$20 frenzy and get excited. You know your chance to get in on it isn’t great, but you put your name at the bottom of the list anyway.

Half an hour later, the brush calls a new $10-$20 game of people from the list. This feels like the first step to getting into the great game, so you quit your normal, profitable $5-$10 game to go to the new game.

How do you think this is likely to turn out?

You’ll probably end up in a worse-than-average $10-$20 game with other players trying like you to get into the good game. And you’re last on the list, so even though you’re now playing $10-$20, you probably won’t get into the good game ever.

What happened? Basically you missed out on the good opportunity. Instead of just accepting that and trying to get in early on a new good opportunity or just grinding your normal game, you took the next opportunity that came to you easily.

Gambling opportunities that come to you easily often aren’t very good.

So let’s say you play in the new $10-$20 game for an hour. No one leaves the original game. And as expected, it’s not a very good game. You give up, but now there’s a list for $5-$10.

There’s still no list for $25-$50, though, and you’ve already mentally committed to playing bigger than usual, so you’re now in “taking a shot” mode. You ask the brush to seat you in the $25-$50 game. How do you think that’s likely to go?

The World Series of Poker cash game room is about as competitive a poker environment as there is. If there’s a good game going, eventually someone will notice and the game will fill. The fact that this $25-$50 game hasn’t filled in an hour is a bad sign. You don’t really even need to know anything else about the game.

You go over to the game and you try to talk yourself into thinking it’s a good game. Well, there is a whole ton of money on the table. There’s a guy in a cowboy hat who maybe looks like a good spot. You haven’t seen him play or anything, but if you saw him in a $5-$10 game, you’d probably try to get into it.

To be honest, I don’t think you’re going to be a favorite in this $25-$50 game. Cowboy hat guy is probably better than you are. If cowboy hat were a genuine spot in a $25-$50 game in the World Series of Poker cash game room, the game wouldn’t be sitting short-handed for hours on end.

I mean it’s possible. Anything’s possible. But I doubt it.

Final Thoughts

When you’re in the moment making gambling decisions like which game to play, whether you should take a shot, and so on, there are often competing factors. First there are your normal heuristics for game selection. Second there are your emotions about what you feel like doing (often regardless of what will be best for your bankroll long-term). These two factors often work pretty well for making every day decisions. It’s not hard to get pretty good at picking the right game out of five or six available to you at your normal stakes. It’s also in general probably a good idea to play the games you feel like playing, rather than ones you don’t want to play.

But these factors can also lead you astray—especially when you’re thinking of doing something you don’t usually do. If you normally play $2-$5 or $5-$10, then the rules you use to evaluate games at those stakes might not work so well when you start looking at a $25-$50 game. Your feelings can also lead you astray, because the excitement of doing something new can cloud your judgement.

On the other hand, counterparty bias is always a factor you should consider. Is the seat you’re trying to get in demand or not? If it is, and you get there first, congratulations. But if it’s not—or if you settle for one that’s not—more often than not you’ll find yourself in a bad, unprofitable game. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site