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Poker Strategy With Dr. Al Schoonmaker: Everybody Has Biased Thinking

Schoonmaker Explains Why We're Not As Objective As We Think We Are


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Everybody has biased thinking, but most people won’t admit it. You, me, and everyone else want to believe that we’re objective and realistic. We can easily see that other people are biased, but usually can’t or won’t see our own biases or their destructive effects. Even when other people tell us that we’re not thinking clearly, we often refuse to admit it.


Because admitting that truth is too painful. We want to believe we’re rational thinkers.

Since biased thinking causes bad decisions, it’s often the primary cause for disappointing poker results. As countless poker authorities have written, the most important skill is decision-making.

All our other skills are almost irrelevant if our biases cause bad decisions. It doesn’t matter whether we can do complicated math calculations in our heads, or have great intuition about players, or have outstanding emotional control. If we make bad decisions, we will certainly lose. Conversely, despite our weaknesses, if we make good decisions, we will certainly win.

Even if we’re winning players, our biases will distort our thinking, cause mistakes, and cost us lots of money. We should obviously accept the temporary discomfort of admitting we have biases and do everything possible to understand them and reduce their effects.

Dr. Kahneman’s Position On Biases

Previous columns said he’s the first psychologist to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Until recently, economists sneered at psychology. They simply assumed that we think rationally: We objectively analyze all our alternatives and select the one that maximizes our utility.

Many economists still cling to that belief, but the more honest ones have slowly and reluctantly accepted that it’s just a myth, that nobody is completely rational.
Dr. Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, reports his own and other psychologists’ research on how people actually think and make decisions.

He wrote: “Much of the discussion in this book is about biases… We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” (p. 4)

Part Two of his book is titled, “Heuristics and Biases.” My previous column discussed one of these biases, “The exaggerated faith in small samples.” (p. 118) We often believe that small samples such as winning a few hands or missing eight flushes in a row can predict future results. We feel that we’re hot or overdue, but we’re just over-reacting to purely random variations. The odds of having the best hand or making the next flush never change.

The Availability Heuristic

Dr. Kahneman included it in “Heuristics and Biases” and defined it as “the ease with which instances come to mind.” If it’s easy to remember a type of event, we will think it occurs much more often than it actually occurs. I’ll report only two of his many examples:

“Death by disease is 18 times as likely as accidental death, but the two were judged about equally likely.”

“Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter causes 20 times more deaths.”

Right after these examples he wrote: “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.” (p. 138)

These huge errors were caused by both the availability heuristic and the previous bias: “The exaggerated faith in small samples.” Everybody occasionally gets sick, but few of us have deadly accidents, and even fewer people experience tornados. But, deadly accidents and tornadoes are very memorable.

The media increase these distortions. They rarely discuss or show pictures of sick people, but they report, often with very vivid pictures, tornadoes and accidents. They have a simple rule: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Since we see so many pictures and read so many stories about these rare events, we naturally remember them and think they are much more common than they really are.

How Does This Heuristic Affect Our Poker?

If a small sample or even one instance is dramatic and memorable enough, it will have a much greater effect upon our thinking than much better evidence such as a large sample’s statistics. Since most biases are unconscious, we may not realize that our thinking is distorted.

We can see these effects much more easily in other people than in ourselves. Many people say they have lucky or unlucky cards, dealers, games, casinos, days of the week, etc. They have these silly beliefs because they won or lost a big pot or a tournament, not because they kept accurate records.

Poker television shows emphasize drama, just like the Seven O’clock News. They report and show videos of dramatic plays and don’t show the boring hands. They want to entertain viewers, not teach them how to play well.

It’s much more dramatic to see aces cracked by 74 offsuit than it is to watch someone raise with aces and win immediately, even though it happens ten or more times as often. If all we know about poker is what we’ve seen on television, we’d have a completely false picture of our game.

You may agree with my points about other players and television, but insist that you’re different. You probably don’t have such obvious biases, but don’t be so sure that you are completely unbiased, completely rational.

Instead, take a hard look at what you actually do while you’re playing. Do you occasionally play differently because you feel you’re hot or overdue? Do you occasionally join or leave games you know you shouldn’t because you remember winning or losing a lot with certain cards, dealers, players, and so on?

What’s The Bottom Line?

An essential first step toward improving your decisions is to stop kidding yourself: You are not different from every other human being. You do have biases, and you’d better learn what they are and adjust to that reality.

A second step is to understand other people’s biases and adjust to that reality.
Virtually everyone is much more comfortable with the second step than the first. It’s much easier and more comfortable to understand and adjust to other people’s biases than our own. It makes us feel superior, while understanding and adjusting to our own biases may make us feel inferior. We don’t want to feel that way.

To improve your thinking, decisions, and results, accept the temporary discomfort of analyzing your own biases. As I wrote in Poker Winners Are Different, “The critical difference between winners and losers is that winners do whatever works, while losers do whatever makes them comfortable.” (p. 144)

Since it’s very difficult or impossible to do this by yourself, work with a poker buddy or coach. Ask him to tell you the truth about how you really think. You won’t enjoy it, but – if you really want to win more money – it’s worth the pain and effort.

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Alan SchoonmakerAfter publishing five expensive poker books, Dr. Al,, now writes inexpensive eBooks. How to Beat Small Poker Games, Stay Young; Play Poker, How to Beat Killed Hold’em Games, and Competitive Edge Strategies For Poker And Business Winners cost only $2.99 at