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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Anchoring And Bet Sizing

Miller Explains How Anchoring Can Open Up A Small Game

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The book, Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman, introduced me to the concept of anchoring. It’s a concept anyone who works in sales must no doubt be intimately familiar with, but it was new to me when I read the book.

Here’s the idea. You can affect a person’s estimates of value, size, and so on by throwing out a number before they come to their conclusion.

Say you have an item that has obvious, but probably not exceptional value. Something like a nice pair of headphones. You take a group of people and divide them in two. You ask the first group, “How much do you think these headphones are worth?” and take down their answers.

You ask the second group two questions. First, you ask, “Do you think these headphones are worth more or less than $200?” Then after they answer that, you ask, “How much do you think these headphones are worth?”

Even if everyone in the second group says the headphones are worth less $200, you can still expect that group to give a higher valued answer to the real question, “How much are they worth?” Maybe the first group will give answers that average to $40 and the second group to $60.

By tossing out the number $200 before you ask the real question, you’ve anchored your audience. They have that $200 number in their head and even if it’s not a realistic number, people will tend to answer the second question in relation to the $200 rather than come up with their own number out of thin air.

Even though I couldn’t articulate the anchoring concept until I read the book, I have used a similar idea in no-limit games for many years.

In live no-limit games, the stacks are often very deep compared to the size of the blinds. Like in a $5-$10 game you might have players playing $3,000 or $5,000 stacks or even more. The trick to it is to figure out how to get your opponents to put that money in the pot, and to do it in a bad (for them) situation.

Many live games these days are played fairly tight and solid. Yeah, there’s $5,000 on the table, but the bets are $40 and $100 and $300, not $3,000. If all the money ever does go in, it’s likely to be a nuts versus second nuts situation. (I’m not saying all live games play like this, obviously. Just some, and more these days than in the past.)

When you’re in a game like this one, playing smaller than the stacks, you usually want to try to open it up. The reason that everyone is playing smaller than the stacks is because that’s what they’re used to, and that’s the level where the poker math makes intuitive sense to them. When the bets get bigger, they lose their intuition, start making mistakes, and potentially end up getting stacks in bad.

What I do is I look for situations where I can make extra-large bets and it’s unlikely to hurt me. One common situation is where I am in position and have a much stronger hand range than my opponent is marked with. This comes up often on the turn when a card I know is bad for my opponent’s range hits.

When I bet, I know that my opponent is very likely to fold. And if he calls I’m still likely to be in fine shape with position and one betting round to go. It really doesn’t matter then much how much I bet in this situation—the outcomes run fairly close together in value for me. So I’ll throw out a big bet and announce the size verbally.

The goal isn’t to get anything to happen on this hand. I’m likely going to get a fold and win a modest pot. The goal is just to get that bet size number out there where people hear it. The hope is that my opponents’ future bet-sizing decisions will be influenced by the number I threw out and the game will open up a bit.

Even if that doesn’t work, I think this idea can help in a related but slightly different way. Other players, particularly better players, may have noticed the weird bet size and come to the (correct) conclusion that it’s a bit wild and oversized for the situation. They can draw a fallacious conclusion from this observation.

They could assume that the bet is weirdly-sized because I’m bluffing. Or they could assume that the bet is weirdly-sized because I’m going for value. This assumption will then affect the future hand-reading they do on me.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes when I do this, it seems to have the effect that I am looking for. More often, it seems to have no real effect on the game. This isn’t too surprising, I suppose. It’s the sort of angle I would expect if it works at all to work only sometimes and to a limited degree.

And I suppose it’s possible that it doesn’t really ever work, and the times I perceive that it’s worked are mostly just coincidence.

This doesn’t bother me, however, and I will keep doing it. The key to being a successful gambler, at least in games that have substantial incomplete information like poker, sports, markets, and so on, is to find as many edges and angles as you can think of, and to try them all. There’s no doubt that many, if not most of them, are worthless or nearly worthless. A few of them, on the other hand, are worth a lot.

And the thing is, it’s not always easy to tell which is which. Is my anchoring play successful at opening up games sometimes and misleading my opponents? Maybe. Probably, I think, especially because there seems to be some human psychology that would back up the idea.

But it has a subtle effect, at best, and it will be nearly impossible for me to try to tease out the effect this particular angle had on my results versus all the other confounding considerations.

What I do know is that at the end of the month, at the end of the year, after many years, I come out ahead. I may not know the value of any single idea, but I know that when I add them all together, I come up with something that wins.

Sure, the more you can pin down exactly what it is you do that makes you money, the better. You can think of ways to do the valuable things more often and for more money.

But not being able to quantify the value of something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If you are logical and process-driven, your gambling ideas will probably range from slightly bad to very good, and if you add them all together you’ll end up in the black.

So hey, give this anchoring idea a try. See if you can influence the thoughts and behaviors of your opponents with large, announced bet sizes. If you think it’s working (or not working) feel free to tell me about it. ♠

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