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Greg Raymer: How The Anchoring Bias Affects Us At The Poker Table

Part 3 Of An Ongoing Series On Cognitive Bias


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Please let me encourage you to reach out to me with article ideas and questions for future columns. You can tweet to me at @FossilMan, or send me a message at

I hope you liked my first column on cognitive biases on The Self-Serving Bias, and my follow up on The Curse Of Knowledge.

Digging further into some common biases that impact poker, let’s examine The Anchoring Bias and The Availability Heuristic.

The Anchoring Bias is our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information that comes to mind or presents itself when making a decision.

The Availability Heuristic is similar, and involves over emphasizing the first examples that come to mind when making a judgment.

Whenever somebody makes a poker decision (or any decision, for that matter), they always have a reason. Frequently, they even have a sensible reason. The question is not, “Did they have a good reason?,” but “Did they fairly evaluate all available information before making their final decision?”

All too often, we go with the first reason that comes to mind, and whichever decision it supports. How many times have we seen a player make a bluff on the river, knowing, as we watched, that it was a hopeless bluff? When they get called and lose, you often hear them say, “Well, bluffing was the only way I could win.” Every time I have heard that, they were correct. Each time, their hand was so weak, they did effectively have zero chance of winning at showdown.

However, the fact that their statement was correct does not mean they should have attempted a bluff. They had a good reason to bluff, yet that reason is almost irrelevant when it comes to deciding whether to bluff.

The thing to think about when attempting a bluff is not just can you win if you check? Rather, you should consider how many chips you are risking, how many chips you will win, and how often you estimate the opponent will fold.

If I am playing the board, and will never win at showdown, it is still silly to bluff if the opponent is almost always going to call. While bluffing was my only chance to win, it was also my only chance to lose more chips on this hand.

You see similar mistakes being made in every facet of poker. You get to the river, bet with the second nut straight, and get raised. Your first thought is, “The only hand that can beat my A-4 on this board is 6-4, and this guy is too tight to ever play 6-4, so I’m going to reraise.”

That is a valid and strong argument for that decision. However, if the opponent is too tight to play 6-4, isn’t he also too tight to raise on the river without the nuts? Something doesn’t fit, and you need to look closer.

You need to consider everything else you know about this player. Was he in the big blind? How much looser does he play preflop in that position? How many players were already in? Maybe he would play 6-4, from the big blind, for a 2.5x raise preflop, with three other players having already called. Was there a flush draw on the flop? Maybe he called your c-bet on the flop because he had both a gutshot and a flush draw? And if he doesn’t have 6-4, what else could he have right now?

If his range at this point is 6-4 or a bluff, then a reraise is a mistake. If he has 6-4, your reraise will cost you more. If he is bluffing, he will fold to your reraise, and you will win the same amount as if you had just called.

There is always more to consider. If you limit yourself to the first thing that comes to mind, you will never be able to play very well. If you over-generalize an opponent, you will draw too many wrong conclusions about how they play. You need to really dig into all the details of each hand and compare all those details to how they have played previous hands.

The trick isn’t to just look at the first thought, or even to add just one more thought. The trick is to consider everything possible, while not taking excessive time to make each decision. Considering everything will result in paralysis by analysis. The real skill is going past the first thought, but not going so far that you waste time. Once you master that, then you’re truly on the right path to becoming a great player.

Have fun, and Play Smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.