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Poker Strategy With Greg Raymer: The Pessimism And Optimism Bias

2004 WSOP Main Event Champ Continues His Series On Cognitive Bias


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Part 1: Self-Serving Bias
Part 2: The Curse Of Knowledge
Part 3: Anchoring Bias and the Availability Heuristic
Part 4: Confirmation Bias

Continuing my series on cognitive biases, here are two more familiar biases that we are all quite aware of from playing poker, the Pessimism Bias and the Optimism Bias.

The interesting thing about these two biases is that both are very commonplace, yet they seem to be complete opposites of one another. As you would assume, the Pessimism Bias is a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, while the Optimism Bias is a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes.

There is a lot of variance in poker. And very often, even when you play a hand correctly, you do not win the pot. Or, you lose a lot more in a pot with your correct play, whereas a different (inferior) line would have at least resulted in a smaller loss. Conversely, it is also common to badly misplay a hand, and yet win the pot. Or, again, you misplay a hand and win even more than if you had played it well.

Humans have evolved to notice patterns, especially short-term patterns, and we tend to give these patterns a lot of weight in our decision-making. Often, more weight than they deserve.

If you have played several draws aggressively, missed them all, and gotten called down, you will notice this short-term pattern. This is when the Pessimism Bias might creep in. You now start thinking that you just can’t make any draws. And therefore, decide to either fold those draws, or play them passively so as to minimize your losses.

Of course, this is not always the optimal way to play a draw. Sometimes you should play them passively, but other times a more aggressive line is better. Yet now the Pessimism Bias is leading you to underplay all your draws. This means you aren’t paying enough attention to all the other factors that would indicate if you should play the current draw passively, or aggressively, or even just fold it. Instead of weighing all the factors and using that information to pick the best line, your bias is making the choice for you. And often the one you pick will not be the smartest choice.

On the other hand, maybe you have played a series of draws aggressively, made all of them, and as a result won the maximum each time. Maybe one of those times, you missed the draw, but bet again on the river, and got the opponent to fold. Now you have not only won some bigger pots, but even managed to win a pot you otherwise would have lost.

This is when the Optimism Bias will get you. You now start to feel like you can’t miss, and continue to play all your draws aggressively. And this might lead you to ignore the warning signs that an opponent just isn’t going to fold. And by continuing to barrel into this opponent, you are doing nothing more than spewing chips into the pot, hoping to catch a lucky card.

Essentially, these two biases are opposite sides of the same coin. These biases are the result of us overemphasizing recent past results, and assuming the next result will follow the recent pattern. The truth is recent results have almost no meaning at all. Just because you have made your last four flush draws has zero impact on the odds of you making the next one. You are neither more, nor less, likely to make number five.

Of course, these biases don’t just apply to draws. They apply to our entire game. Whenever you have been running bad, it gets easy to overestimate the chances that something bad will happen in the next hand you play. If this becomes your mindset, you will play the hand less than optimally, since you are overly concerned about the “bad thing” you believe is likely to happen.

And when you are running great, winning lots of pots, and hitting every board, you can easily go on Happy Tilt. You expect to keep getting these great results, and you start playing hands you should have folded. And trying to bluff the calling station, and other poor decisions caused by your overly optimistic mindset. You become emotionally convinced you are destined to win every pot, and fail to put on the brakes even when it is clearly the smart move.

The main cause of these two biases, and most of the other biases we have discussed in this series, is emotion. Because recent results are so fresh in our memory, they have an over-weighted emotional impact on our mood, and therefore on our mindset. The more you can learn to become emotionally detached from the results when you play, the less likely you will fall prey to the Pessimism Bias and the Optimism Bias.

Instead of focusing on how many chips you won or lost, focus on the quality of each decision. If the smartest choice was made, but didn’t work out, don’t be pessimistic. Instead, be optimistic, because you are making the smartest choices. And if you make a decision that works out well, but you realize it actually wasn’t the smartest choice, use that knowledge to guide you to make the smartest choice next time.

Don’t go on happy tilt, and then continue to make poor decisions. Minimize emotions, and maximize quality analysis! 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.