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Poker Strategy With Greg Raymer: The Survivorship Bias

Part 6 Of An Ongoing Series On Cognitive Bias


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This is part 6 in an ongoing series on how cognitive biases can affect us at the poker table.

Part 1: Self-Serving Bias
Part 2: The Curse Of Knowledge
Part 3: Anchoring Bias and the Availability Heuristic
Part 4: Confirmation Bias
Part 5: Pessimism and Optimism Bias

It seems there is a never-ending stream of these biases. This time, let’s talk about the Survivorship Bias. This bias happens when we focus on things that have survived a process, and overlook those that failed.

Let’s imagine a salesperson. They are super aggressive and heavy-handed when dealing with customers. They use every trick in the book to convince the buyer and make a sale. You see their rude and obnoxious behavior, but they are making more sales than most others. As such, it is easy to think that their approach is the correct one, and should be emulated.

However, were there other salespeople who also tried this approach, and who failed? If there were a bunch of others who failed with this approach, then they have moved on to other jobs, or perhaps even left the field of sales entirely. If we look very closely at all the data, maybe it turns out that most of these obnoxious types do not do well in sales, but a small portion do sell a lot.

However, maybe those that succeed with this style have other things helping them. Maybe they have a lot of connections through family and friends. Maybe these other factors are the true “secret sauce” to their success. Maybe they would perform even better if they didn’t engage in such high-pressure sales tactics.

The point is, if you only look at the survivors, and ignore all the others who tried and didn’t survive, you can’t draw an accurate picture of what it takes to succeed. Maybe only a small portion of these aggressive sellers do well, while most fizzle out and fail. Whereas those who use other tactics tend to do well as a group, and most of them survive. Unless you consider all the data, you won’t know the truth.

Getting back to poker, I have had many students over the years (I do both live group seminars and private lessons on Zoom) who tell me they need to learn how to loosen up and play more hands. They see that halfway through a tournament, most of the players with big stacks are super-loose and aggressive. This leads them to believe that they need to emulate this style if they want to win.

But the truth is, if you start the tournament and there are 20 people playing this super laggy style, by the time half the field is gone, there may only be 3-4 of them left. And while those 3-4 may be amongst the bigger stacks, as a group they haven’t done that well. They paid for 20 stacks of chips as a group, and now the survivors only have about 10-15 stacks of chips.

However, when you look at just one of them, it seems their style is paying off, as they sit there with double the current average stack. But at this point in time, you probably won’t notice the 16-17 of them that failed with this strategy, and have busted out. It is the Survivorship Bias that makes the remaining laggy players look successful to you.

This is a fairly common thing in the poker world. Especially in more recent years, as more and more tournaments have gone to a structure that includes lots of time to re-enter. There are many players who utilize an overly loose style, even a wild-and-crazy type of play, whenever they can still re-enter. Some of these players just like to play like that, and always do so. Others are capable of playing tight and solid when they choose to, but think it is smart to play laggy if they can re-enter.

In fact, this is a disease I see a lot amongst some of the more skilled players. They are capable of playing exceptionally well, but spend a lot of time at the table NOT doing so. They either fail to play their best because it is a lower buy-in game, because they’re drunk or on tilt, or they think they should be much looser during the reentry period.

But even the fact that some highly skillful players do this does not make it the smartest way to play. The Survivorship Bias makes their laggy play look better than it is. Especially when they play like this early on, but convert to their true “A” game later in a tournament.

The truth is you have to look beyond this bias, and see the underlying reality. You have to pick the strategy that truly maximizes your EV. In some cases, playing much looser and more aggressive than you usually would IS the correct strategy. But this isn’t the case just because you can re-enter. Or because this is (to you) a low buy-in tournament. This is the case when you have a table that will let you run them over and bully them. When you have a table that you can read well, and you know when to bluff, when to go for thin value, and so on.

If your opponents are adjusting properly to your game when you play like a maniac, you will be doing nothing more than spewing chips into the pot, hoping to get lucky. And that is not how winners play. Winners don’t play hoping to get lucky. Winners make the smartest decision, with the highest EV, each and every time.

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.