Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I was reading about the Illusion of Transparency at the You Are Not So Smart blog, and it made me think about something that happened during a poker tournament I played in Biloxi, MI last year. The Illusion of Transparency is the illusion that your emotional states are obvious to others when they actually aren't. Conversely, lots of people, and poker players in particular, overrate their ability to read the body language of others.

In this particular instance, I was playing at a table with a guy from Australia who I had played with in an earlier tournament that week. He was a very self-assured, fairly successful player, apparently pretty well-known on the tournament circuit (but not a TV name). He was good and he let the other players at the table know it right away. I, on the other hand, take a different tack: I downplay my abilities and attempt, as best I can, not to give away what skill I possess. I've been doing this for years in other games, like Star Fleet Battles (a guy actually went to the tournament staff during an SFB tournament complaining that it was somehow unfair or wrong of me to have pretended not to know how to play; they told him, basically, "tough"), and so it was natural to continue in poker.

Mike Caro, perhaps my favorite poker author, also endorses this strategy. He notes that people will make mistakes against someone they perceive to be less skilled, thinking that bad players won't know to take advantage of them. Whereas, if they think you are a good player, they won't think they can take advantage of you and won't make those plays. (Also, in poker as opposed to other games, where you get to decide who to play hands against, appearing to be skilled may discourage poor players you want to play against from playing hands against you). The other advantage Caro doesn't really talk about, but which is actually the reason I adopted this strategy in the first place, is that when you are playing against a boastful player, acting humble works whether I win or lose: if I lose, well, then, I never talked big, so I don't get any of that, "Oh, you thought you were so good, look what happened!" type talk. And if I win, it's more satisfying, because poor little ol' me took down the big-talker.

So, anyway, in my play with this Australian guy I had talked myself down, saying I didn't want to get into hands against him (though this was true, in the sense that since I could see he actually was a good player it doesn't make sense to play any more hands against him than I have to), that I wasn't up to his level, etc. etc., feeding into his ego. And he listened to this, what I was saying, more than he noticed my actual play. (I did pretty well at the two tables I played at with him in the earlier tournament, and was doing pretty well at the table this day I'm talking about). This was the one big hole in his skill, from what I saw of him: he never got a good read on me because of his own ego and failing to really notice what was going on, as what I am about to talk about will illustrate.

(Side note: not all egotistic but good players make this mistake. I played with another pretty well-known -- but not TV know -- pro at this same tournament series at several tables who is a well-know egomaniac. And while, at first, he did buy into my act, he eventually caught on. I intentionally handle my chips poorly at the table, because lots of players take that to mean you are a newbie or an internet player they can take advantage of. Well, at the third or fourth table I played with this pro at, I fumbled my chips and, as if a light came on, he said (not until the hand was over, of course), "You're trying to look incompetent on purpose, aren't you? 'Cause I think I've seen you make too many good plays for you to be that unskilled." I made sure no one else was paying attention and gave him a little smile and a nod -- no point continuing the ruse against him, at least, when he'd caught on. Later, in another tournament, he was a table next to mine and I heard him say to another player (about me), "That guy is really smart in a subtle way. He's better than he lets on.")

So, anyway, back to this Australian guy. So, I pick up ATo in late position and make a standard (3xBB) raise. He calls from the big blind, saying something to the effect of, "You don't want to play against me," to which I agreed. The flop comes, rainbow, all undercards. I decide not to continuation bet because I don't want to build a big pot with a marginal, easily dominated hand against a good player. He bets out something like 2/3 the pot. He's in the BB, but he could have called with anything, including hands that might have hit that flop. Of course, since I checked, he's probably betting there something like 80% of the time with any two cards, which is why I probably should have made the continuation bet. But, anyway, I think about it for a while, whether to check-raise him since there's a good chance he's bluffing. But it's near the dinner break and I have a good stack, so I decide to let it go.

He turns over something like A5o to show the bluff. I'm not surprised or upset by this, since it's about what I thought he probably had. So I can't imagine I reacted, outwardly, much to his showing his cards.

But still, he thinks, apparently, he saw something. So then, he says, "Ha! I got you to fold JJ, didn't I? That's what I put you on." Now, that's just ridiculous. I'm never folding JJ there. And that's exactly what I'm thinking when he says, "Ha! I'm right, aren't I? You turned white when I said it!"

I can't imagine what he thought he saw. Because my only reaction to his claim that I had JJ was that it was a ridiculous read because I'd never fold JJ there. So I can't imagine I had a striking outward reaction to what he said. I certainly can't imagine I blanched or turned white. In fact, I was so surprised by how bad his read was and how certain he was that I'd given it away, I said, "No, I had AT."

And he just laughed at me and said, "Yeah. No, you had JJ. It's all over your face."

I shrugged and said nothing else, as I realized that if he thought a) I was such a weak player that I'd fold JJ there and b) that he had a good read on me, that my act was working, and I shouldn't spoil it. It was working in an unexpected way when I wasn't even really trying to be deceptive, but working.

Unfortunately, our table broke soon afterwards so I didn't get to take advantage of his bad read on me. But it did teach me a couple important lessons. One, that not only can pretty good players misread me, but in surprising and spectacularly bad ways, probably helped along by my act. Two, that you should never tell the other player what you put him on. If your read is right, it might intimidate him, but it'll also warn him you are a good player and make him shore up his game and less likely to get into hands against you. If it is wrong, however, especially if it is spectacularly wrong as in this case, it gives your opponent an important window into how you think he plays. Once I knew this guy thought he could push me off JJ in a situation like that, that he thought I was that weak, I can now set up a similar situation and use it to trap him into making a big bluff when I have him crushed (for instance). It gives away important information for little gain.

Similarly, at a couple other tournaments, one in Biloxi and one in Atlantic City, after a hand the person I was playing against started talking to another player about how they thought I played, as if I couldn't hear them! In both cases this gave me invaluable information. In both cases they had completely mis-read how I was playing, but afterwards, knowing what they thought I was doing, I was able to trap them with that information, and in both cases I ended up busting that player out of the tournament. But it was interesting to hear how they incorrectly judged my play and also that, I guess due to my act, they figured I either wouldn't pay attention to or be able to use the information they were giving away against them. I can't imagine how they think even a bad player wouldn't notice someone talking about how they play and use it, but still..


At 9:54 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

In my experience, most people understand very little about how and why others behave -- and yet, contradictorily, most people believe they have a good bead on others. If this is the "delusion" discussed in the book you are (were) reading, then I couldn't agree more.

For my part, I find people baffling and strange. The older I get, the better I get at hiding that most of the time people confuse me, but the more confused I become. When I try to understand them, my "default" models are invariably quite negative.

I think a great deal about our national discourse would be improved if we could convince people to just not try to model others at all. Respond to what people say and do, but not to what you believe their motivations and thinking processes are, etc.

As to games: Go is technically a perfect information game, unlike virtually any card game; however, psychology is still often considered a large part of the game. Because the state space is so vast, it functions like an imperfect game (there's theory about this, but outside of my point so I will not bore your readers). This means that, for example, it's possible to bluff. There can also be advantage to appearing noticeably confident or unsure in certain situations, just as you describe in your poker game.

But I've never been good at any of that psychology so I don't bother factoring it when I think about how I play, nor how my opponent plays. It just gets in the way (for me). At best, I may note that a particular player is excessively aggressive, so I can count on his invading foolishly and thus set him up ... but such situations are very rare for me. Usually, I just play the best game of which I am capable, regardless of who is placing the stones for the opposing side.

One of our club members who is slightly stronger than I am used to frequently quip after I played, "I don't understand that move." At first, I would reply acerbically with something like, "I'm under no obligation to explain my motivation or reasoning to you." Eventually, it occurred to me that his motivation might have been specifically to irritate me (an thus affect my play), but it took a while for this to even dawn on me.

One of our very strong players used to nod a lot when I would place a stone. At first, I thought it might indicate that I'd played something interesting. Then I thought it was a silent acknowledgement that he saw some line of attack open up as a result of a mistake on my part. Finally, I pondered the notion that he did it on purpose to unnerve me, though this would be inconsistent with his personality.

One day I talked to him about it, and he was unaware that he even did it. He had no idea what the meaning of his nodding was and guessed that it might coincide with his counting (in Go, one tries to keep a constant estimate of the balance of the game while playing, which we usually, uninspiringly refer to as "counting").

At my best, I just try very hard not to read people. It rarely turns out well to do so. One of the things I love about Go is that I can "disappear" into the game. The prattling cacophony in my head quiets and reduces to thinking about the game itself. Thinking about the psychology of my opponent would destroy this quiet, and I doubt I'd continue to play for long if I really took to factoring this into my play.

Of course, I don't play poker ... and I guess I would be particularly bad at it for all these reasons. Probabilities I can handle ... people, not so much.


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