Great Expectations

Great Expectations

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

It’s easy to have great expectations in poker. It’s also easy to get disappointed by them. I had great expectations of the novel Great Expectations but (spoiler alert) the old lady doesn’t actually do very much, Pip isn’t Pippa Middleton (as I was incorrectly promised) – it’s actually a boy – and the whole thing goes terribly wrong, ending in a graphic advert for fire safety in the home.

But poker is brilliant at playing with your expectations. It has the ability to make you feel, and look, like a genius. Even a beginner can go on huge winning runs. If you’re reading this, it’s probable you’ve experienced this at some point. Most people who are ‘into’ poker have had a good run of results, most often near the beginning – we have this habit of liking things we think we’re good at and stopping things we suck at. The exception to this is relationships – we’re really good at stopping the good ones and continuing the sucky ones. No? Just me?

The problem is that our brains are very bad at managing our expectations. This is because we are endlessly adaptable. If you want proof, check out the Tube on a Monday morning or the M4 into London – people will adapt and put up with anything and that’s how we’ve conquered the planet. However, this adaptability comes at a price. Once we’ve experienced something, we consider it an entitlement.

I can remember when I started out in poker, learning and playing in home games before I ever set foot in a card room. I read a couple of books which was more than the people I played with ever did and so had a big edge and won easily. Then, on playing in a card room, I won the second live event I ever played. I was hooked, but dangerously so. I figured I could now win regularly in real-money public games. The next few months were a painful learning curve that taught me that this wasn’t the case.

You see this happen all the time in poker. Someone will win a big event and figure he can beat not only that buy-in level but also a couple more above it. After all, he’s just proven himself to be a winner, and our simple chimpanzee brains don’t understand any more than that. Even worse, he will immediately consider this new high watermark “the norm”. This can get way out of hand when a player wins a big tournament then decides to jump in a cash game. If you ever hear a high stakes player talking about “Party Mondays” he's referring to the winners of the Sunday tournaments suddenly playing over their heads.

To counter this problem, it’s really important to know what your expectations should be when entering a poker game. You can do this by working out what a good winning rate is in your game. You can figure a good winning rate in cash, tournaments or SnGs by either working out some simple maths or just researching what the best players in the game make. The benefit is that not only will it give you something to aim for but it’ll also keep your brain on the straight and narrow, especially if you enjoy a heater and get a period of results far in excess of the norm.
There’s an old adage that, in tournaments, everyone who gets knocked out is unhappy, except the winner. This is human nature; we play to win. It’s also utterly ridiculous. If you finish in the top few spots in a tournament, you’ve hugely overachieved and should be incredibly happy. Yet try telling that to anyone who loses a race at a final table. Look at it this way – if you were a huge favourite at a buy-in limit, you might have a 200% return on investment (you almost certainly wouldn’t get it this high but it makes the maths easier) – so your expectation is that you double your money in every tournament (see, easy maths). Anything above that means you’ve really run good in that one tournament. You’ve overachieved and should be happy, regardless of how cruelly you get knocked out in the money.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s unlikely people will feel happy they got knocked out in the money any time soon. However it’s my enduring wish to see a tournament reporter ask the following question after someone is knocked out at a final table in a particularly sick way: ‘So you finished fifth. You massively overachieved compared to your expectation on entering. You must be elated’.

Right, I’m off to read the end of David Copperfield. Three hundred pages in and he hasn’t done a single magic trick. Not going to lie, I’m a little disappointed. Expectations! Pfft!

Tags: Nick Wealthall, Columnist