Thursday, 7 March 2013

By Nick Wealthall

It’s hard to get to the truth. Often, perception is everything, rendering the truth of the matter irrelevant. I was reminded of this recently when my social media timelines filled up with praise for the footballer and pants model David Beckham.

He was “a ledge”, “a gent”, “classy”, and could “teach those other money-grabbing footballers a thing or two”. The fuss was caused because he’s agreed to play very little football for five months for plucky underdog and oil-rich-Qatar-backed PSG and not accept a salary. In fact his “wages” will be donated to a charity, hence he is a saint in the perception of the public.

Details, of course, are unimportant. Details such as, how much of his salary would he have received after tax, how much might he still make from his time in Paris, how much the PR makes him from other angles. None of this matters; the perception is he did a nice thing therefore he is a gent; and hey, any kid that benefits isn’t going to care about the motives of the individual or the club.

And who really knows. Is “Becks” the nice guy who gives to charity and sets up soccer skills academies or the guy who allegedly cheats on his wife? Is he the breathless patriot who will do anything for his country or the guy who has endless moneymaking schemes? I honestly have no clue. I suspect he asks “what’s in it for me?” a little more often than his admirers would like to think, but in the perception game he’s king.

It’s the can be very hard to get to the truth in poker, too, and that’s what makes it such a difficult game. For example, if you can create the perception that you have a big hand when actually you have nothing, and your opponents fold, then you win the hand. Perception has become real, in a pseudo-Schrödinger’s-cat-type situation. You could have had a great hand or nothing, it doesn’t matter. In fact, when you have something your hand does not become a great hand until it’s turned over.

As poker players, it’s our job to make our perception of our opponents as close to reality as possible, and that’s not an easy task. Say you sit down at a live table and, during the first two orbits, you open-raise four pots, for three out of which you get three-bet by the same player and none of the hands go to showdown. Your perception will be that he’s a very aggressive type who's looking to put the pressure on, possibly a very competent player. But he could just as easily be a terrible player who’s picked up aces once and kings twice. Maybe he didn’t even realise it was against you all three times. You can use probabilistic thinking to help with this – the more he three-bets the wider his three-betting range – but it can still be tough to really know and it’s easy to make a mistake.

Getting to the truth about your own game is even harder. I am here to tell you that you’re probably somewhere between slightly worse and much worse at poker than you think. Poker is like driving. Everyone thinks they’re above average, which is impossible, by definition, so a lot of people are lying to themselves. It’s not really your fault because poker is an incredibly deceptive game. The margins between winning and losing are very slim with endless 55/45 spots and few 90/10 spots. This means even a losing player will have good runs and our brains love good runs. Our egos are constantly in need of feeding, and wins just back up what we always thought in the first place; we’re special and good at this. This is one of the reasons why losing or having our good hands cracked can feel so bad to us, personally, even though we know, objectively, it’s part of the game.

When the first World Series of Poker happened in 1970 the best seven players in the world were invited to play together for a few days. At the end they picked the winner by vote. One tiny problem: each player voted for himself as the best player at the table; it took a second vote, where the players could not vote for themselves, for a winner to be found. If you stood at the entrance to a live tournament and asked every player if they had an edge on the field, how many do you think would say they did? My guess is over 90%, unless you had a tonne of satellite qualifiers, and I suspect even then it would be close to everyone. By definition, it can’t be true and yet to the individual’s perception… well, hey, everyone’s an above average driver, right?

If you want to get better quickly at poker you have to be able to cut through any kind of perception-based errors about your game and see it for what it really is. The key to this is not really worrying about results, but instead focus on the decisions you make. You should also try to ignore the bad beats you take and the hands you play incredibly well. Instead, look at what you’re doing most of the time and ask, honestly, “What are my biggest weaknesses? What’s holding me back from getting the results I want?” Then go out and fix them. If you do, you’ll be in a very small group not only of poker players but of anyone in any walk of life.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnist