Quick Update, Fake Math, and My Philosophy On Being a Logical Poker Player

Hey Guys,

I haven’t posted in a little while because I didn’t have much to say.  I don’t want this blog to be a  “Hey guys, I lost 2 buyins today and now I’m going to eat an avocado sandwich,” kind of blog (especially because I don’t like avocado).

I feel bad though, because after my last blog I got so much support, and didn’t update you guys until now.  I really appreciate everyone reaching out and offering advice, or kind words.  It seems I made some people worry about me, or think it was worse than it was.  I definitely was feeling not great, but I was totally fine… it’s part of life, and I’m a pretty stable dude.  My Dad called me the next day to see how I was, and my Mom the day after (guess I know who loves me more).  I didn’t know they were reading actually (Hi Mom, Hi Dad).  Turns out there were a lot of people from outside of poker that have been reading my blog, which was something I knew was a possibility, but didn’t think would happen on as big a scale.

Anyways, whatever.  It is what it is.

After my last post, I played a couple more days.  Lost both, in annoying fashion.  So from there I decided to take some time off.

My decision to continue playing (at lower stakes) rather than immediately take a break is one that most wouldn’t agree with (though most still would do, of course).  I actually fully agree with my decision. It was really just a combination of an EV + hEV (happiness EV) calculation.

Some Fake Math

I was positive I was in a mindset to play well, and games were soft, so I knew I was +EV to play.

If I played and won, even a $50k win at 25/50 over two days, I’d be much happier.  Part of the pain of an extended downswing has to do with the feeling of hopelessness it creates.  You guys know what I mean.  I lost 10/10 days, some big, some small.  Just reminding yourself that you can win does wonders for your confidence and happiness.

If I played two days and lost, I’d be unhappy.  During those days, more unhappy than I would have been had I started my break right away, and after the two days, it would feel the same as if I’d just quit (since the amount was small in comparison to prior losses).

So, to simplify, let’s say I lose 50% of the time, win 50%, which is pretty conservative of course.

The other half of the time, I am much happier for two days (and on average much happier over the following week… I could breakeven or win more and be happy, or lose again and go back to where I was).  I’d call this +30 happiness points.  I win an amount, call it $80k, but then I also don’t take a break.  So I have an extra, let’s say week, of playing.  We can call that $40k in EV.Half the time, I am a sadder for two days (we can say -10 happiness points if we want to put numbers to it).  I lose an amount, let’s call it $80k.  Then I take a break for an extended time.

So, half the time I lose 10 hp and $80k.  Half the time I make 30 hp and $120k.

EV = +10hp and +$20k

This was also assuming that I am 50% to win, which was a low estimate.

Anyways, the point of this hack calculation that any mathematician would laugh at, is something I finally figured out a few years ago about poker.  Those of us who learned from books and from forums… we were taught to think purely logically.  There are a lot of emotions that can influence the way we play, and we’re supposed to suppress them or push them aside.  We’re supposed to learn to become robots.  We make our decisions based on math and logic alone.  It makes sense, since any good technical book should have theories that are fundamentally sound.  If you can’t more or less prove things with math and logic, it’s hard to recommend them in your book.

My Philosophy

After some time, I came to the realization that this was the wrong approach.  We are human, and as much as we desensitize ourselves to the swings of poker, as much as we tell ourselves that we’re indifferent to whether he was bluffing this hand or not because we made the right decision against his range, we can’t completely do away with how those things make us feel.  I am better at separating logic and emotion than almost all of the people I know, and I can’t be a full robot, so I assume that most of you can’t either.

Our emotions exist.  We can still be logical, and make calculated decisions, but we need to factor our emotions into our decisions rather than fighting a losing battle trying to eliminate them.  This, of course, requires a good amount of self-awareness – one of the top 5 areas of skill that makes a great poker player, in my opinion.

Let me try to illustrate my point:

Example One

Say that you play $2/4 PLO across four different sites.  Games are plentiful.  On one site, let’s say PartyPoker, you are down $30,000 over a whole lot of hands.  On all other sites, you’re winning.  The games aren’t any tougher on Party, so there’s no reasons to suspect you can’t beat those games just like you beat the games everywhere else.  Obviously, variance is the culprit.  You change nothing.

I think this is a mistake for most people.  I would agree that variance is almost purely to blame, and you likely had a good expected winrate over your hands played on Party.  However, whether or not you will admit it to yourself, you’re going to be affected by the way you’ve run there.

You can’t break the associations in your mind between losing and the look and feel of the game on PartyPoker.  It’s your own body protecting you.  (Last time I bit into a rock, it hurt a lot.  I’m scared to do it again)

You’ll feel as though you are more likely to make the wrong decision, which will scare you away from big plays.  You’ll fear the suckout, so you’ll jam to protect your hand, rather than slowplay in a spot where slowplaying is the better EV play.  You’ll feel like you’re going to lose your flips, which just brings a general negativity to your mood, perhaps making you tilt more readily.

So you’ll play worse on PartyPoker than the other sites, and possibly even worse on all sites while you’re playing there.  Given that your options for games are plentiful, there’s no reason to put yourself in a situation where your play is likely to be compromised.

Before another example, some of you at this point may be thinking, “I don’t get affected by any of that.  I can be purely logical.  This is a total joke, bordering on superstition.”

Look, unless you’re in the rare < .1% of the population who is a pure robot (if there even are any people that can be purely logical), you are affected by things.  You will play differently.  If you’re either too prideful or not self-aware enough to see that, I honestly believe you’ll have no shot at being a great poker player.

Example Two

Let’s say, totally hypothetically, that you’re a high stakes online player – we’ll call you Phil Galfond.  Let’s say, hypothetically, there’s a great player you play against sometimes – we’ll call him Phil Ivey.

You’ve played a fair amount with him.  Over the years, playing HU NL and PLO against him, you’ve lost more than twice as much as you have to anyone else, and in not all that many hands, hypothetically.  It seems as if anytime you have a decent hand, you’re up against a better one, anytime you bluff, he knows.  It seems like he just has a hold over you.  Even in 6max games, when you’re involved in a pot with him, you are worried that he’s one step ahead of you, knowing what adjustment you’re going to make next.  Even though you truly feel like you have the skills to compete with him, time and time again you’re reinforced to feel otherwise.  Hypothetically.

What can you do about it?  Well, maybe first you stop playing against him HU.  Great.  But he still is in your 6max games often.  You can just decide to get owned, or realize that variance may have played a large part, and just continue doing what you’re doing (not admitting to yourself that you are affected).  Obviously, I don’t like those ideas.

The first step is to admit to yourself how you feel.  You feel as though when you have a very strong hand, it’s likely to run into an even stronger one, perhaps causing you to play less aggressively and value bet and raise less thinly.  You feel like he’s likely to know what you have or what you’re thinking, and it’s causing you to hesitate making moves or adjustments in anticipation of him countering it immediately.  This will cause you to hesitate making bluffs.  Now that you’re not playing thinly for value, you bluff even less (otherwise you know you’ll be unbalanced).  Then you assume he realizes you’ve stopped bluffing, and you play even less thinly for value, because you know you won’t get paid off.  Look what happened.  You’ve resorted to playing a very straightforward, tight-passive game against him.  Of course he’s going to absolutely destroy you.

The way I see it, there are two things you can do to to combat this problem, and you can do both in combination with each other

First, you can play fewer hands against him in your 6max games.  If you don’t want to admit to yourself that you play worse against him than against other players, you’d just continue playing your ‘standard’ preflop style.  If you realize that you’re going to play worse than usual against him, then you can see that some slightly profitable hands become unprofitable.  So you fold a bit more preflop when it’s likely to be a HU pot with him.

Next, you need to constantly remind yourself how you feel.  You’re in a hand on the turn, and your immediate instinct is to check-fold.  This is an instinct you can’t trust, as it’s based in irrational fear.  Yes, Phil Ivey is a phenomenal player, but you are good at disguising your hands.  He doesn’t actually know what you have every hand (I hope), and he’s definitely no more likely to hit a good hand than anyone else at the table.  You need to stop your knee-jerk movement towards the fold button and say to yourself, “He’s got a very weak range here, and it’s difficult for me to be bluffing.  A check-raise has to show a profit.  Wait, but I feel like he’s going to know that I wouldn’t usually have played a boat this way on the flop very often. PHIL. STOP.  He can’t know that.  He can’t know your game in and out. Make the right play.”

Wrap It Up Already, Phil

When you admit that your instincts during a hand are affected by emotion, you can then take a step back and find the best logical play.  However, if you pretend you don’t have emotions, or that they don’t affect you, you will let them influence your thinking.  You’ll convince yourself that you were just making the play you logically thought was best.  You’ll be wrong.

The great thing about becoming fully aware of the way things affect you, and the impact those effects have on your game, is that you begin to better understand your opponents.  I have had many times where I knew my opponent felt exactly the way I… I mean you, were feeling in the hand above.  But my opponent usually won’t admit it to himself and make the proper adjustments.  I get to completely run him over.

There are many more examples (quitting decisions, stake selection, any kind of tilt, etc.), but the message is the same:

You are a person.  You feel things.  Rather than pretend those feelings don’t exist, you can use those feelings as factors, adding them, alongside your probabilities and logical deductions, and whatever else, into your decision making equation.  I’d argue that this makes you much more logical than the wannabe robots who’d laugh at you for doing this.

Anyways, I left Vancouver a few days ago.  I’ll be in the US for a little while, doing some pretty cool stuff.  I’ll update you on that later though.  That’s a whole new post.

Hope you’re doing well, guys.  Thanks again for all of the feedback on my last post, and all other posts.

Take care.  (Love you, Mom and Dad)

-Phil