Poker Psychology : Logical Fallacies

Everybody likes to think that they are ‘logical’, but in poker as well as every day life, many people show weakness in this area. They will make poor decisions and act in ways that are irrational, because they fail to follow a rational thought process to its conclusion. In The Poker Mindset we call this phenomenon ‘Woolly Thinking’. The data input is in place and a decision is reached, but somewhere in between, the wires are crossed.

The level of thought required to arrive at the correct logical conclusion can vary from trivial to very deep indeed. Some problems are too complex for even the greatest minds to think their way through. On the other hand, there are some far simpler situations where trivial errors of logic are routinely made. Many of these have been categorised and labelled by philosophers as ‘logical fallacies’. Several of these are commonly seen at the poker table and are detailed in this article.

If you are consistently being fooled by one or more logical fallacies at the poker table, then you can do serious damage to your chances of making money in the long term. The problem is that when you are playing poker, every decision you make is important. Every time you bet, raise, call, check or fold, you have either made the right decision or have cost yourself money. If you make too many wrong decisions, it becomes impossible to win money at all. Therefore it is imperative that you demonstrate clarity of thought and sound reasoning while playing poker.

The following five logical fallacies are common amongst poker players and you must be wary of them.

Proof by example
Proof by example means to extrapolate from a single observation and make a general conclusion. It usually takes the form of an observation followed by a conclusion, where the conclusion seems to be logically derived from the observation, but is in fact a logical fallacy. Some real world examples:

Military action in Iraq has been less effective than hoped.
Therefore all military action is ineffective.

Communism ultimately failed in the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
Therefore Communism is always destined to fail.

The Colts won the 2007 Superbowl because they had a better quarterback.
Therefore all football games are determined by who has the best quarterback

Sometimes these generalisations are obviously invalid, but often they appear to carry weight. In fact, drawing conclusions from limited examples is something we all do from time to time. Because of the short-term volatility of poker results, it can be something that is very dangerous at the poker table. Everyone remembers certain times where they have taken a really bad beat. They will also remember the circumstances that led up to he event and will shy away from similar situations in the future. Likewise they will remember situations where something especially good happened and will seek out similar situations. This can lead to very hasty generalisations through proof by example.

I was eliminated from a big tournament just before the final table when my AQ ran into AK.
Therefore AQ is a bad hand to play late in a tournament.

I had a bad night, so I jumped into a 40/80 game and wiped out all my losses in a single hand!
Therefore playing high limits is a good way of recovering your losses after a bad session.

I lost lots of money in a very loose game because my opponents kept hitting their hands.
Therefore it is impossible to beat very loose games.

In so far as you can prove anything in poker on the basis of results, you can only do so on the basis of a large number of trials. The true value of certain hands can only be seen over thousands of hands. The true profitability of certain games or plays can only be seen over many trials. Be more ready to believe what you read from noted poker authorities than what you have observed during limited experience.

Correlation implies causation (Cum hoc ergo propter hoc)
Sometimes two variables appear to be moving in synch with each other and as a result it is concluded that they are related. More specifically, it is usually assumed that changes in one variable are the cause of changes in the other. However, assuming that variables are related just because they seem to be following a similar (or opposite) trend is a logical fallacy. Variables can appear to be correlated for all kinds of reasons, with changes in one variable causing changes in the other being only one explanation.

For example, let’s say that you observed that areas with a higher immigrant population had a higher crime rate. You could conclude that immigrants cause the higher crime rate, but if you did so then you would be closing your mind to a number of other possibilities. Maybe most immigrants can only afford to live in areas with higher crime rates. In other words, the crime is causing the demographic rather than the other way around. Or maybe there is a third factor involved. For example, maybe immigrants prefer to live in densely populated urban areas and these areas also happen to have the highest crime rate. It is also possible that two correlated variables actually have no connection at all. For example, if you emerged that church attendance was dropping at approximately the same rate as GDP was rising, it would be difficult to put this down to anything other than coincidence.

At the poker table, it can often be difficult to make sense of your results. Studious players will look hard for reasons why they are losing, or indeed winning. Invariably patterns will emerge, because patterns are everywhere in poker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these patterns have any substance to them. Or if they do have substance to them, it might not mean what you think it means. For example, you might notice that you have better results playing at Site A than Site B and conclude that the games at Site A are easier to beat. However, the true explanation might be that you only play at Site A late at night, when the games are unilaterally softer. Or it may just be coincidence.

If you fall into the trap of assuming that correlation implies causation then you will have a lot of trouble developing as a player. You may make changes to your game based on incomplete or misleading data. Or you may pick up bad habits when running well, not realising that you are winning in spite of certain things not because of them. The worst case is that you can start drawing irrational conclusions and fall victim to silly superstitions. For example, lots of players have ‘lucky seats’, ‘lucky dealers’ and the like, just because they have observed better results in that seat or with that dealer over a relatively small number of hands.

It is important that when you are assessing the link between observed variables, that you keep in mind all possible explanations, including the possibility that there is no link.

Appeal to probability
Many people have quite a poor understanding of probability with respect to how it affects our every day life. One error in particular that is very common is a logical fallacy known as ‘appealing to probability’. Assuming that because something may happen, that it will happen or at least has a far greater chance of occurring than it actually does. People tend to overestimate the significance of small probabilities, giving them far more respect than they actually deserve.

For example, there are many people that believe in Murphy’s Law – If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. They will take precautions against the slimmest of risks, even if it comes at a disproportionate expense of money or time. In their mind, the unlikely misfortune has a far greater chance of occurring than it actually does. In fact, in their mind it might be almost a certainty, such is their fear of the unknown. This fallacy can also be seen in positive scenarios. People will pin their hopes on the slimmest of hopes such as the lottery. In fact, some people would argue that religion is the ultimate appeal to probability. God has not been proven not to exist; therefore he must exist.

Poker players appeal to probability too. Beginners and casual players tend to call with all kinds of obscure draws, in the hope of hitting a lucky card. This is helped by the fact that, like the lottery player, their pot of gold is tantalisingly within reach.

“If only the next card is a five then I will win the pot!”

Even more accomplished players can have problems properly rationalising probabilities. Unlike the newbie, they should know enough about pot-odds to avoid the loose calls that categorise the beginner’s play. However, they will often give a disproportionate weight to small probabilities in those situations where the exact odds are difficult to calculate. For example a lot of intermediate players will freeze when their opponent raises, unless they have the absolute nuts. They will automatically assume that their opponent has the nuts, even when they could be raising with a number of hands, many of which they beat. In fact, this was a particular hang-up of mine for a very long time. I would rarely re-raise the turn or river without the absolute nuts or close to it.

In poker you can’t afford to assume the worst, or indeed the best. You must evaluate each event on the hard numbers and relevant probabilities, ignoring the instinct to appeal to probability.

Association fallacy
To commit association fallacy means to assign the properties of one person or thing to other ‘similar’ people or things. Some real life examples are:

Muslims performed the September 11th attacks.
Therefore all Muslims are terrorists.

Bill Clinton cheated on his wife
Therefore all politicians are adulterers

Enron were found guilty of corporate fraud and corruption.
Therefore all big corporations are fraudulent and corrupt.

It is easy to fall into the trap of assigning ‘guilt by association’. We tend to draw on our experiences in order to make judgements on things with which we are unfamiliar, which is no bad thing. However, just like with the ‘proof by example’ fallacy, this can lead to making rash judgements and unreasonable stereotypes. These stereotypes are not always negative. You can just as easily assign a positive characteristic to somebody or something because of a previous positive experience with somebody or something similar.

We can also make rash and premature judgements about our opponents at the poker table based on other similar players we have played with. When playing live, this might mean stereotyping tourists, women, players of oriental origin, or any other group you encounter. Online it might mean players from a certain country or with a certain type of screen name. These stereotypes often don’t live up to their billing, because it is very rare that members of superficially designated groups all behave in the same way.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t use previous experience to give us a preliminary way of assessing our opponents. Obviously if every player you have ever encountered with a basketball team in his screen name had been a poor player, then it is reasonable to guess that lakers4ever who has just sat down might also be a weak player. However, it is important that this is the beginning of your analysis and not the end. What you observe must always take precedence over what you assume.

Appeal to tradition (ad antiquitatem)
There are many logical basis’ on which to make a decision, including experience, analysis of the available options and intuition. There are also illogical reasons for making a decision and one of the most often abused is ‘tradition’. Doing something a certain way because ‘I (we) have always done it that way’. It is often said that humans are creatures of habit and resistant to change. Often this tendency leads to bad habits, which are maintained in the name of tradition.

This can be seen in all areas of life, from individuals who always vote for a particular political party (regardless of policies), to families visiting the same holiday destination year after year, to corporations refusing to abandon bad business practices because they are engrained in company culture. Appeal to tradition is a logical fallacy, because the fact that something has a long-standing tradition does not necessarily make it correct. It is merely an indicator that somebody in the mists of time decided to do something a certain way and nobody has felt the need to alter the status quo.

At the poker table, appeal to tradition is equally fallacious, yet many players play certain hands and certain situations in a set way merely because that’s the way they have always played them. Unfortunately it may be the case that either:

a) The way that they have traditionally played this situation is wrong or
b) The play is not a bad default play, but is not correct in every situation.

An example of the former is players who always play any pocket pair in an unraised pot. They might do so on the broadly sound logic that they might win a big pot if they hit a set, but not realise that they aren’t always getting the correct price to chase a set, especially when they are in early position and there is a good chance of a raise behind them. Yet if asked to explain why they called with 44 in early position in an aggressive game, all they may be able to offer is that ‘they always play pairs in an unraised pot’. An example of the latter is a player who always calls a raise in the big blind with two suited cards higher than a 7. This is a reasonable play against raises from certain players in certain positions with a certain number of callers, but is not necessarily a good play against a tight raiser from early position who plays well post-flop.

When playing poker is it generally a bad idea to make a play because of, for want of a better word, tradition. You will be missing out the strategic thinking necessary to arrive at the best play and your game will stagnate. Even if you are confident that a certain play is correct (for example raising with AK pre-flop), it never hurts to think about the reasoning behind this default play and what you are hoping to achieve. Note that the opposite fallacy, ‘appeal to novelty’, is also applicable at the poker table. Just because you have been experiencing poor results, doesn’t necessarily mean that changing the way you play certain situations will yield an improvement.

Clarity of thought is important at all times, but even more so at the poker table. If you commit any of the fallacies detailed above or indulge in any other forms of woolly thinking that might cloud your judgement at the table, then you are costing yourself money. Clear, logical thinking is the key to success at the poker table.

 

Ian Taylor, AKA “Piemaster is the Co-Author of the highly regarded Poker Psychology Book “The Poker Mindset”.

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