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Poker News | Casino Poker | Tournament Reports

I’m the Better Player

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One of the few universal truths about games that involve both skill and chance is that most players overrate their own abilities and underrate their opponents’ skills. This occurs because people with huge egos tend to drift into the game’s arena. Certainly most of us have run into our share of opponents who act like they think Einstein, Bobby Fisher, and Stu Ungar were fictional idiots in comparison to their own brilliance, especially when it comes to games.

Leaving these misguided folks aside, almost all of us have a difficult time evaluating our own relative strength in games like poker, for a number of reasons. First, when you play a game that involves both chance and skill, it’s easy to blame luck when you lose and to credit skill when you win. Even if we’re capable of spotting our own mistakes, most of us have selective memories about how many good cards we caught, or about how lucky we were that an opponent had a king-high flush at the exact same time we had an ace-high flush.

Even more significant, though, is the fact that most of the time we are not capable of spotting our own mistakes. Indeed, that’s practically true by definition, because if we knew we were making a mistake, we wouldn’t make the play in the first place.

Occasionally, the sequence of cards or bets that follows a mistake teaches us that we overlooking something, and so even though we make the mistake, we learn about it shortly thereafter. More commonly, though, we’re unaware that we’re making errors and we stay unaware thereafter.

Our poker ego develops further when we see our opponents make errors that we know we wouldn’t have made. It doesn’t take too many of these occurrences to convince us that we are more skilled than the blundering opponent. We know we wouldn’t make the mistake, so when we see the opponent make it, presto; it’s obvious that we play better than the opponent does. The gaping hole in this theory hides itself behind the blind spot we have for our own mistakes.

Poker is a very complex game: Let’s say, for sake of argument, that there are 100 key concepts that someone needs to understand to play poker at the expert level. Let’s further assume that two reasonably capable, but non-expert, players are facing each other in a ring game, and that these two players are equally skilled; each of them rates to win at exactly the same rate over the long run in a particular game. Let’s say each is good enough to win half a big bet per hour in the local $10-$20 Holdem game.

Even given this hypothetical status as equally skilled players, it would take a far greater coincidence for each of these two players to have mastered precisely the same “key concepts”. Although each player might have mastered 70 of the 100 key concepts, it’s highly unlikely that they would be the same 70.

Player A understands concepts 1-70, and Player B understands concepts 21-90. This means Player A will observe Player B screwing up whenever concepts 1-20 are involved, and Player B will observe Player A screwing up whenever concepts 71-90 are involved. Neither will notice an error when concepts 91-100 come into play, and each will grudgingly admire the other’s play when concepts 21-70 are required. As a result, each of these two equally skilled players will emerge from their game fully convinced that he is vastly more skilled than his opponent. To put it another way, we all have blind spots around concepts we have yet to master, but we don’t have blind spots for concepts we understand, and that our opponents do not. But, how does knowing that we likely overrate our own abilities and underrate our opponents’ abilities affect our results? After all, we’re still going to play as well as we possibly can.

Actually this simple aspect of human nature can and does have a dramatic impact on our results. Here are some things that could happen to you if you think that you are better than you are.

1. Join, or stay too long, in a game in which you are overmatched. After all, if you see four or five players you “know” yourself to be more skilled than sitting in the game, there’s money to be won, right? There certainly isn’t much money available to be won if your skill level is last and least amongst those at the table. You can (and probably will) blame poor results on bad luck for a while, perhaps a very long while — unless you’re willing to reexamine some of your fundamental assumptions about how well both you and your opponents play.

2. Change your playing style to something that’s sub optimal. Suppose, for example, that you believe yourself to be so much more talented than your opponents that you “know” you can play more starting hands than they. You do this because you “know” you can outplay your opponents after the flop and/or get away from these marginal hands when they’re in trouble. If you truly understood the reality you would change your starting-hand selection considerably, and would probably enjoy much better (or at least less worse) results.

You don’t need to have a hugely over inflated opinion of your own game to get into trouble You can suffer similar consequences if you have a realistic view of your own abilities but disrespect your opponent. One of the primary examples of a poor playing-style decision caused by overrating your own abilities happens primarily in tournaments.
Just think about all the times either you or someone you know decided to throw a hand away in a tournament situation, even though you realized you were getting reasonable pot odds or situational odds.

Why do those with over inflated poker egos throw these hands away? Because they don’t want to gamble for all or most of their stack, even when they are a slight favorite “knowing” that their opponent will almost certainly make some huge error later, they want to wait for a situation in which they are an even bigger favorite or a situation in which they can use their superior skill to outplay their opponents. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it causes many players to throw so many hands away that they are no longer outplaying their opponents. Instead, they are handing chips over to their “less talented” opposition, content in the knowledge that they will be able to outplay them later.

Naturally, if you find yourself up against anyone, big-name star or otherwise, who seems reluctant to play without a big edge, you can and should do everything you can to take advantage of it. Such players are more susceptible to big-bet bluffs and will be less likely to call all-in bets, although when one of them finally does call, you can be sure it’s with something very strong.

So the next time you think that owning a big poker ego is a harmless way to have some fun and/or feel good about yourself, take a step back and start recognizing all the situations in which a more accurate understanding of what’s true could pay off.

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