Friday, February 25, 2005

Blink: Don't Miss It

"He's got a big pair."

The thought was instantaneous. From the small blind, my opponent simply completed. We were on the bubble and I held J4o in the big blind. I don't know why I knew. Only that I did.

Now I know. My adaptive unconscious. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in his fascinating new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," the adaptive unconscious is "the part of our brain that leaps to conclusions." It's instinct. It's our first impression. Where does that information come from? Is it reliable? How can we make it work for us when we need it most? And how does it compare to decisions made after careful and thorough contemplation?

Gladwell argues that our instantaneous reactions are at least as useful as rigorous analyses. Perhaps even MORE dependable without reams of data muddling our perception.

The brain is able to process so much information, much more than we are able to consciously tap in to. In the case of the poker hand above, my brain did all the thinking for me. Behind what Gladwell calls the "locked door," our adaptive unconscious is processing everything around us. And when the small blind just checked, it screamed at me, based on the patterns it recognized from prior play. However, because this all takes place behind the "locked door," we tend not to trust it. Would you invest your money with a broker who couldn't explain to you why he likes a stock, only that he does? Aren't these snap judgments known as "rash" decisions?

But they are not rash, simply because we are unable to explain them. Early in the book, Gladwell describes an experiment at the University of Iowa. Subjects were give four decks of playing cards--two red, two blue. The cards were assigned a monetary value--positive or negative--and the idea was to make the most profit. What wasn't known was that the red decks had high variance, while the blue decks provided a slow, but steady profit. After selecting about 50 cards, the subjects had figured this out enough to alter their strategy and favor the blue decks. But they couldn't articulate why until they had turned over about 80 cards!

The researchers then went a step further. They put some gamblers to the test and hooked them up to machines to measure their stress levels. The gamblers exhibited elevated stress levels to the red decks around the 10th card. At the same time, they began to favor the blue decks. They had figured the game out. Yet, they didn't REALIZE they'd figured it out until around the 50th card. Their experience in games of chance/skill enabled them to process the information much quicker, quicker than they even knew.

Such was the situation I found myself in my poker hand. My brain had processed the patterns of my opponent's play, unconsciously. It would be several minutes before I would consciously recall how he'd raised my big blind several times previously. How those seemed obvious steal bets to me. How the call was a trap being laid. My experience with poker, familiarity with different situations, with my opponent, it was all packed into that split-second unconscious thought.

Often, we don't have the luxury of deliberation. In fast-moving times of stress, it is our adaptive unconscious that guides the way. If you step in front of a bus, you don't sit there and debate the merits of various escape plans. You instinctively get the hell out of the way. Not the case in poker. We don't want to act too rashly. We go "into the tank," running the math, the potential range of hands, etc.

Which is what I did when the flop came Jack-high. He checked it to me--perfectly in line with the trap I suspected, by the way--and I mused on what to do. I was short-stacked, I reasoned. I could use those chips. I have top pair heads-up, a bettable hand, even with no kicker. He could have 10s. Or 9s.

I bet 400, the pot and half my stack. He raised me all-in.

Gladwell tells the story of retired Marine officer Paul Van Riper. A veteran of Vietnam, Van Riper was a "gunslinger," an aggressive and successful war tactician. Van Riper was summoned by the Pentagon to take place in a massive war game, one that now bears an eerie resemblance to the invasion of Iraq. A “full dress rehearsal for war.” Van Riper was to play the part of a rogue commander in the Persian Gulf.

On the second day of the exercise, Van Riper's team managed to sink 16 American warships. He routed the US military. A US military armed with the most advanced simulations, the most in-depth analyses, matrixes to cover every possible event, a vast sea of data. Why? They were paralyzed by too much information. In their desire to know everything, they not only overloaded their decision-making systems, but limited their adaptive unconscious. The adaptive unconscious is agile, allowing it to come to swift conclusions. Loading it down with extraneous--and lugubrious--data nullifies its effectiveness. While the government went through it's rote paces, Van Riper utilized his experience and adaptability to dance around the behemoth.

There is much to be gleaned from information in the game of poker. Name your game, your limit, your style, there is a book for you. Technology is available everywhere for the online player. Pokertracker allows us to look back on our play, to find our leaks, analyze our hand selection and betting patterns. This information is, undoubtedly, invaluable to learning the game. It adds experience and provides data for processing by the adaptive unconscious and the brain at large.

Gametime+ and similar programs are another story. To my mind, that is too much information. And while it may be useful at the moment, I’d argue that it ultimately inhibits one’s ability to assimilate the patterns and situations of poker. If you consult a chart every time you call, raise or fold, is the pertinent information really shaping your future judgments, especially in the adaptive unconscious? Is the person at the blackjack table with the hand chart really learning how to play the game? It’s lazy, leaning on all that information, believing—like the Pentagon—it will get you through any troublesome spot.

I'm the guy who was always the first done with the test. I'm the guy who answers the "Jeopardy!" questions before Trebek can get them out. I'm not trying to be impressive. It's just that's the way I work. Part of it is genetic impatience. The rest is just trusting that first impression. Has it gotten me into trouble? Of course. But there is such a thing as too much information. Especially in situations, like poker, where everything CAN’T be known. Take the maniac who just raised pre-flop...again. Instantly you know he’s been doing it 40% of the time. Which tells you nothing as far as what kind of hand he’s holding this time. Like the US government in the war simulation example, all that knowledge is no defense against an unpredictable opponent, even a stupid one. All you really have are your wits, your practiced ability to correctly read the situation. Feed the adaptive unconscious with relevant knowledge and get out of the way. Your instincts have great value. Don’t talk yourself out of them.

What? The hand? Oh.

I called the raise. He flipped QQ. I went out on the bubble.

Clearly, I need work.


At 2:41 PM, Blogger April said...

Great write-up. Nice to know there is something to "that feeling" after all. And I often find myself in the situation of overiding my gut instincts and going with the "book"...and then regretting it.


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