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This is part 6 of an ongoing series on how cognitive biases affect us at the poker table.
Part 1: Self-service bias
Part Two: The Curse of Knowledge
Part 3: Establishing Bias and Availability of Heuristics
Part 4: Confirmation Bias
Part Five: Pessimism and Optimism Bias
There seems to be a never-ending stream of these biases. This time, let’s talk about survival bias. This bias occurs when we focus on the things that survived a process, and overlook those that failed.
Let’s imagine a salesperson. They are very aggressive and powerful when dealing with customers. They use every trick in the book to convince a buyer and make a sale. You see their rude and obnoxious behavior, but they make more sales than most others. As such, it is easy to think that their approach is the right one, and should be emulated.
However, have there been other salespeople who have also tried this approach, and who have failed? If there is a group of people who fail in this approach, they have moved on to other jobs, or may have left the field of sales entirely. If we look closely at all the data, it probably turns out that most of these obnoxious types do not do well in sales, but a small part of them sell a lot.
However, those who have been successful with this approach may have other things to help them. Perhaps they have a lot of relationships through family and friends. Perhaps these other factors are the true “secret sauce” to their success. Perhaps they would do better if they did not engage in such high-pressure sales tactics.
The point is, if you only look at the survivors, and ignore all the others who tried and didn’t survive, you can’t paint an accurate picture of what it takes to succeed. Perhaps only a small portion of these aggressive sellers will perform well, while most fade and fail. While those who use other tactics tend to do well as a group, most of them survive. Unless you think about all the data, you won’t know the truth.
Back in poker, I’ve had several students over the years (I do live group seminars and private lessons on Zoom) who have told me they need to learn how to relax and play more hands. They see that in the middle of the cycle, most players with big stacks are very losers and aggressive. This leads them to believe that they need to emulate this style if they want to win.
But the truth is, if the tournament starts and there are 20 people playing this very slow style, by the time the half-court is over, there might only be 3-4 of them left. And while those 3-4 may be among the largest of the stack, they didn’t do that well as a group. They paid for 20 stacks of chips as a set, and now the survivors only have about 10-15 stacks of chips.
However, when you look at just one of them, their approach seems to pay off, sitting there with twice the average current stack. But at this point in time, you probably won’t notice 16-17 of them failing that strategy, and quitting. It’s the survival bias that makes the remaining backward players seem successful to you.
This is a fairly common thing in the poker world. Especially in recent years, as more and more leagues have moved to a structure that includes a lot of time for re-entry. There are many players who use a very loose, even wild and crazy type of gameplay, whenever they can still get in again. Some of these guys like to play this way, and they always do. Others can play hard when they choose, but think it’s smart to play slow if they can get in again.
In fact, this is a disease that I see often among some of the most skilled players. They are exceptionally capable of playing, but they spend a lot of time at the table Not to do that. Either they fail to play their best because it’s a less acceptable game, because they’re drunk or inclined, or they think they should be more flexible during the re-entry period.
But even the fact that some highly skilled players do it doesn’t make it the smartest way to play. Survivorship Bias makes their slow-motion gameplay seem even better than it is. Especially when they play that way early on, but switch to their real A game later in the tournament.
The truth is that you have to look beyond that bias, and see the underlying reality. You have to choose the strategy that really maximizes your EV. In some cases, playing looser and more aggressively than usual is the right strategy. But this is not the case just because you can re-enter. Or because this is (for you) a low subscription course. This is the case when you have a table that allows you to run over them and bully them. When you have a table that you can read well, know when to cheat, when to go for a meager value, etc.
If your opponents fit right into your game when you play like crazy, you’ll do nothing more than throw chips into your pot, hoping you get lucky. And that’s not how the winners play. Winners don’t play with the hope of getting lucky. Winners make the smartest decision with the highest electrical value every time.
Enjoy and play smart! ♠
Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion, won several major titles, and has earned over $7 million. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. Sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To connect with Greg, please Tweet @FossilMan or Visit his website.