Important not to let early table bias determine style of play

March 07, 2017 3:00 AM
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I saw recently a fascinating column by Dr. Stephen Bloomfield, a psychiatrist who loves to play poker. “Don’t let confirmation bias affect your play,” he warned.

I have observed confirmation bias in countless speeches and publications, wherein the speaker/writer presents only information – perhaps distorted – that appears to support his own preconceptions; and then he boldly claims these “facts” prove his (biased) point of view. Or, he may disregard any data that could prove controversial.

“In my mind, confirmation bias is akin to yellow journalism, wherein a writer only briefly mentions any contrary information, if at all, or buries it near the back of his column where it is less likely to be read,” Bloomfield said. “Neither yellow journalism nor confirmation bias is honorable.”

This was the first time I had ever seen “confirmation bias” applied to the game of poker.

“You need to know your bias, fight it and use actual patterns. But it’s inevitable,” Dr. Bloomfield adds, “that when you sit at a table, you’ll scan the players and form opinions. This should be your working hypothesis, not your bias.”

That’s great advice if you want to be a winner. As a matter of fact, personally, without giving it a second thought, I do heed Dr. Bloomfield’s warning: Use the information as a “working hypothesis” rather than resort to “confirmation bias.” I often make an initial judgment, but then I watch carefully to confirm or change my hypothesis as soon as possible.

By way of example, when a new player comes to the table, I observe his dress and mannerisms to help me guess what kind of player he is. A neatly dressed older man who buys-in for the minimum or just a bit more, I judge as a tight player. A younger man with rumpled clothing who buys-in for a full rack, is probably a loose-aggressive player. When making note of this, I add a question mark to remind me it is only a first impression – a hypothesis or an educated guess.

As the game progresses, I watch how he actually plays – and, if appropriate, adjust my play accordingly. This gives me a significant edge over my opponents who are either unaware of this opportunity to make such assessments of the other players, or just can’t be bothered. Without realizing it, some simply rely on confirmation bias. Too bad for them.

Likewise, when I recognize a regular player at our table – one who plays frequently at the casino, I do not automatically regard him as a skilled player. He may be making the same costly mistakes over and over again, as I have often observed. By far, the most frequent and easily-observed misplay is paying to see the flop hand after hand.

Apparently, he is not aware of the Hold’em Algorithm or an equivalent system for starting-hand selection. When possible, I make it a point to observe his holecards if there is a showdown – to confirm my hypothesis. That gives me a big edge over my opponents.

In this regard, I realize I could be prone to be somewhat confirmation-biased by relying on past experiences. But, players can change their strategies and tactics. Perhaps he has had several good poker lessons or studied a good poker book, or has learned from sad experiences. So, I too have learned from experience to reassess these “regulars.”

Mostly, I look to see how often each pays to see the flop and what starting-hands are played. At the showdown, that’s more important to me than who won that pot. Remember: Hypotheses – suppositions or opinions – are fine, so long as you are able to verify or disprove them.

Confirmation bias should be avoided at the poker table (as well as in life). The idea is to be a winner; confirmation bias can only work against you.