What the Jason Saw

When looking at the poker headlines, I often read how a player has won a lot of money in a short time and suddenly has the “key” to winning.  I have played poker professionally for nearly 10 years and I have seen many such people come and go.  There is always someone who is crushing the games, and who, a year later, is losing money.  I always wonder if those people are highly skilled, have gotten lucky in the short term, or if they have unknowingly stumbled on the right formula to temporarily make them successful.

In the book What The Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell discusses hidden luck and its role in the success of the “creative geniuses” that we have come to know.  In his discussion of Bill Gates, Gladwell discusses many of the things that had to go right that allowed Gates to both create the PC and to make it a success.  For example, he had to have access to a computer lab which would allow him to practice coding and to gain the requisite experience, and at that time there were only a half dozen in the world.  In addition  he had to be born in a specific time period so that when he created the PC, it was at a time when a)it was viable to market to consumers and b)it hadn’t been done already c)he didn’t get pushed into doing something else.  There are thousands of other examples of things that had to go perfectly in order for the PC to become as successful as it is.

Yes, Bill Gates was very smart to have created the PC, but history is littered with very smart people who created things that were ahead of their time, but who did not have luck on their side.  Elisha Gray and the Betamax come to mind as well as all of people who were lucky once, like Tamagatchi and Furby, but who could not replicate it.  There are many people who have created widgets in their apartment, but it is only those widgets that suddenly become “hot” that are looked at as being insightful and ahead of the curve.

So how does this apply to poker players?  I often see players that do very well for a short time, but over time, they begin to break even or lose.  While this could be attributed to variance, I attribute a large part of this to hidden luck.  Poker players tend to do things that they see other players doing, and as a result, their behavior is a bit like a herd.  As a result playing styles change together and adaptations made today might not work as well tomorrow.  A player can play in a way that happens to work well against the current playing style, however if they are unable or unwilling to adapt(which is often the case when they think they have found the “key”), when the style changes, they will go from being winners to breaking even, or even losing.

For example, let’s pretend that today is my first day playing poker.  I like to raise, so every time someone raises before the flop, I decide I am going to reraise.  This works well, since today, when people get reraised, they fold everything but AA, and as a result, I win.  I think the game is easy and I have the “key.”  However, tomorrow, people decide they don’t like folding all the time, so they begin reraising me instead of folding, so that I begin losing and my “key” no longer fits in the lock!  In addition, since it’s only my second day and I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to understand why reraising worked(or didn’t work), I am unable to make the correct adjustments.

The most important thing to take away from this is that you need to understand why you are taking specific actions, so that if your opponents change, you are able to adjust.  If you don’t know why you are choosing to do something, then you will only be guessing how to fix it when something stops working.

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