Why do you play poker?

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By Jay Houston

Why do you play poker? For fun? Are you a consistent winner? Do you have an addiction to gambling? A surprising number of people in a recent survey stated the reason they play poker is because they think they have an edge at every table. The crazy part is they have no sound reasoning for thinking this or where those edges actually are. I’d ask them how much they’re up in their career or to show me some winning graphs or statistics and I’d get nothing but mumbles.

At the 2009 L.A. Poker Classic, a short conversation took place between Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth.

Hellmuth: “Phil, ever played golf with Tiger Woods?”

Ivey: “Nah and I probably wouldn’t. I’m not that good. I would just embarrass myself.”

Hellmuth: “Why not? You play poker with me!”

For those of you who don’t know, the top pros in the world consider Ivey to be the best all-around poker player ever to play the game, and Hellmuth is a huge loser to Ivey over decades of cash games. So you would hope Hellmuth was just kidding. But was he?

There’s a concept I’ve come across recently on some poker-related Web sites called “Illusory Superiority.” In laymen terms, illusory superiority means the dumber you are, the better you think you are compared to the rest of the world (see box below). Now, I’m not saying Hellmuth is the most delusional person on the planet by any means, the guy has 11 WSOP bracelets, but this conversation says a lot about cognitive ability to understand and respect higher levels of skill.

In the late ’90s, a couple of guys from Cornell published results from a study of a known phenomenon they called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is cognitive bias where people reach flawed conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

If you take a look inside the mind of a poker fish, chances are you will find a thought process along the lines of undisciplined, uninformed decision-making, with a lot of justification. This happens to be perfect for a game like poker because it has this amazing scapegoat called “luck” where if explained the right way, can justify your losing career not only to your friends, but to yourself as well.

So the next time you sit down at a poker table, make sure to take a step back and analyze the situation. Do you REALLY have an edge against most of the players at the table? Or do you just think you do? Remember, when you show respect for higher levels of skill than your own, that is a sign of intelligence. The smart thing to do is to constantly be humble about your game, respect other player’s thought-processes and learn from them. This is a formula for long-term success and can give you even more of a reason to play the game of poker.

Illusory superiority

Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. It is one of many positive illusions relating to the self, and is a phenomenon studied in social psychology. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. The unskilled, therefore, suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than in actuality; by contrast, the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their ability higher than more competent people.


— Jay Houston is a young poker pro with DeepStacks University and is a sit-n-go specialist. You can email him at jay@deepstacks.com