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Greg Raymer: How Anchoring Bias Affects Us at the Poker Table

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Please let me encourage you to contact me with story ideas and questions for future columns. You can tweet me at @FossilMan, or send me a message at info@fossilmanpoker.com.

I hope you enjoyed my first column on cognitive biases on The Self-Serving Bias, and my follow-up on The Curse Of Knowledge.

Digging deeper into some common biases that impact poker, let’s look at anchoring bias and availability heuristics.

Anchoring bias is our tendency to rely too much on the first piece of information that comes to mind or comes up when making a decision.

The availability heuristic is similar and involves overemphasizing the first examples that come to mind when making a judgment.

Whenever someone makes a decision in poker (or any decision, for that matter), they always have a reason. Often they even have a reasonable reason. The question is not: “Did they have a good reason?” but “Did they fairly evaluate all available information before making their final decision?”

Too often, we go with the first reason that comes to mind and whatever decision it supports. How many times have we seen a player make a bluff on the river, knowing from the look of him that it was a hopeless bluff? When called and losing, you often hear them say, “Well, bluffing was the only way to win.” Every time I heard that they were right. Each time, their hand was so weak that they effectively had no chance of winning at showdown.

However, the fact that their statement was correct does not mean that they should have attempted a bluff. They had a good reason to bluff, but that reason is almost irrelevant when deciding whether to bluff or not.

The thing to think about when attempting a bluff is not only can you win if you check? Instead, you should consider how many chips you are risking, how many chips you will win, and how often you estimate the opponent will fold.

If I play the board and will never win at showdown, it’s still foolish to bluff if the opponent will almost always call. While the bluff was my only chance to win, it was also my only chance to lose more chips on this hand.

You see similar mistakes made in all facets of poker. You get to the river, bet with the second nut straight and you’re raised. Your first thought is, “The only hand that can beat my A-4 on this board is 6-4, and this guy’s too tight to play 6-4, so I’m going to re-raise.”

This is a valid and solid argument for this decision. However, if the opponent is too tight to play 6-4, isn’t it also too tight to raise to the river without the nuts? Something is wrong, and you need to take a closer look.

You need to consider everything else you know about this player. Was he in the big blind? How much more of a loser does he play preflop in this position? How many players were there already? Maybe he would play 6-4 from the big blind for a 2.5x preflop raise, with three other players already called. Was there a flush draw on the flop? Maybe he called your c-bet on the flop because he had both a gutshot and a flush draw? And if he doesn’t have 6-4, what else could he have right now?

If his range at this point is 6-4 or a bluff, then a re-raise is a mistake. If he has 6-4, your re-raise will cost you more. If he’s bluffing, he’ll fold on your re-raise and you’ll win the same amount as if you had just called.

There is always more to consider. If you limit yourself to the first thing that comes to mind, you’ll never be able to play very well. If you generalize an opponent too much, you will draw too many wrong conclusions about how they play. You really have to dig into all the details of each hand and compare all of those details to how they have played in previous hands.

The trick isn’t to just look at the first thought, or even add just one more thought. The trick is to consider everything possible, without taking too long to make each decision. Considering everything will lead to paralysis by analysis. The real skill is to go beyond the first thought, but not to go so far that you waste time. Once you master this, you’re really on your way to becoming a great gamer.

Have fun and play smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of multiple major titles and has over $7 million in prize money. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon and other retailers. It is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg, please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.