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Poker Strategy with Greg Raymer: How Choice Bias Affects Players

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This is the seventh and final part in a series on how cognitive biases can affect us at the poker table.

Part 1: Selfish Bias
Part 2: The curse of knowledge
Part 3: Anchoring Bias and Availability Heuristics
Part 4: Confirmation bias
Part 5: Pessimism and optimism bias
Part 6: Survival Bias

I will end this long series with the choice support bias. When you suffer from this bias, once you have made a choice, you tend to support that choice no matter what.

This bias hits long-lasting decisions particularly hard. Once you have chosen a life partner, a best friend, which house or car to buy, which politician or political party to support, it is very difficult to go back on such decisions. Admitting that you made a mistake with such an important choice is emotionally painful. It’s emotionally easier to find and believe in reasons (even clearly flawed ones) to keep supporting such important choices.

Of course, in poker, you make a choice (bet, check, raise, etc.) and find out fairly quickly if that choice was the best. At least you’ll find out if that was the best choice, in hindsight, for that specific hand.

It’s a bit like buying or selling a stock. Every day that follows, you learn whether this choice saved or saved you money, or cost you money. However, in both situations, whether a choice was correct in retrospect has very little to do with how smart the choice was at the time it was made.

This bias hurts us the most when it works in combination with selective memory and reinforces bad decisions. For example, let’s say that one player, Jim, decided it was a mistake to play the draws aggressively. Jim thinks smart play is simply to call every draw until he does, and only then to start betting or raising with a made hand.

Of course, in hindsight, Jim will sometimes be right. And in other cases, Jim will have been wrong. But suffering from choice support bias, he will remember the times when he was right more strongly, since those hands support his choice to passively play all draws. As a result, Jim will never learn to determine when to play a draw aggressively. He will be stuck in his wrong strategy, because recognizing any alternative strategy would mean having to admit that he was wrong.

And this is the root cause of choice support bias. It protects our ego. By focusing on the data that supports our choice and downplaying the data that contradicts our choice, we protect our ego from learning that we were wrong.

Admitting that you made a mistake can be painful. We can all happily say, “Of course I don’t know everything, I’m wrong all the time. But in reality, how often do we admit, even to ourselves, that we were wrong? Especially if the error has any consequence. And how often do we confess this to other people? It’s even harder to do. It is much easier to let this bias take over and protect against our own failures.

The problem is that if we allow this bias to control us like this, it will be nearly impossible for us to learn and improve. If we fool ourselves into thinking that we are playing perfectly, we will not be motivated to work to improve our game. Our skill level will stagnate or even decline, rather than improve.

Here is a story showing how far people will go, rather than admitting a mistake. I was a card counter and played a lot of blackjack. One night there was an older gentleman at the table, probably in his mid-70s. He bet $10 and received 9-8.

When the dealer joined him, he put an extra $10 on top of his original bet. It was pretty obvious his vision wasn’t perfect and he thought he had 8-8 or 9-9. The dealer told him he could only split pairs. He got nervous and realized his mistake.

However, rather than admitting he had been confused, he now says he wanted to overtake. On a hard 17! The dealer tried to talk him out of it, as did the pit boss. But he insisted it was his money and he could do whatever he wanted. So, rather than admit failing eyesight, he instead opted to double up at a spot where he was a 9:4 favorite to break, which would cost him $20.

It was amazing to observe that he would rather burn money, than admit his vision wasn’t perfect. Even more interesting, it looked like he’d rather do something blindly stupid, than admit a minor physical flaw. Personally, my ego would be hurt more by being seen as stupid, compared to having a flawed view.

For everything I’ve discussed in this series, you need to watch your mindset, to make sure you don’t let any of these biases influence your thinking. It requires a discipline of constant vigilance, continually guarding against the encroachment of these prejudices. It’s only when this awareness becomes a habit that you’ll have them permanently removed from your game. More likely, it’s something you’ll overcome, then fall prey to and have to overcome again. It’s something we all have to work on forever, if we want to avoid these pitfalls. I know I do.

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.