Recognizing and Exploiting Others’ Confirmation Bias at the Poker Table

In a previous post, I discussed how to recognize and manage your own confirmation bias at the poker table. I wanted to follow up those thoughts with a different approach to confirmation bias, namely exploiting your opponents’ bias at the poker table. In many ways, I’ve found this to be an even more productive exercise than trying to manage your own confirmation bias, which has limits and trade-offs that must be continually whittled away at through the breadth of your experience.


Representing, Storytelling, False Tells, Confirmation Bias: It’s All the Same

All these phrases are really interconnected as different aspects of the same strategy. Part of optimizing your play is to know when to change gears and vary your tactics so that you don’t become too predictable, but within the course of a single hand, one of the critical questions is always what information are you providing to your opponents? The order (which round of betting) and strength of the information (the size and nature of the bet) create an information trail that gets turned into a story (with a beginning, middle, and end) told to your opponent about the strength or weakness of your hand.

Knowing what hand you’re representing in the mind of your opponent is absolutely critical. It helps you recognize when a bluff is more or less likely to be successful. For those players who have developed false tells, recognizing the larger narrative and the pot stakes can help you choose the best time to deploy these tells and without necessarily revealing the false tell itself. More to this point, while managing your own confirmation bias takes time and experience, exploiting your opponent’s confirmation bias can be achieved more quickly through a combination of intuition and acting skill.

This general strategy also explains one of the things I like to say about the progression of learning poker. Beginners try to play their own hand. Amateurs try to play against their opponent’s hand. Professionals play against their opponent’s perception of their hand and yours.


Recognizing and Reducing Your Own Confirmation Bias at the Poker Table

For those who don’t know, confirmation bias is the tendency to look for, interpret, remember, and give extra weight to data that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs and assumptions. It’s an idea that’s commonly applied to different spheres, from politics and religion to psychology and game theory including poker.

Confirmation bias shows up at the poker table all the time. You put an opponent on a flush draw that you miss or at least devalue the possibility that he or she may have hit the straight on the river. Sometimes, this occurs even when you make the right read at the beginning. An opponent who’s making a pure bluff before and after the flop ends up betting big on the river. This can look like a continuation play of the previous bluff, but can you seen the subtle signs that something isn’t quite right about how that last bet went into the table?

Of course, confirmation bias is just a tendency, and you don’t want to start reacting too strongly in the other direction. Sometimes (many times?), it’s not your biased perspective of the evidence, but actual evidence that’s pointing to the right conclusion. In fact, at times, I’ve even found what I call meta-confirmation bias in my thinking. In other words, I would get so locked into an interpretation of another player’s strategy from the beginning that when there was an alternate theory, however unlikely, I would start to give it more weight than it deserved.


Conceptual Understanding vs. Repetition and Experience

At this point, it’s easy to throw your hands up in the air and, say, well, what good is this advice then? Indeed, while it can be easy enough to understand the concept of confirmation bias, it’s a different story putting it into practice at the poker table. It’s all that much harder to refine your skills when there’s so much statistical noise at the poker table between getting rivered or running hot or always picking up rags. But I assure you, over the long run, being aware of these psychological forces can pay off in the quality of your decision-making and play at the poker table.

Okay, but how? While it’s beneficial to understand how confirmation bias works in terms of accelerating your learning process at the poker table, to truly develop and improve your skills, you need to sit down at the table and play. A lot. The more times you see a particular betting pattern, the more times you’ll be able to pick out the few times in which this pattern doesn’t mean what it should. You’ll get better at recognizing when something smells fishy about a play you’ve seen a hundred times before.

It’s just like anything else, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. This is supposed to be especially true of no-limit hold ‘em and one of the reasons it’s known as the Cadillac of Poker….because it costs a Cadillac to learn how to play.