*Blink* for poker

Published on Aug 2nd, 2005

If you haven't read "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, read it. And if you are an indolent bastard like me who likes to invest his spare time on poker and golf, listen to it on tape/CD like I'm doing. I'm only halfway done with it, but it's already had a powerful effect on me. While I haven't yet decided how much, I see definite application to big bet poker -- especially multi-table tournaments where lots of close, tough decisions are required. <READMORE>

The point of "Blink" is that we don't give enough credit to our subconscious mind and/or our instinctive reactions. Our gut level, immediate impression is very powerful. Our accumulated experiences and natural abilities give us powers that we don't really understand. Gladwell gives dozens of examples, such as: a tennis teacher who knows when a player is going to double fault before the ball is struck; art experts who instantly recognize fakes that have already fooled other experts and scientists; and so on. The tennis teacher, Vic Braden, can tell with something like a 98% success rate -- whether he watches the match live or on TV -- when someone is going to double fault. He has tried for years to distill this skill, to figure out how he knows. And he can't. It's no one thing. It's not even conscious. He just knows. The art experts who uncovered the great Getty kouros ($10 million Greek sculpture) fraud all had very immediate, gut reactions that told them the sculpture was "wrong." But they can't explain why. One world famous art fraud expert says he feels dizzy or sick when presented with a fraud. He can't explain how he knows or what happens to him -- he just knows.

I don't think you can read the book and not conclude that Gladwell is onto something. Does this have any applicability to poker? Of course it does. Before I get into that, an aside. I used to play a lot of blackjack. I was never much of a counter, and I played just for fun, messing around. However, about once a shoe, I would get a weird feeling and I would predict the next card. With a random deck, that's a 1 in 13 shot. And yet I would guess I "called" the next card about 80% of the time. I was so good at predicting second cards that my ex-girlfriend started to freak out. She thought it was "spooky." It never bothered me much -- I just figured I had seen so many hands of blackjack that I was intuitively sensing when an ace or seven or whatever was "due," or something like that. I still can't explain it, but those episodes predisposed me to this whole "Blink" thing.

Before I get into possible applications to poker, I would say that of course, the vast majority of poker decisions are and should be based on 100% conscious perception, experience and information. No one should try to "sense" that his 3 7 offsuit will hit the next flop, or whatever. On the other hand, I can think of several moments in MTTs just in the last few weeks where I had a tough decision, made the decision that I think most experts would make, and yet I had a lurking sense that I should go the other way. I had my friend Tom watching me the other night as I played an MTT. Deep in the tourney, I had AJ and raised. As I raised, I said to Tom "the small stack is going to push in and I will have to call him, and I will double him up." It happened right on cue -- the small stack had AQ -- and Tom said, "How did you know that....and why did you do it if you knew that was going to happen?" Good question. I don't know how I knew. On the rational/conscious level, of course small stacks get desperate, there's that McEvoy Rule (lots of bad hands have folded, so it's more likely there are good hands left behind you, etc.), and AJ just isn't very good. But it's still far more likely than not that the small stack has crap and will fold. So how did I know?

And the answer is "it doesn't matter how." If the situation is marginal to begin with, and your subconscious "Blink" instinct tells you that something bad is about to happen, why not listen to (or at least take into account) that instinct? How did all those elephants know the tsunami was coming? They felt something. That flutter. That nausea or unsettledness or twitch of the soul the art experts felt when they saw the fake sculpture. Whatever it is, it probably means something. The more important question is, "why did I still do it if I knew what was going to happen?" Because I didn't trust my subconscious. Rationally, I thought it was the right play. But what I'm saying is, if it's a close call, and it feels wrong, trust your feelings. Why be the one Sri Lankan elephant that drowns?

The net of all this is that I am still processing the whole concept. Maybe I am just excited about the book and overestimating the possibilities for poker. So all I am saying for now is that in tough spots, you can have total command of all the available information, and the optimal play is not obvious. Yet sometimes you will know what to do, without knowing why. I think we are supposed to trust that feeling, and not question in that moment where it comes from.

And if I'm wrong, it's still a very cool book. Good luck!</READMORE>


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