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What Every War Can Teach Us About Poker

 photo preachercasy151: Poker coach and player, specialising in the psychology of decision-making. Sport Psychology Masters. www.christykeenan.com
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In Christy's first Tiltbook blog, he discusses the relevance to poker of a Nassim Taleb aphorism: ‘In a conflict, the middle ground is the least likely to be correct’

‘In a conflict, the middle ground is the least likely to be correct’ – Nassim Taleb

Let me explain what Taleb’s neat little aphorism means – and how YOU can use it to plug a costly poker leak.

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We have all heard certain over-enthusiastic types talking about poker being war. It is an understandable concept. Enemies clash, and only one can prevail.

However, the reality is that it is a card game – not life or death. The war analogy is limited and ill thought-out. Professional poker players are often close friends away from the tables, and their rivalry stretches no further than their bankrolls.

Nassim Taleb would be a great poker player

Nassim Taleb would be a great poker player

Despite this, there is one clear truth that can be learned from war and applied seamlessly to poker:

When two conflicting view-points are expressed, many people make the mistake of believing that the truth must lay in the middle. In a war, it is easy to assume that there is validity to both sides’ stance, and that they are both half-right.

This is called the Argument to Moderation, and it is quite, quite wrong. Here’s why:

Let’s say that I truly believe that the cup of coffee in front of me is stone cold. My girlfriend, however, is adamant that it is boiling hot. When I drink it, I will either spit it out because it is disgustingly freezing, or I will spit it out because it is burning my mouth.

One of us is right, and the other is wrong. The cup of coffee is not lukewarm. I will not happily guzzle the coffee down because we were both part-right. The truth does NOT magically lie in the middle.

This is all well and good, Christy, but what has this got to do with poker?

As it turns out, quite a lot!

A variant of the following situation rears its ugly head a staggering amount of the time when I am coaching students in the art of the Sit N Go.

We are on the bubble, and Hero is faced with a borderline decision. It may be that Hero has raised, and Villain has 3-bet. Hero is torn between finding a pretty nitty fold, and bringing down the hammer with an aggressive, risky shove.

The Thought Process of the Poker Player

Hero’s thought process runs thus: ‘Villain knows that I am stealing wide. He is a good player, and so will be 3-betting quite often here. I am confident that I can generate a lot of fold equity by shoving. ICM dictates that Villain can only call my 4-bet with the top 5% of holdings. And if I win this pot, I claim the chip lead and can confidently bully the bubble. The stats are on my side. I like a shove here.’

However, my hand isn’t strong, and I am contemplating tangling with the chip leader. ICM dictates that I need a monster hand to play an all-in pot here. I have a lot of equity to protect, as the short-stack benefits every time that I take on the chip leader. There is a strong argument to find a fold here.’

Hero is torn between two strong options. To shove or to fold? To shove or to fold? Hero weighs it up and….

Calls.

When faced with a borderline decision, Hero did the worst possible thing. He took the middle ground. He failed to act decisively, and it cost him equity – which costs him money.

He hoped that the coffee was lukewarm, when he really knew that it was either freezing or boiling.

The Move of Moderation in Poker

Poker does not lend itself to moderation. Much as a golfer cannot sink a putt if it is under-hit, the best poker players recognise that a lack of conviction is inexcusable.

And a lack of conviction is what often leads the poker player to making the move of moderation – in this case, the call.

When torn between two conflicting options – both of which are at least partly meritorious – it is criminal for the poker player to choose the third path.

It is criminal to avoid making a tough decision by making a WRONG one instead.

 

What do you think – is this leak something of which you are guilty? Drop me a message or a tweet with your experiences.

And, as always, please spread the word by sharing this article on Facebook and Twitter.

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