Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
In order to make quality decisions in poker and in life, you need to understand the word “important.” And I’m not talking about its definition. You already know that.
Exactly what am I talking about, then? Well, that’s the topic of today’s self-interview.
Question 1: So, what is it about the word “important” that you think I don’t understand?
Let me answer by throwing a couple of questions right back at you. Let’s say I told you to walk to the end of a hallway. Then you must turn either left and enter a room or right and exit to the patio. Waiting for you – in the room and on the patio – will be a poker hand. If you choose the higher-ranking hand, you win a billion dollars. If you choose the lower ranking one, you win nothing.
So, your questions are: If I give you 10 hours to make a decision, how much time will you spend deciding; and how important is this decision?
Question 2: Clearly you’re giving me an extreme example of decision making. Let’s see. Well, I’d probably take the whole 10 hours. And, obviously, the decision would be incredibly important – the most important one of my life. So, how did I do?
You flunked. Let’s take your second answer first. The decision wouldn’t be “incredibly important.” In fact, it wouldn’t be important at all. I’ll get back to that in a few seconds.
Taking the entire 10 hours to decide is a waste of mental energy. You can make this decision in one second without sacrificing quality. Your chances of winning a billion dollars or winning nothing remain fifty-fifty.
The extra 10 hours are something you can use productively afterward, whether as a pauper or as a billionaire.
By saying the decision is incredibly important, you’re indicating that you don’t know the difference between important decisions and important consequences.
Question 3: What is the difference?
Important decisions – in poker and in life – are ones where two elements are present: (1) The outcome matters significantly; and (2) You can improve your chances of a positive result by making the right choice.
Both of those conditions must be met for a decision to be important. If the outcome doesn’t matter significantly, the decision probably isn’t worth the time it takes to analyze, even if you can improve your chances. And an outcome can be monumentally significant, but if you can’t improve your chances, then just choose and move on to things where your judgment actually matters.
I realize that the billion-dollar-versus-nothing, best-poker-hand scenario is a stretch. In the real world, that opportunity might not happen to most people more than five times in their lives. But it’s good to be prepared. So, the next time it happens to you – even if it’s 20 years from now – just go right or go left and get it over with. The decision isn’t important. Only the consequence is important.
Question 4: So, how does this apply to poker?
Keep in mind that we can’t take forever to make our decisions at the poker table. Even though the rules technically allow a lot of time for thinking, if everyone takes full advantage of it, then the game will be slow and unpleasant.
Players who continually take too long to decide are unpopular, and they can’t generate the goodwill needed to entice weak players to stay in their games or seek them out for future poker combat. Also, if you delay the game, you’re encouraging others to do the same. And the result is fewer hands and less profit.
That’s why I seldom take much time to act. I save my delays for strategic purposes, like eliciting tells from opponents who won’t display them otherwise – or like pausing after a dead-certain tell, so that the opponent won’t think I’m calling or folding in response to it. That way, I can use that same tell again in the future, having not “wised up” the player. The worst thing you can do – and I’ve actually witnessed this – is to blurt, “I knew you were bluffing, because you…” did xyz. Doing that makes you feel ever so smart and costs you ever so much money.
If I know a decision is going to be close – call or fold, call or raise, check or bet – I usually make some decision almost instantly. I know that decision might have important consequences, but it isn’t an important decision. That’s because either way I decide offers good and bad opportunity. So, I just fling chips at the pot or fling cards facedown toward the dealer. Call, fold, check, raise. Whatever. Move on with the game.
And, magically, by betting, raising, and folding in a crisp, certain, and immediate fashion, I often unnerve opponents and they begin to play worse. It’s sometimes astonishing.
You might try it. It works for me. And it all comes from knowing the difference between important decisions and important consequences.
Question 5: Could you sum it up for us?
Sure. In everyday life and in poker, don’t waste time on decisions that can’t be improved by logic. And don’t waste time on decisions for which the outcome isn’t meaningful. For instance: If you can’t quickly choose between two things on a menu, let the server decide.
And if you already know that you’re going to call the bettor, don’t waste time searching for even more clues to make that decision better. Just call. Now!
Take command of your poker table with immediate actions. Pause only when you genuinely need time to evaluate. Deliberately delay only when it’s clearly advantageous – such as to entice a tell or to make your opponent think you didn’t see one after it happens.
From now on, whenever you find yourself stopping to make a decision, ask yourself whether it’s really worth the time. Remember: Important decisions and important consequences are different things. — MC