Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2004) in Poker Player newspaper.
Today I want to share one of my personal favorite lectures. I first delivered this on the Internet several years ago. It’s controversial, but it’s the truth. And it’s important for you to understand that truth.
I’ve made only minor adjustments to help the transition between spoken word and print. And I’ve added a special reflection. Let me know what you think…
Silly poker advice meets Occam’s Razor
In order to understand how silly some poker advice gets, you need to understand William of Ockham – a 14th century English philosopher. (I know, you’re not used to seeing Occam spelled that way, but it’s right.) Well, maybe you don’t need to understand him. He might have slept with goats, for all I know. But you need to understand how today’s scientists have reinterpreted one of the concepts that William of Occam popularized. I’m talking about Occam’s Razor. It has come to mean that when there are competing theories that can explain an event, the simplest one is usually better. That’s important, and I’ll repeat it.
- Listen to “Poker audio: Avoiding disaster with Occam’s Razor.”
- Read “Reflections on the lecture” below.
When there are two or more ways you can explain why something happened, the explanation that’s simpler is more likely to be right.
Let’s say you see a carton of milk that stayed on the kitchen counter over night. The milk is supposed to be in the refrigerator, but it isn’t. As far as you know, you’ve been alone in the house. Now you could theorize that some unknown enemy broke into your house, drank some milk, then poisoned it, and left it on the kitchen counter hoping you’ll drink it and die. Or you could reason that you probably forgot to put the milk back in the refrigerator.
Either is possible. But, guess what? You and I are both gamblers at heart, and you know which way we’re going to bet – that you forgot to put the milk back in the refrigerator, right?
Simpler is better
Anything is possible, but simpler is better. It’s Occam’s Razor – you shave away all the unnecessary complexities and make the most obvious explanation the favorite.
Now, what does this have to do with poker? Well, I just read some advice from a serious poker player that says that in a pot-limit hold ’em game, you should come into a pot with 8-7 suited behind two callers and a raiser, realizing that he holds a big pair, then if the flop almost completely misses you, showing an ace and two other cards and no one-card out for a straight or flush, call the player who holds that big pair. The theory is that this surprise call on the flop with nothing will make the bettor sure that you have something and put you in a position to steal the pot sometime on the next two betting rounds.
Anything wrong with this? Plenty! This is an example of creative play. I teach variations of this myself, and it belongs in your poker arsenal. But it’s a play that you should use only rarely. Here’s where Occam’s Razor comes in. You can take any poker situation, add complexities, argue how players will respond until they’re just right to fit your conclusion, and make practically any bizarre decision seem like the most logical.
But, it remains that the simplest conclusion is that you shouldn’t play that 8-7 suited at all most of the time and that, when you do, you should fold willingly when you miss and the original raiser bets into the flop. The simplest choice of strategy is usually the best. Exceptions are exceptions for a reason.
Ignoring the obvious
And, here’s another example. There’s been a lot of discussion lately of some published expert advice that you should bet on the flop in hold ’em with an inside straight draw. Had this been presented as a rare exception, it would have been profitable advice. But, by using more-complex arguments to make it the main tactic, the experts are violating Occam’s Razor – ignoring the obvious explanation of what you should do – check.
The reason I’m telling you this today is, once you become skilled at poker, it’s easy to justify doing the unusual. But the most obvious decision is usually correct. You should make occasional exceptions to keep observant opponents off-guard and to earn extra profit. But, if you stray too often from what are the simplest and most obvious decisions, you’re sure to sacrifice profit. Remember Occam’s Razor next time someone justifies a poker decision with a complex argument when a simpler argument leads to different decision. Complex is sometimes right, but usually it isn’t.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today.
And that concluded the lecture. I think what happens is this: The more skill you acquire at anything, the more likely you are to get fancy in your analysis. You’re looking for insights that less accomplished people don’t see. This is true at poker and at many other endeavors.
I talk about Caro’s Fancy Play Syndrome (FPS) which I first described more than 15 years ago. It says that when you develop significant skills at poker, you’re in danger of destroying your profit by trying to impress your opponents. In doing so, you’ll favor the most creative play over the most obvious and profitable one. FPS can be fatal to professional poker careers.
Well, let’s add a similar affliction to our vocabulary. Let’s call it FES – Caro’s Fancy Expert Syndrome. It’s related to FPS, but it applies to poker experts trying to discuss theories, rather than to players trying to implement strategy. Sometimes experts get so intrigued by the depth of their own thinking that they favor bizarre conclusions over more obvious ones. Again, remember Occam’s Razor – simpler is usually better. Not always. Usually.
So, now you need to beware to two psychological poker disorders that I’ve identified – FPS, when you’re playing, and FES, when you’re studying. — MC