How to think under pressure
Maria Konnikova used to work for the New Yorker. In January 2017 she took a sabbatical from her job to pursue an unusual goal: “…to train (from scratch) as a professional poker player. The aim was to write a book about the role that chance plays in our lives, using her experiences in the game as the vehicle to explore the subject. And she did have one significant advantage: the legendary player, Erik Seidel, had offered to coach her throughout her quest.”
So why should you & I care about Maria’s grand experiment? In January 2018 Maria was “…competing in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure National Championship – one of the oldest and most prestigious live poker tournaments. And her gamble was finally paying off. Over three days, Konnikova beat 290 competitors to win the trophy, along with $84,600 in prize money and a $30,000 package to enter a future tournament…Her account of the experience – The Biggest Bluff – is being published…this week…Konnikova hopes that the lessons learned will be of value far beyond the casino. “This book isn’t about how to play poker,” she writes in one of the early chapters. “It’s about how to play the world.””
What can we learn from poker players? A lot it turns out. “The interesting thing about poker, she says, is that it is “a game of incomplete information, which is like life”. Unlike chess, say, so much of what you need to know is hidden from you – so all your decisions come from a place of deep uncertainty. “We never know everything, we can never see the whole board. And yet we have to act all the same.”
You also need to accept that, while skill can predict your overall trajectory across many tournaments, your performance at any particular moment is still the victim of chance. In general, humans tend not to be very good at dealing with this type of thinking, over-estimating the role our own skill thanks to our “illusion of control”. And Konnikova’s own psychological research (conducted before her poker experiment) had shown just how detrimental this can be. Using a simulated stock market, she found that the more people overestimated the importance of their own skill, rather than luck, the less flexible their decision making became – relying too much on their initial hunches without learning from actual patterns in the data.”
So how can we avoid the traps created by our own brain and by our ego? “…you need to start thinking probabilistically. In poker, that means estimating the odds that someone would have a better or worse hand than you, and adapting your decision making accordingly. Given the high degree of uncertainty, the poker player must also appreciate the concept of variance – the range of possible outcomes from any decision. This means that even if you make a big win, your underlying reasoning could have been flawed, and even if you lose, you might have been making the most logical decision based on the information at hand.”
Whilst poker gurus like Annie Duke have written bestsellers about their journeys as professional players, there seems to be a further unique angle that Konnikova’s book dwells upon – thinking & understanding your own feelings/mood: “Konnikova also had to learn to deal with ‘tilting’ – “a beautiful concept that means letting your emotions seep into the logic of your decision making”. Examples of tilting could include that despair that comes from a string of bad luck, which causes you to gamble more furiously to make up for your losses, or it could be the overconfidence that comes from a win. There is no way to escape it completely, Konnikova cautions – “unless we have a brain lesion, or the neural wiring of a psychopathic brain” – but there are some ways to cope better with its effects.
This includes cultivating greater emotional awareness – “constantly checking in with yourself to see ‘what am I feeling?’ and ‘How am I reacting to this?’” she says. Once you have identified those feelings, you should then try to analyse how they’re influencing your judgement, and whether you should try to account for that in your final decision. (Along these lines, there is some evidence that our emotional vocabulary can improve our financial decision making. People who were more precise in the way they describe their feelings tended to make better trades on an artificial stock market, for example.)”