Thursday, May 13, 2010

Progress or Regress

I remember reading (and I've probably said it myself several times) that when it comes to poker, you have to stay ahead of the curve. Everyone's studying and getting better, and if you're just sitting around and not learning new things, your opponents will overtake you. This is one sense in which it's true that you're either progressing or regressing. However, there's a much more direct way in which it's true, too.

If you made a list of all the things you know about poker, how long would that list be? Hopefully pretty long, but also pretty fuzzy - what counts as "something you know?" Let's be a bit more specific: If you made a list of every situation you know how to play, how long would it be? Still, hopefully, pretty long. I'm not sure I can even estimate it, but there are certainly hundreds of situations I've figured out, like

- Nutflushdraw versus reg with wide range OOP
- TPTK on dry flop in the blinds versus standard button open
- Weak top pair OOP on the river after the turn checks back

... etc. Clearly I could be more specific in regards to stack sizes, reads, hand strength and so on, but the point isn't so much what the list contains, but the fact that it's long. And here's the thing about a long list of knowledge: If you don't maintain it actively, it will deteriorate. I used to be able to cite the entire list of Swedish monarchs that I learned in high school. Not anymore. I've forgotten large parts of it - that's what happens to stuff we commit to memory.

The point, which I hope is becoming clear, is that all the things you know today about poker may not be something you know a month from now. Some of it will start get blurry. Some situation you worked out in painstaking detail a year ago might be a little confusing to you now - should you bet for value here? Or is it a check/call? And what's happened is that you've regressed.

I notice this in my own game when I go back and review some hands I wasn't sure about. Some of them seem eerily familiar, and I realize that I've worked these things out before but couldn't get to the knowledge when I needed it. Seems like bad news, but the coin has two sides. Let's expand on the bad news first:

The fact that I'm forgetting or getting worse at situations I used to have a really good grasp at means that I don't need to just work on new aspects of my game, but I need to actually rehearse some situations. It seems like something that should take care of itself, doesn't it? I mean, if I've worked out the situation at one point and came up with the "right" play, doesn't that mean every time I'm in that situation at the table, I'm rehearsing it? Only, and this is important, if I consciously say to myself "right, and here I'm going to bet for value because ." Otherwise, I'm not reinforcing the knowledge - because the outcome will. In other words, my brain will register how the play worked out (success or failure) and then create some kind of emotional association to it. This is also one of those things that doesn't sound like a problem on the surface, but it is. Because emotional associations aren't necessarily weighted by profit, but by... Other things.

Take the case of check-raising all-in on the turn with a big draw. When it works, I'll be a little bit happy. When it doesn't work, I'll be very sad. The little bits of happiness don't add up the same way that the dollars I make on the play do, because I'm risk-averse: I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. So, given time and repetitions, my brain will gradually start to associate that play with bad feelings, despite the fact that I'm making money off of it. If I don't consciously reinforce it, I'm most likely ending up someday simply not doing it anymore. I might - consciously, whatever that means - want to do it, but I don't get to make that decision before my subconscious has already gone ahead and clicked the fold or call button. Only afterwards might I think "wait, wouldn't this have been a good spot to shove?"

So that's the bad side of the coin. There's an upside, though: This, presumably, happens to everyone in one form or another. Unless they actively rehearse and maintain their game, they will slip into bad habits. And that's good, because that means that despite competition becoming tougher and tougher, there's still a way to outwork our opponents, still a way to stay ahead of the curve even though we're perhaps barely advancing at all in some objective sense. The games are definitely getting harder to beat, but this is not a trend that can go on forever. And the trend will slow down WAY before any kind of "optimal" poker is being played, because we will all build up longer and longer mental lists of "stuff we know" and they will become harder and harder to maintain. Somewhere, I guess, there's an equilibrium between how good we are and how much we work on our game. We work on our game, we learn new things, but we don't really become better. So perhaps our goal should be to have our equilibrium higher up on the learning scale than our opponents.

(A brief related note: If you know whether you're risk-averse, risk neutral, or risk-seeking, you can use that knowledge to examine plays you feel you're in danger of losing due to emotional reinforcement. I was going to say more about this, but not today.)

So, in a nutshell: progress or regress. At some point, we're like Alice in Wonderland: Running as fast as we can to stay in one place. That place needs to be further along than that of the guy we're playing.


ChuckTs said...

Awesome post. Makes me a bit depressed as it just reminds me of the fact I've been completely idle for the last month or so and that means not only staying 'level' with my skillset, but actually going backwards.

Internet's up btw, things are a bit busy around here but message me when you have time and I'll make time to talk.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post!

I have a question for you if you dont mind. When you say check-raise all in on the turn with a big draw,what do you mean by big draw? Would just an open ended straight draw or a flush draw qualify as a big draw or do you mean a combination of the two/pair and a flush draw?

Thanks RAFC24

Fredrik Paulsson: said...

Open-ender or better, typically. I might do it with overs+gutshot as well (e.g. QJ on a T-8-4-6 board). It depends a little on stack-to-pot ratio whether or not it makes sense, and obviously very much on our opponent's range and his willingness to fold. And our image. And probably another couple of things I haven't thought of because I haven't had my morning coffee yet.