Humans are very good at deluding themselves. Nowhere is this more obvious than in poker. I have known many poker players who are mediocre, or even just plain awful, but who are able to convince themselves they are very good at the game. A New York Times article called “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Overconfidence” highlights how common the delusion of overconfidence can be. It’s focused on stock market trading, but many of its lessons are applicable to the very psychologically similar world of poker playing.
A large part of this psychological delusion comes from the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is where people who are ignorant and unskilled at an activity do not see the complexities of that activity, and so rate themselves as highly skilled in that arena. Conversely, the people with more experience have learned how much complexity is present in that activity and so are aware of how deficient they are and how much they have to learn. It’s easy to see how big a factor this can be in poker, where the game can appear ridiculously simple when you first start out, only revealing its stunning complexity after years of study. I’ve met people who literally just learned how to play poker several days before, but who already seemed convinced that they had figured out meaningful strategies and thought they actually stood a chance playing at higher limits.
And I speak from experience; when I first started playing significant stakes (mostly $10-20 limit Hold’em, both live and online) eight years ago, I thought I was God’s gift to poker. This was partly due to running very well online, and partly due to the horrible, horrible players who played online and live in those days. It was also largely due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, because I was blind to the huge amount of study it took to become very good at the game. After several years of small-stakes no-limit home games, and a few months of mid-stakes limit and no-limit games, I thought I had figured out maybe 90% of what it took to become a world-class player. As the years wore on, and my results lost consistency, and I found myself frequently outplayed by better opponents, and I read more and more on Twoplustwo and in books, the extent of my ignorance slowly became known to me.
The evidence of my fundamental strategic ignorance had to fight against my ego, which wanted to keep up the illusion of my superiority. My ego emphasized the good plays I made and tended to de-emphasize and erase the horrible plays from my mind. In those days, I didn’t do much else except think about poker, but I still did not put nearly as much time into it as the top players in the game put into it. I was mostly very lazy. Like many delusional, mediocre poker players the world over, I had a lot of emotional stake in thinking I was very good. It was only when I started to acknowledge that I was severely lacking in good fundamentals that I really stood a chance of becoming a very competitive player.
Throughout all of those years, though, I was a winning player. It’s just that most of my profit (as most winning players’ profit does) came from players who were very bad. I might occasionally outplay decent players, and sometimes have a significant edge over other winning players, but the surplus cash in the low-to-mid-stakes poker economy primarily just comes from clueless gamblers. As I realized this over a long period of time, my ego adjusted and I lost a lot of the blind pride I had in my game, which I think is a transformation that has to happen sooner or later for anyone who really wants to improve in any discipline. I realized that I could occasionally make some “brilliant” plays, but it didn’t mean much because I’d also frequently make some just plain idiotic plays, and sometimes I’d go on tilt, and sometimes I wouldn’t care about the money. And, after all, when I had big wins, it was usually due to playing players who were pretty bad.
So I basically went, over the course of several years, from thinking I was maybe at 80-90% of the skill level of someone like Phil Ivey or Barry Greenstein to realizing now that I have maybe 35% of the skill level of those kind of guys. The more I learned, the more the game of poker opened up to me and showed me how many factors (strategic and psychological) were present in the game.
But there are still many inexperienced poker players who believe that there is not much difference in the game that they play and the game that the top players play. You can find all kinds of posts on Twoplustwo.com where low- and mid-stakes players express the opinion that they’d hold their own against the world-class players, and that winning at super-high stakes is mainly a function of the psychological ability to not care about the money, or else that the top players are able to get in really good games against rich whales, or other reasons why the top players are not as good as most people think.
And then, for every winning player, there are probably 10 losing players who are able to convince themselves they just run bad. I’ve had some of the worst players I’ve ever played with tell me very straightforwardly that they’re actually very good and just can’t seem to beat all the bad players they play with. I just nod and try to look for a way out of the conversation.
So many poker players, winners and losers, fall victim to overconfidence. As the article seems to imply, putting faith in our abilities is just part of being human. As poker players who want to improve, this is something we constantly have to fight against.