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I’m afraid of the ocean.  I love to swim; in fact, I was a pool lifeguard for years and still swim laps three times a week, but the ocean freaks me out.  I tell people it’s because it’s dirty, crowded, and polluted, but if I’m being honest, there’s one other reason why I resist going into open water.


It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but it pretty much ruined the ocean for me forever.  And I’m not the only one – after the film’s premiere in 1975, there was a noticeable drop in tourism in many beachfront communities.  It turns out that people would prefer not getting eaten by a giant killer shark on a vacation with the kids.

According to Wikipedia, guess how many fatal shark attacks there have been in the last six years in the United States?  Three.  That’s half a person eaten per year (pun definitely intended).  Compare that to the roughly 300,000 deaths in fatal car accidents during that same period!  And yet I climb into my car every day without a second thought, but the ocean gives me a case of the screaming willies.

There’s a psychological phenomenon behind this and if you bear with me, I’ll show you its relevance to poker.  It’s called the Availability Heuristic and it says that the more easily an event is recalled in our memory, the more frequently we assume it occurs.  In the case of Jaws, I can remember with extraordinary detail the grisly deaths and panic of a shark attack.  My brain takes the ease with which I remember the event and erroneously concludes that sharks attack people more often than they really do.

The brain is actually pretty bad at assessing risk and probabilities, so it takes shortcuts based on direct experience.  If your parents split up, you probably think the divorce rate is higher than someone whose parents stayed together.  If your grandfather drank 15 martinis a day, but lived to be one-hundred, you probably think that alcohol has only minor health risks.  And if you were the victim of a violent crime, you might think there are criminals down every alley and side street.  News reports of bizarre, sensational crimes also distort our perception of what really happens out in the world.

So what does this have to do with poker?  Let’s switch from sharks to fish…

I can remember with great clarity the worst beats I’ve ever taken at the poker table and I bet you can too.  The adrenaline, stakes, and crushing disappointment helped sear the memory into my mind like a cattle brand.  Given the ease with which we can recall those beats, the Availability Heuristic tricks us into thinking that bad beats happen more frequently to us than they really do.  Objectively speaking, you’re only getting drawn out on as often as pot equities and probability dictate.  But man, it sure feels like it happens all the time!

The important thing to remember here is that it’s an illusion.  The universe doesn’t hate you and you aren’t being singled out to receive an unfair number of bad beats.  You can prove this to yourself through detailed record keeping.  Over a large enough sample size, your Holdem Manager or PokerTracker stats should show that you’re not running significantly worse or better than anyone else.  Trust the numbers and beware of the serpent in your head hissing that you’re an unlucky player.

So now you’re aware of the problem and hopefully can minimize its effects on your perception of the game.  Are there ways that we can exploit this tendency in our opponents?  Absolutely.

To maximize our profits at the table, game theory dictates that we should be mixing in enough bluffs with our value bets (and vice versa) so as to remain unpredictable to our opponents.  If a shove on the river always means we have it, an opponent can confidently fold to every shove and we lose value.  Likewise, if a shove on the river is always a bluff, an opponent can confidently call with virtually any reasonable holding and, again, we lose value.  But mixing up our play puts our opponents to a much tougher decision; putting our opponents to tough decisions is how we profit.

But if the Availability Heuristic says that we often mistakenly assume that easily remembered events happen more frequently than they do, then if we can somehow make our opponents remember some big crazy bluffs, we actually don’t have to bluff very often to reap the benefits.

We call it “advertising,” which is when professional makes a big bluff and then shows it to the table, making them remember it.  Then, the pro can sit back and play a tight, solid game while benefiting from the illusion that he’s a maniac.  And it’s all due to the Availability Heuristic.

Years ago on “High Stakes Poker,” “Yukon” Brad Booth pushed Phil Ivey off of kings with four-high and a gutshot straight draw.  He made a 10x raise to $300,000, forcing Phil to fold his overpair.  Interestingly, Brad didn’t show his monster bluff to the table –he didn’t have to.  They were on TV and he knew that each and every one of those players would eventually see that he shipped it with the nut low.

Even better, he knew that tens of thousands of poker players around the world would also see that he shipped it with the nut low.  I certainly remember that hand and bet a lot of other people do too.  In one instant, Brad cemented his image as a crazy person in our minds and has likely been cashing in on it for years by getting called down light.  It’s a questionable game play, but a brilliant meta-game strategy.

If you find you’re getting too much respect at the tables by the observant regulars, try making a gigantic, crazy bluff.  And I’m not talking about shipping it with flush, straight, and overcard outs.  I’m talking about getting it in for 200 big blinds pre-flop with 9-3 offsuit.  If you draw out on the guy, it’s a bonus.  But even if you don’t, I guarantee you that the regulars will immediately open up their notes on you and record the hand so they can recall it more easily the next time you play.

Which is exactly what you want.

One Comment

  1. Sean Gibson says:

    Great article Jimmy, this one definitely hit home.

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