Saturday, May 13, 2006

Know Thy Own Friggin' Self

In Joyce Carol Oates’s 1995 essay titled “I, the Juror” (a play, of course, on the title of Mickey Spillane’s first Mike Hammer novel), Oates recounts her first time serving jury duty. If you can track the essay down, I recommend it -- Oates really hits on all eight throughout. In her particular trial, race emerged as an issue that most dramatically demonstrated to her the difficulty of judging others. That there is the meat of this post, trying to get at what makes judging others such a hard nut to crack.

The case involved a black defendant and black witnesses, while the jury was mostly white. Oates expresses dismay at how the white jurors seemed unaffected by the case, as if they couldn’t hope to identify with any of those involved and (therefore) couldn’t take the case as seriously as one would hope. Oates makes good points about race and the legal system, although Oates also makes a broader, more philosophical point toward the end of the essay when she says “In judging others, the burden is ours to transcend the limits of self.”

While Oates here speaks primarily of race (and how it tends to limit our perspective when judging others), I think her point can be applied more broadly to any situation when one is evaluating another’s actions. Indeed, when judging others, one of the greatest challenges is to get out of your own damn way . . . that is, to try not to compare others to oneself.

It goes without saying that much of poker involves judging others. While certain sequences suggest certain hands, knowing something about how an oppponent plays (e.g., starting hand requirements, his tendency to slow play, his willingness to bluff, etc.) goes a long way toward helping you decide how to play back. This business of (as Sklansky puts it in The Theory of Poker) “getting into your opponents’ heads, analyzing how they think, figuring out what they think you think, and even determining what they think you think they think” has a hell of a lot to do with one’s success at the table.

In practice, there exists for all of us a serious, difficult-to-overcome obstacle to “getting into your opponents’ heads,” namely, what is going on inside our own heads. Let’s say you’ve been sitting at a low stakes limit table for a good while and have played 100 hands with the person sitting to your left. Early on he established himself as someone willing to play just about any two cards. He also tends to showdown almost every hand in which he is involved. He’s demonstrated a few other, less obvious patterns as well, such as never check-raising, always betting out with top pair (regardless of his kicker), and even a few times check-calling on the river when holding less than the nuts.

Now we can all gander at our hypothetical cat and break him down according to what we might agree are “objective” criteria. We might even agree how we ultimately want to categorize him (as “loose-passive,” a “jackal,” or what have you). However, in practice, how (let’s say) you would evaluate him is largely affected -- sometimes in a negative way that obscures rather than clarifies -- by what kind of player you are. If you are also loose with your starting hand requirements, you may be less apt to evaluate his requirements as a bunch of damnfoolery. If you never check-raise, having determined it to be a play that at low limit tables ultimately has a negative EV, then your judgment of this particular opponent’s neglect of the check-raise would also be affected. And so forth.

I suppose the lesson here is that before one can truly evaluate other players, one needs to understand more about one’s own game. We need to know what our own tendencies and preferences are (and why we have those tendencies and preferences) and then try, if possible, to “transcend the limits of self” when assessing others. This may well be one of the most difficult tasks in poker, that is, to learn how to judge others without letting our own example determine what is “correct” and what is not. We shouldn’t be surprised that the world is full of people unlike ourselves, yet in many situations (including sitting around a poker table) we nevertheless are. Constantly.

Such was Socrates’ point, I guess. Know thyself before presuming to know others. Also (argues Socrates), knowing who you are helps you become the best person you can be. By the same token, knowing precisely what kind of poker player you are will make you a better judge of others’ play, and thus, the best player you can be.

Image: I, the Jury (1947), Mickey Spillane.

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