Thursday, January 14, 2010


UncertaintyFor those who might have missed it, check out the comments to yesterday’s post in which I talked about that forthcoming article by Kyle Siler on the “Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker” in the Journal of Gambling Studies. In the comments you’ll see Kevmath pointing us to that Time magazine piece that also discusses the study. And Andy Bloch -- who I’m gonna go ahead and suggest is probably better equipped to judge these things than I am -- came by to offer some thoughts as well.

One of the ideas that comes up near the end of Siler’s piece has to do with the special psychological pressures that arise when a player moves up in stakes. All of us who have played the game know about these pressures. Any sort of change from one’s “normal” game -- be it a change in stakes or an attempt to try a different game -- usually brings with it some measure of uncertainty, and some of us are better equipped than others to handle those differences (e.g., in opponents’ skill levels, in opponents’ strategies, in the hands/odds/play of other games, etc.).

In fact, this phenomenon -- basically of finding it difficult to perform well when outside of one’s comfort zone -- occurred to me more than once yesterday.

Was thinking about it last night while watching my UNC Tarheels get blasted by the Clemson Tigers in a game at Clemson. The Heels looked miserable from the start, turning the ball over every other possession and falling behind by 20 within the first nine minutes. UNC finally got it together midway through the first half and managed to play the Tigers evenly for the rest of the night, which meant they ended the game on the losing side of a 83-64 final.

Carolina has a few seniors, but those guys don’t have a ton of experience, and much of the roster is filled out by freshmen and sophomores. While they are undefeated at home (11-0), they are now only 1-5 when not playing in the Dean Dome. Clearly having to leave Chapel Hill and get out of their comfort zone has negatively affected the young team thus far, as that poor start last night well showed.

'Hunting Fish' by Jay Greenspan (2006)Earlier in the day I’d been thinking about the same idea while reading Jay Greenspan’s book Hunting Fish (2006), loaned to me a little while ago by Special K. I’ve only just started the book, which, as the subtitle announces, is a chronicle of Greenspan’s “cross-country search for America’s worst poker players.” The book is organized into 18 chapters, each of which focuses on a particular stop on Greenspan’s journey through various casinos, underground clubs, and home games. So far so good.

Greenspan has to deal with a couple of different varieties of uncertainty as he travels from game to game. For one, his goal is to build his bankroll and move up in stakes, and already at the beginning of the book he’s starting to express self-doubt about whether or not he’ll eventually discover he cannot psychologically handle the pressure of moving up. “I understood that for me there would be a limit,” he writes, “a level at which I would say, I simply can’t play this high. The stakes are too much for me.

Of course, Greenspan also has to deal with the uncertainty of playing in unfamiliar environs with unfamiliar opponents. Like UNC last night, he’s going to be the away team every single night, and so will have to get accustomed to dealing with unknowns and adapting accordingly.

There was one other instance yesterday when this phenomenon occurred to me -- when I sat down for a short online session of my usual pot-limit Omaha game. When away from the tables, I almost always think about playing a different game. And sometimes I think about playing at higher stakes than the usual $25 buy-in games where I am most comfortable. But somehow, after I’ve logged in and opened up the lobby to find a game, I always go back to what’s familiar.

I know playing other games or higher stakes will challenge me as a player, thereby helping me to improve. But I also know that by sticking with my usual game/stakes my familiarity there serves me well, too, as my experience tends to give me an edge -- sometimes modest, sometimes significant -- over my opponents. I don’t always win, but I usually know what the hell is going on. Thus do I minimize (somewhat) the “social and psychological challenges” game provides.

Challenges are necessary, though. And paradoxical. We desire them, but shun them, too. We fear uncertainty, and perhaps a lot of times even consciously avoid situations in which we are confronted by uncertainty. But we know that a life without uncertainty isn’t desirable either.

Of that I’m certain.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1/14/2010 8:42 PM  

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