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Irony in Action

You’re in a tough $5/10 NLH game. You know the guy in the checkered shirt in seat 8. Solid, unimaginative, with little trick in his game. He’s just pushed a stack of greenies at you on the river. You missed your draw; you’ve got middle pair and, basically, can only beat a bluff.

So you sit there looking at your cards, at the board, at your opponent. You’ve got a good read on the situation and know precisely what you should do with your hand …. in fact, this is exactly the situation you’ve been warning yourself about over and over again in recent weeks. Do NOT make marginal calls in situations like this one because they have long-term negative EV (indeed, very negative).

Yet you feel an odd twinge deep below the surface of your mind. You know that you should fold. You plan to fold. The cards are almost in the muck, you’re going to slip quietly away when you see an ethereal hand, one that looks a lot like yours, though it’s acting like it belongs to someone else, grab a bunch of chips and you hear a voice that has a fretfully familiar tone to it and seems to be coming from your mouth say, “I call.”

And, of course, he wasn’t bluffing and you’ve just shed another buy-in on a truly idiotic move that felt like it was made by some demon inside you, for you would never have been so stupid.

From my psychologist/poker junkie perspective the really interesting part of this tale is not that you just did something moronic but that you did exactly the thing that you’ve been trying to banish from your game.

If the word “irony” comes to mind now, it should. If the name Daniel Wegner comes to mind, I’ll be really surprised. Dan is a psychologist at Harvard. He’s an old friend and even though he’s not a poker player, I’d like to tell you a bit about how his research applies to our game and how, if we can work this out carefully, his insights can help reduce the number of silly and financially damaging actions we take.

Wegner studies irony. He’s been fascinated all his life with those situations where we tell ourselves that we should do X and avoid Y like the plague then, bingo, we end up Y’ing.

Dan’s research is slowly yielding an understanding of why these situations arise and why we keep doing the very wrongest things.

Here’s his analysis, in simplest terms:

When we consciously suppress the thoughts about the thing we do NOT want to do, we don’t actually banish them from our minds. They take on a life below the surface and sit there, unnoticed, in what is technically known as “implicit memory” (if you want to call this your “subconscious” that’s okay).

It takes a certain measure of mental effort to keep these unwanted thoughts in their mental jail. If I ask you to NOT think about white bears or NOT to spill any red wine as you carry your glass across the carpet or NOT to think about calling a pot-sized bet from the tightest player at the table two things will happen.

First, you WILL think about those things. Second, you will manage, most of the time, to suppress that thought …. for the moment.

But what Dan’s research has shown is that this suppression doesn’t always hold. When it does, fine. You won’t waste time imaging white bears on (vanishing) ice floes, dumping a glass of Merlot on someone’s beige wall-to-wall or donating a stack of greenies to the rock in seat 8.

But what Dan has also found is that when stress levels go up, when pressure is put on us, or we are distracted, these unwanted thoughts and actions become surprisingly likely to occur. Ask someone NOT to use a particular word in conversation and, if they get distracted or stressed they are far more likely to blurt that word out than if the initial request was never made.

If you sit there and think something like “calling pot-sized bets on dangerous boards is something I will simply not do anymore” you run the risk of making it more likely that you will do the very thing you’ve counseled yourself against, if you’re under stress or distracted or are put under heavy mental load.

We’re all familiar with settings that are likely to produce these unhappy ironic outcomes. You’ve been losing. You’re on tilt because you’ve been bluffed twice and both times the bozos showed you. You’re in the cash game because you bubbled the MTT. An old girl friend just walked in the room hanging on the arm of some idiot with a shaved head and his shirt unbutton down to his bellybutton. You just realized you forgot to pick up your wife’s prescription …. whatever. All invite bouts of terminal irony.

Is there a cure for this affliction? Not really. Just take your time when stressed. Think through the situation. And, of course, practice helps. Experienced players usually handle stress better and are able to suppress thoughts that might leap up and take control of your hands or your vocal cords.

Poker isn’t an easy game but you can make it less painful if you work on combating this ironic tendency, the one that Edgar Allan Poe called the “imp of the perverse.”

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