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Self Deception, Self-awareness

Try this next time you stroll into work, a bar, the family Thanksgiving fest, or your favorite poker room. Approach your buddies, co-workers, colleagues, spouses or significant others and ask them, in a candid sort of way, whether they think that they “know who they are” as people. I can guarantee you that they will all, to a man to a woman, say, “yes, of course” and then will proceed to tell you all about themselves.

What they say won’t sound all that out of whack. You may get a tell here or there about how Charlie really doesn’t get the fact that he’s a bore or that Aunt Ethel seems oblivious to the fact that she’s a nag but, by and large, what they say won’t be far off the mark. But don’t be deceived. What they tell you may sound reasonable and their sense of self may feel intact and more or less on target but sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. While most of us have a fairly healthy sense of self, there is a lot about mirrors we don’t understand.

For starters, here’s a real zinger: In a series of polls taken over the years, nearly eighty percent of the people queried thought that they were above average in intelligence. Now if your dictionary defines “average” like mine does, this is really very funny and very informative. Clearly, an awful lot of those polled either are fooling themselves about how smart they are or just don’t understand the meaning of the word “average.” (Which suggests that the first diagnosis is likely correct as well).

With that thought in mind I recently began asking my poker playing comrades what they think of their own game. And, guess what? It is tough to find one who doesn’t think that he or she is an “average to above average” player. While we know, absofreakin’lutely know, that half of them are below average, trying to find just one who acknowledges this got me feeling like Diogenes wandering the pitiless streets with his lantern. Man, the term “average” is really taking a beating here.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s one more, probably apocryphal story: President Bush was horrified, so the tale goes, when he was told by an aide that that fully half of the children in America were below average in their academic skills.

If all these factoids are true, and there is every reason to believe they are, we have some problems to deal with. You won’t mind, I assume, if I dodge the bigger social, political ones and focus instead on poker. Poker players, being like the rest of the swarming masses, are clearly going to have difficulty in the self-awareness department. Why not? They are a pretty average bunch. In fact, I’m willing to bet a couple of stacks of redbirds that the population of poker players is about as representative of the “average citizen” as you could want. If the average poker player is “average,” and the average Joe or Jane is a self-deceiving, psychologically handicapped person who lacks awareness of what even the word “average” means, where does this leave us? Well, in truth, it leaves us with what we all really know to be two deep truths.

• The crushing majority of poker players are losers. • They don’t know or believe the truth of that statement.

The first is obviously true. Because of the house rake, more money goes on the table than is taken off it. This means that poker is actually a game with normative, long-term negative expectation. If it were a game of pure chance or one where every punter was equally skilled, then the long-term expectation of each player would a small negative number corresponding to the house take. However, a small percentage of players actually are long-term winners (guesses here range from ten percent at the high end to four or five percent at the low), Hence, the vast majority must be losing. This seems simple and uncontroversial.

The second statement is a bit more difficult to assess but we can get a hint from the psychologists who have studied this issue. What they tell us is that the self-delusion gambit runs deep because there is not just one problem here; there are two. First, by definition, one-half of us not only lack the talent to be really above average; they lack the talent to recognize this fact. Painting the scene in starkest black and white: an awful lot of players are not only bad, they are so bad that they cannot quite grasp that they are bad. In some way, I guess, these folks are the ultimate fish. They do not even realize that they are being reeled in.

Second, despite the fact that these folks are all losing in the long run, they still end up feeling good about themselves. How, we might ask, can this be? Well, actually, it makes a lot of sense. It is good to feel good about yourself, so overestimating your abilities, from a mental health point of view, is a good thing. In fact, several studies have shown that the more “realistic” people are, the more depressed they are. The Pollyannas among us are, indeed, happier than those who stare reality in the face without blinking. Maybe George Bush is better off not knowing what the word “average” means.

But, I hear you ask, “if so many players are, thus, doubly deluded, how come they keep coming back? Why are they still playing?” The question answers itself. They are experts in self-deception! If the below-average player does not know how bad he is, he can delude himself into believing he is actually decent (or at least better than average).

But, the benefits of ignorance must be adjusted for the liabilities. If you consistently overvalue your talents, you are likely to get yourself into situations where you simply don’t measure up. If you think your game is better than it actually is, you may make the mistake of moving up to higher stakes games that you are not ready for. If your ego gets in the way of your play, you might start taking on tougher opponents than you can handle. Or, of course, you can just lie to yourself.

Recently, I was sitting in a fairly tough no limit hold ‘em game with $5 - $10 blinds. This kid was sitting next to me and hemorrhaging cash from every pore. We got to chatting about poker, the other players at the table, and trading opinions about hands. He seemed to have a pretty good grip on the game but he kept on playing like a dunce. When I was getting ready to leave I took out my notebook, logged in my results and wrote comments about the session. He leaned over and looked and said, “hey man, I usually keep records too.”

“Usually?” I asked.

“Well, not tonight ‘cause I had a couple of beers so I don’t count losses when I’ve been drinking” he replied.

“Oh, okay, kid. Hey, be well and see you again,” I said —- thinking sheesh, talk about self-delusion. Does this poor bastard really think that he’s a winning player?

Is there a solution here? Well, sure. Total, brutal honesty. Tough road to walk down, my friends. Tough.

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