I was coaching an excellent player this morning, when an interesting scenario arose. We were reviewing a Sit N Go that he had played, in which he reached Heads-Up against a guy who is generally considered the best player in those games.
A particularly strange hand saw villain take an extremely non-standard line, which left my student flummoxed.
What was his thought process? I encouraged my student to talk the hand out from the start. Several different possible reasons for villain’s strange decision-making in the hand were discussed. None seemed credible.
‘Why did he decide to make that move?’ asked my student, obsessed with unravelling the truth: ‘he must have had a reason’.
Here’s the thing. Villain did have a reason. It’s just that the reason was not what my student anticipated.
Villain screwed up.
Nothing simpler, nothing more complicated. He misplayed the hand. He lost track of where he was, of the flow of the hand – a side-effect of multi-tabling. His move made no logical sense, because there was no logic to it.
My student had made the cardinal error of associating villain’s undoubted technical quality with infallibility. Of considering an elite SNG player to be superhuman and incapable of error. His reason was understandable, if misguided.
To understand this, you must appreciate that villain is something of a legend in the low-midstakes games; a regular leaderboard-topper, who plays more tables with a better winrate than anyone at those stakes.
The Halo Effect is when a Person A’s judgment of Person B’s character is skewed by their overall impression of Person B. For example, it is common for us to think a movie star a cool person because of a role that they played. Or that a politician is a good decision maker because they dress well and have a strong physical presence.
This was its poker equivalent: the Diamond Star effect.
On Sharkscope, Diamond Stars denote the top players at each limit. Villain possesses several Diamond Stars. However, that does not mean that he makes the optimal decision at all times.
It takes him a few days to play one thousand games; errors are guaranteed. My student gave too much respect to villain’s reputation, and attributed merit where none was due.
We see this in football. In Scotland, Celtic rarely get beat at home, regardless of how poorly they play. They have a bigger budget and better players; however, this is not the sole reason for their imperious home form. Their apparent invincibility is a daily topic in the red-tops and on the sports shows. Players at ‘lesser’ clubs are treated as irrelevant by the media, whereas Celtic’s players are rated as demi-Gods. When they take to the turf, the visitors afford their exalted opponents too much respect, and might as well be 1-0 down by kick-off.
Deference does not win battles. Opposition that you consider to be of superior ability can be overcome by playing them, not their reputation. If you are a profitable, hard-working player, then you must trust your decision-making and problem-solving skills, regardless of your opponent.
Sure, the best players make fewer mistakes than most; however, you can be absolutely certain that these do occur on occasion.
So if it looks like a mistake, and it smells like a mistake, then it probably is a mistake. The esteem in which my student held his opponent determined his reaction, despite the evidence that suggested that villain simply misplayed the hand.
How often do you fall into the trap of thinking that excellent players always play every hand optimally? I know that I have made this mistake before, and I would bet that I will make similar errors in logic in the future. However, the first step towards eliminating a leak is to recognise it.
Christy Keenan is a poker coach, writer, and player. He has a Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology, and specialises in decision-making in competition.