by Barbara Connors
It’s no secret that poker players can be their own worst enemies. When we’re not calling too often with borderline junk, we’re shoving out too many raises in an effort to steamroll the opposition. Or folding too frequently in the face of such raises. We stubbornly keep on playing the game even when we’re fatigued or full-out on tilt. We play in stakes that are too high for our bankrolls, against opponents who are too advanced. And through all of this, we know perfectly well that we shouldn’t be doing it.
This is hardly unique to poker players. Every dieter who eats a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, every shopaholic who goes on another spending binge, every procrastinator who invents another excuse to postpone getting a job done understands this feeling all too well. We know the behavior is bad for us. We know it’s going to cause problems in the future. And knowing this, we do it anyway.
Enter the commitment device, also known as the Ulysses contract. Ulysses wanted to hear the song of the Sirens as his ship sailed past, but he also knew that hearing the Sirens’ song would drive him mad with desire to join them. So Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of his ship. He made a decision that would bind him — literally — to a desired course of action. Or in this case, inaction.
Commitment devices can come in many different forms. They can use the carrot (rewarding yourself for good behavior) or the stick (creating a negative consequence for transgressions). But it always boils down to the same thing: attempting to force your future self to behave the way you want — the way you know is most likely to bring you health, wealth, and all that other good stuff. As opposed to the inexplicably self destructive behavior we often find ourselves doing.
So how can we use commitment devices to make ourselves better poker players? Since we all have unique personalities and unique vices, this is a highly individualistic or situational thing. Probably the oldest and most common commitment device in poker is used by the player who only brings a limited amount of money with him to the card room. If and when he loses that, he has to quit.
In an age with ATM machines and internet poker, this type of commitment device is difficult to set up. But not impossible. And while it’s certainly feasible that a commitment device like this would force you to quit just when the game is getting good, consider that a heavy loss is the most powerful and reliable provoker of tilt. Do you honestly trust yourself not to tilt even a little bit after losing an entire session bankroll?
Another means to create a commitment device could be sitting across the table from you. Enlisting friends, colleagues, or family members to hold you accountable creates a negative consequence, social shame, if you fail. Or you could up the ante and post your intentions on the internet. Then if can’t live up to your side of the bargain, the whole world —or at least the small portion of it that follows you — can bear witness.
But when it comes to incentives, there’s nothing like money. Poker players make bets with each other all the time, sometimes over the silliest things, so why not make a bet over something that really matters? Entering into a monetary contract, or forcing yourself to give money to an “anti-charity” for a cause you hate, is a common and effective commitment device. Every time you catch yourself making a loose call, or playing on tilt, or whatever your particular bad habit may be — force yourself to pay up. Of course you were doing this already, by donating money to your opponents with poor play. But by increasing the negative cost, perhaps you can finally make that bad habit a thing of the past.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at email@example.com.