by Barbara Connors
To play quality poker, you must get a good read on your opponents, and to read your opponents, you must be able to see them clearly. There’s the rub. Reading opponents requires objectivity, something which is frequently in short supply at the poker table. With so much at stake, with egos on the line and emotions running rampant, it’s often difficult, if not downright impossible, to keep an objective viewpoint in the middle of a poker session.
But there’s something else that can cloud our vision, something subtle and in a way, more insidious, because we’re usually not even aware of its influence on our thinking. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as the false consensus effect. This describes our natural tendency to assume that other people around us think and feel the same way that we do.
Say you’re in a no-limit tournament, currently sitting on a medium stack, and you find yourself in a hand against the table chip leader. You hold A-Q of hearts and the flops comes down A-3-9, all clubs. The turn is another club, and your opponent shoves. You would still have plenty of chips left if you fold now. But you call off your stack because a gut feeling tells you he is bluffing. What you don’t realize is that this gut feeling comes not from careful observation of this particular opponent, not because you’ve seen him bluff at scary boards before, but because that’s what you would do if you were in his place. So you call and lose when he shows the club.
Or let’s say you’re in a limit cash game and have A-Q again, offsuit this time, and raise from early position. You’ve been playing tight. A new player cold-calls from middle position and the flop fall A-3-9 rainbow. You bet, the villain calls, and a four arrives on the turn. Again you bet and he calls. The river is a five. You bet and now he raises. But you’re not worried because he can’t have a deuce. You would never have called all that way with a lousy deuce, not even A-2 or a pair of deuces. So you raise him back and after a few more raises back and forth you shake your head in disbelief when he takes the pot with a pair of deuces.
Aside from maybe side-stepping that raising war at the end, there’s not much you could have done to avoid this loss, at least not in a limit game. The problem comes when you allow yourself to get upset over the way your opponent played his hand. How could you play a pair of deuces like that? You were supposed to fold! Why can’t you play the way you’re supposed to, the way I would have done it! Even if it’s just a silent, internal tirade, it’s pushing you towards tilt. It’s distracting you from what should be the real goal: making the best-quality decisions in each and every hand. All because you’ve forgotten that an unknown opponent is just that, unknown. He’s not you, or some less-educated, villainous version of you. His experience, training, upbringing, way of life, approach to problem-solving, and most of all the way he thinks about the game of poker, are all totally distinct from you.
False consensus effect can take many forms at the poker table, most of them subtle, all of them detrimental to playing your best game. It has the power to turn each of us into a poker Narcissus, convinced that we are seeing someone else, when in fact, we are gazing at our own reflection. The way to counter it is simply to be aware of it. Remember that in the absence of any solid information about your opponents, your brain attempts to fill in that vacuum with assumptions about what you would think and what you would do in that person’s place.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.