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Sunken Measure

by Barbara Connors

Few things can stirs up our emotions like having money on the line. Whether it’s in the stock market or at the poker table, fear and greed inevitably cloud our decisions. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the basic tenets of behavioral finance also apply to poker.

 One example is a phenomenon known as the sunk cost effect. In behavioral finance, this describes our tendency to cling tenaciously to anything we’ve already put a significant amount of money into. The classic example is an investor who refuses to sell stock of a company that has gone to the dogs, for example, if its product is becoming obsolete. The desire not to recognize a loss is so powerful that he will hold onto those shares as they continue to plummet. Hoping that maybe the price will rebound and he can get his money back. Not realizing he should just forget about his initial investment. That money is gone. It’s sunk. The only thing that matters is whether or not the company is a good investment now—in its current condition and at the current price.

 A similar kind of financial stubbornness can happen in poker, but instead of chasing after money invested in a dud company, we chase after chips we’ve put into the pot. Of course the size of the pot is always an extremely important factor to consider, but the amount of money you contributed to any particular pot doesn’t matter in the slightest. Say you put in a big raise before the flop with pocket queens and get two callers. The flop brings an ace. In deciding what to do next, you must consider many factors — the type of opponents you’re facing, your read on them, the stakes, the stack sizes, your position, your table image, and the size of the pot, to name a few. The one thing you should absolutely not consider is how much of the current pot came out of your stack. It’s irrelevant. Once you put your chips into the middle of the table, they stop being yours. Those chips are gone, history, sunk. You can win them, but you can’t lose them.

 But money isn’t the only resource that can be a sunk cost. Serious poker players also invest a great deal of time and effort in the game. Imagine you’re engaged in a marathon poker session, one where you keep losing no matter how well you play. You know the kind. Here’s a case where you have invested a significant chunk of your time, effort, and money into a session of poker and what do you have to show for it? Bupkis.

 Do you stubbornly keep playing, determined not to leave the game until you’re at least back even again? Now that’s one thing if the game is good and you’re still feeling mentally and emotionally sharp. But even if game conditions are favorable, hours of playing and losing will fry the brains and rattle the emotions of even the best players. Just like the investor who doggedly hangs onto shares of a dud company, a tired, punchy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-tilt, poker player will refuse to quit a session that has impending meltdown written all over it — just because it feels less painful than admitting all the money and hard work he’s put into this session is gone.

 Again, the only thing that should matter is what is in your best interest right at this moment. If you look at the situation from the perspective of a new player, would it be good for you to buy into this game now? Given the current game conditions and your current state of mind, are you favored to win? If you can honestly answer yes, keep playing. If not, your best bet is to cut and run before the sunk cost effect has a chance to drag you down.

 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

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