We’ve all heard the saying: Hindsight is 20/20—Which is just another way of saying that it’s easy to predict the future after it has already happened. Psychologists call this phenomenon the hindsight bias, also known as the I-knew-it-all-along syndrome. Whatever you call it, this bias influences us in subtle, but dangerous ways, especially at the poker table.
For example, a crying call that’s immediately followed by an exclamation of, “I knew that’s what you had!” The details vary, but the basic story remains the same: An otherwise sane and knowledgeable poker player makes a call on the river, despite the fact he suspects his hand may be beaten. And when his opponent flips over the winning hand, our hero declares he knew all along his opponent held those exact cards. Though it’s clear he didn’t “know”—or else he never would have made the losing call in the first place.
So what, you may ask. So a player wants to save face after making a bad call. Poker is tough, and where’s the harm if a player wants to indulge in a little self-flattery after a loss? The problem is that undeserved self-flattery—no matter how trivial—is never harmless in a poker game. Whether it’s the result of a crying call, a long-shot suckout that works for or against you, or any other outcome that’s greeted with, “I knew that was going to happen!”—hindsight bias is dangerous in poker for two reasons:
1. Overconfidence. Any time you convince yourself that you have accurately predicted the past, it’s only a short step from there to the belief you can accurately foretell the future. You can’t. It doesn’t matter if you have “a feeling” or if you’re playing your lucky favorite hand or if you’re on a rush. The poker graveyard is littered with broken corpses of players who thought they could predict the turn of a card. If you work hard—if you study the percentages and learn how to properly calculate odds in the heat of battle, if you observe opponents carefully and read their betting patterns, and maybe even learn about tells and body language—you can make high-quality educated guesses. You can narrow the possibilities down to a reliable percentage. But that’s it. In a game with so many wild swings and painful losses, it’s so much more pleasant to think that poker can be predictable. Wouldn’t it be nice if our gut feelings possessed some cosmic connection that allowed us to “see” unseen cards, or to know ahead of time what our opponents were going to do? It seems silly on the face of it to actually believe we could be blessed with such powers, but the hindsight bias encourages us to do exactly that, by making us believe we’ve done it before. Putting in the work to calculate percentages is dull and ordinary by comparison, but to borrow a phrase from Warren Buffett, “It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.”
2. The hindsight bias encourages results-oriented thinking. Getting back to our original example, the crying caller who supposedly knew all along his opponent held the winning hand. That rear-view-mirror prediction is actually something of a red herring. It’s a distraction from what really matters: whether or not his call on the river was correct. Figuring that out requires the player to consider a myriad of factors—including and especially the size of the pot. If the pot is large enough and assuming the price of the call is not excessive, anything short of 100 percent certainty that he was about to lose would make his call correct. But if the pot is small enough, or the price of the call exorbitant, our player has no business calling unless he honestly believes he is in the lead. The resulting loss—even if he did predict it, which he didn’t—is beside the point.
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.