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When Knowledge Isn't Power

by  Barbara Connors

"Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals" —Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

 Imagine a poker player who possesses infinite knowledge of the game. He knows all the plays and exactly when to use them, he has memorized the odds, and he can do complex calculations in the middle of a hand without missing a beat. But for all his vast expertise, this know-it-all player can still be undone by the most ignorant poker moron if said moron is impossible to read. When you find yourself up against opponents who don’t make the logical, thoughtful plays they “should” make — calling when they should fold, betting when they should check, raising when they should call — all the poker knowledge in the world won’t help you, unless you can find a way to read them. Problem is, the very fact you know so much more about the game than they do is precisely what makes these opponents so difficult to read.

 Welcome to the curse of knowledge, poker-style. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias which describes a curious phenomenon: any person who possesses a certain knowledge finds it almost impossible to understand the viewpoint of a person who doesn’t have that same knowledge. It’s the reason why teachers can often have great difficulty explaining ideas to students, it’s why engineers like to design products that are popular with other engineers and incomprehensible to the general public. And it’s why advanced, skilled poker players can be utterly baffled by the donkeys.

 In any kind of warfare, the best way to defeat your enemy is to become your enemy: To think like he does. The ability to do this is at the heart of reading your opponents at the poker table. Every time your adversary pushes out a bet or raise, you should have at least some idea of why he is doing that. But inevitably there are blind spots. Maybe your opponent is new and unknown, or maybe you’re just tired and distracted and not paying attention like you should. Either way, the result is the same: an information vacuum. And poker, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So we fill that void by making the mystery opponent over in our own image, endowing Mr. Unknown Quantity with our own approach to the game, our own playing style, our own knowledge.

 So we assume this opponent won’t call a large bet with a weak draw, won’t raise before the flop with 5-6 suited, won’t bluff into a dry side pot — or any number of perfectly reasonable assumptions that any perfectly reasonable poker player would know not to do. But this opponent is not you; he has not read the books you’ve read and he hasn’t had the benefit of all your experience in the game. He may be a recreational player, he may be playing the hand a certain way because he’s convinced this is his “lucky” hand, or he may just be an idiot. As a result, you can’t get inside his head or see the game from his perspective because your advanced knowledge gets in the way. So you cannot anticipate what his next move is going to be. Then, when he goes against the book, you find yourself thinking: How could you do that?!

 That’s what the curse of knowledge does to the educated poker player. It prevents you from looking beyond what you know. The very knowledge that you prize so highly and worked so hard to acquire is now boxing you in, because you’re incapable of seeing the game from your opponent’s perspective. Of course there is no way to unlearn what you have learned, even if you wanted to. But the next time you find yourself playing against an opponent who is, shall we say, unencumbered by any advanced knowledge of the game, just don’t expect ABC poker from someone who can’t spell.

 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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