Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Nick Wealthall tells it like it is.

Not much gets me up off the sofa. Why would it?

Among the ‘makes me jump off the sofa shortlist’ are – spillages of hot drinks, any LFC goal and my Mum walking in at the wrong ‘moment’ (less of a problem in later years, but still a constant worry).

Something that comes close is when anyone in sports broadcasting utters the word ‘momentum’. As in ‘Arsenal now have the momentum in this game’, or ‘that birdie will really give Woods the momentum’.

It sounds perfectly reasonable, right? I mean if something good happens that should give the team or person a boost to make more good things happen.

Except it doesn’t. It’s a lie. It’s an artificial construct of man that fails under pressure, very similar to all the DIY shelving I’ve ever attempted.

Momentum is like a thousand other sports narratives; it’s something that’s invented to explain events that have already happened, but it doesn’t predict what’s going to happen in the future.

This has been proved by statisticians who studied the ‘hot hand’ theory in basketball. Which comes from the phrase ‘go with the hot hand’ and leads teams to pass more often to a shooter who has recently scored believing he is ‘on a roll’ and ‘has momentum’. What the studies found is that far from being more likely to score again, he’s actually slightly less likely to score than if he wasn’t on a hot streak. This is almost certainly due to over confidence leading him to make a bad decision to shoot.

If you see what looks like momentum in a game or a sport it’s far more likely to be explained either by variance – or just the fact that the person or team with ‘momentum’ is simply better and so is winning.

Sadly, we humans demand something more mystical and intangible to explain what we’re seeing.

In poker, the idea of momentum exists and it’s as misguided as it is in sports. One of the challenges playing poker presents is the way you ‘feel’ about how you’re playing or how your cash game or tournament is going. If you double up you’re likely to feel good about your game, if you lose half your stack or a buy in you’ll feel bad.

Without going all Kipling on you both these feelings are imposters. Why should you feel good or on a roll if you’ve been dealt Aces and they’ve held up? Why should you feel bad if you’re dealt those same Aces and you’ve got the money in pre-flop but you lose the pot? You’re feeling either bad or good about something you can’t control.

This same idea is extended by players over whole sessions or sometimes over passages of time. You’ll often hear players, especially old school live players, talk about their ‘form’ or ‘how they’re running’ as if there’s some unseen force controlling the outcome of decisions they make. Now everyone knows the only unseen force that it’s acceptable to have your decisions controlled by is libido, so we need to find a better way of handling poker’s swings.

The thing is... and I hate to break this to you… the cards don’t know or give two f**ks about ‘how you’re running’ this session, this week or this poker lifetime. The deck is a random number generator and if you find yourself thinking its anything else that’s just your ego taking over. It’s like someone thinking the plan they’re getting on is the one that’s going to crash – now, don’t hate me, but you’re just not that special.

One big caveat to all this – momentum in a poker session can exist in a ‘game flow’ sense in the minds of your opponents and that can affect how you should play. So let’s say you’re winning a lot of pots (yay you!). It’s perfectly possible that players will adjust badly to that and not want to take you on; in which case you should be playing more hands. The opposite can also be true: your opponents can irrationally think you’re more beatable if you’re losing.

This all has more impact on your game if you’re emotionally affected by losses. If you play a decent amount of poker it won’t take long before you see someone lose half their stack and then give up by either not focusing, getting down on themselves or even tilting off and jamming in huge chip stacks. Never let that be you – always seek to make good decisions based on your stack, the hand and your opponents. There’s almost never an argument for imprinting your own emotion on the hand.

When you’re playing poker it should really be Cyborg time (this does not mean it’s time to watch Battlestar Galactica box sets in the background – those are Cylons … common mistake). You should work hard to have very little emotion about how you’re doing in the cash game session or tournament. If you catch yourself thinking stuff like ‘I can’t believe I only have 30 big blinds left, I had 70 bigs before that bad beat!’ then you’re in trouble – that’s the thought process that leads to making frustrated bad decisions with that 30 big blind stack. In fact, the next hand you get dealt has no idea how you feel about it – all that actually exists is the depth of your new stack, your hand and your opponents. Keep making good poker decisions and stop ‘feeling’ a certain way about the result. This is, I admit, easier said than done, but if you don’t crack it then winning consistently is going to be really tricky.

Right I’m off to shout ‘Momentum? More like NOmentum!’ at sports broadcasters… they hate that.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists