June 23, 2010

Poker Intuition—Going With Your Gut

How often are you at the poker table when you get a "gut feeling" that a player either has a monster hand or is bluffing?  Maybe you're in the hand, maybe you're just watching, but somehow, you just know that player's hand.  And, how many times have you started thinking more about the situation, and analyzed the hand until you convince yourself that your gut feeling is wrong?

Turns out, there's a scientifically valid reason to go with your gut instinct—the psychological concept of meta-cognition.  Meta-cognition is described as "thinking about thinking" or "feeling about knowing".  Meta-cognition is a self-awareness that you know a fact, without actually recalling that particular fact.

Meta-cognition is in the news this week because of an IBM computer named "Watson".  Watson is a project to develop artificial intelligence algorithms by training a computer to compete at the game show Jeopardy.  Watson essentially runs thousands of different kinds of searches on a vast array of textual data in its memory, attempting to draw necessary connections between different concepts to arrive at a correct answer to a trivia question.  The interesting thing about the Watson project is that Jeopardy questions often involve complex wordplay that is easy for a human brain to decode, but difficult for a binary computer processor to analyze.  Watson has had spectacular successes and equally spectacular failures, but it seems to be ready for its upcoming showdown in a real Jeopardy match.

So what does Watson have to do with poker?  An interesting finding from the Watson research is that human players have one inherent advantage over a computer—the ability to buzz in to answer the question without knowing the answer (or having the answer at immediate recall).  Instead, human players merely "know that they know" the answer and buzz in, trusting this gut feeling, and relying on their ability to actively remember the relevant fact within the time allotted.  Most of the time—in fact, an overwhelming amount of the time—the gut feeling is vindicated and the data is recalled correctly.

Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex delves into the meta-cognition phenomenon:

These feelings of knowing illustrate the power of our emotions.  The first thing to note is that these feelings are often extremely accurate.  The Columbia University psychologist Janet Metcalfe, for instance, has demonstrated that when it comes to trivia questions, our feelings of knowing predict our actual knowledge.  Think, for a moment, about how impressive this is:  the metacognitive brain is able to almost instantly make an assessment about all the facts, errata and detritus stuffed into the cortex.  The end result is an epistemic intuition, which tells us whether or not we should press the buzzer.

The second important feature of these feelings of knowing is their speed.  As Thompson makes clear, it's the speed of these inexplicable hunches that allow the human contestants to defeat Watson.  Although our meaty computer only requires 12 watts of electricity—we are a damn efficient information processing device—we're still able to react before the supercomputer, which requires a massive air-conditioner to cool itself down.  In the human brain, these primal emotions have been bootstrapped to self-awareness, so that many of our feelings are short, speedy summaries of our own vast hard drive.  They are what urge us to raise our hand, or keep on trying to remember a name, or press the buzzer.

In other words, what we often refer to as "gut feelings" are actually our brain's signal that we in fact know the answer to the problem confronting us.  We may not be able to articulate the precise answer without further thought and reflection, but we nonetheless do know the correct answer.  In poker, based on our experience and knowledge of the game and players, our gut can often tell us our opponent is strong or weak, without our being able to explain that conclusion in analytical detail.  With some thought, however, we can probably point to factors that led us to that conclusion—the bet size, the board texture, the action on prior streets, how the player is acting, etc.  So next time your gut tries to tell you something, make sure you listen.


For those of you interested in the IBM Watson project, here's an interesting video summary, including some footage of Watson in action during training rounds against former Jeopardy champions:

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