November 22, 2016

Dancing Gorillas at the Poker Table

Bonus update (23 Nov 2016):  My good friend Poker Grump wrote a great article over at Poker News on the same issue of selective attention a few weeks back. His article is better because he has a Penn & Teller magic video. So go read that article then come back here for dancing gorilla videos.

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After several stressful months at the office, not to mention a mind-boggling Presidential election, a trip to Las Vegas came at just the right moment. A few days to unplug from the world were just what the doctor ordered. Poker. Good food. Cocktails. Friends. The Vegas Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon. Well, the last one was more the excuse for Vegas than the highlight, yet there is something awesome about being mere yards from a stage where Snoop Dogg is rapping about peace, love, and weed, before running for two hours in the neon glow of the Vegas Strip at night.

As has become the norm for my Vegas trips, I made my headquarters at Aria; still the best value for upscale hotel rooms, awesome poker room, and great mid-Strip location. But there may have been a donkalicious late night drinking session of 2-6 spread limit Hold Them at Monte Carlo. Allegedly. Unquestionably there was a side trip for a session of Pot Limit Gambooool at the new Wynn poker room (actually in Encore). This is a fantastic room, with restrooms and a sports book window conveniently located in the room, lots of space between tables, top shelf drinks, and a cool, upscale vibe. And, of course, no Vegas poker trip is complete without a late night session of Poker With The Drunks at Planet Hollywood, where I cashed out for nearly a grand in profit. P-Ho remains the gold standard for lucrative late night poker.

Monday morning rolled around, and I decided to squeeze in a last three hour poker session at Aria. My legs were a little sore from the race, but I was rested, caffeinated, and sober. I should have been ready to play my A-game. Instead, I ended up looking like a total idiot.

But, for a moment, let's digress. Take a quick look at this video.



You may well have already seen this video, which was the centerpiece of an exceptional bit of psychological experimentation. The point of the experiment was to test how people observed an overall situation when they were focused on one aspect of the situation. Here, where people were focused on the task of counting the number of passes made by the people in white t-shirts, half of the observers completely missed the gorilla walking through the scene. That's right. People who were intently focused on tracking one part of the scene were utterly oblivious to another part of the scene, even something as absurd as a gorilla.

The researchers called this psychological phenomenon selective attention. Essentially, when your brain is focused on one task, it mutes or outright ignores information unrelated to the task at hand. And it can manifest itself in a wide range of daily activities. Including poker. And in a game where observation is a key skill, overlooking important information can be a costly leak.

Back to my session at Aria. I got into a game where most of the players had been at the table together since early in the morning. And it was quickly obvious why. Most of the players were over $500 deep, with several having over $1,000 stacked behind. The table economy ran through a total maniac across the table who raised preflop more than two out of three hands. His standard play was to raise preflop by splashing a random handful of chips into the pot, usually $30-$80. Then, he would c-bet nearly every flop by jamming a big stack of $80-$150 into the middle. Of course, the maniac attracted multiple callers every hand, with players looking to catch a hand and take a bite out of the maniac's stack. For his part, the maniac, as maniacs are wont to do, caught improbable hand after improbable hand to vacuum up chips from tilty nits.

So how many times did I screw up in this session? The number of the counting shall be three ....

Hand #1:  Early in the session, I had roughly my $300 starting stack and was in the small blind. Maniac raised to $20, and I called with 75 soooted along with three other players. Flop was a gorgeous 7-7-5 with two hearts. Catamaran! We checked it around on the flop. Turn was another 5. Boo! I led out for $50, and got called by the big blind. Maniac and another guy folded, but the cutoff—a fairly standard older nit—raised to $150. Damn, pretty clear he has the other 7 and we're chopping the pot. So, I shoved, expecting the big blind to fold, the nit to call, and to run out the board.

Except the big blind didn't fold. Instead, he kept looking at his cards and thinking. He cut out chips for a call, and kept looking back at his cards and the board. Eventually, he sighed and mucked. I rolled my cards and said, "I flopped it, but guess now we'll chop it."

It was only then that I realized the old nit in the cutoff hadn't snap-called! That was ... awkward. And seconds ticked by as the nit stared at my hand, the board, and his hand. Finally, he reluctantly folded. Obviously he didn't have the last 7, so he might have had something like an overpair or possibly an open-ended straight flush draw. In any event, I likely cost myself his $100 or so call.

Hand #2:  Later in the session, I was on the button with the Spanish Inquisition6h3s. The table maniac raised to $30 and I called, along with three other players. The flop was interesting—9h5h4h—giving me an open-ended straight draw, but presenting the danger of drawing dead, I was prepared to fold to any bet, on the theory there is always a better place to get it in bad. But instead it checked around, and I gladly asked the dealer for a free card.

The turn was even more interesting—the 2s—giving me the straight. This time, the maniac threw out $50, basically 1/3 of the pot. Two players flat called, and I made the reluctant crying call.

The river was the 2h. Although I doubted there had been a slow-played set or two pair that boated, the fourth heart on the river was almost certainly the nail in the coffin for my straight. The other players took turns looking at their hole cards and checking. I checked and waited to see the inevitable showdown between big single hearts in the hole. As everyone stared at each other, I rolled my cards and dramatically announced, "I have a straight to the six!" hoping to prod the other players to show down and move things along.

Knowing my hand wasn't good, I looked over at the TV, waiting for the next hand. I heard the dealer announce "Flush wins." Well duh. But then, I saw the dealer pushing the pot to me. What the heck??

Oh yeah. I had a baby heart in my hand, so I had a flush, not a straight. Of course, I could only beat a naked 3h in the hole, but that was the only other heart held by anyone in the hand at showdown. Cha-ching! Feel like I missed a value bet there with that monster ....

Hand #3:  Once again, maniac opened in middle position for $35. Once again I called on the button with 8s7s. But to my surprise, the rest of the table folded. The flop was pretty good—Ah9s6c—giving me an open-ended straight draw. Maniac bet $50, I raised to $130, and the maniac auto-called. Hmm, he might have a hand this time. Turn was interesting—9c. Maniac checked, I bet $200, he called. At this point, if I didn't hit my straight, I was done with the hand. It was far too probable maniac had an Ace or 9.

River was not just a blank, it was a killer card—6h. Basically, if maniac has any Ace, 9, 6, or pocket pair, he wins. Maniac checked, and I checked. Maniac says, "You win," I respond, "I have eight high" and flashed my hand. Maniac goes, "Oh, I can beat that!" and tables QcJc. Ahhh, so he chased a flush draw, missed, and still has me beat. Sucks to be me.

I went to muck my loser hand when the guy next to me says, "Wait, you chop!" I paused, then realized that maniac and I were both playing the board because the Ace on board was the kicker for each of our hands. I tabled my cards, and we chopped the pot.

I ended up stacking maniac when I slow-played QhQd preflop, and we got it all-in on a flop of AsQcTc. Maniac showed Ac2c, which was stronger than I hoped. But the board ran out blanks and my set held up for a monster pot.

So back to selective attention. In each of these hands, I was so focused on one thing—a player's action or chasing my draw—that I missed other important developments. Of course, having it happen three times in a three hour session is not something I am terribly proud of. I'm certain that the circumstances—a last quick session, some residual fatigue, playing a maniac—contributed to the problem. But it's also a phenomenon that happens even to the best trained professionals; for example, a decent percentage of radiologists failed to detect a gorilla shape when reviewing CT scans for tumors. And for you smug folks who saw the gorilla in the first video and who are laughing at my stupidity, try this follow up test:



In any event, being aware of this psychological phenomenon will hopefully make it less likely to recur in my future poker sessions.

Or I'm just getting old.

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