July 27, 2010

I Gotta Wear Shades

"Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi."  (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter).


"The eyes are the window to the soul."

—English proverb

In creationism, a significant argument against evolution is that the eye is too complex a structure to have developed in so many species merely by natural selection.  As usual, science has a strong rebuttal.  First, as a basic point, light (or more specifically, electromagnetic radiation from the Sun at all wavelengths) is such a critical energy source for life on Earth that it would be shocking if most species didn't develop some form of light-sensing organ.  Recent research into the genetic development of the eye has discovered a set of genes common to all species that developed an eye:

The next question is where Pax genes and their resulting structures came from.  According to Gehring, they could have arrived in jellyfish via symbiosis with dinoflagellates—a family of single-celled marine plankton, some with human-like eye structures inside their single cell.

Jellyfish absorbed dinoflagellates, speculates Gehring, after dinoflagellates absorbed Pax genes from red algae, which had absorbed light-sensitive cynanobacteria.  Gehring describes this as his “wild Russian doll hypothesis.”  His team is now searching jellyfish genomes for dinoflagellate genes.

“Evolution is very conservative. It uses the things that function well,” said Gehring.

Of course, there are many religious faith traditions, including many prominent branches of Christianity, which accept evolution as consistent with religious faith.  For these believers, the laws of nature—including evolution—are not something to be feared, but rather are evidence of the wonder of God's creation.  But for the hardcore fundamentalists, "the Bible is literally true" crowd, this type of scientific discovery is likely unsettling (or rapidly dismissed as fraudulent or flawed).

However, I didn't mention this scientific discovery to start a religious flame war.  Rather, I found it interesting because it's WSOP time again, with the first episodes of the new season airing tonight.  The first night of action involved the $50K Players' Championship, won by well-known pro player—and November Nine Main Event qualifier—Michael "the Grinder" Mizrachi.  After watching two hours of final table coverage, I noted that none of the final eight players wore sunglasses.

Wait a moment.  No sunglasses.  Let that sink in.  For the past decade, the de rigueur poker tournament player uniform has been sunglasses, baseball cap, and hoodie (or Ed Hardy or TapOut t-shirt—or Ed Hardy hoodie).  In fact, the attire is so ubiquitous that it's almost become a joke in many poker circles.  Yet the last eight players at this mega-buy-in tournament eschewed the sunglasses.

Now, part of the poker uniform may merely be the result of the crossover of the college-age standard attire into the poker world, as youngsters who cut their teeth online take their game into casinos and major live-action tournaments.  Frankly, I rarely take too much notice of attire at the poker table as it is not a particularly reliable indicator of skill or style (though there are plenty of players who fit the uber-aggro d-bag profile dressed in the uniform, sustaining the stereotype).  But the sunglass angle might have a little more utility than the rest of the uniform.

Psychological research has long known that various facial movements correlate with various mental or emotional states.  Recent research has refined this insight, finding that the eyes can give away valuable information, including what category of thought is taking place, and whether a person is being deceptive.  As Jonah Lehrer observed:

The larger lesson is that the brain can't escape its embodiment.  Even abstract information—and what's more abstract than a random number?—is subject to the heuristics of physical movement:  Up means higher, down means lower.  Because the mundane world of Newtonian physics is built into the mind at such a basic level, we are forced to re-use these same mental shortcuts when thinking about math, or playing poker.

Now, I have no doubt that the eyes can involuntarily reveal important information during a hand of poker, including whether a player is being deceptive, and the moment in time when a player reaches a decision about how to play a hand.  I also firmly believe that many successful poker players have learned to read other players by observing these kinds of physical tells, even if they are unable to articulate precisely the basis of their "read".  Often, you will hear a solid player say, "I just didn't think he had it" without being able to state how he read his opponent's eyes, face, breathing pattern, and other physical tells—his experience combined with his innate ability to read body language gave him what he might call a "gut feeling" that was every bit as important as other information such as the board and the betting of the hand.   I also believe that the best poker players have developed an ability to mask their own physical tells, making them harder to read.  Seriously, watch Phil Ivey or Patrik Antonius—do you think you could ever pick up a tell on either player?

All of this scientific research into the connection between the eyes and the mind is particularly interesting in light of Daniel Negreanu's recent suggestion that poker tournaments ban sunglasses:

Let's just say that guys like Russ Hamilton would appose [sic] such a ban.  I heard Durr say it on High Stakes Poker last week and he is absolutely right.  You should always be uncomfortable playing high stakes poker against someone wearing sunglasses.  I'm not making this up, it's just a fact.  Banning sunglasses helps to protect the integrity of the game against cheating.  For that reason alone, they should be completely outlawed from poker.  No other sport or organization would allow competitors a device that makes it easier for them to get away with cheating.

I'm not entirely sure what Negreanu means by "protect[ing] the integrity of the game against cheating", unless he is referring to "daubing", where a special substance is used to mark certain cards, with the substance being invisible except to those wearing special contacts or glasses.  I somehow doubt that daubing is a major scam in this day and age.  On the other hand, Negreanu is correct that many of the "elite" poker players rarely if ever wear sunglasses at the table. 

So, overall, I'm torn on the sunglasses in poker debate.  I don't wear them myself, and I think many people wear them thinking they are projecting a tough guy image when they actually are being mocked by others (seriously, in a 1/2 NLHE game, or a $60 tourney, do you think your sunglasses make a dang bit of difference?).  On the other hand, science supports the idea that poker players can give away valuable information via their eyes.  So, how can I fault a player for trying to minimize these kinds of subconscious tells by wearing sunglasses? 

Oh wait, that's right.  People who wear sunglasses indoors are pretentious d-bags.  If you need sunglasses to disguise your tells, go back to your parents' basement and play some more $1 SNGs.  If you think wearing sunglasses at the poker table makes you intimidating, sit at my table so I can laugh in your bespectacled, tell-spewing face as I crAAKK you repeatedly, until you are too broke to afford bottle service at an overpriced poseur club, and go home alone to your online porn collection.  Save the sunglasses for activities like golf, driving, skiing, hiking, biking, hanging at the beach ... you know, stuff that involves the Sun.

I'm heavenly blessed and worldy wise,
I'm a peeping-tom techy with x-ray eyes.
Things are going great, and they're only getting better.
I'm doing all right, getting good grades,
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.
—"I Gotta Wear Shades", by Timbuk3

Sauron never figured out why Gandalf always beat him
at "Kings & Little Ones" in their weekly home poker game.

(Image from here).


  1. Phil Ivey on sunglasses in poker: I can't find the original on the Card Player web site, but here's the relevant except that somebody posted at the time.


  2. Good post, but when they got down to heads-up play, the Russian gentleman playing against the Grinder donned shades. I don't think it helped much (although he probably should have won).

  3. @ Wayne: Good point. I was writing this post while still watching the event on TiVo, so didn't catch the glasses. Frankly, when players get to a point where 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars are at stake with a wrong move, I can understand the desire to get every conceivable edge, however small.

    And yeah, the Grinder got a little lucky on 3 or 4 key hands.

  4. The situation changes slightly for someone like me. I was diagnosed with a schizoid personality a few years back, and I have to say the diagnosis was fairly accurate. Long story short, I have serious problems making more than momentary eye contact. I found this created a major problem for me at the tables. The best solution I could find was a large pair of sunglasses to keep me from looking wildly nervous to anyone paying attention.


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