Debating Malmuth’s “Real Poker Psychology”

Mason’s Malmuth’s Real Poker Psychology offers an effective critique of many of the recent books dealing with mental coaching and poker. His main argument is that poker is mostly about mathematical probabilities so it does not matter if you have the right attitude or you are in the right mood. It also does not matter if you have confidence or you have been meditating and taking the right vitamins: what matters is that you are making the correct decisions based on the math. While I partially agree with his criticisms of several poker psychology books, I do want to counter that since it is virtually impossible for a human to play in a game theory optimal way without the help of computerized real time assistance, the mental state of players still remains essential.

Like the debate over self-driving cars, the reason why we are turning to automation in poker is that human beings make mistakes. In fact, over 90% of all car crashes are due to human error. Moreover, poker profits are made by exploiting the mistakes of opponents, and so in most instances, money is generated by taking advantage of human error. Furthermore, the two main causes for these errors is a lack of information and cognitive distortions. In the case of the former, players simply do not know the correct odds and GTO solutions, and in the case of the latter, they fail to make to right decisions because they have a mental weakness.

Malmuth likes to say that poker is not like tennis and other sports where execution plays a large role and is influenced by physical and mental preparation and application. Since you can be obese and tired and still play poker well if you stick with the math, the key to success is to know the math and not focus on being in peak mental and physical condition. Malmuth also argues that if someone wants to get better at poker, it makes sense to study the math and not spend time learning how to meditate or work out.

Malmuth also rails against current mental coaching strategies that focus on raising a player’s confidence. For instance, he rejects the idea that someone should make sure the first hand they play in a session is a lock to win. Since this advice pushes people to give up positive EV spots, it seeks to inflate a person’s self-esteem by going against the math and a sound strategy. Here we find an echo of the self-esteem movement in parenting and education, which often prioritizes boosting someone’s confidence over an accurate assessment of their skills. For Malmuth, any mental trick that goes against playing a positive-EV hand is just bad poker.

While Malmuth stresses learning and playing the proper GTO strategy instead of focusing on mental issues like concentration, emotional control, and healthy habits, the problem with his argument is that the only way to learn a comprehensive GTO strategy is to commit yourself to studying with a high degree of concentration and effort. In other words, the process of learning itself requires a certain mental state where one must focus on long-term gains and develop a great deal of stored information. This type of education does require a healthy mind and body because it takes so many hours of intense focus to internalize all of the difficult information.

Another aspect of learning that Malmuth downplays is the need to be open-minded and honest with yourself in order to locate and fix all of your leaks. Many professional online players now perform this task by using a tracker to record all of their hands so that they can be reviewed later. While Malmuth is correct in warning against looking at too many unique situations, modern GTO theory does require one to be knowledgeable about a large range of situations. Once again, this type of study demands a high level of mental discipline and focus.

For Malmuth, the main cure for tilt and other types of emotional distortion is to increase one’s knowledge of the game, and yet, this type of learning itself requires self-control and emotional numbing. One also needs to have a curious mind in order to determine why the computer solver is doing what it does. Even the most successful players must realize that their good results may have been based more on favorable cards and runouts and not on their poker skill level. To move beyond a result-oriented mindset, it is therefore necessary to be open to new information, and yet, Malmuth mocks the idea that becoming an expert poker player can be daunting. I believe what Malmuth is misunderstanding here is how complex GTO strategy has become because it does require players to memorize a huge amount of discrete information. While some of the knowledge can be reduced to broad concepts and tactics, the really good GTO players have internalized the correct play for thousands of particular situations.

For the most part, Malmuth focuses on the fact that unlike other sports, poker does not require perfect timing, speed, or coordination, and so most of the mental coaching is a waste of time and a distraction from the real process of just playing the correct strategy. However, in the current game, the high level of needed mental recall does demand a relaxed and open mind. Since expert players are not only thinking about how their range plays against their opponents ranges on a particular board, but they are also adjusting for stack depth and position, they need to have immediate access to thousands of points of data, and if they try to over-simplify the strategy by applying broad heuristics, they can cause too much of a deviation that upsets the balance and equilibrium of their total strategy.

Even if someone does not try to learn a GTO strategy, they still need to practice and learn in order to become a better player, and this effort at self-improvement means that one does need focus, discipline, and a willingness to correct mistakes. Although issues of timing, coordination, and speed may not affect the ability of poker players to execute their strategy, most plays are affected by unconscious emotions that push them to play in a suboptimal way.

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