The Storytelling Animal

I recently finished The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall. This sentence struck me as being particularly important for poker:

The storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will churn out lies when it can’t.

A big part of being a poker pro, or succeeding in any area where luck plays a large roll, is constantly debunking the specious stories your mind “churns out.” To a beginner, poker seems to be all luck. Whoever has the best cards wins. As we get better, we start to see the ways to influence our luck, by getting maximum value when we have the best hand, getting away cheaply when we’re beat, bluffing judiciously, and so on. But many skillful players overshoot the mark in estimating the roll of skill. Poker pros try to strong-arm this chaotic game into something predictable. It’s true that if you play enough hands, and play skillfully enough, you have a very high chance of winning, but that doesn’t change the fact that, by any reasonable measure, poker is mostly luck.

Likewise many of the events we encounter in poker, which seem so redolent of meaning, probably come down to luck. “I can’t beat this guy.” Maybe he got lucky against you in a few hands. “I knew he was bluffing.” Maybe you were lucky he was bluffing this time. “That hand really turned my session around.” Maybe you were unlucky before, and lucky after, that hand. “I had a good feeling about this hand.” Really?

Another poker pro, a winning player, told me, “I run bad with draws.” I imagine he missed some draws in big, memorable pots, but his storytelling mind turned that into a story that’s not true. A poker player can’t be bad at draws the way a basketball player is bad from three-point range. The cards are dealt randomly. The problem with false stories is that they’re likely to influence how you play. This player likely plays his draws too passively because he “knows” he won’t hit. If you believe all the stories your mind tells you, you’ll end up playing based on your history with luck, rather than your best guess at a sound strategy. You won’t, in fact, play well, unless random events align to teach you a good strategy. That would be very lucky indeed.


2 thoughts on “The Storytelling Animal

  1. Jeff Alson says:

    Nate, I agree that many serious players underestimate the role of luck in poker, especially in the short term. Obviously there is a time horizon here, the same friend who “runs bad with draws” might later decide that he “runs good with draws” after a few sessions of better luck, and, as I am sure you agree, poker skill will ultimately win out over luck in the long term.

    More important, I would add that I think many very smart people underestimate the role of luck in life as well. Part of this is arrogance (I am smart and I made my own breaks, I am a good person and I deserve good fortune), and part is ignorance (the luck of being born white and male and privileged in our country opens many opportunities closed to others). An unfortunate consequence of this is often an ugly lack of empathy for those who are not so lucky.

    I have been very lucky to have a 30+ year career with the same organization, and how did I find out about the job?–I was driving in Ann Arbor for the first time ever, visiting a friend, and literally looked out the car window, saw the place, and walked in and asked if they were hiring. Now, that was luck.


    • grindrewind says:

      Agreed. Something I like to say is that successful people are not necessarily experts on the causes of their success. They tend to attribute their success to their own hard work, which is, of course, a flattering perspective. Hard work improves your chances for success, but not everyone who works hard achieves wild success.

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