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.