Thinking in Strategies

One of the most useful things I’ve learned from poker is that it is often more helpful to think about a strategy, and how the current situation fits into it, than to try to grapple with the current situation in a vacuum.

For example, when you have a strong hand, your first inclination might be to bet; but then you remember that poker is a game of deception, and if you bet your opponent will surely know you have a good hand, so maybe you shouldn’t bet. In the heat of the moment this is quite a difficult knot to untangle. Many people place a high value on deception and end up checking the vast majority of their best hands. They don’t do it as part of a preconceived strategy, but approach the problem anew each time they hold a strong hand, and more often than not the desire to trick their opponents wins out and they check.

If we take a giant step back, how does their strategy look? When they have a good hand they hardly ever bet; and when they are betting they hardly ever have a good hand. Well, that can’t be right. Few would endorse such a strategy, but it is in fact how many people end up playing.

Rather than approaching each hand in a vacuum, it’s helpful to think about an overall strategy. Clearly our best hands are the ones we most want to bet with, since we want to play a big pot. But if we bet with only those hands, it will be obvious that we have a great hand whenever we bet and our opponents can simply fold. Some amount of deception does seem to be necessary. We could try to achieve it by checking our best hands, but then we can’t really bet anything else either, since then we’d never have anything when we bet. Unless we want our whole strategy to be passive, we need to bet some other hands in addition to our best hands. In broad strokes, a good strategy often involves betting most of your best hands, along with some bluffs and semi-bluffs.

I find this way of thinking to be helpful outside of poker as well. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, I found the cases for and against the war very confusing. They have weapons of mass destruction. Or maybe they don’t. Or maybe they do, but they don’t intend to use them against us. Saddam Hussein is a horrible tyrant. But is it our job to depose tyrants? They support terrorism. Or do they? Maybe only a little bit.

It seems to me more helpful to ask, what is our strategy for invading foreign countries? I’m not at all sure what our actual strategy is, but I have a sense it would be difficult to come up with a strategy that would have endorsed invading Iraq without also recommending the invasion of many other countries.

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