You can’t not think. It’s a basic fact of human neurology. You can be thinking intensely and deliberately, or letting your thoughts wander, meditating, or even sleeping, but one way or another, your neurons are always doing something. If they weren’t, you’d be dead.
This doesn’t mean that all thinking is equally useful, nor is the same type of thinking applicable to every situation. There are times to brainstorm and times to relax, times to stay focused and times to free-associate. Certain types of thinking are almost always counter-productive, however, and it’s possible to believe you’re doing one kind of thinking when you’re actually doing another, less useful type.
The two types of thinking I want to talk about are what I’d call “analyzing” and “agonizing.” I am not a psychologist, and this is all based on personal experience and observation, so these are not technical terms. What I mean by “analyzing,” though, is carefully considering the characteristics of a situation where a decision needs to be made, coming up with a list of possible options, then weighing the pros and cons of each to come to decide which one is best.
“Agonizing,” on the other hand, is very similar, except that it’s what happens once you’ve reached the limit of your mental ability to analyze, but still can’t come to a clear decision. In modern board game culture, it’s often described as “analysis paralysis,” sometimes even abbreviated as “AP.” The reason you get stuck agonizing may be that two or more options seem equally good, or else that no options seem satisfactory. At this point, it’s normal to start thinking in circles. You’ll go back to the original situation to look for an option you haven’t considered, but usually you’ll fail to find one. You’ll then go over the same options you did the first time, look at all the same pros and cons, come to the same conclusion about each, and therefore still end up feeling unsure.
Lessons from another game
Long before I got into poker, I was an avid Go player. Go, if you’re not familiar with it, is the world’s oldest known board game, invented in China something like 4000 years ago and still extremely popular today throughout China, Korea and Japan. It’s an abstract strategy game, like chess, but with much simpler rules, yet equally (arguably more) complex strategy.
I learned to play while I was teaching in Korea, and was already fairly decent by the time I came back to Canada. Although there are Go clubs here, and online options, there are very few really great players in North America. It wasn’t long then before I was competing in tournaments at the provincial level, although never above the second division when it came to national tournaments.
Go is played with a timing system somewhat similar to chess. You have a certain amount of discretionary of “main time,” usually an hour for amateur tournaments, which you can spend any way you like. After that runs out, you’re in overtime, or byo-yomi, and have only a small, fixed amount of time for each subsequent move. Being in overtime is okay in the endgame, when things are simple, but is likely to cause blunders if there’s anything complicated happening. It’s therefore important to manage your main time well, taking your time for key decisions, but finding the easier moves as quickly as possible.
When you’re still a novice or intermediate player, time is usually not that much of a problem, but the better you get, the more deeply you can read into the game, and therefore the more time you can usefully spend thinking. Thus, towards the peak of my Go life, I started to run into clock trouble, something that had never happened before. An hour didn’t seem like enough anymore, as sometimes I’d spend as much as 15 or 20 of those 60 minutes on a single, particularly tough move.
Ultimately, I realized that when I was in the tank that long, I was almost never analyzing, but rather agonizing. Sure, I could easily spend five minutes analyzing, maybe ten at the most, but at that point I’d run up against the hard limit of how many moves ahead I was capable of thinking. If, even at that limit, two moves both seemed to produce equally viable results, I’d get stuck. And what I’d do would be to go back to the beginning and read them both out again, invariably running into the wall at the exact same point, over and over.
That’s just wasted time. I was almost never any more certain after fifteen minutes than I was after five. Occasionally, going over a move a second time would provide a revelation, but if the second effort ended up exactly the same as the first, going over it a third, fourth or fifth time never got me anywhere. The thing about agonizing is that your short-term memory is working against you; the more times you go from thought A to thought B, the more reinforced that connection becomes. Metaphorically, it’s like you’re walking in circles in the dirt, and your feet are just wearing a deeper and deeper rut. If you didn’t break out the first few times around, it’s only going to get more difficult to do so.
What I learned, then, was to be self-aware and recognize when the analysis was over and the agonizing had begun, and shut things down at that point. If all options seemed bad, I’d just go with the least bad, while if two seemed good, I’d pick the one that seemed more interesting. And just like that, my clock woes disappeared.
Agonizing in poker
There’s no time for agonizing in online poker, because your moves are so strictly timed. Meanwhile, in live poker, agonizing is certainly possible, but you don’t have a time bank the way you do in Go. If you do end up in the tank for an excessive amount of time, someone will call the clock and put an end to your agonizing for you, but there are generally no repercussions to you personally for having that happen, except perhaps to generate ill-will at the table if it happens too often.
That doesn’t mean that agonizing isn’t a problem for poker players. On the contrary, it’s just that the most damaging kind of agonizing is what we do away from the table. Whether we sit down consciously to review our play, or just naturally end up dwelling on a few important or problematic hands later, we all end up doing some post hoc analysis of one form or another.
There’s no game clock for post hoc analysis, but there are only so many hours in a day, and most of us have things to do that aren’t just thinking about poker. Thinking about one hand means that you’re not thinking about another, what an economist-psychologist might call the “opportunity cost of thought.” Agonizing about one hand, then, means you may never get around to doing meaningful analysis on another hand from which you might have learned something.
There are also a couple of reasons that agonizing is more harmful in poker than it is in Go. In Go, the fact that two moves seem equally good to you doesn’t necessarily make them so. There are a lot of sharp splits in Go; a move that just barely allows a group of stones to be saved may be a game-winner, while a very similar-looking move that just barely fails to save them may force an early resignation.
On the other hand, if we’re thinking about poker from the point of view of expectation value (EV), agonizing is most likely to happen between two moves that actually are very close in long-term value. Sure, calling a huge bet on the river when your opponent turns out to have the nuts can be a disaster, but if the choice between calling or folding seems tough even after careful analysis, it’s pretty likely that he would in fact be bluffing there often enough to make a call close to break-even. Therefore, when your analysis turns into agonizing, the actual long-term difference in profitability by choosing one of the moves in question probably isn’t actually very large at all. If that’s the case, then you’d be much better off looking for larger, more obvious leaks elsewhere than worrying about a few tenths of a big blind in EV for that one particular spot.
There’s more to it than just that, however. In fact, because poker is a game of imperfect information, the best strategies tend to be mixed strategies. In a perfect information game like Go, the best move is always the best move, but in poker, when two or more moves seem very close in value, choosing semi-randomly between them is literally the best thing you can be doing. In other words, by dwelling on a close spot until you convince yourself that move A is correct and move B incorrect, you’re probably actually hurting your game, because the truth is usually that you should sometimes be doing A and other times B.
The lesson, then, is that when we’re going over hands, most of us could benefit from looking at a greater number of different spots or hands, and spending less time on each. If you’re looking at a turn situation, say, and it seems that bet-folding, check-calling and check-raising all have reasonable cases to be made for them, you should probably leave it at that, because the actual answer is that you should do each of these things some part of the time.
Of course, if you’re a super high-level player and want to get into game theory, you could try to work out the correct frequency for each of these actions. For the vast majority of us, however, it’s already an improvement just to realize that we should have all three in our playbook, make the decision based on feel in the moment and resist the temptation to agonize about it later.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.