Does Motivation Matter? Jason Mercier’s Insane Heater Suggests it Does
Jason Mercier’s insane streak in the $10,000 Championship events at this summer’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) continues. For once, he’s not on top of the chip counts heading into the final day; that honor goes to Matt Glantz, who is sitting on just over a million chips in Event #32: $10,000 Omaha Hi-Low Split-8 or Better Championship. Mercier’s in healthy shape, however, bang in the middle of the 16 players remaining with a stack of 444,000. Day 3 action has just gotten underway as of 3 PM Las Vegas time, and it’s expected that they will play down to a winner, although with two almost-full tables and an average stack of about 10 big bets, it could prove to be a slog. The previous Championship events have all found a winner within the originally-scheduled three days, however, so one would assume that will be the case here.
It’s usually the case most years that someone goes on a heater at the WSOP and becomes the focus of headlines throughout the series. Last year, for instance, was the summer of Brian Hastings, although he was ultimately overtaken by Mike Gorodinsky for Player of the Year honors. To some extent, this is just the product of random variance; given the sheer number of people playing multiple events each year, it’s almost inevitable that someone will get lucky enough times in a row to be the superstar of the summer. If that was the whole story, however, there would be no way of predicting in advance who it would be, yet very often it seems to be someone who has booked major side bets on themselves doing exactly that. That’s the case for Mercier this year, it was the case for Hastings last year, and Phil Ivey’s 2009 WSOP is another prominent example.
That’s not to say that players who make big bracelet bets always win; Ivey himself had lost millions of dollars on failed bracelet bets in 2008, just a year before his heater. Nonetheless, it does seem to be the case that players who bet on themselves to win one or more bracelets are far more likely to do so than simple math would indicate. That raises an interesting question, namely how big of a factor motivation is when it comes to poker success. This is a frequently-debated topic these days, often in relation to the ongoing feud between Mason Malmuth and the poker psychologist Dr. Patricia Cardner; the latter makes her money offering psychological coaching for players who believe it helps their game, while Malmuth considers her a charlatan, and thinks those players who claim to have been helped by her services are falling into the trap of results-oriented thinking. Both have their respective camps of supporters, and one can equally find plenty of opinions falling somewhere in between.
Motivation aside, there are a couple of good reasons why a player making bracelet bets should win events more often than one who is not. For starters, someone with side bets is going to play every event that he or she can, while others are likely to take a rest at some point mid-series. Another reason is that these bracelet bets are often for sums which exceed the value of the prize pool of a typical tournament; that provides an all-or-nothing incentive which allows the player to play for the win without the usual ICM considerations surrounding the money bubble and final table pay jumps.
But these factors are fairly well-understood, and are factored into the math which goes into setting the odds for these bets. During the 2014 WSOP, when Daniel Negreanu made a huge even-money bet on either himself or Phil Ivey to win a bracelet, some railbird even put together a web-based calculator for people wanting to work out the odds themselves by predicting which events the two were likely to play, the expected field sizes, and the edge against the field enjoyed by each man in each event. Even after all this number-crunching, however, it still seems that most bracelets work out to be profitable for the players making them – that something about the bets makes the players involved play not just more, or harder, but better as well.
Motivation and physical prop bets
Of course, poker players don’t only bet on poker. Physical proposition bets – usually ones with an endurance component – are a big part of poker culture. As I’ve observed in the past, these are almost always won by the person taking on the challenge. Part of this is that people tend not to make such bets if they’re not reasonably sure they can do it, and most people presumably know their own bodies better than the person they’re betting with.
The motivation associated with high financial risk shouldn’t be underestimated, however. Could I train myself to run a 5-minute mile just to prove I can do it? Absolutely not. If you bet me $50,000 and gave me a year to prepare? Then it would seem much more possible: not only would I make my training a priority in that case, but the $100,000 swing between winning and losing would also make me willing to tolerate a lot more physical discomfort in order to bring my time down.
That’s all well and good when it comes to these sorts of physical prop bets, but does the same thing apply in any way to poker? After all, poker is not a test of endurance… or is it?
The tournament slog
For players who play mostly online, or play cash games, or only participate in single-night, fast-structured tournaments at their local card room, it’s easy to underestimate just how much of a grind a WSOP event can be. Most last for three days at a minimum, and those days are usually close to 12 hours in length, including breaks. A deep run, then, takes nearly as much work in three days as a typical worker puts in over the course of a standard five-day work week.
Even a single event like that can be gruelling for the average player. Tournament professionals are used to putting in those long hours, of course, but the WSOP is a unique beast in its relentlessness. It runs for a month and a half, with no days off unless the player decides to skip a few events. For those chasing bracelets, days can run even longer, as there are multiple events running each day, and a bracelet-hunter may bust one event only to immediately late-register for another.
And it’s not as if thinking is not hard work. It’s true that players spend most of their time sitting down, and the physical requirements of play amount to moving chips around. However, even at my modest level of play, maintaining concentration over 8 to 12 hours of play is extremely difficult; and I expect that the experience of top-level poker players is more akin to my days as a provincial-level Go player, when even just a two-day tournament would leave me feeling as drained as if I’d run a marathon due to the intensity of thought required. I’m getting tired just thinking about the prospect of playing 40-plus consecutive 12-hour days of poker without a break.
With that kind of schedule, it’s inevitable that under normal circumstances, even the best players will occasionally catch themselves getting lazy. Concentrating on a hand once you’re involved in it is one thing, but maximizing one’s performance means staying engaged at all times. For one thing, physical tells can be a difference-maker in live events, and if you’re not watching your opponents carefully when you’re out of a hand, you’re going to miss them. All good live tournament players know to do this, of course, but I doubt that very many manage to keep it up 100% of the time, especially throughout a grind like the WSOP.
Meanwhile, many decisions in poker are fairly automatic, but the danger there is when an action seems automatic but actually shouldn’t be, due to other considerations. Perhaps a hand that’s a standard open from one’s position under normal circumstances should be folded because of a short-stack who just got moved to the table and is likely to go all-in. Or perhaps a weak hand which is normally a snap fold in the big blind becomes a raise, because the cutoff’s bet sizing screams that it’s an attempted steal. These are opportunities that are easy to miss when playing on auto-pilot, which is nearly certain to happen occasionally once exhaustion sets in.
It’s in these regards, I expect, that motivation becomes a factor. Playing one’s A-game – whatever that means for a given player – is easy enough for a few hours, but at my level, I notice a big difference in my level of focus between the first hour of a tournament and the sixth. I expect that a player at Mercier’s level can manage considerably better than that, but it still seems likely that there would be a difference between day one of the series, and day 20. Booking millions of dollars in bracelet bets makes every decision that much more meaningful, and changes the calculus between allowing one’s brain to rest once in a while, and forcing oneself to remain focused. It’s no wonder, then, that players with these bets in place tend to have the best series of their life… and equally unsurprising that some, like Hastings, immediately swear off of such plans in future after having done it once.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.