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The Biggest Bluff - 5 Key Takeaways for Better Decision Making

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14 Minutes
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The biggest bluff starts and ends in the same place.

You might think it strange, after all, most books follow a clear path from beginning to end. But this isn’t most books, this is The Biggest Bluff – a book about Poker that isn’t about Poker. A book about life.

Luck is where this book starts and ends.

It’s not the luck of Las Vegas, no it’s not the luck of the WSOP – the world series of poker, no, it’s the luck we know as life.

You see, luck or uncertainty spirals in and out of our lives every single day. Consider what you control, and then think about what you don’t control. All the things you can’t control; well, they are in the hands of luck, uncertainty, and chance.

The biggest lesson from The Biggest Bluff is recognising what you can control – and what you can’t.

Within the acceptance of uncertainty lies four more takeaways to help us with better decision-making from the book. These are:

  • Strategy
  • Our language
  • Paying attention
  • Playing the detective

These four topics become even more important than we readily appreciate. They require responses to the acceptance of uncertainty. As Maria highlights, we can’t foresee the future; all we can do is prepare ourselves for it.

Preparing for a future that includes uncertainty is the overriding focus of The Biggest Bluff, which leads to the first area of focus – strategy.

Strategy

Maria writes.

“You can’t just plough ahead with one strategy because it worked in the past or you’ve seen someone else employ it successfully. Each time you act, you must reassess based on what is now known versus what was known before. You need to have a process, a system, a plan—one that evolves with feedback. If you don’t, how will you know whether the outcome of your battle—a bad one in my case, but successful ones, too—is the result of skill or luck?”

In life, important decisions occur less frequently than in the game of Poker.

One of Maria’s initial goals was to understand how we balance the spectrum of luck and control in our lives. How often are we in control of our destiny’s? In life, it's harder to grasp this as we tend to make big decisions less frequently.

Poker gives the concentration of decisions, of luck and control, and unlike other games, Poker is an imperfect game.

It mirrors life.

Games like chess don’t mirror life. This is because you can follow a set of moves and win every time.

In Poker, you can win with the worst hand of cards and lose with the best as well.

Life deals us similar levels of uncertainty, which brings us back to your strategy.

Strategy – The biggest bluff poker approach

Do you have good reasons for the decisions you make?

In Poker, your strategy stands behind the way you play your cards, your bets, and when and why you might ‘bluff’ – all towards the goal of winning. In war, it shapes the direction, the forces, and the weapons to win. In business, it becomes a playbook for helping customers and increasing revenue.

Often, the key to a successful strategy is to simply understand what’s going on.

The author of Good Strategy/ Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt says it clearly when he challenges his business students by asking, “What’s going on here?”

Erik Seidel explains it in more practical terms.

“You have to have a clear thought process for every single hand. What do I know? What have I seen? How will that help me make an informed judgment about this hand?”

Reasoning, logic, and clear thought shape the strategy that leads to the decision-making process.

What’s more, without that strategy, you weaken your ability to have the most impact on the one element you do control, your decisions.

Maria gives witness to many players who have a strategy, but one not so well thought through. Yes, the game is being played with incomplete information, but that shouldn’t stop players from looking for complete information. The book is littered with games where the information isn’t even assessed, let alone validated.

Very few seem to ask themselves if they have good reasons for the decisions they are making.

A strategy and a metaphor for living

Maria searches for a metaphor to describe her coach, Erik.

It helps to understand how he sees the game, how he defines his strategy. Her definition is vastly different to his. Erik sees the game, the players, and the cards as a jazz band. His job is to fit in and help the game flow with little drama.

The music, like the game, must make sense.

For Maria, a more warlike setting takes her to the animal kingdom.

Erik is the dragonfly. The player who lurks, who is always watching and paying attention, is ready to spot the variance and strike. Like the dragonfly, when he strikes, he rarely loses.

Whatever the metaphor, the lessons are clear.

Most of us have ‘strategies’ for living, but how effective are they?

  • Do they accept the variance of luck?
  • Do they focus on filtering fact from fiction?
  • Do they push us to pay attention and offer good reasons when we decide?

The answers depend on the narrative we tell ourselves…

Our language

The words we speak have an influence far closer to home than we appreciate.

We are prone to the ‘tilt.’ That moment when emotions seize control and start to shape our thoughts, decisions, and actions. Often, it’s events beyond our control that nudge us into this damaging state of mind.

The words we use following this ‘tilt’ shape our thoughts, our decisions, and our actions. We all have a narrative – that is, the words we use define us.

‘Can you believe what just happened…’?’ When things don’t go our way, we look for excuses, we fail to grasp that life is a series of random events. We become the victim.

The farmer and the neighbour

To prepare for the randomness of life, you need to accept that your life will be more defined by luck than anything else.

We tell ourselves that bad luck happens to us, and good luck happens because of us. Both statements are false. Luck is life – it isn’t good or bad – it is just the randomness of the future.

Our problem is that we are easily fooled by it.

Maria turns to a Buddhist proverb to make the point.

A farmer loses his prize horse. His neighbour comes over to commiserate about the misfortune, but the farmer just shrugs. Who knows if it is a misfortune or not? The next day, the horse returns. With it are twelve more wild horses. The neighbour congratulates the farmer on this excellent news, but the farmer just shrugs. Soon, the farmer’s son falls off one of the feral horses as he’s training it. He breaks a leg. The neighbour expresses his condolences. The farmer just shrugs. Who knows? The country declares war and the army comes to the village, to conscript all able-bodied young men. The farmer’s son is passed over because of his leg. How wonderful, the neighbour says. And again, the farmer shrugs. Perhaps.

The question is this, are you the farmer or the neighbour?

The narrative of bad luck

The proverb highlights our view of luck, but also, most critically, our language.

Maria doesn’t ask because as she explains in Poker and life, you can’t allow yourself to fall prey to the narrative of bad luck. A sharp rebuttal comes when Maria attempts to explain a bust to her coach, Erik Seidel. It is the notion of the story we tell ourselves.

“Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them. It doesn’t help you become a better player. It’s like dumping your rubbish on someone else’s lawn. It just stinks.”

Erik’s point is to talk to yourself like the farmer.

What happens, happens.

What matters is how you frame it. Clarity of language is clarity of thought. When we look back, it’s the process that should occupy your mind, not the luck you’ve had or not had.

Stepping away from the book, Kimi Raikkonen (the F1 driver) once said: “It’s always the same question about bad luck. It’s nothing I can change.”

The words reveal much about Kimi’s mindset. When he references the question about bad luck, he resolves it with one defining statement. It’s nothing I can change. He knows there is nothing he can do about bad luck – you’ll notice it isn’t even his bad luck. It’s the randomness of life and he knows we are all exposed to it.

Kimi is firmly taking the position of the farmer in the proverb above.

The Biggest Bluff: Language matters

It is more than we can do to accept that we make decisions with incomplete information, not understanding that luck will always play a part.

Regardless of whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, you’re making choices based on your perception of how luck treats you.

Both negative and positive mindsets lead us to focus on the things we can’t control. We fool ourselves into believing we are either lucky or unlucky.

Our decisions begin to suffer as we focus less on what we can control. The influence of previous luck appears. Now, information that offers no relevance to our decision begins to spoil the choice we face. Confirmation bias leaps into action, nudging us to accept assumptions built on previous beliefs. The clear-thinking detective has long gone.

The story we tell ourselves isn’t a good one. It’s full of false information and vibes which reduce the quality of our decision.

Bad beats are bad. They feed our minds with false constructs about stuff we have no control over.

Erik is right, it’s why the story we tell ourselves matters.

Pay attention

Erik Seidel’s biggest lesson stems from just two words – pay attention.

In the information age, attention is scattered like dying leaves from a tree in October. We run around trying to pick the leaves up when we should just watch them fall. Paying attention is the skill of notice and observation, but it is also more than that.

It is the art of concentrating.

When you concentrate, you focus – you pay attention to the thing you’re concentrating on. You become alive to the wealth of information that is right in front of you. Attention prepares you.

Attention offers opportunity.

Attention helps you avoid overconfidence.

Attention is a powerful mitigator to overconfidence: it forces you to constantly revaluate your knowledge and your game plan, lest you become too tied to a certain course of action.

But dodging the bad beat is where the win can come from when you pay attention.

The connection to bad beats runs even deeper. The more focus you can bring to something, the more attention you pay, the more you maximize your skill edge before the bad beat can even happen—and so you minimize the times when you leave your fate in the cards.

Observe, and you will see

The Biggest Bluff also offers an important reminder to a Louis Pasteur quote: “Chance favours the prepared mind.” Of course, the full quote is quite different. “Where observation is concerned, chance favours only the prepared mind.”

The quote is another nudge towards helping you see the upside of paying attention.

But how does this translate itself to life?

It takes quite an effort to focus. It’s a fact we live distracted lives – from the devices in our hands, to the notifications of communication, we are distracted. With our eyes glued to the screens of our phones, we miss so much.

This level of distraction makes concentrating even harder for us.

We’ve become so used to it, that we become restless without a device in hand or a hundred tv channels to choose from.

We might tell ourselves we are paying attention, but we are paying attention to the wrong things. Attention is best served ‘in the moment.’ In life, what we are seeing in front of us is what we need to observe and pay attention to. In the Poker room, attention reveals deviations, ticks, nervous play, confident play – all information to help us make more informed decisions. Observing this cannot be done with a phone in your hand.

It is the opportunity that comes from paying attention.

Pay attention, it’s your choice

It seems fitting to reference one of Maria’s favourite quotes.

“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences.” – W. H. Auden

There is another part of the book which ties itself to the behaviour of observing and paying attention.

In a sense, it’s like John Boyd’s OODA loop playing out at the table instead of in the air. Boyd was a fighter pilot in the air force, and he invented OODA to describe a dynamic that he’d learned through his years in combat: to succeed, you need to constantly observe, orient, decide, and act. OODA. The way to outmanoeuvre your opponent is to get inside their OODA loop. Figure out what they are observing, how they are orienting and deciding, and how they act as a result. That way, you can anticipate them. Because at the end of the day, the fighting, just like the poker table, comes down to information.

As I consider the book, I should note that ‘pay attention’ was Erik’s first words of advice to Maria.

It isn’t hard to see why.

Playing the detective

One behaviour pulls uncertainty, our strategy, our language, and our attention together — the process of thinking like a detective.

A detective’s job is to work out what’s going on. At the scene of a crime, it means gathering information to work out who has done what and why. A detective investigates — he/she follows a process to learn about something hidden, unique, or complex.

In poker, playing the detective is exactly what’s needed.

Poker is a game of incomplete information — just like life.

Of course, we have our strategy — the process we aim to follow to win, but we also have our observations. We have the uncertainty of the incomplete information and a narrative we need to build. The detective in us becomes the narrator.

The story we construct develops as explain what’s going on.

Phil Galfond tells Maria: “In the game of poker, you’re a detective and a storyteller,” he tells me. “You must figure out what your opponent’s actions mean, and sometimes more importantly, what they don’t mean.”

The nudge to thinking like a detective enables us to craft the narrative. It gives the means to rationalise what might be happening.

It is this quality that makes it especially applicable when making decisions outside of poker.

What is going on?

The importance of decision making makes it clear we need to work out what’s going on.

Our view of incomplete information often leads us to the comfort of assumptions. We prefer certainty over uncertainty and assumptions give us this.

There is nothing more dangerous than an accepted assumption when deciding.

Every decision is different — as every situation is different. An assumption assumes this is false — that nothing changes. Entropy rightly argues otherwise.

A detective doesn’t accept assumptions.

Moving beyond assumptions is a powerful reason to adopt this investigative approach to thinking and reasoning.

Mental models are ignored or even broken apart as the mind seeks the fundamental truths — the first principles of the decision or problem ahead. The focus of the curious is to diagnose the scene and question the future. Rationality gives us an explanation of what’s known and unknown.

The outcome — to espouse a credible story that explains what’s going on here.

That’s the challenge — as Phil says in the book.

“Never do anything, no matter how small it may seem, without asking why, precisely, you’re doing it. And never judge anything others do without asking the same question. “Every action your opponent takes has a reason behind it, whether conscious or unconscious,”

Accepting the role of the detective

Thinking and being a detective isn’t easy.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, we are impatient, and our intrinsic mode of decision-making is to decide quickly. Playing the role of a detective isn’t easy. We must overcome the temptation to decide quickly and instead, begin to question what’s going on.

The goal is to become the rational actor.

In life, we see rational actors as cautious, but curious people.

When we reflect on this term of rationality, we picture people who are patient, even methodical in their consideration of information. They always have a plan. Of course, they also display a level of attentiveness which means they see things we don’t. They are as prone to the influence of uncertainty as the rest of us. But, unlike us, their stories are descriptive, rather than personal.

The aspirations are right, we need to be more rational.

Thinking like a detective goes against our instincts.

Stopping to ask why you’re doing what you’re doing rarely happens. Let alone consider why someone else is doing what they do. Every action — including our own has a reason, our job is to work out what that reason is.

It is a powerful motivator to being a detective.

Living with Uncertainty

The oxford dictionary explains luck like this: “Success or failure brought by chance rather than through one's actions.”

Chance is the possibility of something happening which brings us uncertainty. Of course, uncertainty is the state of feeling uncertain, which whether we like it or not, is life. Our lives are full of uncertainty.

The book begins and ends with personal stories from Maria’s life.

Personal uncertainty

Amongst other chance events is the passing of Maria’s grandmother.

A few months later, my vivacious, healthy, living‑on‑her-own grandmother slipped in the night. The edge of a metal bed frame. Hard linoleum floor. No extra pair of ears to hear anything amiss. The neighbours found her in the morning, alerted by a light that shouldn’t have been turned on. Two days later, she was dead.

Towards the end, Maria has a frightening medical episode:

My hearing goes first. Then my eyesight. I manage to grab the bathroom counter before I fall onto the hard tile of the floor and can formulate only one thought: stay conscious. I must be having a stroke, I think, or an aneurysm, or something else equally bad. And if I don’t get help, I may die or have permanent brain damage. Whatever happens, I cannot pass out. I try to yell and don’t know if any sound at all has emerged. I try not to vomit as a big wave of nausea comes over me, somehow still conscious of the danger of choking. And then, what feels like minutes later but is actually mere seconds, I sense someone entering the bathroom—I’ve made a sound, after all, it seems, and my husband has heard me. I grab in the direction I think he’ll be and say a single sentence. “Something very bad is happening.”

Both events demonstrate how uncertain life is.

Uncertainty equals life

The fact that we are even the person we are is one of extraordinary chance.

If we consider the number of sperm released during sex (200 million) at the time of our conception — remember each one is different, and it only takes one. The odds of one sperm successfully mixing with an egg is astonishingly high. We are the very definition of uncertainty.

And yet, we forget — or ignore — this obvious indicator of what is to come in our lives.

Science goes yet further.

The second law of thermodynamics is the explanation of entropy. Uncertainty, randomness and luck flow from every action we take. The law of nature regarding entropy is one none of us can escape — although we spend our lives trying to.

That’s life.

Preparing for uncertainty – the theme behind The Biggest Bluff

Reading The Biggest Bluff won’t prepare you for Poker, but it will prepare you for living with uncertainty.

Each of the four takeaways I’ve taken from the book is about Maria accepting uncertainty in her life (and poker). As she says, “You can’t prevent uncertainty; you can only prepare for it.” The tools of strategy, our language, our ability to pay attention and work out what’s going on can help us live better with uncertainty.

These are the lessons to take from The Biggest Bluff.

The title of this piece is this: ‘The Biggest Bluff - 5 Key Takeaways for Better Decision Making.’ In reality, four are topics you need to focus on so you can be ready for the fifth take away — uncertainty. Being ready means evolving — and practising — your understanding of the following areas:

  • Strategy
  • Our language
  • Paying attention
  • Playing the detective

The Biggest Bluff is certainly an informative book to grasp the significance of these four points.

It also serves as a valuable reminder of how uncertain our lives can be. Poker is a game, and despite its uncertainty — it isn’t a mimic for life. Yes, it’s full of incomplete information — like life, but the rules of the game prevent black swans.

Sometimes the world can be very uncertain.

Image Credit: Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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