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Poker, Unpredictability, and Going on Tilt



I had an interesting experience tonight playing Texas Hold'em Poker. Despite having virtually no poker experience, I ended up winning a decent-sized pot. The morals of the story:

* Unpredictability is a highly useful competitive strategy. By repeatedly going "all in" and giving the appearance of not having any idea what I was doing -- which was admittedly at least 75% true -- people were unsure how to respond. If you win a few times following this strategy it is demoralizing to opponents, as pointed out in an insightful 2003 paper about unpredictable poker-playing computer bots:

The bot routinely makes unconventional plays that confuse and confound humans. Invariably, some of these "bizarre" plays happen to coincide with a lucky escape, and several of these bad beats in quick succession will often cause strong emotional reactions (sometimes referred to as "going on tilt"). The level of play generally goes down sharply in these circumstances.

* When you have a lot of chips, being relentlessly bullying despite having weak cards is rational. In the limit, when there is only one other player left, you only have to win a single time to end the game, so playing repeated all-in hands (even without even looking at your cards) is optimal. Given that your competitor will almost certainly be somewhat risk averse, you will a) win repeated antes, and b) win more pots than is your due. Call it competing based on balance sheets.
* It helps to be lucky. I knocked out the last two competitors (on different hands) on the last card turned. That was absurdly lucky, but it was also more probable than might have been expected given the number of hands that get quickly played toward the end of a game.
* Even if following a rationally irrational strategy, it still helps to have good cards.


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Dr. Kedrosky is currently the Executive Director of the William J. von Liebig Center in San Diego, California. Using an innovative seed capital program, the Center catalyzes the commercialization of technologies from the internationally-ranked University of California, San Diego. Dr. Kedrosky is also a venture investor with Ventures West, Canada's largest institutional venture capital firm, where he is most active in consumer technologies and software. He is currently on the board of Marqui Corporation, a marketing automation software company.
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