One for the Old Guys: Reaction Times, Decision Times and Memory

Doyle Brunson

I was scanning back over a column I did on memory and noticed something I missed before.

The strategy section producer slotted in a number of photos, picking ones that he thought would be amusing and relevant to the topic. He's got a real eye for this, and must have one hell of a database to work with.

Anyway, while scanning over Andy Black.

I have no idea if he did this on purpose, but it got me thinking and led me to the topic for this week: psychological functions that change as we age.

Memory Accuracy - Memory Capacity: You may not like to hear this, or you may not care. If you're young, you almost certainly don't care, 'cause when you're young you're invulnerable - can dodge bullets and leap tall buildings in a single bound - and hence find it virtually impossible to grasp what will happen to you down the long, dusty road.

But if you're in your 40s and up you probably are already sensing that things just "ain't what they usta was."

Your ability to recall events is degraded. Words, names and events sit squirming, unuttered, on the tip of your tongue. And when you try to reconstruct what happened two hands back when you got felted, well ... it's all a blur.

In that earlier piece we found that memory, no matter what we might like to believe, is actually rather poor, filled with errors, misrememberings, misinterpretations and outright falsehoods. We are all guilty of these sins of recollection, but the ante gets upped several-fold for each decade of our lives.

The poker moral here?

For the young and the restless, don't sweat it. The future will show up whether you want it to or not, but there's nothing to worry about now.

T.J. Cloutier
On the bright side, you'll be done in time for the early-bird dinner!

For the geriatric set? There are some things we can do. First, play shorter sessions.

As more and more hands are played our memory gets "clogged" (yeah, I know, that's not a technical term but it's not far off from what actually happens) and it gets harder and harder to remember what's actually happening.

And this can prove expensive, like when you can't remember whether it's the cowboy hat or the smarmy guy with the bad rug sitting next to him who's been making all those loose calls.

Or when you did manage to note that Seat 2 was a raising maniac but forgot that he moved to Seat 7 and you can't recall what he looked like.

Second, be honest with yourself. Be aware that as you get older your memory will degrade. Take your time to make sure you've properly understood a hand, take more breaks and know that each little memory cache you've given up has been replaced by the wisdom garnered from life's experiences.

Time to React - Time to Decide: A reaction time is exactly what it sounds like, the time it takes you to react to something. Ditto for decision time. We psychologists know a lot about them - more than you want to know, trust me, because the topic would test the patience of a monk.

Among the straightforward things we know are:

a. Reaction times slow down as the decisions get more complex.

b. Reaction times and decision times slow down with age.

The first is pretty obvious. If I ask you to press a button as soon as you see a light, you're fast. If I ask you to press one button if the light is red and another if it's blue, you're a lot slower.

Amarillo Slim Preston
Old but fast.

The second is also obvious. Do the same experiment with people of varying ages and the older they are, the slower they will be.

But the obvious gets less so when we look at live games and online play. For live play neither of these issues looms particularly large. If the decisions are tough, just take your time.

Yeah, every now and again some dude will call time on you, but for the most part, players will give you the time you need to make tough calls.

And age doesn't matter. Geezers will take longer to make decisions but, for the most part, players will accommodate and there won't be problems.

But online it all changes, and if you're multi-tabling the problems grow exponentially. Online play is fast and there are strict time limits on your action. You can hit the "time" button but you're not going to get as long as you might like.

And, unlike the live games where the dealer will ask you to please make a decision, online the freakin' computer just assumes you've passed out on the floor (or whatever), folds your hand and, if you don't do something about it, skips you on the next deal.

Chad Batista
We're still not convinced he's old enough to play legally.

It's pretty clear why Internet poker has become a young person's game. The time pressures are increased and for every additional table you play they go up.

If you're flashing around between two or more screens with 6, 10, 15 and even more tables going simultaneously, your reaction and decision times better be really, really fast or you're going to be in trouble.

There is a lot of discussion about the optimal number of tables to play. Without going into gory detail, it's a complex function of your normative reaction and decision times and the average edge you have in the level of game you're playing.

But what many haven't recognized is that as the number of decisions per unit time goes up, so does error rate; as the memory load increases, error rates will accompany it.

As error rates go up, win rates go down. For each individual, where their error-rate and win-rate curves cross will dictate the optimal number of tables to play.

And this cross-point will change depending on how much experience you have had, how tough the games are, how tired you are and how many miles are on your tires.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

More poker strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

  • Partial Reinforcement Part Two
  • Partial Reinforcement Part One
  • A Little Riff on Zen
  • Phil Ivey on the Couch
  • Best Poker Sites - Editor`s Pick

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