Partial Reinforcement Part 2

Good Reinforcement

Last week we examined the "partial reinforcement effect" (or PRE).

Editor's note: Make sure to check out part one of this blog to catch up if you haven't already done so.

The PRE is the finding that behavior that is rewarded on an irregular, unpredictable schedule becomes more likely than behavior that has been rewarded every time.

This may seem paradoxical, but the effect is very real, in poker and in the rest of life.

Try this: Imagine a game where you win a fixed amount every time you play particular hands - say you get $1 each time you hold big slick. OK?

Now imagine a game where you averaged a $1 win with A-K but on a wildly varying schedule. Sometimes you won a huge pot, sometimes you got felted and sometimes you just stole the blinds. This latter situation is far more desirable.

That's the PRE and I want to use it to take a look at a familiar character: the chaser, aka the calling station.

I'll start with three hands from a recent game. I had just gotten knocked out of a tournament and was not a happy puppy. When I am unhappy, I drop down in stakes, for I am not always playing my A-game.

I took a seat in a $1/$2 game along with the usual suspects. After a while a new player sat in the 10 seat. It quickly became clear that he was a gambler who had come to mix it up. Implied odds? "Don't need no freakin' odds!" Position? "Whassat?" Player styles? "Who gives a flyin' F!"

I was as card-dead here as in the tournament, so I just sat while calluses formed on my butt and tossed away J-6, T-2, 7-4 ... For an hour an a half I literally saw two flops, and those were BB free passes. Of course, I missed both.

I'm pointing this out not because I want sympathy, but because it's important in understanding "Mr. G" in Seat 10.

About one orbit later a woman open-raises to $8 UTG (which is pretty standard). Mr. G calls from the cut-off, as is his wont.

They see a T 9 3 flop. She bets $20. He calls. The turn is K. She bets $40. He calls, and the 2 lands on the river.

She hesitates, stops, thinks, wrinkles her nose - all of which screams A-K to me - and bets her last $45. He calls and turns over 6 3, smiling while raking in the pot.

Antanas 'Tony G' Guoga
Not this Mr. G.

Ten minutes later the somewhat passive fellow on my right opens for $7. Mr. G is the only caller. The flop is J-8-7 rainbow. The raiser bets $18. Mr. G calls. The turn is an offsuit two.

The raiser, who, remember, is a pretty passive player, shoves for his last $110. Mr. G. calls. Mr. Passive turns up A-J suited. Mr. G doesn't show. The river is a T. Mr. G, in case you need to be told, now flips over T-2.

Mr. Passive loses it. "You called the flop with a gut-shot? You called a hundred freakin' dollar bet with bottom pair? What the f'in' hell is wrong with you?" Mr. G just laughs. He is having a wonderful time.

My evening's dénouement comes some 15 minutes later. I still haven't played a hand, so when I see A-J suited in mid position, it looks like wired bullets. There were two early limpers so I make it $20 to go.

Mr. G calls, of course. The limpers muck. The flop is A-K-7 rainbow. I bet $50. He calls. The turn is some rag. I shove my last $90. He calls. The river is a K and, yup, he turns up K-3.

If I hadn't been so tired I'd have reloaded, 'cause unless he racks up, those chips weren't staying there. They're, as the saying goes, "just visiting." Instead I went home to write this column.

Mr. G's poker game is psychologically fascinating. It's clear he's a bozo, a chaser, a calling station. Bottom pair is like a pheromone to a moth. And there are a lot like him, especially at the lower limits.

Why do the Mr. Gs keep coming back to the tables? The PRE can help us answer that question.

Yes, the humongous reinforcements that arrive on nights like this are a factor, but, importantly, it isn't just the amount he wins when he's hitting cards, because anyone who plays like this will lose far more when he isn't.

It's the fickle and unpredictable nature of these magical nights that regularly entice a Mr. G back to the tables. Players like this never know when they're going to hit that three-outer but when they do (as we noted last week), dopamine floods the synaptic clefts in their limbic systems.

Erica Schoenberg
The impact of Erica on the brain is enormous.

The impact on the brain is enormous, and overcomes the effects of the hammering they take on other nights.

But there's another, subtle element here: why did he play that last hand against me? I've been the very personification of nit, a veritable rock, mucking some 50 or 60 hands in a row. I raised; bet when an ace flopped and pushed on every street. How stupid can someone be?

Back to the PRE for insight: it turns out that when unlikely but wildly reinforcing things occur at irregular intervals the resulting cascade of dopamine creates a kind of mental fog that makes danger difficult to perceive. Big reinforcements like the first two suck-outs actually compromise thinking; obvious dangers tend not be appreciated.

Interesting, yes?

In passing, note that this analysis gives us additional insight into two topics we've discussed in the past, specifically the "I'm playing my rush" syndrome and the links between poker and economics.

The "rush" effect is due, at least in part, to the drop-off in thinking that follows a series of big wins. The unwise decision making that we've seen, to our collective pain, in the world of finance as well as at the poker tables is fueled in part by the erratic schedule with which reinforcements arrive in both domains.

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.

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