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Can You Trust Your Poker Memory? Probably Not

Memory makes us human. 

No other creature can, with the flick of a neuron, revive the past, reignite old passions, reconvene special moments and treat these ephemeral visions as though they were real and palpable - not fleeting phantasms or illusions.

Without a past, there could be no present.

For the poker-playing members of our species our memories are precious weapons. We recall the patterns of actions of particular opponents.

We remember the bozo in the Hawaiian shirt who dangerously overplayed his hands, the grizzled old codger who turned out to be a bit trickier than we first thought.

And, of course, we need these "remembrances of things past." Our bankrolls depend on our memorial abilities. If we don't use them we'll lay down the best hand against the bozo, get trapped by the old codger and dump (perhaps willingly) our entire stack into the lap of Sweetums.

But, take care.

Poker Memory Isn't What You Think It Is

Memory is not a recording tape; it isn't a video system. We don't just pick up information from the world about us and record it for playback.

poker memory
He was a short man with green hair, wearing pants on his arms if I remember correctly.

Memory is very complicated and, so, here comes another of "the professor's" short lectures - poker lessons included. First:

  • We don't remember things we didn't pay attention to

In a fascinating study, while people were analyzing the video replay of a basketball game a woman twirling an umbrella walked across the screen.

More than half the viewers never noticed her. Of those who did, many couldn't recall an umbrella. But if they were warned that something unusual might happen, they saw her and the umbrella.

Poker Moral: Watch what is happening around you at the table. Try not to get too absorbed in one part of the game because you will miss other information that may turn out to be important later.

This is particularly true when playing poker online where it's easy to get distracted and not notice who actually put in the first raise. It's an especially important factor when playing multiple tables.

Don't Trust Your Hand Recall


  • We don't remember things with anything approaching accuracy

In fact, human memory is quite dreadful. We think that we know what we saw; we believe in our recollections. But the data show otherwise.

Studies of eyewitnesses to crimes are revealing and upsetting. People's memories for the actions observed, the clothing, age, race and even sex of the offender are often wrong.

What witnesses report are not things that actually happened but things that were important to them at the time. For example, if an intruder was armed, they will recall that. But not the color of his jacket.

Poker Moral: Don't trust your recall of particular hands. In fact, if you don't believe me, try this. Write down all the details of a recent hand you played.

No "baby" hands please ("I raised with AA; he called with KK"). Pick a hand that had some play to it, with a raise or two and more than one caller. Try to lay it all out with enough detail so that someone else would know what happened.

See what I mean? Not easy, was it? Perhaps now you understand why you online mavens keep clicking on the "last hand" button. I know I do, if only to assure myself that I really processed what was happening.

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poker memory times
I was surrounded by crocodiles ... I can't remember a thing!

Emotions Can Lead You Astray


  • Emotions will affect your recall

Sometimes they are helpful; others not so. An event that is poignant and significant tends to be recalled accurately.

I once lost a huge three-way pot (well, huge for the level I play, a tad over $5,000) when my red aces (against KK and the black aces) got levelled by runner-runner clubs.

I recall the setting, the table, the other players; I still see the cards with a crystalline vision (although, admittedly, the size of the pot may have grown with the telling ... I can't recall ...).

On the other hand, emotions can also lead you astray. In those studies of eyewitnesses the more frightening the setting, the less accurate the memory.

Actually, some of this effect is due not to a disrupted memory but to an inaccurate or inappropriate interpretation of what happened.

If you were frightened, angry or upset you're likely to mischaracterize what transpired so it fits with your emotional state. Intruders become bigger and fiercer; attack dogs grow more teeth.

Poker Moral: Don't misinterpret your opponents because you're upset. There is an understandable tendency to think that someone who sucked out on you is a terrible player.

He may be. He may not be. But don't let the memory of that hand control how you interpret his actions in the future.

Related Reading:

Memories Are Fleeting


  • Memories are fleeting and what remains in our mind's eye is often a distant depiction of the truth

We recall the convenient; we twist events of the past to suit the present and misrepresent history to smooth the future.

Poker Moral: Don't trust your memory of how much you won/lost in any session more than few hours old. Don't believe the tales you tell yourself about how you played a hand, toyed with a table of tough Vegas regulars or dealt with a losing streak of epic proportions.

Don't always believe your personal myths of mucked monsters, called bluffs, escaped traps. Some of the tales you tell yourself may be right but, probably not. An awful lot of people can't recall whether they saw the movie or read the book ... or just heard the plot described by someone else.

Final Poker Moral: Be as honest as you can be with yourself. Keep records. Work on that Zen-like calm that will enable you to step beyond the many failures of our memory systems.

How Your Poker Game Changes As You Age

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.

poker memory
On the bright side, you'll be done in time for the early-bird dinner!

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

Earlier 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.

For the geriatric set? There are some things we can do.

Play Short Sessions

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.

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poker hand recall
Old but fast.

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.

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.

Online Poker is a Young Player's Game

online poker age
Young man's game.

It's pretty clear why onlinet 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.

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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 DigestCasino PlayerStrictly 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 semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

More strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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2009-01-31 08:16:00

a lot of people are going to give out to your for generalising about older players but in reality you are right.

once people pass a certain age your skill in any trade depreciates. that’s just a fact of life. we’d all like to think it’s not, but it just is. you can’t do anything about it.

some people manage better than others. not just in poker but in all walks of life, some people who were good at their trade in their 30’s are still good in the 70’s… whilst some people who were excellent at their trade in their 30’s are terrible in the late 40’s….

we all develop and then “un-develop” (i can’t think of a better word) at different rates.

but the underlying fact is we all reach a peak at certain times and then fade away.

it’s a credit to guys like Doyle and Johnny Moss (in the 70’s) and a lot of others that they are still able to compete at poker well beyond the age most people have retired.

I’d also like to say if i had a choice between a 50% Doyle Brunson and a 100% me…. i certainly wouldn’t be on my side….

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