The Pitfalls of Poker Writing

The keyboard is mightier than the sword.
The keyboard is mightier than the sword.

This site has quite a few poker writers and they produce some remarkably good stuff (I will humbly exclude myself from this assessment).

They, along with scores of others, have produced a remarkable literature on the game.

In the last year or two I've detected an interesting shift in the focus and orientation of a lot of poker writing. It's been gradual but it's real.

Look back say, 10 or 15 years - scan the articles and books on poker from that era. You'll see that the vast majority of them were focused entirely on strategy, stimulated largely by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, who changed the game with their insightful articles and books, and Doyle Brunson and his collaborators who wrote the classic Super/System.

By laying out the fundamentals of a solid, mathematically coherent and strategically sensible game, they changed, well, virtually everything.

Scores of books and articles followed and we are now faced with a tsunami of material from every imaginable quarter: books, DVDs, slick four-color magazines, instructional software, blogs, newspapers, TV shows, Web broadcasts, discussion groups, open forums and Web sites.

This hasn't stopped these outlets from continuing to present material on strategy, new charts of optimal starting hands or flow charts outlining the EV of every possible holding from every possible position in every possible kind of game at every level of stakes.

Writers gotta earn a living, right? Besides, just because a lot of information is theoretically available doesn't mean that everyone knows where to get it - which is one reason why this Web site is one of the best for disseminating such information.

But what struck me about much of the recent material is how many of my fellow wordsmiths have begun the search for new ground and it has taken them into psychology, into lifestyle analyses, discussions of quality-of-life issues, pop psychology efforts at managing stress, dealing with the emotional swings of the game and beyond.

Bertrand Grospellier
We always took you seriously.

I love this. But I have problems with it. I love it because it means that many writers and players are taking my field seriously, finally!

The problems come from a lack of knowledge - which, of course, is perfectly understandable.

So, following are some things poker writers (and, of course, players) need to know about the psychological processes of the members of our species, the folks who, at least in most cases, are sitting at the table with you:


Our memories actually suck. I know, most of you don't believe that. It's a common myth that human memory is like a tape recorder, picking up information and storing it, ready for "playback."

This misunderstanding comes largely from movies and TV shows that use hypnosis or drugs to get someone to "relive" an event and report things that they cannot consciously recall.

These are totally bogus; they don't work. Human memory is poor at recording and storing information. It is tainted by hopes and desires, affected by emotional and physical states, dependent on what you were paying attention to in the first place. And, of course, it fades dramatically with time.

It is also contaminated by the telling and retelling of stories. The more often tales of brilliantly played hands, stunningly insightful reads of an opponent, sessions of world-class play are told, the more they grow, the more they take on mythic stature and the further they drift from reality.

In short, when depending on the memories of those you are interviewing, make sure you keep the main switch on your BS detector in the "on" position. Not because they are lying to you - just because they are human.


Emotions are, evolutionarily speaking, far older than thoughts. As a result they are rather primitive and we react dramatically and unthinkingly in primal settings like ones that hint at danger, attraction or, yes, boredom.

There is a tendency among those who write about the world of poker to discount these emotional states. They are not alone here. Legions of writers and thinkers in many domains have made this mistake, and it often leads to misrepresentation and misinterpretation.

Phil Hellmuth
Known to be emotional.

The most poignant example: economists who assumed that we were rational creatures who made decisions based on self-interest and personal gain, forgetting, to their dismay and our collective pain, that while people may have logical, rational reasons for some of their decisions, these are intimately interlaced with fear, greed, desire, hope and resignation and when these kick in rationality often exits stage right.

Poker is played by people. People are typically not rational. It behooves those of us who write about the game and its participants to understand these nonrational elements and recognize that a lot of what transpires at the tables and in postgame analyses is tainted by these affective states.


Just as we are burdened with fragile memories and saddled with emotions, so we are often lacking in self-awareness. Few of us are as talented as we believe we are, as successful as we would like to assume we are, as reliable and trustworthy as we tell ourselves (and others) we are. It would be good not to forget this when reporting about events.


If we have lousy memories, are overly emotional and lack self-awareness, you can be fairly certain that we will not like this and not like to be reminded of it. Hence, we will develop a false front, one based on self-righteousness.

That's actually OK, since it is to our benefit, in poker and the rest of life, to be a bit less accurate about who we are. Sometimes the truth hurts a bit too much.

Bottom Line Here

Take care when writing about the game and the people who play it. Most smart, well-intentioned authors make assumptions about what it's like to be us. They start out believing that we have good memories, we don't; that we are rational, we often aren't; that we are aware of who we are and what motivates us, we're usually not.

It'll make for more accurate and insightful writing about the game and its players.

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:

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