How Understanding Survivorship Bias Helps You in Poker

by Michael Stevens
on June 30, 2019
10

Minute Read

Poker features some of the world’s most famous professional gamblers. Poker pros make headlines for taking down huge tournaments and collecting multimillion-dollar prizes.

Given that these pros grab attention, it’s no surprise that amateurs focus on them. Any aspiring rounder wants to know the habits and strategies of the most successful grinders.

But the problem with fixating on the best players is that you only get one side of the story. This phenomenon is referred to as “survivorship bias,” or the tendency to concentrate on the best in any given field.

Survivorship bias can hurt your efforts of becoming a stronger poker player. That said, I’m going to discuss more about this concept and why you should avoid falling prey to it.

What Is Survivorship Bias?

It only seems logical to focus on the winners in life. A teenager who dreams of being an NBA star doesn’t want to study first-round draft busts. They instead want to hear about LeBron James’ training methods and what he does to prepare for games.

Likewise, somebody who hopes to become a rich online entrepreneur doesn’t want to learn about why dot-com businesses failed. They want to know what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos did to become the world’s richest person.

But this tendency to only focus on the most successful people or things is the very definition of survivorship bias.

This cognitive bias leaves out anything that can be learned from failures.

You’ll obviously pick up knowledge by dissecting the biggest successes. However, only looking at the survivors causes you to miss out on other important information.

LeBron James is a very disciplined athlete who works hard and takes great care of his body. However, LeBron is also one of the most physically gifted basketball players ever.

Only considering what the LA Lakers star forward does leaves out a number of less-talented players. These same players may have great training methods and tips of their own that can help an aspiring pro.

Common Examples of Survivorship Bias in Life

The point of this post is to cover how survivorship bias negatively impacts your poker game. However, it’s worth going over common examples from everyday life to further the concept.

You’ve probably heard somebody say, “They don’t make things like they used to.” This generic phrase is a way of expressing that older goods and equipment are somehow built better than today’s products.

Those who utter this cliché may have an example of a great car or household gadget that was built to last. However, what they fail to account for is all the other models from the same era that aren’t still around.

It’s difficult to say if products from the 1950s and ‘60s were better built than those today without analyzing both survivors and scraps. The same will be true 50-60 years from now when certain goods and equipment from today have survived.

Another example can be seen when examining those in highly competitive careers, such as actors, athletes, or musicians. You normally only hear stories about the top singers, athletes, and movie stars.

It’s often believed that their life experiences must be the key to their success. But what’s not accounted for is the stories of countless people who didn’t make it to the top.

A great historical example of survivorship bias involves statistician Abraham Wald. He was asked to consult on the US Navy’s efforts to protect World War II bombers from enemy fire.

Navy Planes World War 2  Abraham Wald Historical Example

The Center for Naval Analyses had already conducted their own research. They determined that armor should be added to the areas of planes that were hit the most.

However, Wald noted that researchers were only considering the bombers that survived their missions. He instead suggested that the Navy reinforce the spots that were unscathed.

Wald accurately predicted that these areas, when hit, caused the bombers to go down. His research saved many American lives during World War II.

What Is the Benefit to Understanding Survivorship Bias?

The biggest problem with survivorship bias is that it’s a roadblock to making the best decisions. It blinds you to certain data that could be key to the top choice in a given situation.

Focusing on the survivors only allows you to learn from the best people or things. However, there’s often value to be gained by studying the losers, too.

Looking at a five-time Grammy winner can help an aspiring singer, but it’s also good to consider singers who had talent yet flamed out due to one or more mistakes.

Recalling the story of Wald, he didn’t just consider how to protect bombers that returned successfully. He instead thought about bombers that were shot down and where they may have been hit.

Making a decision isn’t just about considering the elite and survivors. It should instead take into account all types of participants — successful or not.

How Does This Concept Apply to Poker?

Nobody aims to be a low-level poker pro who sits in their local casino grinding out $20 an hour. Instead, everybody wants to become Dan “Jungleman” Cates, Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, or Phil Hellmuth.

These are the players who’ve won millions over their careers and have landed lucrative sponsorship deals. Even when they’re in the midst of a downswing, they at least command headlines due to their fame.

Many articles have been written on these players’ paths to success.

For Example

Cates busted his bankroll several times and worked at McDonald’s as a result.

But he was able to turn things around by using “reverse game selection,” which involves seeking out the toughest opponents (instead of the softest) at certain stakes. Does this mean that everybody else is going to become more successful with reverse game selection?

No, it’s just one example of how one player became great. Trying to improve by playing stronger opponents isn’t for everybody.

Luck is another factor that people don’t always take into account when looking at famous poker pros. While poker involves a great deal of skill, it also includes many elements of chance.

Somebody who becomes a great long-term poker player needs hard work and dedication to reach this pinnacle. However, they’ve also benefited from a lucky break here or there.

Negreanu busted his bankroll the first time he moved to Las Vegas and had to rebuild it in his hometown of Toronto before taking another shot at Vegas.

What if things didn’t go so well for him the second time around? We probably wouldn’t know who Negreanu is today in that case.

Chris Moneymaker is often credited with being the spark that ignited the poker boom (2003-06). This former accountant won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event along with $2.5 million.

Moneymaker’s legend began when he won a $10k Main Event seat through a $40 online satellite. But what if he never made it through this low-limit satellite?

How Understanding Survivorship Bias Helps You in Poker

The main thing to understand about survivorship bias as it relates to poker is that the winners don’t always have all the answers. Sure, you can learn plenty about strategy by fixating on how the richest and most visible grinders play.

But you also have to consider that some of their success is due to chance. Other skilled players who haven’t caught as many lucky breaks still have a lot of wisdom to give.

Some of the most skilled players have never taken down a multimillion-dollar tournament prize.

However, they consistently play their A- or B-game and produce a long-term win rate.

You can also learn plenty by looking at pros who were successful for a while before blowing it all. Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, who was one of the most famous players during the boom, lost his momentum due to a drug problem.

Many other once-winning players have simply blown their bankroll taking shots at high limits and/or make risky financial decisions. These players serve as lessons for how not to manage money if you become a pro.

Nobody fixates on how Matusow used too much cocaine or how Erick Lindgren blew his money on sports betting. But their stories should be heard too because they serve as important warnings.

The Path to Poker Success Hasn’t Changed

Avoiding the temptation to fall for survivorship bias is a good step towards becoming a skilled poker player. But it’s far from the only aspect to winning profits.

Being successful at poker is a long grind that involves taking the right steps. Here are the main things you need to focus on to improve.

Come Up With a Poker Bankroll Management Plan

Bankroll management should be the first priority. Poker’s luck element ensures that not everything is in your control. Therefore, it’s important to have a good bankroll plan so that you can weather eventual downswings.

Bankroll management differs based on if you’re primarily focused on tournaments or cash games. You need lots of buy-ins as a tourney player because only the top 10-15% of the field earns money.

Here’s an example of tournament bankroll management:

  • Your bankroll is $3,000
  • You want around 85 buy-ins
  • 3,000 / 85 = 35.29
  • Playing tourneys with a buy-in of $35.29 or less gives you 85+ units

Cash games don’t involve as much variance as tournaments because you have more control over short-term winnings. Nevertheless, you still need enough buy-ins to overcome losing streaks.

It’s recommended by many successful players that you have 20-30 buy-ins for your chosen no-limit stakes. Here’s an example:

  • You have $2,500
  • You want 25 full buy-ins
  • 2,500 / 25 buy-ins = 100
  • You can play cash stakes with a buy-in of $100
  • $100/100 big blinds = $1 big blind
  • You should play $0.50/$1 no-limit stakes

While bankroll management doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never lose everything, it at least buys you time while you’re learning strategy and improving. The hope is that you eventually become successful enough to move above your current stakes.

Learn Poker Game Selection

It’s often said that poker success is about the people you play with. Having the ability to expertly choose games allows you to play with less-skilled opponents and win more consistently.

The easiest way to pick a soft game is by playing with friends whom you know are bad. Of course, doing so won’t yield big profits if they only play small stakes.

The competition in land-based poker rooms is usually tougher than playing with buddies. However, you can still look for soft games by observing tables.

Watch to see who’s either playing overly tight or aggressive.

Note if there are any opportunities to punish limpers. Look for other weaknesses in players or entire table dynamics that you can exploit.

Online poker gives you more reliable tools for finding fishy games. The lobby features stats on flop-viewed percentages and average pot sizes for cash games.

A high flop-viewed percentage indicates that there are amateurs who are seeing too many flops. Big pot sizes mean that players are betting big on future streets. A table that features high numbers with both of these stats is likely soft.

Improve Your Poker Skills Through Good Resources

Defining your bankroll, choosing appropriate stakes, and finding fish are the building blocks of being good at poker. However, you’re not going to win long-term profits until you have the skills to take advantage of weaker players.

Poker strategy isn’t hard to find. You can use multiple resources for bettering your game, including the following.

Twitch

Twitch is an online streaming platform that has become very popular among poker players within the past few years. Many pros now stream their sessions via Twitch.

The obvious benefit of viewing their streams is that you can see how a pro makes decisions. Looking over their shoulder while they’re playing is almost like having a free coach.

Speaking of which, most Twitch streams are free to watch. But streams may require a subscription fee for certain content. You can get enough free content, though, to where you shouldn’t have to pay for anything.

Training Videos

Poker training videos are much like Twitch in that they allow you to see how experienced pros play. But there are two key differences:

  • You have to pay a subscription fee for access to these sites
  • You can learn more specific concepts

Regarding the first point, you normally pay $30 per month to get access to the available videos. This fee isn’t terrible when considering all of the valuable knowledge you can learn.

The second point means that you can find videos on specific strategy concepts, such as defending blinds or raising out of position. Compare this to Twitch, where you don’t know what the pro is going to cover as they play.

Poker Books

Books were once the main way to learn poker strategy. Now they have more competition, but poker books are still excellent ways to improve your game.

The main benefit of a book is that it allows you to get deeper into a pro’s mindset. They can pour their knowledge into the many pages.

Many pros release ebooks these days. You can also find paperback books, though, on Amazon and in brick-and-mortar stores.

Poker Forums

Forums are in many ways responsible for the poker strategy revolution that occurred in the early and mid-2000s. A forum allows players to exchange thoughts and ideas on how to play certain situations.

What’s nice is that poker forums aren’t like training videos, where the info disappears as soon as you stop paying a subscription fee. You also don’t need to store all of the knowledge from a forum, like you would a book.

Instead, lots of strategy info is backlogged across many threads. All you need to do is visit a site like TwoPlusTwo and use their search tools to start learning.

Engage in Post-Session Analysis

Sometimes the best way to improve isn’t by learning from another player. It instead lies within examining your own play to find leaks.

The best time to review your play is immediately after a session. Post-session analysis helps you sort out tough situations that you encountered and think about how to work through them.

Many online poker sites offer hand histories to help with your post-session analysis. These histories show detailed logs of how your hands played out.

You can also simply think through difficult poker situations. Replaying hands in your head allows you to consider how to handle them better in the future.

Analyzing your sessions makes it easier to recognize patterns at certain stakes. Spending enough time in this area can eventually make playing tough spots feel like second nature.

Conclusion

Survivorship bias is always going to exist. Even fully understanding this concept doesn’t exempt you from falling for it from time to time.

However, you don’t want to cloud your poker judgement by being overly biased towards survivors. Doing so prevents you from using other useful information that comes from examining less-heralded players.

Some pros may not be in the limelight but could be excellent teachers who are able to convey their thoughts through books, training videos, and/or Twitch streams.

You may want to spend time searching for the best pros in terms of teaching the game. Somebody who falls for survivorship bias, on the other hand, will only consider advice from the richest and most famous players.

Looking directly at the losers can also pay dividends. Certain pros may not have always been losers, but they eventually went bust due to various mistakes. They serve as cautionary tales for bankroll management, drug abuse, or other problems.

The main takeaway here is that winners don’t possess all of the wisdom. They’re merely part of a greater puzzle to becoming a good poker player.

Be open to looking at strategy from less-famous pros who may not have caught as many lucky breaks. Also be willing to study those who’ve gone bust so that you’re not doomed to repeat their mistakes.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016.

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