Poker and the science of intuition

Can spotting bluffs provide insight into human intuition?

(As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia journal)


poker bluffing


Can you tell when someone is lying to you? Scientific studies say that most people are virtually blind to falsehoods: in using their reasoning, the average person scores only marginally better than pure guesswork (2014 University of California Study). But recent studies suggest that listening to our gut feelings can help us to do better.

Do you sometimes know something without knowing how you know? Of course you do: we call this gut feeling or intuition.

As a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and an advocate for the use of reason in public debate, I’m not entirely comfortably with this “woo woo” about trusting gut feelings.

But, my experience in playing poker in casino card rooms – the popular Texas No Limit Hold Em’ version poker – has drawn me to the subject because, in this arena, gut feelings and instincts are routinely discussed.

Poker players are superstitious, moving from one seat at the table to another, placing trinkets or lucky charms on the table, wearing a lucky shirt, and referring to the vagaries of “luck” relentlessly. In a casino or cardroom, life seems aleatory: gambling’s attraction and buzz is the momentary surrender to the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune.

Whereas some card players place inordinate value on feeling lucky, other, more successful players, place a high value on being able to read their opponents, and appear to be able to “sense” strength and weakness, and optimise their play accordingly. I’ve seen one or two players who are amazingly adept at flushing out their opponents: staring across the table and somehow being able to deduce almost exactly the cards their opponent holds. “I knew he had nothing”, they say, calling off a big bluff. Are they using intuition, or rationally assessing the available evidence?

Based on my own experience, it’s a bit of both. Observing the basics of solid poker strategy, many of my decisions are based on game flow, reads and visual “tells”. A “tell” is when you detect something in the body language or behaviour of a player which influences your decision.

For example, beginners in live poker will often give themselves away when holding a winning hand by making gestures suggesting disappointment. Shaking their head or making an audible “tsk tsk” sound, or, metamorphosing into “Sad-Face”: a person apparently weighed down by deep melancholy. While reluctantly putting all of their money in the middle, such players will make comments such as “It’s only money,” and “Well, I came here to gamble”, as if to suggest that they do not in fact hold the “nuts” (best possible hand), when of course they do.

While such tells are obvious to experienced players, there have been many other times when I’ve observed a person’s behaviour and felt a strong impulse as to whether their hand is weak or strong, without consciously knowing why. Thus, the question becomes whether or not to act on this feeling.


Most famous bluff of all time?

Most famous bluff of all time?


Some Examples

A couple of years ago I was playing a hand against an inexperienced opponent. He had just sat down at the table, along with one of his buddies, and soon he and I were in a hand.

In Texas No Limit Hold’em players are dealt two cards and then make the best poker hand possible from the five cards placed face up on the table. First, three cards are dealt – the flop. Then one more card – The turn, and finally the last card – the River. There are 4 betting rounds, the deal, the flop, the turn and the river.

In the hand concerned, when the river card was dealt, I held only a medium strength hand. My cards were a queen and a jack, so I held 2nd pair on a board of KJ358, and my opponent went all in for his remaining $150.00. Normally this situation is a clear fold. But, before acting, I took note of my opponent. Something seemed off. He glanced briefly towards his friend after betting, and then adopted an odd little smile: an unusual, smug expression, one that you rarely see, and commensurate with the feeling that he was enjoying seeing me squirm. Feeling puzzled by this expression, I reasoned that it could mean either strength or weakness. Nonetheless, I retained a feeling he was bluffing.

After a few more moments, I decided to call.

“Ah, you’ve got me”, he says and mucks his hand.

A few weeks later, and I’m near the lead in the local $50k tournament. If only two more people are knocked out, I’ll be one of the final twenty players, and will partake in the money. Sitting to my right is last year’s tournament winner – a flashy, aggressive player who I’ve suspected of making bluffs earlier on. It’s worth noting that big bluffs are actually the exception, rather than the rule, in poker. The more common mistake is to make bad calls, justified by rationalising that the opponent is bluffing. The suspiciousness of poker players, combined with the natural desire to win, makes them fall prey to making bad calls as opposed to good folds.

Soon I’m in a hand with this foe, and again I have second pair on the river: my hand is K7, on a board of K498A. On the fall of the Ace on the river, he dramatically announces “All in!”

If I call and win I will be the tournament chip leader – if I call and lose I’m out. Feeling sick, I pause to consider my position. “All in!” calls the dealer, and as a break is called, players from the surrounding tables gather around. Adding to the pressure, there’s now about a hundred people watching me grapple with this dilemma.

My instinct here is to fold. Looking over at my opponent he leans back on his chair and a little smile appears on his face. (Again, the little smile!) He acknowledges a friend who’s watching.

I begin to get the feeling that he’s bluffing. Further, I picture folding and seeing him show his cards as a bluff. (If I fold he does not have to show his cards). It’s an obvious spot to bluff, since an ace is an over card to the board, and it’s not very likely that I hold an ace. Eventually I rationalise my competing instincts by reasoning that since my opponent is an advanced player, it’s more likely that he’s trying to induce a call rather than a fold.

Finally, I fold, and he turns over the bluff – 72 of diamonds – and everyone gasps. He says, “No offense intended, you know it’s all part of the game”. To most poker players my decision is a difficult one: it could go either way, and largely comes down to your instincts – players often describe such spots as a “soul read”.

Soon after, I read a very interesting book on poker tells, and discovered that the “little smile” is indeed a common tell indicating a big bluff. Since then, I’ve used this knowledge successfully on a number of occasions. Now, rather than a feeling, it’s become part of a checklist I go through when I suspect a bluff.

But it also demonstrates something about intuition. Evidently, prior to knowing the meaning of the “little smile”, my decision making was influenced by the feeling it induced. Body language is widely regarded as a tool that may provide information about a person’s mental state. And poker players are often sensitive and observant of their opponent’s demeanour. If it’s possible to unconsciously pick up patterns in body language, then it should be possible to harness the feelings they cause.

Does Science support this?

Psychology has taken an avid interest in intuition in recent years. Indeed, a quick review of recent studies shows numerous ways in which unconsciously processes drive decision making.

A 2016 University of New South Wales study, published in the journal of Psychological Science, showed how subliminal images designed to evoke an emotional response could influence preferences in a cognitive task. Participants were asked to perform a simple task of selecting which direction dots on a screen were generally moving. When they were shown positive subliminal images they performed better, and when shown negative images they performed worse, demonstrating that the subconscious does indeed affect decisions.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed how the unconscious mind influences decisions through “somatic markers”: feelings in the body caused by emotions. The Iowa Gambling Task involves participants choosing from four decks of cards on a monitor to win money. Two decks are weighted towards high risk and produce generally negative outcomes, while the other decks produce generally good results. Participants consciously pick up on which are the “good” decks after about 50 cards. Significantly however, after only ten trials, galvanic skin response showed signs of stress from hovering over the “bad” decks. Thus, pattern seeking apparently happens at the subconscious level, and people can sense the bad cards unconsciously.

Bargh and Morsella (2008) take a wider view, arguing from an evolutionary perspective, that subconscious action predates and often supervenes over conscious actions. Surfacing only in comparatively recent times, conscious awareness applies to well adapted and sophisticated species, such as humans. Recent psychology, in their view, erroneously focuses on “awareness” as the prime driver of intention, where, as Freud knew, instinct and intuition drove behaviour, long before conscious intentionality. Additionally, consciousness and unconsciousness are not so neatly divided: think of easy, automatic actions such as driving or brushing one’s teeth – our consciousness can fade in and out.

There’s been a recent explosion of interest in micro-expressions following the research of Paul Ekman, which led to the television series Lie To Me. Based on studies of pre-literate tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, there are seven universal facial expressions which include anger, sadness, happiness, fear, surprise, disgust and contempt. Lasting only a fraction of a second, micro-expressions consist of involuntary facial expressions, which are thus, very useful in trying to determine what a person who is trying to conceal their feelings. Note, the bluffer’s little smile is similar to the micro-expression for contempt.

Separating good intuitions from bad intuitions

Daniel Kahneman’s ground-breaking book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), showed how often humans elect to make snap judgements based on intuition (System 1), rather than carefully deliberating with the available evidence (System 2). Cognitive scientists believe thinking and memory occur on two levels – dual processing – the conscious, aware and deliberate, and the unconscious, automatic and implicit.

Thinking fast and slow

Our brains are capable in delivering quick heuristic judgements, or mental shortcuts, but these often result in poor outcomes. Kahneman identified several cognitive biases, influencing decision-making, applying to both modes of cognition. For instance, most people are loss-averse: biased towards averting a loss rather than risking a possible gain.

Drawing on the work of psychologist Paul Meehl, Kahneman describes various areas where the intuitions of “experts” are less reliable than basic algorithm’s. Meehl’s studies showed that clinical psychologists perform worse than a statistical algorithm in making long term clinical predictions.

Kahneman joined forces with one of his vocal critics, Gary Klein, whose research had found an apparently opposing conclusion: that expert intuition is reliable. Experienced firefighters seem to develop a sixth sense of when a roof is about to collapse, and can instinctively develop an optimal course of action based on a given scenario. They can do so without knowing how they know. Klein’s studies, documented in his book, Sources of Power, looked at how experienced experts developed skill in intuitive judgements.

Firefighters use associative memory and unconscious pattern recognition, to develop a tentative plan or hypothesis. Then, based on this intuition, they form a detailed plan using second level conscious reasoning. Intuition becomes a form of recognition, or simply memory, as described previously by the scholar of decision making Herbett Simon:

“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more than recognition”.

Together, Kahneman and Klein forged agreement on the conditions required to make gut feelings reliable. How is it that firefighters, physicians, chess players, and anaethesiologists, could all make good decisions where clinical psychologists, stock market analysts, log-term political forecasters, wine price predictors were outperformed by statistical algorithm’s?

They found intuitive skills could be developed by experience in regular, controlled environments. A regular environment must be distinguished from an irregular environment – where events are too unpredictable to be learned through pattern recognition. An environment allowing extended practise in learning the regularities of outcomes and experience is required. Kahnemen and Klein agree these environments are satisfied in games of skill such as Chess, Bridge and Poker. Which helps explain why intuitive decisions and feelings seem to work in Poker!

An inbuilt lie detector?

The 2014 University of California Study, authored by Dr Leanne ten Brinke, that found that humans are only marginally better at detecting lying (54%) using reason than guesswork, also found that “automatic associations” at the subconscious level were substantially better. Subjects were able to associate words such as “dishonest”, and “deceitful” with the liars, and words like “honest” and “valid” with the truth tellers.

“These results provide a new lens through which to examine social perception and suggest that – at least in terms of detection of lies – unconscious measures may provide additional insight into interpersonal accuracy,” said Dr ten Brinke.
A Final Hand

Playing deep-stacked – where I and other players at the table had amassed considerable chips, I got into a hand with a frisky player. By frisky, I mean that he was active, playing a weaker than average range of starting hands, and thus, making more bluffs. He already been caught out bluffing twice, but I’d also seen him “get paid off” when he made a good hand because other players simply don’t believe him.

I’m in first position, and I am dealt a strong starting hand of 10 spades, and 10 diamonds. I raise it to $30 and 3 players, including “frisky” call.

My hand:

10spades   10 diamonds

The flop is:

8 clubs 8 spades 9 clubs

8clubs 8spades 9clubs

For me, this is a good flop because my tens are an over pair to the board, and few hands beat me. Unless, one of my foes holds an 8, that is!

So I bet $65, 2 players fold, and my frisky opponent takes little time and raises to $135.00.

Now, this has become dangerous for me. We both have roughly $1000 in chips in front of us. My opponent has “position” giving him an advantage as he can act last in the hand.

I consider my options. I’m confident this player will be raising with bluffs and drawing type hands, such as 6 7 suited, as well as strong hands. If I re-raise he will call with all of his draws and fold all of his stone bluffs. So I decide to just call, with the intention of calling again on the turn and reassessing the river.

The turn:

3 clubs

3 clubs

A problem. Now there are three clubs on the board, so the flush draws have hit. So, if my opponent had say, 57 of clubs he just made a flush – a very strong hand.

I check. My opponent bets $155.00. I take little time in calling.

Now I am dreading the river card. It falls:

The Ace of spades.

ace spades

I check, and “frisky” instantly moves all in with a bet of $550.00. Disaster.

My first reaction is to fold. It’s just too big a bet and players in general are more likely to be holding a strong hand in this situation.

But something prevents me from folding. The frisky player is adopting a neutral expression.

I ask, “Have you got it mate?”

He gives me an “I dunno” look combined with a slight head shake. He challenges, “Call me and find out”.

Maybe I’m good, I think.

I would have to call $550.00 to win roughly $2000.00 if my hand is good. The odds point towards a call if I think I am good 25% of the time. However, on a bet this big most players, and I am no exception, hate to call and be wrong.

Thinking about the action, I decide that it’s unlikely he has a full house or trip 8’s. If he had an eight on the flop, I don’t think he would have raised: my experience is that the “bluffy” style of player will not usually try to scare away his opponent in this situation.

He really could have the flush though. And there are plenty of combinations of cards he could have been dealt that make this hand possible. 35 of clubs, 9 10 of clubs.

Thinking further, I don’t think he has the ace. I think it’s extremely unlikely he would make such a large bet with a medium strength hand like AJ, or AQ. He would bet $200.00 or even check back such a hand.

Therefore, his range of hands is polarised to either very strong or very weak.

By now I have taken about 5 minutes and people are fidgeting. I apologise for taking so long. My foe has been shifting about a bit in his seat.

I’m good, I think. But this is a huge call.

“I’m putting you on the flush”, he suddenly says.

I let this sink in.

“Your trying to say that you’ve got a full house?”, I ask.

I dunno, expression.

Well this decides it. I think it’s extremely unlikely he holds a full house, and if he’s telling me he thinks I have a flush, then it’s a sure bet he doesn’t have one. And that was the hand I was worried about.

I throw one chip in the middle to signify a call.

He shakes his head sheepishly, and turns over K spades 4 spades, for absolute nothing, no pair, no draw – a stone bluff.

I win.

I turn over my two 10’s and the other players at the table are visibly shocked. Mostly, they don’t think my play was good even though I won. “He could have had an ace!” whispers someone.

My opponent gave himself away with his comment about the flush. It’s rare something like that happens. I wonder if I would have made the same call without that comment.

But it’s certain that the strong feeling I developed assisted me in getting to that point and engaging my conscious decision making process in order to make the right decision. Or, maybe I was just lucky!

Proceed with caution

The science gives us good reason to think our intuition can enhance our decisions in certain specific areas. In situations where we are experts and have a great deal of experience in controlled environments, it seems our associative memory stores patterns and information which are helpful.

But how do we know when those circumstances exist? Kahneman also tells us that our System 1 intuitive thinking is going to lead us down a fallacious rabbit hole if circumstances are unfavourable.

And so, I write about the benefits of gut feelings with some reservation. Especially, given the inordinate credence given to New Age wisdom, much of which connects loosely to scientific research, but then moves tangentially to unjustified and wondrous conclusions. Add to this, the inordinate value most people seem to place on their own personal intuition, witnessed by statements such as “my gut never lies!”, and bookstores stacked with titles on finding our inner wisdom, our sixth sense, and developing personal power.

So, we need to watch out for the pitfalls of intuition. That’s where they help us rationalize choices we’re driven to make, not because our hunch is true, but because we want it to be true, because of a myriad of cognitive biases, and because we’re determined to deceive ourselves.

Evidently, we need more research into the role of intuition in decision making. And, even though the concept runs counter to most of my pre-existing beliefs, I’m forced to concede that the possibility of harnessing gut feelings presents some exciting possibilities.

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