In Poker Winners Are Different, Alan Schoonmaker devotes an entire chapter to the concept of feedback loops in poker.
What are feedback loops, and how do they affect your poker strategy? How should they affect your strategy?
Here’s what I know about feedback loops in poker, with examples.
A feedback loop is when part of a system’s output gets fed back into the system as an input. It refers to behavior. In other words, it’s when a reaction to an input changes what happens next.
An easy-to-understand example of a feedback loop is the thermostat for a heating and air conditioning unit. Let’s say that it’s cold outside, and it’s gotten down to 65 degrees in your house. You set the heating unit’s thermostat to 70 degrees.
The unit blows hot air from the furnace into the house. When the temperature in the house reaches 70 degrees, the unit stops blowing hot air. When the temperature drops to 69 degrees, it starts blowing hot air again.
A person’s weight is also a feedback loop. If you are 10 pounds overweight, you might cut your caloric intake by 500 calories per day until your weight returns to where you’d like it to be.
If you return to your previous caloric intake, your weight might creep back up. But if you continue to monitor and reduce your caloric intake accordingly, you’ll maintain a healthy weight.
How Do Feedback Loops Work in Poker?
Winning poker players think differently and often use feedback loops to think more realistically about the game and their roles in it. They’re watching out for new data that can help them adjust their playing tendencies to make them more optimal, more likely to win money.
This can apply to their own quirks and tendencies. I, for example, know that when I’m in a bad mood, I’m liable to start putting more money into the pot than I should because I’m bored. Other players are liable to make different mistakes.
A good poker player watches for those mistakes both from himself and from the other players at the table and adjusts accordingly.
Here’s an example: I tend to play too loose a lot of the time. I’m optimistic by nature. I generally hope that my hand will win, and if it doesn’t, I hope that my opponents will fold in the face of my aggression. I often think my opponents play worse than I do. And I sometimes think I play better than I actually do play.
My friend Wes, though, is a pessimist by nature. He folds too often. He almost always assumes that his opponent has a better hand, even when that’s unlikely. He’s also unwilling to bluff because he assumes he’s going to get called more often than he actually will.
What Kinds of Feedback Do You Get at the Poker Table?
How you respond to the different kinds of feedback you’re getting at the poker table affects your game. Most players who are winning become more optimistic and loosen up. They start playing more hands and taking those hands further than they should.
Most players who are losing become more pessimistic and tighten up. They start playing fewer hands and fold earlier and more often than they normally would.
Both tendencies are less than optimal. Which is better?
Generally, though, it’s better to be a little bit optimistic than it is to be a little pessimistic. A loose aggressive player is mathematically more likely to win at poker than a tight passive player.
You face a problem when you get too optimistic and start playing too loosely and too aggressively.
Your Ultimate Goal Is Realism
To become more realistic at the poker table, you should be paying close attention to every hand, how you play it, and how your opponents play it. You want to avoid making mistakes by being too optimistic or too pessimistic.
Most importantly, you want to adjust when situations at the table change. Your strategy shouldn’t stay the same throughout the game; it should be changing constantly in small ways to take advantage of the extra information you’ve gained and the insights that information has sparked within you.
These tendencies to become more and less optimistic apply to your opponents as well. If you have an opponent who is becoming looser and more aggressive because he’s been winning, you should adjust the hand ranges you have him on accordingly.
You should also notice who’s been losing and has tightened up as a result. You might be more likely to bluff such an opponent heads up, and you might also be more cautious when such an opponent bets or raises.
Poker is always a game of incomplete information. It’s not like chess where you know everything about the game conditions. This makes being realistic and paying attention when playing poker even more important.
Feedback Loops and Reading Opponents’ Hands
One of the skills you should develop is putting your opponents on hands, but you should be careful with this. If you never think about what kinds of cards your opponents might have, you’ll always be a bad player and will only win in the weakest of games.
This is true even if you have good starting hand requirements and play ABC poker, betting and raising with strong hands.
This is called putting your opponent on a range of hands. It also implies assigning a probability to each of the hands your opponent might have.
The important thing is to be willing to change your read of your opponent’s hand based on new information. You don’t have to put your opponent on a hand and play through every round of betting as if they had that hand. You can (and should) always take new information into account as the hand plays out.
Feedback Loops and Reading Your Opponents’ Playing Styles
It’s important that you also look for clues regarding your opponents’ playing styles. This can go a long way toward improving the accuracy of your reads of your opponents’ hands. This is another example of a feedback loop.
Most good poker players assess another player’s style right away. But if they’re good, they also take into account what they see that player do later.
You might sit down with a player who bets and raises five hands in a row. You might assume—rightfully—that such a player is loose and aggressive.
But if that player tightens up and folds the next 20 hands in a row, you need to reevaluate. Some players change speeds on purpose to throw their opponents off. If you’re not paying attention, you’re unable to adjust accordingly.
How can you evaluate another player’s playing style immediately?
On the other hand, if his shirt is wrinkled and sloppy, and his chips are piled up in different-sized stacks, he’s probably loose and aggressive.
But don’t just assume that your read based on that is correct. Pay attention to how they play. Some players purposefully dress and act a certain way to create a false impression.
Minneapolis Jim Meehan was notorious for keeping his chips stacked unevenly and didn’t even stack them all according to their denomination. It drove his opponents nuts.
Your opponents aren’t robots. They’re humans. And they’re going to change their behaviors based on their moods.
It’s your job to pay attention to those moods and adjust your playing accordingly, just like if you were a heater with a sensitive thermostat.
The Most Important Feedback Loop
The most important feedback loop is the one based on your own behavior and tendencies. It’s hard to be objective. But the harder you try, the closer you’ll get to achieving the goal of being objective.
Since it’s so hard, you’ll want to measure things as objectively as you can. Otherwise, you’ll fall into the usual biases where you ignore evidence that conflicts with what you believe.
You probably know poker players who aren’t sure how they’re doing, but if you ask them, they’ll tell you they’re “breaking even.”
They’re almost certainly not breaking even. They’re most likely losing and engaging in some self- deception. Don’t be like those poker players.
Our Final Thoughts on Feedback Loops in Poker
If you want to be a good poker player, you should be paying constant attention to feedback loops. Pay attention to your own tendencies and to your opponents’ tendencies and keep adjusting your play accordingly.
Your goal is to get as close to a mathematically perfect game as possible. You’ll never achieve perfection, but just striving for it will improve your results.