Friday, September 17, 2010


Several years ago I saw a documentary about Clive Wearing. He was a successful, respected choral conductor, but he contracted a viral encephalitis that damaged his brain in such a way that he became amnestic, unable to form new memories. He has been institutionalized ever since. His odd, terribly sad condition has been the subject of books and documentaries (see the list at the end of that Wikipedia entry), and you really should try to find one of them to learn about him. It will give you a deep sense of appreciation for the role that memory plays in our lives, even though we're usually unaware of it.

For me the saddest, most shocking part of the show was seeing his journals. Wearing experiences "waking up" as if from a coma many, many times a day. He fills not just pages but whole notebooks with scribbled notations that he is finally awake, then a few minutes later that gets crossed out, and another more emphatic notation replaces it, "No, NOW I am really awake." It goes on endlessly.

When I think back on seeing that program, it reminds me of my progression in poker. Early on, I remember thinking what an easy game it was. I would have endorsed Norm MacDonald's quip that no-limit hold'em takes a minute to learn and five minutes to master.

But I have a series of points at which I looked back at how I used to play, how I used to think about the game, and conclude, "Boy, I was really clueless. Good thing I've got it figured out now." Of course, each of those successive points of smug self-confidence later gets replaced with the acknowledgement that, OK, then I didn't really know what I was doing, but now I do. Repeat ad infinitum.

I should fill my own notebooks with such scribbled messages, revealing my own insight and self-awareness, but simultaneously my perverse lack of the same.

I was reminded of all of this by reading an utterly compelling, fascinating, can't-stop-reading-it series of five long blog posts by documentary filmmater Errol Morris, starting here. (I was pointed there by a Twitter message earlier today from Iggy, to whom many thanks.) It's about our lack of self-awareness, or, I suppose more accurately, our inability to detect our own areas of weakness and ignorance. It ranges through history, philosophy, neurology, and psychology. It takes you down the rabbit hole of your consciousness, though, by definition, you can never really be aware of the depth of your own self-deception.

Just like everybody thinks they're a much better driver than those with whom they share the road, nearly all poker players think that they're better than their opponents. I do, too. Am I objectively correct? It's hard to say. All the time I see players whose self-assessment is wildly out of whack with their actual ability. They are operating at a rudimentary level of understanding of poker, but think they've got it all figured out. This doesn't require mind-reading; they'll tell you they've got it nailed down firmly, just before they spew off their chips on a series of horrendously, obviously misguided calls and transparent bluffs. Then they will calmly (or maybe not so much) explain to their opponent exactly what he did wrong.

I wrote about this syndrome three years ago, here. At the end of that post, I link to a Bluff magazine column that Annie Duke wrote. That link doesn't work now, but I found the piece here. I love the story she tells about being a complete novice in poker, with a knowledge of the game so shallow that all she had to work from was a napkin on which her brother, Howard Lederer, had written a list of the starting hands she should play, while folding everything else. When somebody beat her by playing a hand not on the list, she criticized him for not knowing how to play right! (Of course, she had The List, and he didn't, so how could he know?)

Naturally, you shouldn't pay much attention to what I wrote three years ago, because back then, as I can clearly see now in retrospect, I really didn't know what I was doing. Now, however....


Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Great post, and a terrific series by Morris (one of my all-time fave filmmakers... and thinkers, for that matter).

I actually had that same series recommended to me back in the summer by someone who read a post of mine titled "Competence and Poker" ~~>

Steve said...

I used to work at a California public mental hospital, and one of the things that struck me most about the patients' minute-by-minute behavior was their utter lack of self-awareness. They could be mindbogglingly abusive, destructive, hurt themselves, defecate all over themselves... and never realize for a moment that anything they did was ever wrong or misguided. What's even worse is that some of them had quite interesting and alluring pasts... one of the individuals in my ward was an Air Force pilot in the 1991 Gulf War. Spooky.