Better Than Optimal

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By James Chin

Guest columnist James Chin is a professional poker player who has previously written about flow, having the courage to change, and the importance of self-awareness. In today’s post, he examines the often overlooked components of success. 


When people talk about success they often focus on the qualities of persistence and resilience. As Woody Allen would say, 90% of success is just showing up.

But to be successful at anything requires four personal qualities, not two: persistence, resilience, reality-testing, and adaptability. These roughly correspond to 4 components of the evolutionary process: repetition, survivability of failures, variation, and selection — which is to say, showing up isn’t the whole story.

It’s those last two qualities of reality-testing and adaptability that are necessary for finding the most robust strategies for success. Basically, don’t just work hard; also work smart.

So how do you work smart?  By continuing to test assumptions even — and especially — if you already have robust strategies, so that you recognize where the gaps in your knowledge are.

The Optimal is Not Enough

For poker, the four requirements for success translate into (1) going to work every day to put in the reps, (2) bankroll management, (3) creation of different strategies based on poker principles and theories, and (4) selection of the best of those strategies after testing.

Finding the most robust strategies and working smart have become increasingly important in poker, as an interesting divide has emerged between the playing styles of live and online poker players.  Although that divide has narrowed as live players have incorporated more strategies that were first shown to be robust online, a line remains.


Live poker will always be based more on reading your opponent, while online poker will always be based more on math. In a live game, you’re at a single table face-to-face with your opponents. You have a wealth of physical information and time to decipher it, whereas online, you could be playing upward of 24 tables at once and need to play a style that’s more standardized, can be implemented with less thought, and yet still wins over many iterations.

Thus, live play tends toward “exploitative” play, where you identify the leaks of your specific opponents and attempt to exploit them, while online play tends toward “optimal” play, where you try to play a better fundamental game than your opponents, based on math and game theory about what the optimal play would be if the same situation were simulated over and over again. Another way of putting it is that online play is less about exploiting your opponents’ weaknesses and more about making sure your own standard game isn’t exploitable.

What’s telling is that in online poker forums where people have asked for advice on what to do in specific hands, in the past few years, top players have gone from replying “It depends.” and asking for more context to a more dismissive response of “That’s a standard spot to [x].  LOL.”  That dismissiveness is shortsighted.

Knowing the optimal strategy for common situations is not enough to succeed long-term if everyone else also knows it and implements the same strategy.

Under Shifting Conditions


High frequency trading bots on Wall Street have grown less and less profitable because now everyone has them and, more crucially, has them doing more or less the same strategies.  That’s why it’s important to study the fundamentals of your field to the best of your ability: not only so that you know what the standard thing to do is in common situations but also so that you know what is considered an uncommon situation.

Life is similar to poker in that it’s not necessarily the case that the standard thing to do is better than what your gut is telling you to do. We don’t live in a vacuum in which the simplistic default can be the “optimal” play.

Be able to put things into context, and never being afraid of asking for more context. As we move into an era of big data and even more automation, it might be more important than ever to know where the limits are to our common understanding, what is considered non-standard fruit and therefore ripe for human intuition to feast on before everyone else (including the robots) arrives.

To work smart, you need to do what’s worked before in similar situations but also have the courage to continue to explore untested ideas (see: Blockbuster and the trap of marginal thinking versus Netflix).  In this way, you’ll be ready to capitalize when game conditions shift.

Images: John Ryan (cards); Pam Link (dunes)

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