Dealing with uncertainty: Learnings from Poker

Deb Mahato
4 min read

Poker is a game of incomplete information - players don't always know the cards held by their opponents. Yet poker players are still able to make strategic decisions and triumph over uncertainty. How do they do it? Through analyzing probabilities and opponents' behaviors to make educated guesses about hidden information. We have discussed in previous posts about improving attention, memory, problem-solving ability, learning outcomes, and brain health as a whole by playing card games.

Poker players start by assessing the probabilities of what cards their opponents could hold based on previous actions. For example, if an opponent bet big on the river after calling two previous bets, it's more likely they hit their hand on the river rather than holding a strong hand previously.

In addition to probabilities, poker players gather hidden clues from their opponents' tendencies and patterns. A timid opponent is more likely to fold to pressure, while an aggressive opponent may bluff more often. By paying close attention, players can start to profile their opponents and predict future actions.

With repeated observation, players develop a "read" on each opponent to aid strategic decision-making, even without full information. These reads are then constantly updated and refined as new hands are played. Over time, a skilled poker player can virtually "see" the unseen cards through deep analysis of odds and opponent behaviors.

The ability to make logical, data-driven judgments under conditions of uncertainty is a highly valuable skill that transfers beyond poker. Business leaders, for example, often must make important decisions without complete information about competitors, markets, or risks. Like poker players, business decision-makers can:

- Analyze available data and precedent to determine likelihoods and probabilities

- Read subtle cues from competitors, partners, customers to develop a profile and predict future moves

- Continually refine their analysis based on new outcomes to sharpen their judgment over time.

Similarly in law, medicine, or other professions involving diagnosis or scenario planning, the capacity to strategize without perfect clarity based on evidence, expertise, and experience is crucial. Poker teaches us to be comfortable operating without a full picture, using logic and observation to inform our choices amid imperfect information - a handy life strategy indeed.

Here are some examples of how decisions in the medical field are made with imperfect information:

Diagnosing an illness/condition

Doctors have to assess symptoms, labs, and imaging and piece together a likely diagnosis even if they can't be 100% certain. They assign probabilities to different possibilities based on presentations and tests.

Determining treatment plan

For complex cases, there may be several treatment options but no guarantees of success. Doctors have to weigh factors like side effects, costs, and evidence base to determine the best approach given uncertainty. The situation is constantly re-evaluated as new data emerges.

Assessing surgical risks

No surgery is without risks, but doctors must provide estimates to patients. They analyze patient histories/comorbidities and statistical averages from similar past cases to give probabilities of potential complications for informed consent.

End-of-life care

It's challenging to precisely predict life expectancy. Physicians guide families based on progression, response to interventions thus far, and clinical judgment when limited treatment may be the best approach.

Clinical drug trials

Approvals require assessing new therapies based on limited sample sizes and durations. Regulators must strategize on potential risks/benefits given uncertainty to determine if treatment advances the field.

Epidemics/pandemics

Initial outbreaks involve many unknowns. Public health decisions around spread mitigation rely on incomplete case data and adaptive strategies as understanding improves over time.

Rare diseases

With few prior cases, diagnosis involves meticulous pattern matching of symptoms combined with ruling things out through the process of elimination. Ongoing collaboration aids in prognoses.

As in poker, gathering diverse inputs, studying past outcomes, and honing clinical intuition allow medical professionals to make prudent choices despite imperfect clarity - aiming to give patients the best possible care under conditions of uncertainty.

Lawyers evaluate stakes, probabilities, and "tells" from past similar situations to strategize effectively despite imperfect information for the best potential outcome with some examples listed below.

Trial strategy

Lawyers have to determine the best approach to present their case and cross-examine witnesses even if they don't have all the facts or know exactly what the testimony will be. They develop strategies based on available evidence and past experience.

Plea bargains

Prosecutors need to assess the strength of the evidence and the likelihood of conviction at trial to determine reasonable plea deals. They have to gauge risks when information may be missing or unclear.

Settlement negotiations  

Both sides strategize offers and responses considering the possibility of unexpected evidence or legal maneuvers during a potential trial. Risk tolerance impacts decisions.

Due diligence

When taking on a new case or client, lawyers must carefully evaluate readily available information but often lack complete clarity on nuances. Prudent next steps are informed guesses.

Legal research

Uncovering precedents to build an argument involves exploring possibilities methodically while dark areas remain. Flexibility allows adjusting the approach.

Litigation strategy

Depositions, motions, and other tactics aim to gather more facts while influencing opponent psychology—all without a crystal ball.

Criminal investigations

Detectives piece together likelihoods from clues and witness statements to determine probable scenarios and identify leads despite not having a full picture initially.

Compliance

Audits aim to assess potential risks wisely given resource constraints and unknown future issues that may emerge from present indications.

Our poker game comes bundled in the Bhoos Games app with globally loved Solitaire along with Nepali favorites like JutPatti, Kitti, and our own offering: Stacks. Bhoos Games’ other offerings like Callbreak Legend and Marriage Card Game also deal with imperfect information. Someone who can break the possibilities into bite-sized pieces during poker, callbreak, or marriage gameplay can certainly use the same approach to make life decisions when there isn’t enough clarity in the available information. Just like it has taken Phil Ivey or Daniel Nagreanu millions of rounds of poker to be able to predict what their opponents hold a person can have such ability after practicing decision-making in similar situations over the course of a lifetime. The same can be said of legendary athletes who have honed their crafts over continued iteration of practice and correction of any flaw in their gameplay.

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