Poker and Pool: More Lessons from the (Other) Felt

Pool & Poker: More Lessons from the (Other) Felt
  • Bad shots in pool are quickly punished, while bad plays in poker aren't always penalised so swiftly.

  • Nate Meyvis discusses how the game of pool can help us better understand our poker mistakes.

In an earlier column I discussed how shooting pool can improve your poker game by getting you in the habit of considering several options before you choose any of them. That particular feature of the game, however, is really a consequence of something more general. Pool does encourage careful habits, but that’s largely because mistakes are punished with speed and severity.

We also get punished in poker, of course, but the punishments come only inconsistently, and it’s not always easy to tell just what you’re being punished for. And sometimes we escape punishment altogether, even when we deserve it.

Suppose I’m getting 2-to-1 on a river call, but I’m only winning 15% of the time. A call is a mistake, but 15% of the time I get an immediate reward for making that mistake. Even if I lose, seeing the hand I lose to might not cause me to revise my previous (mistaken) judgment that I would win more than a third of the time, and so might not serve as a useful corrective.

In poker, we are often punished for mistakes both by fractions and counterfactually. Meanwhile in pool, we are often punished immediately and severely.

If I fail to set up properly, I’m likely to miss the ball, and it will be very hard for me to attribute that to bad luck. More commonly, when I make a bad plan (or not enough of a plan) on one shot, I find myself out of position when taking my next one. The feeling that manifests in poker as “being lost in a hand” has many and frequent analogues at the pool table, where it’s much harder to get out of the jam with guesswork and luck.

Recent empirical psychology suggests that feedback does much more to train us when it is more immediate and less ambiguous. (See Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about this.) Any observant poker player has seen scores of opponents who have been playing for a very long time, yet who keep making very basic mistakes — even making the same ones over and again, as Robert Woolley was discussing here yesterday in “Three Ways to Avoid Repeating Your Poker Mistakes.”

Some of these people lack fundamental skills or don’t care about the money, but many of them seem plagued by an inability to draw the correct lessons from their results. The feedback they get doesn’t allow them to diagnose their mistakes. It surely takes a keen eye to understand exactly what has gone wrong every time a pool shot goes badly, and it’s easy to miss the best play without ever knowing you missed it, but often the game just whacks you across the face with a two-by-four.

Anyone can figure out, at least approximately, what went wrong when he misses a straightforward cut shot or snookers himself. This sort of punishment is useful to poker players in several ways.

First, it can help us train ourselves out of sloppiness. I personally have found that getting punished for winging it at the pool table checks the impulse to wing it at the poker table.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the game makes it clear that the great majority of us spend the great majority of our lives in a state of what we might call epistemic sin, as the best players tend to readily admit. Barry Greenstein says as much in Ace on the River when he says he makes many mistakes every session, whereas weaker players often claim they have played perfectly.

The strategies we try to follow are imperfect, and fear, habit, autopilot, and faulty memories keep us even from following those imperfect strategies. At the pool table, even the best players make rather surprising and frequent errors of reasoning and execution. It is simply very hard for humans to do so many things right so frequently without getting sloppy or making some other performance mistake.

I am not a masochist and have no particular desire to think ill of myself, but I’ve found that in myself and in my students, understanding our own failings — how and to what extent we share in the life of epistemic sin — improves our focus and encourages good habits.

Now that so many more players know so much more about basic poker strategy, our edges come more and more from performing better than our opponents rather than from having more knowledge than our opponents. Understanding our failures is important to improving our performance, and spending some time with a cue stick in hand is a good way to improve at understanding your failures.

Photo: “Pool Table Balls Green Arm Cue,” Christopher Sessums. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Thinking Tournament Poker by Nate Meyvis is now available both at Amazon and at Be sure also to check out Nate and Andrew Brokos on the Thinking Poker podcast, and for more from Nate visit his blog at

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