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Wondering What Went Wrong

In televised poker, there’s a bad moment after a player gets knocked out.

The losing player gets up and shakes hands with whoever just took all their chips. They walk away from the table, and a TV guy puts a microphone in their face.

The TV guy asks, "What went wrong?"

The player is asking himself the same question. But he might not know the answer.

Poker is a game of both skill and luck. For the skill part, your decisions are based on data in three main categories:

1. The cards you can see (in your hand and on the table)

2. The range of cards the other players could have

3. The probabilities of the cards to come.

The luck part is in the cards to come.

The luck part is whether one of the cards with a 94 percent chance of appearing comes out. Or if one of the cards with a 6 percent chance of appearing comes out.

It's a game of skill and luck.

At the 2018 World Series of Poker, a guy named Tony Miles was one of the final two players. To get there, Miles played poker for ten days. On the day of the final hand, he played for ten hours straight. The final hand took place at 5 a.m. local time.

Tony Miles was tired when he played that final hand.

In the final hand, several interesting and unexpected things happened.

Tony Miles lost the final hand. Which meant he lost $3.8 million.

Then came the moment when a TV guy stuck a microphone in his face.

The TV guy asked Miles if he would have done anything differently. Miles answered, “No. I mean, it’s just – it’s kind of unfortunate you’re playing for this amount of money when your brain is fatigued and you’re not sharp. You’re not able to play to the best of your ability. That’s sad when there’s that amount of money at stake.”

Was it a lack of skill or bad luck that caused Miles to lose?

At first, Miles said he wouldn’t do anything differently. Then, he said that he wasn’t playing his best, which meant he would have done things differently, if he weren’t so tired. When you're tired, it's hard to figure out what went wrong.

After Miles rested and thought more about what happened, he gave a different answer for why he lost: “There are so many similarities to poker and life. Just like this. You can play your best and you're not gonna win all the time and in life you can do your best sometimes and you're just gonna fail and you have to get up and try again.”

That sounds like Miles is blaming bad luck. He did his best and played his best, but he still lost.

So which was it? Bad skill or bad luck?

In the coming A Spy's Guide To Taking Risks, we'll talk about both. We'll call the risk of bad luck the first type of risk. We'll call the risk of bad skill the second type of risk.

In the D-A-D-A framework, it looks like this:

For Tony Miles, was it the first type of risk or the second type of risk that caused him to lose the final hand at the World Series of Poker? Was it bad luck or bad thinking?

Did a low probability event happen after he took action?

Or did he do a bad job of collecting data, analyzing, deciding and taking action?

Later, Tony Miles answered the question: It wasn't bad luck.

It was a failure of thinking. Specifically, the first part of thinking: Collecting Data.

Sometimes when a dealer gives out cards, a card will accidentally flash to a player. On the final hand, Tony Miles thought he saw the other player’s card. In that flash of a half-second after ten hours straight of playing poker, Tony Miles thought he saw the other player had a ten of hearts.

Being a decent guy, Tony Miles told the other player that he saw his card.

You can watch the moment here:

Tony Miles gave the other player a chance to get new cards. The other player shrugged it off. He didn’t want new cards.

Tony Miles thought he had an advantage. Each player has two cards hidden from the other player, and Tony Miles thought he had seen one of them. A huge advantage.

When the dealer flopped the community cards on the table, there was no pair for the ten of hearts. Seeing that, Tony Miles thought his probability of winning was good if he went all in.

Tony Miles pushed all his chips in.

The other player turned over his cards, and there was no ten of hearts.

Tony Miles had been wrong. He hadn't seen a ten of hearts. The other player didn’t have a ten of hearts.

Bad data collection by Tony Miles.

After ten days and ten hours of playing poker on the tenth day, Miles had collected bad data. Maybe it was a hallucination. Maybe Tony Miles wasn’t seeing straight.

Tony Miles collected bad data, which meant his analysis was wrong. Which meant his decision to bluff was wrong. Which meant the action to push all his chips to the middle of the table was wrong. Because if you have bad data, all the rest will be wrong.

Miles saw something that wasn’t there.

Sometimes, you see things that aren’t there when you’re stressed and fatigued and the stakes are high.

Which means it’s a problem spies face, too.

We'll talk more about that in A Spy's Guide To Taking Risks.

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