Professional poker player and speaker

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”
– Yogi Berra

There is no single future. We cannot control everything. And for this reason, the future will always be uncertain.

Very few of us like this idea. There’s a part of our brain that genuinely needs certainty and control. The first pieces of writing on clay tablets in Babylon 6,000 years ago were laws – to bring safety and certainty by controlling people’s behaviour – and laws are still the basis of a civilised society today. And at the heart of much of the personal development literature around is the mantra “focus on what we can control”.

Despite this, cars still crash, people fall over, businesses collapse, wars are lost and – against all odds – every day, people die. Within this daily maelstrom of uncertainty we have to make hundreds of decisions every day, a tapestry of decisions to select our food, our outfit, our meetings, our evening’s entertainment, our hobbies, our life-partners and ultimately the quality and conditions of our lives.

The definition of a decision, according to Harvard Business School, is: “The allocation or commitment of resources under conditions of uncertainty.” That’s what it is to be human. We’re all decision-making machines made flesh. We don’t think of our lives in this way, but at a fundamental level this is what we’re doing and who we are.

As a professional poker player I have to make one of these decisions – a resource allocation under a condition of uncertainty – every 90 seconds or so, with the intention of maximising my return on that investment. Check, fold, call, raise. I make the best decision I can with the always-limited information that I have available. Ultimately, though, the outcome of each decision is mostly out of my control.

I’ve played poker professionally since 2000, starting as a professional in Las Vegas before going on to become a TV commentator during the poker boom of 2005–10, and the poker adviser on the James Bond movie Casino Royale. But neither I nor the world’s greatest ever players can guarantee we’re going to win any individual hand. If my opponent makes four aces, or if I miss my flush draw, I’m going to lose.

That makes poker an interesting model against which to explore the uncertainty of life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the same as life: poker is just a game. One of the many ways poker differs from life is that whereas we can make a guess as to what the future holds in life based on our experience or expertise (or what Jean from Facebook posted this morning), none of these things means anything in a poker game, where the next card could be the ace of diamonds or the four of spades and there’s nothing at all I can do to predict or control it.

This makes poker obviously, overtly and undeniably uncertain – ostensibly very different to life. Yet they’re actually much more similar than we might first believe.

The definitive study on uncertainty in life and our ability to overcome or predict it was conducted by Philip Tetlock in 1984, a young academic at the National Research Council. He asked 284 world experts for their judgements as to what the future held.

For twenty years, he asked each expert for their pick of three possible outcomes in social-political and economic issues. They had to make their pick and accompany their guess with a probability that measured their confidence in their judgement from 1 to 100% certainty. In total he asked a whopping 27,450 questions during that period and then spent another five years writing up his work.

His primary finding? Taken as a whole, those 284 world leaders in their field were no better than average. You would have got the same statistical result from an eight-year-old child or from throwing darts at a dart board. There is no one future. It’s not out there waiting to be discovered by an expert’s best guess.

But, more interestingly, Tetlock found that within his collective failure, some people were definitely better predictors of the future than others. Why? The single strongest correlation he could find was between their success and the confidence they had in their guess as expressed by the probability they ascribed between 1% and 100%. And the correlation was negative. That is, the less confident they were, the more correct their predictions on the whole.

It wasn’t that those who were less confident felt less sure in themselves, rather that they had a greater appreciation of the complexity of predicting the future. They realised how difficult it actually was and therefore took more time to try to be accurate. They appreciated that life is more like a game of poker and much, much less inevitable than some so-called experts would have us believe. And because of this appreciation they were less dogmatic and more open-minded, more willing to upgrade their prediction when new information became available… and less inclined to believe Jean on Facebook.

The lesson? There is no single future. It’s not out there waiting to be predicted by experts. It is continually shifting sand in which anything is possible. Trump is not definitely going to get re-elected any more than he was definitely not going to be elected in the first place. Brexit isn’t definitely going to happen any more than it definitely wasn’t going to happen in the first place. And none of the plans you had for this summer is now dashed – just as they weren’t definitely going to happen when you first booked them.

Hopefully one of the positive legacies of the coronavirus will be to remind people there is no one future; that anything can happen – although that doesn’t mean that unlikely events are suddenly as possible as normal ones. The more we see the future as a series of different possible outcomes – like the ace of clubs or the five of spades – the better the judgements and decisions we will make as a result. 

There is no one future, but that’s fine. 

Embrace the uncertainty, it’s liberating.

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