Liv Boeree: the poker player giving us tools to make better decisions

Liv Boeree: the poker player giving us tools to make better decisions

Lee Davy sits down with the poker playing polymath, Liv Boeree, to talk about her recent Vox article How an 18th Century Priest Gave us the Tools to Make Better Decisions during her time at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.

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You can pluck anything out of the air with Liv.

What do you think of Attila the Hun’s failed attempts to conquer Rome?

Liv Boeree: the poker player giving us tools to make better decisions
[Image credit: Neil Stoddart]
What would you have done differently during the Treaty of Versailles?

What are your thoughts on young females desperate to be living dolls?

A pause.

A request for further information.


A well-thought answer.

So it’s always a delight to spend time picking her brain, and today, after stepping on her foot, but missing her toe, I choose questions that surfaced during a reading of her most recent Vox article – How an 18th Century Priest Gave us the Tools to Make Better Decisions.

It was bloody good.

In her treatise about Bayesian theory, she parses poetically on our identification with deeply held beliefs or outcomes interwoven with threads of cognitive bias, and how we need to pay more attention to the evidence at hand while keeping an open mind.

Something like that.

On my way to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, I could feel the excitement the PokerStars Player’s No-Limit Hold’em Championship (PSPC) had created amongst the poker community. And then I got to the reception desk, and while I was standing in line, waiting for my key, I listened to a group of grinders banging on about how terrible PokerStars are because of what they did to the Supernova Elite program.


To me, this tournament shows that at their heart, the people who run PokerStars value their customers, and what makes them happy is essential to them. These players, stuck in a painful past, couldn’t see that.

I take the pin out of the memory, hand it to Boeree, and wait for the explosion.

“For you to find the negative in this tournament you have to come into it with a very fixed mindset that you want to hate on PokerStars because this is just an objectively good thing for poker,” says Boeree with sincere authority. “They have added $1m for first, they have added 300+ $30k Platinum Passes for people who would never have played otherwise, so that’s an additional $9m, so that’s $10m added to a poker tournament that we all get to play in it. Honestly, if you’re finding a way to gripe, and moan, while still coming to play in a tournament with $10m added to the prizepool, which is giving a bunch of people the chance to literally live their poker dream, who would never have gotten the chance, then, fuck off!”

Fuck off, indeed – my sentiments exactly, although, Boeree’s ‘fuck off’ sounds way cooler than any profanity that’s ever flown from my mouth.

“The question you have to ask yourself is what is the evidence I need to see to change my mind,” continues Boeree. “If you are saying there is no evidence that I can see that would lead to me changing my mind then you are fundamentally being irrational. Let’s say we create a tournament with infinite money – and obviously, this is an extreme hypothetical case – we are going to add infinite money, infinite opportunity to everyone in the world, and all future humans that could live, and so on, and you still come away saying this is bad customer service? It’s an extreme example, but it’s one where your Bayesian reasoning is breaking down. So the question is how much is enough, and if some people say this is not enough, and they have good quantified reasons for why that’s the case, at least they have thought through it. But I think with a lot of people, with the issue you’re taking, and I would agree with, is that some people come in with a preconceived mindset that they want to hate on something.

“Taking our focus away from this tournament, in general, when we see things like the political divide we see in the US and other parts of the world…I am not a fan of Trump, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things, out of like, let’s say he does a thousand things during his presidency, there will be some things that are objectively good for the world. And if you can’t take your blinkers off, and look for the silver lining, for some things he has done right, or things you would have done in the same spot, or wouldn’t have thought about, but think are great ideas. There are going to be a few things in there that are good, and that doesn’t mean he is objectively a good person, and you now side with him. 

“This is like having a minimal level of nuance that we all need to have when we approach how we think about the world, and that’s what I was trying to get across in this article. There are a lot of things that are very complicated, and complex and if we come into them with an extremely predetermined mindset, we don’t see the nuance, and we won’t be able to make our beliefs accurately mirror reality.”

The example of Trump reminds me of something the polarising Jordan Peterson said about never writing someone off and turning a blind eye to all the value one could derive from such a person, only because something they have said doesn’t jive well with your beliefs, ethics or values.

“Take the issue of Brexit,” says Boeree. “It’s a very polarised thing. The reason why it’s a politically sensitive topic is that it’s not clear cut. There are very strong reasons for us to stay in the EU, and strong reasons to leave the EU. The question is if we had a perfect prediction machine that could perfectly evaluate all the consequences, and all the minutiae of all the different complicated, economic, social and political systems – if we had that perfect system we might come to a resolution, but we don’t have one. It’s not a clear cut issue.

“I don’t have a strong opinion about Jordan Peterson because I haven’t read a lot of his stuff. I have heard some of the dumb things he has said, but also some very smart things he has said. Life is easier if we can segregate things into the black and white, these simple boxes of good, bad, averagely bad, averagely good, something like that. The world is not that simple; there is a continuum, not these discreet boxes. Our minds can’t work on this perfect continuum, where we move freely about as and when we need to. We do have to put things into boxes, but the more boxes you have, the more you mirror this continual spectrum of things, but if you have two boxes labelled good and bad that’s clearly wrong. It’s a tricky situation.”

I ask Boeree how she has managed to reduce her black and white thinking, and think more shades of grey?

“I certainly haven’t always been able to do it, and I still struggle with it,” says Boeree. “Generally speaking, the more emotionally attached we are to something, even positive emotions, not just negative emotions, then the harder it is to think in grayscale, and the easier it is to think: black and white because emotions are not correlated to nuance. And so, I think, with age and maturity things become easier. I am certainly a less emotional person than I was when I was 18 — surrounding yourself with people who are more emotionally mature. That gives you a higher benchmark to aim towards. I have been fortunate that I have surrounded myself with the rationalist community, it’s not that they’re unemotional, but the ones that do it well have a good understanding of their emotions. Also, trying to think in terms of probabilities – and this is where poker players have this edge because they are thinking in terms of probabilities during the game. We are never certain, so we think in probabilities and carry this into our everyday life. When you’re thinking about the future or the past, it either did or didn’t happen, but the point is that your knowledge is imperfect, and looking back at your incomplete knowledge, I am willing to say 70%, that this person did go to this event at this time, but there is s 30% chance they are lying.

“Another thing that’s helped is making formal projections about the future. I haven’t done them yet for this year, but last year I wrote a list of statements, some of which were to do with my personal life. One was, I would have a TED talk with a certain number of views – what’s my projection? I think it was a 30% likelihood. I will win this much money in poker tournaments and put the likelihood at 70%. Then world events, political things, sporting events. The goal is not for 100% to come true, but let’s say you have a bunch of things with an estimate that 70% will come true, then you want 70% of those 70% statements to come true, 20% of the 20% to come true. You do that enough, and you become better calibrated, and this is a great way of helping you to think in this grayscale kind of way.”

I am curious.

What does Liv Boeree think about the theory that there is an infinite number of futures in the quantum realm and that learning to focus on any one future, and bringing feeling into that thought, is enough to make it come true?

“I think that’s black and white thinking when people say everything is possible so if you wish for it hard enough it will happen,” says Boeree. “I think that’s a simplification. You could take that argument to its logical extreme, and say you want the entire universe to be made of purple streamers, and if I think hard enough, it will happen. Somethings are impossible because of the laws of physics, but if nothing else they are so statistically implausible you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

“That said, there is definite value in positive thinking. It’s a dichotomy if this positive thinking behaviour is more likely to be successful if you blinker yourself into believing it blindly. It’s like you have to give up your statistical humility, and probabilistic thinking, and say this is my only option, this is my only option – is that then a self-fulfilling prophecy? I don’t have an answer to that. If people say, I am poo-pooing visualisation that might work, yeah maybe it will. I care that people don’t sacrifice their happiness, or their cognitive abilities, on a whimsical thing that there is no evidential proof that it will likely work.”

I start thinking about The Law of Attraction, and some lazy arse human being sitting in his room with a copy of The Secret on his lap, eyes closed, asking the universe to give him a Ferrari.

“The most likely hypothesis of all of this is that if you visualise something enough it means that you are making it enough of your focus, and your goal that you’re going to be extra motivated to work extra hard for it, and if you work extra hard at something you are statistically likely to achieve it.”

What about the theory that if you visualise the perfect future that your subconscious awareness piques, and becomes more interested in those things that will guide you towards that ideal future that you may have otherwise missed had you not thought of them?

“Then there is a selection bias because you are only going to notice what you’re focused on, and you’re going to ignore the other things,” says Boeree. “So it feels more meaningful for you because your conscious experience is narrowed down to just remembering those things. It’s the classic: people only remembering the bad beats they have had, but not remembering the times they have bad beat, someone. If you come into poker with the mindset that you are unlucky, you will remember all of the bad beats, and if you come in with a lucky mindset, you will remember all the times you got lucky and discount the unlucky times. Does that mean the probabilities stay the same – most likely, yes, as far as we can tell statistics don’t change as a result of our intentions? The universe isn’t going…we have these humans who want one thing, and those who want another thing –  it can’t satisfy everyone, right, so maybe randomness does just stay unaffected, or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know, I don’t have a clear answer, and it’s something I think about a lot. When I won San Remo, I had a premonition before I won it, and then I won it, and I thought holy shit, this stuff works. But since then I have had other premonitions about other tournaments, and I didn’t win them, not as strong, admittedly, so the pure statistician in me says I was likely to win one at some point, and that was the one I won, and I am more likely to remember the positive feelings during it because I won it, but I also feel there is a something a little bit more than just that going on.”

The conversation reminds me of Napoleon Hill’s statement in Think and Grow Rich that it takes no more energy to think positively than it does to think negatively.

“Positive thinking is a freeroll, and that’s why I would never discourage people from doing it,” says Boeree. “If metaphysical things are going on, and, there are supernatural things that can drive us because of the power of our thoughts, then it would be a real shame to miss out on those because you are excessively sceptical. At the same time, you need to keep enough scepticism to not just fall into wooey unscientific thinking – yeah man, whatever I dream up will happen. And then you won’t achieve what you could have had you put your mind to it and worked hard for example.”

I remember reading the Vox piece and thinking, none of Boeree’s advice or reasonings matters a jot if there is no self-awareness. I ask Boeree for her thoughts on why some people find it easier to become more self-aware than others.

“Societal conditioning has a big part of it,” says Boeree. “If you’re living with parents who sit down, and watch TV from morning till night; they aren’t having discussions about the bigger things, they’re not reading; they’re not curious – then you’re going to be brought up in that type of mindset, and it’s going to be more difficult to break out of that. Maybe there are some genetic predispositions for people who are more likely to be curiously minded, and that’s also true. I think as in all things it’s probably a combination of nature and nurture.

“In some ways, I have always been a curious person. But the idea of sitting down and having a philosophical discussion with someone wasn’t on my agenda, until I was surrounded by people who were really interested in that, and then I sat down and listened to high-level philosophical discussions, and thought, wow this is a whole new world, so I made a concerted effort to be around more people like this. Life experience is important. A lot of people will go through an awakening after having a challenging experience. Also, if you’ve had a comfortable life, where you haven’t needed to be pressed or stressed in some way, where you haven’t had to develop deep self-reflection that will delay it as well. It’s a combination of upbringing, random life experiences, and maybe just personality dispositions.”

It sounds like the antidote is to teach poker in school.

“I don’t know whether it should be poker, but to teach intra-level rationality and statistics and philosophy,” says Boeree. “We didn’t get taught any philosophy in school, not even the basics. What’s mindfulness if it’s not introductory 101 of philosophy, not even taught that. They are starting to teach it in school now, so that’s great. To be fair, in my school we had prayer, a semi-religious school. I am not a fan of organised religion, but there is definitely a value in prayer. It’s a form of meditation. The words are different, and it’s sometimes a little fatalistic and removes the responsibility from yourself. You say I answer to this person, and no, you should answer to yourself, and take responsibility. I think probably some of the intentions behind many religions were very good, but they got twisted. I don’t think it’s clear cut that you either are or you aren’t. I will go through some months when I feel like I am channelling the universe, and there are other times when I feel useless, low in confidence not achieving anything, and depressed, It’s a thing that can come and go, and takes continual work. It’s not like you suddenly have it, and it’s stuck with you for the rest of your life.”

I ask Boeree for her thoughts on the role that networking plays in developing self-awareness, and her beliefs around actively seeking, manufacturing and cultivating relationships that you know are likely to be +EV, rather than letting nature take its course.

“I think manufacturing is a very positive thing,” says Boeree. “A lot of people will reject the idea – what do you mean you are actively going out and selecting your friends? You have one life as far as we know. The only truly limited resource you have is your time, and so we have to manage that the best we can, and so if you are going to let the laws of randomness, or the universe whatever you are going to call it, determine who it is that you allow in your circle, that’s not optimal. I have always been more naturally attracted to big deep thinkers who are very ambitious in some way. And so I have naturally gravitated towards these types of people. I wouldn’t say it’s an active choice only to be friends with these types of people, but I find them more interesting, so I ended up spending more time with them.

“I remember being friends with someone in my earlier 20s who, looking back, was very negative. They were very negative towards me, but I didn’t have the maturity or self-confidence to recognise that this is not someone I should be spending time with as a friend. There were some fun times, but they weren’t very uplifting, and they weren’t encouraging growth in any way. There are going to be negative people in your life that you’re going to have to make a decision, this is not optimal, and I am moving away from this. Choosing new friends, it’s not a bad thing. If you say you are dissatisfied with what you currently have as a social situation, and you want to find different types of people, that’s a good thing. But at the same time, if you’re not actively seeking it, and you are going with who you find interesting, as long as you are reflecting on why you find them interesting, that’s fine too. I am very happy with my friendship situation. There are a few people in there I have actively sought out. There was a person whose writing I liked, I knew we would get on really well, so I sought them out, and a good friendship came out of it, then there are people I have just bumped into, and great friendships have come out of it. 

“What I do find difficult with life in general, especially with the travelling lifestyle where you don’t see everyone as often, I have this constant FOMO about not spending enough time with these wonderful people. But, what I love, I saw an old friend I had not seen in three years, and as soon as I saw her, we were straight into it. There was no small talk. I am the one who is usually bad at getting in touch with people, and she didn’t make me feel guilty, she was like you’re doing your thing, and I am doing mine, and it was instantly wonderful. That’s the tough part of life – that I will never get over, and maybe I shouldn’t, where you are just not able to spend enough time with everyone you want to spend time with.”

What advice would Boeree give to lonely people who are in a state of inertia?

“It’s a tough one,” says Boeree. “From what I understand people who struggle to go out and make friends, maybe they come out to the Bahamas for the first time. Maybe they have low confidence because they have never been here. Perhaps they have imposter syndrome, it’s natural, you are not alone, it’s so common. Finding that initial confidence to go out, and strike up a conversation with someone – it’s easier if you are both doing a common thing.

“Going to a bar is the worst. I remember going out by myself in Australia, to see if I could make friends, and I couldn’t do it. I was standing at the bar, and people were in groups probably thinking I was a prostitute as I stared at people, and nobody was talking to me. I ended up leaving, thinking that was an interesting experiment. But if you are there doing an activity that you are all there to do now, you have a reason to be talking to someone. A bar is the worse. You are there to meet people, but you’re not doing anything, so it’s the worst.

“I have gotten into climbing recently, and I like going because it’s easy to strike up a conversation. You instantly have a topic that’s ok to talk about. When people have a dog, and they take it for a walk, and they feel popular, a natural conversation will emerge from that. It’s about having a common interesting thing that you can start a conversation about, and things will flow from there, and that takes practice. My advice would be if you are suffering from loneliness or social anxiety is find an activity that also attracts the introverted type of person. Maybe it’s a martial art, or a drawing class, something that you have a passing interest in, and the sort of people who are also going to be interested in, this we may have something in common with. You build friendships working on a common goal together.”

Check out Liv Boeree’s article How an 18th Century Priest Gave us the Tools to Make Better Decisions right here.