Fine Tuning the Autopilot


“Yeah….I just started auto-piloting and lost a bunch of money”.

Common story. Student loses a bunch of money and claims that the reason for losses was “auto-pilot”. Mostly we get what he means – he means that he wasn’t really paying attention and some bad plays slipped through the net. But it also highlights a misunderstanding regarding what auto-pilot really is.

We’ve been conditioned to think that auto-pilot is the enemy of good poker. This is not true – auto-pilot is one of the best things to happen to poker players. The majority of poker millionaires understand that. Without auto-pilot, they wouldn’t have made nearly as much cash.

Not making sense? Think about it this way. The above student lost a bunch of money not because he was auto-piloting, but because his auto-pilot sucked. You don’t hear pilots complain that their planes will crash if they enable the auto-pilot. After all the auto-pilot has been finely tuned to fly the plane with expert precision. If we jam some broken electronic device into the plane, one that couldn’t even auto-pilot a fridge, then it’s not surprising if the plane crashes.

The Value of Auto-Pilot

Why do planes have auto-pilots? Well, we are poker players, not aeronautical experts; but presumably it helps to take pressure off the pilot. Pilots have to put in long hours flying and if they can reduce the mental pressure by allowing certain processes to run in the background they will absolutely take that option. They can conserve their energy for when it’s really needed.

Now how does this apply to poker? Imagine if we had no standard lines and were forced to reason through every single situation in extreme detail. We get dealt J6o UTG, and rather than snap fold we have to start thinking through the variables. “Ok so if I raise what hands will villain call? What type of flops will I see? How much equity can I expect to have? How will turns and rivers play out if I cbet?” This would become mentally draining extremely quickly.

Realistically we’d only ever be able to play one poker table at a time. We’d also have to take frequent breaks, because the human brain is not designed to standing up to that level of mental strain over long periods. Thankfully, 99% of readers are capable of “auto-piloting” that decision. Do we ever view that as a bad thing? Of course not, allowing our subconscious to make such decisions frees up our energy and mental resources for thinking through the tougher spots.

This doesn’t just need to apply to basic preflop situations. Expert NLHE players realise that a finely tuned auto-pilot might be capable of covering over 90% of poker situations. They make preflop, flop, turn and river decisions all at a subconscious level, by virtue of their experience. Rather than see this as negative trait, winning players understand how valuable this is in freeing up mental space. This is precisely why some professionals can play 24+ tables, while others struggle with 4.

Training the Auto-Pilot

It should become quickly apparent that the auto-pilot of some players is vastly more sophisticated than that of others. Any time a certain player is generating a positive winrate while playing a large amount of tables, or putting in sick volume, the likelihood is that their auto-pilot is simply more advanced than average. But how did it get like that?

Like any skill which we hope to master, a large part of the process involved focused training. In this case it involves learning standard lines across a variety of situations and drilling them until they become automatic. Those familiar with the adult-learning-model might refer to this automation as unconscious competence. I.e, we don’t need to think about the skill on any rational level, we can simply execute effortlessly.

If we don’t drill a certain spot repeatedly, the information can become lodged in an earlier part of the learning process. The stage directly before unconscious competence in the adult-learning-model is referred to as conscious competence. This is part of the learning process where we are aware of a concept on a rational level, but might struggle to execute that concept automatically.

To illustrate, we have probably been told that “probe bets on the turn generate automatic profit”. Many serious poker students are 100% aware of this, but have a difficult time executing the strategy on a regular basis. The reason? Drilling is required before the particular discipline can appear automatically within our game. There a big difference between simply knowing something and being able to apply it consistently across a large number of tables.

Auto-Pilot Ability

We might be surprised at just how proficient our subconscious can become at playing poker. In some cases we might find our subconscious brain a stronger player than our conscious brain. This is because our subconscious is less prone to tilt and less likely to get into levelling wars. Blaming auto-pilot is hence not a valid excuse for losing money. It’s more accurate to say that we lost money because we never trained our auto-pilot properly.

We might imagine that our auto-pilot is only capable of executing extremely basic strategies, but the truth is that we are only limited by the amount of training we are willing to put in. If we drill certain scenarios relentlessly our auto-pilot can easily decipher between options that might seem complicated to the poker playing majority. This includes the ability to select between different bet-sizing ranges, decide when to bluff rivers, and estimate how to defend checking ranges on every street. There is huge potential here, just waiting to be unleashed.

Disengaging the Auto-Pilot

Commercial pilots understand that while the auto-pilot can do a large amount of the work, there are certain complex tasks that require human interaction. The auto-pilot will be dis-engaged at relevant moments and the pilots will take over manual control.

Poker is no different. The goal is not to simply auto-pilot everything. There are unorthodox scenarios we will encounter that our auto-pilot cannot be trained to deal with. We simply don’t encounter these spots with a high enough frequency for it to be practical to drill them repeatedly. After all, the amount of unorthodox scenarios we might face is almost infinite.

Part of the skill is hence being able to understand which decisions can be auto-piloted and which decisions should be manually worked through. Understanding when to think is just as important as how to think in poker. We might autopilot the flop and turn in a certain hand, and then immediately dis-engage the auto-pilot when our opponent makes a weird turn-raise size. For highly skilled players however, the majority of hands will end without the auto-pilot ever being disengaged.

To give a quick idea of how this works, imagine that we are playing 16 cash tables. Chances are that we will only be actually thinking about 1 or 2 tables on a conscious level. In fact, let’s say a big hand comes up on table 12, and it requires all of our focus. Good players continue to auto-pilot decisions on all the other tables, but in terms of mental space, they are zoned in 100% on table 12. The rest happens with minimal thought and effort, like a background process on a computer.

Maximizing Efficiency

For a short period of time I was running “checkup” sessions here at BPC. I’d typically ask about volume and I’d come across some real troopers who were playing 10 or 11 hours per day. Then I might ask about how many tables they would typically play during that time. On quite a number of occasions I would receive the answer from the student that they spend the entire grind playing 3-4 tables.

Alarm bells immediately go off. Here is a guy who is dedicated to the grind but has put no thought into maximizing his efficiency. The auto-pilot ability there is practically non-existent. If only the student had spent some real time training his subconscious, he could get his grind done in 1/3rd of the time and hit the beach for the rest of the day. Efficiency doesn’t just mean playing really long hours – in fact, it means the opposite in most cases.

Our goal in poker is not to generate the highest winrate, despite what many believe. When we really analyse, the most important metric is our hourly rate. If we can make our cash more quickly it generally means 1 of 2 things.

1) We can make more money overall.
2) We can make the same amount of money in less time and have more time for hobbies and other activities.

Of course, increasing efficiency takes time and training. It’s not surprising if a new player can’t immediately jump into playing 16+ tables. However, when a “professional” has been playing for several years and can barely play more than 4 tables, he should take the time to seriously analyse the reasons behind his inefficiency.

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