Poker

The Satir Interaction Model and Hand Reading in Poker.

Essentially the Satir model involves processing of communication via several steps: Intake, Meaning, Significance and Response. Teaching yourself to be disciplined about progressing through these steps helps greatly with minimizing miscommunication. The idea is that whenever you receive information (e.g. someone engages you in conversation) that you ask yourself the following questions before responding:


  • What did I just see and/or hear (sometimes, smell, taste, touch)?
    • The facts.
  • What does it mean?
    • Possible interpretations based on context.
  • How did it make me feel?
    • Significance based on my mindset
  • How should I respond?

Poker is a game of communication; telling a story based on the movement of chips in relation to the exposure of community cards.  Perhaps the Satir model is useful in reading opponents' hands in a NLHE tournament, street by street. Here's a pre-flop example:


  • What did I just see (action)?
    • A player with the table chip lead opened to 2.5x from middle position and there is a short-stacked player in the big blind with 8 big blinds remaining.  The action folds to me in the small blind.
  • What could it mean (ranges)?
    • What ranges of hands could these facts represent? Based on previous hands shown down and activity, the raiser is likely to have any: suited connector 89+, pair 22+, or A10+.  The big blind may be prone to shove all of their chips in the middle as a re-raise with any suited ace, any pair, or hands as weak as J10s
  • What is the significance to me (what are my reasonable options)?
    • I'm in the small blind with AQs and 40BB. I'm willing to call a shove from the big blind with this hand but I'll need to exercise some cautioun against the raiser. The raiser must know that the big blind is likely to shove and therefore he's either willing to fold to a shove or is willing to call a shove.  I could re-raise in hopes of isolating the big blind but I would risk playing out of position against the raiser regardless of the raiser's actions.  I could simply call the raise (potentially inducing a shove from the big blind), see what the big blind does, how the original raiser reacts and re-evaluate.
  • Based on all that, what should my response be?
    • I choose to re-raise to 6x.

On further streets, of course, the answer to the first question is additive and ideally the answer to the second question becomes more refined.

Are your opponents analyzing your responses this way?

What a game!

Golf, Poker and Software

Last week I heard an interview with a  golf psychology coach who had recently added poker psychology coaching to his repertoire.  Golfers and poker players alike hire him to help them deal with the psychological aspects of their respective games.  Predominantly his clients are dealing with how to prevent golfers from 'choking' and poker players from 'tilting'.

His approach in both cases is to narrow the skill gap a player experiences between their 'A' game and their off-game which they can experience under stress.  Players who must perform under pressure tend to revert back to what is known as procedural memory - actions which are performed when the brain is no longer functioning normally.  The skill level captured at the procedural memory level governs how you will react when stress shuts down normal functioning of the brain.

Essentially, the best players under pressure are those whose skills in their off game are streets ahead of their competitor's.  How these players achieve this gap reduction is through repetition of the necessary skills until they become second nature and therefore part of procedural memory.  An example of things that move to procedural memory are activities like driving a car.  How many times have you arrived home, and realize that you can't really remember the details of the trip?  You were using skills at the procedural memory level which allowed your mind to be elsewhere.

This is interesting to me due to the work I've been doing with the Dreyfus skills acquisition model for assessing the skill level of agile teams.  It struck me that software teams (and individuals) react under date-related pressures in a manner that is governed by similar forces - if quality agile techniques are not second nature to the team, they tend to revert back to old, less than desirable ways.  For most people this transition of skills to procedural memory takes disciplined, directed effort.  Sports and game players must practice endlessly before they are expected to perform during a game.  Software developers must practice as a normal course of action; it's always game day in software development.

Games of Incomplete Information

Agile Software Development as a hand of No Limit Texas Hold'em?

Ever since I started playing various forms of poker "seriously" about 5 years ago, it has struck me that there are definite similarities between these card games and agile software development.  For the past couple of years I've been mulling this over and trying to see if the analogy works.  If so, perhaps it would provide another mechanism to illustrate the value of iterative/incremental development.  Here's what I've come up with:

In an agile software development project, the object of the exercise is to continuously deliver as much value as possible given the current conditions.  After every iteration, the Product Owner can see the value created and make decisions on whether to continue (and in what direction) or cancel the project.  In a hand of NLHE the object of the exercise is to continuously make decisions based upon incomplete information such that one can profit from the hand.  After every street, the rounder can see the value accrued, assess the risk, and decide to continue (and in what direction) or fold the hand.  All of these decisions are based on a myriad of inputs which affect the perceived value of proceeding.  As we shall see, Agile projects are analogous to individual hands of poker.

Pre-flop (Release Planning) Action


Prior to seeing any community cards (streets), one must make a decision based on several things: hole card value, position, chip stack, and opponent characteristics.  In order to proceed with the hand, one must wager at least the amount of the big blind.  Of course there are other possible actions:

Limp: This is equivalent to simply paying the 'cost of doing business'.  Enough information is present to justify starting the project. Based on what is known, while there are still significant uncertainties, there is some undetermined likelihood of success.

Raise: Enough clarity is present to warrant raising management expectations regarding the level of success that‘s possible.

Call a raise: While significant risk is apparent, there is enough information (hand value, relative position, participant characteristics) in place to warrant accepting the increased risk.  On a project, the fact that we have a  seasoned team, known technology and a known domain might cause us to call a raise.

Re-raise: This would occur only when the team believes that their estimation accuracy is sufficient to overcome most likely risks and is a signal of significant confidence.

(Re)Raise All-in: This translates to risking the entire project success on incomplete information regarding the hands of the opponents and the community cards. Committing to a specific combination of schedule, scope and resources at this time is analogous to raising all-in pre-flop.  This is fairly common in 'waterfall-based' software development projects.  While this action does occur in poker, it occurs only in specific circumstances involving calculated risk/reward ratios.

Fold: The project is canceled because the likelihood of receiving enough value from the project based on the starting information is extremely low.  If you're playing poker correctly, this event happens much more often than in software development although sometimes I think we should fold much more than we do in software development.

Flop, Turn, and River (Iteration Planning) Action


After the flop, the majority (3/5) of the common cards have now been exposed.  Some more information is now present for all to see and it is reasonably unambiguous.  Every exposure of a community card is analogous to an iteration planning session.  Whatever the plan was prior to the flop, turn or river, there may be need to adjust the plan based on the new information.  As with most things there is always some amount of risk (unless you've hit a royal flush ... 20,000:1).  The amount of risk is relative to hand value, position and chip stacks.   Further, taking into account the information (bet amounts and other non-verbal inputs) gathered on prior streets complicates or simplifies the issue depending on your point of view.  The options here are to check or bet in the face of no overt threats, or to call, raise or fold in the face of overt risk.

Check: Based on the newly presented information we are unsure of where we stand and may not be willing to invest more in the project if more adversity arises.  We are certainly not bullish about our strength.

Bet: Based on the newly presented information we believe we are strong enough to invest more in the project given that no added adversity has arisen yet.

Call: Based on the newly presented information, and a new overt risk (someone else is representing strength)  the team believes that it is worthwhile investing more in the project in the face of the new risk.  In poker, this is actually usually deemed a sign of weakness.  To some extent it is viewed as ignoring reality ... if you were really strong, wouldn't you re-raise?

Raise: Based on the newly presented information, and an overt risk (the previous bet), the team believes they are strong (confident enough in their knowledge of the situation, skills and domain) enough to overcome the risk.

Fold: Based on the newly presented information the team realizes that the risks far outweigh the likelihood of success.

The Showdown (Retrospective)

At the end of the hand, if we've seen it through, we have a clear indication of success or failure.  In either case we are able to look back at the information taken in during the hand and learn something about people's patterns and communication styles.  This can be very useful for future projects.

In the end, it's the experienced teams and card players that are able to raise their stakes and their games as they are able to continually adjust their plans mid-play.