Poker with a Plane to Catch

Freakonomics author Stephen Levitt tells the tale of his unintended, yet kickass, poker strategy: Committ yourself to leaving by a certain time and let everyone else know about it.

So it was 10:15 pm and I figured the latest I could leave for the airport and comfortably make my flight was 10:30 pm. I decided that I would go ?all in? with any hand that was decent at all. This would give me a chance to either lose quickly or maybe win quickly. I didn?t announce this strategy to the table, I just adopted it. Over the next 12 hands I was ?all in? about 6 times. Four times everyone else folded. I won one of the other two hands, and lost one against someone with fewer chips. That left me with a lot more chips than before, but no one had been knocked out.

It was now 10:30 pm. Much to the surprise of the people at the table, I said I had to catch a plane so I was only going to play one more hand.

So here is where the commitment device comes in. Everyone knew I really had to leave. So I announced that from here on out I was all in on every hand. Even if I had the worst possible hand, I was going all in. They may not have believed me initially, but when I went all-in four straight times, it started to seem credible. It was clear I was following a strategy that is generally not sound. It is valuable to have the option to fold bad hands. But, at the end of a poker tournament, most of the hands are won by someone betting a lot of money and everyone folding. There is a big advantage to being the first one to bet, since it is likely everyone else will fold rather than risk the whole tournament on a mediocre hand. Since I had more chips than anyone else and it was clear I would be all in every hand, any player who made any bet knew that if he lost he was out of the tournament. Furthermore, each player could see that there was a chance that if he was patient, there was a good chance I would knock out the other players at the table first since these all in moves are often like coin tosses in terms of who wins.

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