The Truth Detective, by Alex O’Brien: Exclusive extract #2

Dave Woods
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Posted on: October 26, 2023 1:16 pm EDT

Alex O’Brien’s new book, The Truth Detective, reveals how poker skills can help you make sense of a world that’s clouded by uncertainty and misinformation. We brought you an exclusive extract last week, “The Bluffs We Seek and the Bullshit We Find“, and we’re delighted to bring you another ahead of the book’s launch on November 2.

The book is already picking up praise from prominent poker players such as Jennifer Shahade, who said, “The Truth Detective is both a riveting read and a call to action. Alex O’Brien intertwines lessons from the poker table with cutting-edge scientific research on human behaviour and the brain, showing us how to understand the world better, and to understand ourselves better… Even if you’ve never played poker, you will be richly entertained and educated by this beautifully written gem of a book.”

To Perceive Patterns

We are pattern-seeking (and pattern-making) creatures. All day every day, our thoughts and actions are governed by the search for meaning as we look for familiar patterns in the information we receive. We can’t help it; our brains are wired to do so. The fundamental function of the brain is to take on information and then generate adaptive behavioural responses, which it does by encoding large numbers of image and sound patterns. We use our pattern-processing capabilities to help us understand our physical as well as social, political, emotional and informational environment. And while this helps us predict our external world and the people in it, it also makes us, well, predictable, and can leave us subject to exploitation and deception. Pattern reading is useful, in fact critical, to most of our reflexive functioning, but these observational and comprehension shortcuts can also be used to undo us.

For a winning poker player, the objective is to maximise your win rate, which makes the ability to exploit your opponents’ behavioural tendencies a very valuable skill. Exploitative poker is essentially a strategy that targets imperfect and weaker players who tend to make mistakes under certain conditions because they are inclined to deviate from the optimal play. You can exploit them still further by deceiving them with the occasional bluff. The emphasis here is on the term ‘occasional’. While it is certainly a powerful and necessary part of the game, to be effective a good bluff has to be rare, and it has to be seamless. The more naturally and effortlessly a bluff is put together, the more likely it is to be successful, so it must tell a story that is believable. And you do this by creating a betting pattern that is both logically and mathematically sound. Yet, ask anyone who doesn’t play poker what they know about the game and they are likely to tell you that poker is about how well you can bluff. This perception that the game is won through deception creates a sort of fascination, which is of course misplaced – as we’ve seen, there is no failsafe way of detecting deception. In fact, this book goes confidently against the copious amount of literature available on how to detect lies and deception. It is called The Truth Detective and not The Lie Detective for a simple reason: human beings are terrible at sussing out deception. We miss things all the time – even when we know someone is out to deceive us.

Magic gives us vivid illustrations of how easily you can manipulate what someone sees, what they remember, or how they interpret something. And awareness of these biases and limitations has important implications for the decisions and the judgements that you make both about yourself, and about other people.

Why and how we can miss things has a lot to do with how our brains see the world. Magicians have forever successfully exploited the brain’s blind spots.

‘This is the routine for the spectator who smokes. The instant the performer sees the spectator take a cigarette, cigar or pipe, he takes the packet of matches from his pocket, tears off one match, and holds packet and match ready to ignite the match. He does these things openly because what he does can only be looked upon as a friendly and courteous gesture. As soon as the spectator is ready to light up, the performer should hold the matches close to the spectator and stake the one match. The matches should be held only as close to the spectator as politeness allows but should, if possible, be closer to the spectator than is the mouth of the glass, or cup, into which the pill is dropped.’

This paragraph comes from ‘Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception’ – not a set of instructions for would-be conjurors, but a spy manual for agents of the CIA. It was written in 1953 by a magician.

We don’t like to think we are easily influenced. We believe that we’re in control of our thoughts. When we are forced to accept that we’ve been fooled, we convince ourselves it was just a one-off. Yet we are repeatedly, and all too easily, manipulated. Not just by the usual suspects, like politicians and advertisers, but by those closest to us, too. Influencing others means asserting power and control, and it’s no secret that intelligence arms of governments across the world have long been researching best practices for mind control. Some have been better at this than others. In the early 1950s, the then recently formed CIA was still trying to catch up with the sophisticated spying skills of other nations, so for help it turned to a man whose calling card featured a white rabbit in a hat.

The Truth Detective by Alex O'Brien

You can pre-order your copy of The Truth Detective: A Poker Player’s Guide to a Complex World from Amazon ahead of the launch in the UK on November 2 and in the US on November 14.