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Why poker is related to evolution

Updated on December 15, 2010

Poker is the result of predator evolution

Poker and the evolution of lying



          An argument can be made that poker is an example of what humans are all about. In the evolution of our species the most important characteristic we have evolved is our intelligence. Mankind is the undisputed top of the species on this planet. Most individual species have one or two traits that they are better at than humans. No other species (as far as we know) exceeds us in intelligence. Problem solving intelligence enables us to build cities, travel to the moon and kill each other on a scale beyond any other animal. The evolution of our intelligence can be shown to connect [in part] to our ability to lie and to see through the lies of others - Some of the very skills that make a successful poker player.

          Lying is instinctive behavior in most animal species, though not in the form practiced by humans. Camouflage colorings and markings are a form of passive lying. The many animals that practice camouflage do so without conscious effort. Deer fawns among other animals, have coloration that helps them avoid being spotted by predators. Other animals have evolved seasonal coloration changes to blend in with the environment. Generally, prey species have better evolution-based camouflage while predators develop intelligence in place of better camouflage.

          As babies in the wild, predators learn the behaviors that will serve them in life. By playing/fighting with their littermates or mother, they practice the raw and instinctive actions associated with killing. Observing wolf pups in the wild will reveal clumsy versions of stalking, attacking and other basic predatory actions. As these activities develop into survival skills the animals’ intelligence allows the young to learn by following and watching adults.

          Prey species almost never exhibit the functional intelligence that predators have. Their defenses against predators are instinctive and almost passive compared to predators. In nature there are some omnivores with both predatory and non-predatory survival tactics. One good example is bears. Bears have predatory killer skills when needed along with the ability to be passive herbivores when those food sources are available. The intelligence of omnivores generally tends toward predator behaviors because successful predators must be able to overcome the instinctive and evolutionary defenses of prey species.

          Humans are the ultimate omnivores on the planet. We have evolved beyond the passive prey-type defenses and our predatory behaviors have given way to advanced intelligence. As intelligence became the humans’ greatest asset, the strength and advanced senses of other predators were lost to us. Our single most effective survival tool is our intelligence. We cannot effectively kill without our tools and we cannot successfully defend ourselves against predators without using our intelligence.

          As predators we had to learn how to get close enough to prey to use our weapons. We learned to use the environment to our benefit by hiding, stalking and avoiding detection by the prey. We effectively learned to lie. Our success as a species can be attributed, in a large part, on our ability to lie. Lying is a primary human survival skill. Children have to be taught to tell the truth when dealing with other humans. Most people have left behind the core predatory behaviors that were once necessary for our survival. We still have a connection to these behaviors through the games we play. We constantly find ways to show our strength and speed as well as our ability to cooperate in competition. We compete in tests of intelligence and problem solving with games such as chess. There are few ways we can demonstrate one of our best inherent survival instincts – lying.

          As predators we need to hide our intentions from our prey until we are able to act. We also have to be able to detect prey in spite of the instinctive and evolutionary tools they have to avoid detection. In our role as a possible prey to other predators we have to “fool” the predators’ detection and to detect predators before they can act. The ability to both lie and detect lying is a major evolutionary survival skill. The game of poker is the most pure exercise of this skill set.

          Strength, sense of smell, exceptional eyesight, advanced hearing and speed all have no value to the poker player. At the basic level, a poker player has to disguise the power of his hand while seeing beyond the opponents’ disguises to determine the strengths of their hands. This is the ultimate competition involving the combination of intelligence and lying. [In the context of this article the term “lying” includes both the exercise of lying and the detection of lying]. Raw intelligence will not make a great poker player. The ability to mislead opponents while not being distracted by the opponents’ lies is the core skill. The basic intelligence and skill to leverage the benefits of lying into a superior position is enough. College degrees, SAT scores and blue-blood pedigrees will not make a great poker player.

          As a species we are so good at lying that our communications among each other involve subtle lies and we rarely take any communication at complete face value. We try to force people to tell the truth in some activities such as in court but we are never successful. In the end, “truth” is decided by people – a judge or jury…etc.

          The randomness of playing cards serves to create the foundation upon which poker is built. The skills of the players allow individuals to excel. When players are relatively evenly matched in lying skills the randomness comes into play as the deciding factor. Poker is not a team sport where cooperation is important. Each player stands or falls on his own merits. In nature, success does not always fall to the fastest, strongest or even the best liar. Chance always has a part in the equation. In poker, chance can be the gaming version of the “great equalizer”.

 Professional poker players are not gamblers in the true sense of the word. They have confidence that their skills are good enough to deliver a sustainable level of success in the face of the randomness of the shuffled deck. They are predators exercising the ultimate human survival skill – the ability to lie effectively while seeing through other players’ lies.


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