The Tsunami

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$EV vs. Utility

Consider three live $2-$5 no-limit hold’em games.

Game 1: Hourly $EV = $50. Players are unpleasant and are constantly bickering.

Game 2: Hourly $EV = $35. Players are quiet and somewhat serious about their poker playing, but they are friendly and good sports.

Game 3: Hourly $EV = $30. Players on the other side of the table are a bit unpleasant. However, players seated near you are friendly and extremely interesting conversations.

Which of these games would you prefer? Since my start in poker back in 2002, my preference has been Game 1 (unless the bickering could possibly escalate into something where my personal safety would be at risk). As Sean Combs said back when he was Puff Daddy, I’ve been “all about the Benjamins.”

Over the past few months, my game preference has changed, and it’s now either Game 2 or Game 3. Actually, I don’t think my preference has changed. Instead, I think that I’m now simply willing to be honest to myself about my preference.

Whether it’s poker playing, business, or personal finances, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that the goal is mere maximization of $EV. After all, money buys everything from fancy electronics to the time of others. However, other considerations exist. It’s important to realize that utility is more than simply $EV.

You’re sitting in an exceptionally soft game, but it’s late, and your son has a basketball game early in the morning. You own a factory, and even though reducing pollution costs more, maximizing profits means living in an unhealthy environment. The power of compound interest is extraordinary, but if you only spend money on food, housing, clothing, and utilities (putting the rest of your money in interest accruing investments), what’s the point if you’re not devoting at least a small percentage of your money towards items and experiences that can enhance the quality of your life?

Living to maximize utility doesn’t mean that you can always do what you like. Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t like. Whether it’s for survival or paying a short-term loss for a long-term gain, a fact of life is that we can’t devote all our time to things we’re happy doing. Maybe you don’t enjoy reading; however, if you read my blog, maybe you’ll have better results at the poker tables. And in fact, maybe your awareness of the long-term benefit of reading my blog will lead to you enjoy reading it. (I was originally thinking of using a colonoscopy example, but my current knowledge of colonoscopies – which is incomplete –  suggests that negatives, such as complications arising from colon punctures, could outweigh the benefit of detecting colon cancer early.)

Living to maximize utility also doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to make money at something simply because you want to. For example, if the whole world played poker perfectly, then you wouldn’t be able to make money playing poker. I wouldn’t enjoy shoveling manure; however, if I had no other way of producing food or money, I’d happily do it.

Regardless of whether it’s poker, business, personal finances, or anything else, recognize that $EV is only part of a bigger consideration – utility. Form your utility preferences well, and be honest with yourself about your utility preferences. Combine this with a willingness to embrace unpleasant things when necessary, and you’re in a position to win at life.

May Your EV Always be Positive!

Tony Guerrera

P.S. Sorry I let so much time slip between this and my last blog post. Over the past two months, my non-WMS time has been primarily devoted to my lovely wife, reading, and playing bullet hell shooters made by Cave.


Feel free to repost this as long as you include the following author box (including hyperlinks):

Tony Guerrera is an established poker author, an instructor at PocketFives Training, a member of Team Moshman, and host of the popular poker strategy podcast, Killer Poker Analysis. Tony blogs about decision optimization on and off the felt at


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