The frontiers of human understanding present a man with the greatest opportunities for extraordinary success. The opportunity to explore where others cannot or will not go takes one beyond the reach of prevailing authorities, at least for a time. Since the frontier its itself anathema to the technocratic bureaucracy- which revels in regulation, repetition, and procedure- the explorer always has a number of years to succeed spectacularly before the slouching bureaucrats can impose an appropriately punitive tax structure on the new territory.
Poker strategy started the 21st century as an open frontier, ripe for exploration as the Internet made it easier for players to compete against each other than ever before. An opponent from next door or from across an ocean, the ability to play multiple hands simultaneously, dealt near-instantaneously by digital dealers. If you could beat your opponent (and the rake) then a fortune was there for the taking. But how to win? What each player needed to beat the competition, whether he knew it or not, was an accurate map of the terrain of the game that he was sitting down to play…
In the first article in this series on poker ecology, I introduced Information Distribution Curves as a way of visualizing the level of strategic information available to members of a competing population in a given game variant. One such information distribution curve is reproduced below:
That essay detailed how a pronounced information asymmetry between yourself and your opponents facilitates extraordinary success in that game. I used these curves to illustrate the concept of an information ceiling as the theoretical limit to which it is possible to formalize any particular game variant. I’m now going to define an unmapped domain as a domain of human activity where even the person with the highest level of strategic information is known to be very far away from the information ceiling for that domain. In poker ecology, an unmapped domain would be a game variant which is very far from being solved- such as deep stack 5cPLO.
The subject of this essay is how the determinants for extraordinary success change from the moment that a novel, unmapped domain is first explored. Along the way I will describe to the reader the creation and adoption of maps as a means of organizing knowledge about a domain. The discussion will serve to throw a light on the nature of the first generation of successful poker players, demonstrate that the training sites that they built are extensions of their respective natures, and explain why their training models are inadequate at the poker frontier.
Any intelligent human who wishes to act reasonably in a complex domain needs a ‘map’ of that domain from which he can use his reason to respond to the challenges he faces as he attempts to travel towards his chosen destination. Whilst the Westernized layperson associates the meaning of the word ‘map‘ with a graphical representation emphasizing physical distance and meaningful landmarks, I use the word ‘map‘ here in a much wider sense. Indeed, all of the academic disciplines that you are familiar with are attempts to focus on some part of Reality and then design a map to represent it. A map can include significant structural features, as well as fields and forces that dominate the domain. It is important to realize that every map is drawn up with the meanings and interests of a conscious user in mind (This idea is fundamental to the Philosophy of Science and is at the heart of many contemporary metaphysical conflicts, not least of which is the interpretation of Quantum Theories).
We will address different approaches to mapping novel domains in the next article in this series but, before we do so, we need to understand why success in unmapped domains is generally more lucrative and less predictable than success in well-mapped domains.
Well-mapped domains have very clear paths to expertise with recourse to training programs, recognized qualifications and a whole host of teachers, coaches, mentors and experts ready to assist young people with promise. As a consequence all well-mapped domains are dominated by those who have very strong natural aptitude for the particular skills concerned who also accumulate a lot of deliberate practice in the discipline. This opportunity for practice typically, but not always, correlates with starting at a young age since many of the best-mapped domains of human activity have a significant physical component. It is extremely unlikely for anyone to become a world-class violinist if they start at age 30 and still less likely for a man starting soccer at the same age to become a world-class professional player. Whilst innovation in well-mapped domains still occurs, it is the sole preserve of those who have already mastered the key skills identified for that domain.
In fact one of the blights of our age is that national education systems are adept at identifying the most highly gifted people and then fashioning them into cogs for the waiting bureaucratic machine. These systems serve to divert those men who could otherwise make significant creative contributions to human civilization into the profitable but sterile worlds of finance, law, and corporate administration. It takes a a strong streak of independence, a sense of something missing, and a very strong ego for a highly gifted man to escape the comforting embrace of this global homogenizing machine.
It is important to recognize that not all well-mapped domains offer opportunities for extraordinary success. Those domains which can be sufficiently formalized and routinized to be purely technical, without any need for conceptual mastery, offer at best moderate returns. Even the world’s most accomplished supermarket shelf-stacker will still find his salary capped at a low level. Automation continues to intrude on professions which are purely technical, and the bearing that this has on the ambitious player’s approach to poker is covered in the proceeding article in this series. For now I will simply assert that reducing yourself to rote-learning solver strategies will destroy your prospects for long-term success as a poker player and indeed as a thinking human being.
Whilst well-mapped domains are so replete with technique as to feel stifling to the energetic spirit, unmapped domains offer an ocean of possibility. If you participate in an unmapped domain at a time when it is being explored you will enjoy a sense of excitement and disorientation as everything seems to move so rapidly. This very real movement in an unmapped domain should not be confused with the obfuscatory incrementalist ‘progress’ proclaimed by many of today’s technocentric organizations. Whether it be yet another phone or one in a stream of endless software updates, anything which has a version number is not profoundly new.
As disorienting as the exploration of a new domain can be, there is a structure to all such explorations which characterizes the types of people and approaches that succeed in novel domains. In the preceding essay I showed you how Information Distribution Curves could be used to take a snapshot of the strategic information distribution of a game across the playing population. In the graphic below, I take a dynamic view across time to demonstrate how the determinants for success change from the moment that a novel, unmapped domain is first explored, to the point (which may never arrive) where it is sufficiently well-mapped for effective action in that domain to be substantively formalized.
As the graphic illustrates, all novel, unmapped domains pass through two distinct eras, before maturing into either a well-mapped domain or a complex domain. The inherent complexity of the domain has a strong influence on the duration of the early eras. I will now address each of the key features indicated on the graphic, and use them to explain the characteristics common to those people who succeed in each phase of domain exploration. We will start with the earliest phase chronologically- the ‘Opportunist Era’.
Opportunists are the early entrants to unmapped domains, and the willingness to act without a sophisticated map in a domain- which necessarily entails a high degree of uncertainty- is the only thing that unites them. Unmapped domains present opportunities for people who may, ultimately, prove to have mediocre aptitude in the domain in question once it is mapped. Many successful people in such domains will be quite ordinary in terms of any readily identifiable capacity, but through either being