Sports

Lodden Thinks

Why the world’s elite poker players love this gambling guessing game.

Photos of Clint Eastwood inside a silhouette of a thinking man with poker chips surrounding the image on a poker table.
How old do you think your friend thinks Clint Eastwood is? Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bruce Mars/Unsplash, alfexe/Getty Images Plus, Lucy Nicholson/AFP via Getty Images, Amy Sussman/Getty Images for AFI, Dan Groshong/AFP via Getty Images, Carlos Schiebeck/AFP via Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI, and Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.

This article is adapted from The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2020 by Maria Konnikova.

I’d like to introduce you to a game. Not the game I’ve spent the past three years immersing myself in, poker, but another game—one I came across as I sat at poker table after poker table around the world: Lodden Thinks.

Lodden Thinks was created one day in the mid-2000s, when two poker pros found themselves bored at a televised poker table. The Magician and the Unabomber—Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak, the former nicknamed for his past profession, the latter for his affinity for hoodies pulled low over his face and sunglasses shielding his eyes—soon came up with a way to pass the time. At the table was Johnny Lodden, a Norwegian pro and mutual friend. They would take turns asking him a question—and then bet on what he thought the answer was. Lodden would then supply his own response, and the person who’d been closest to Lodden’s answer would win the round. The game took off, and soon, players around the world were betting anywhere from a dollar or two to tens of thousands on a single question.

The beauty of Lodden Thinks is that the real, factual answer to any given query doesn’t actually matter. The game is all about perception and psychology: What does Lodden (or whoever is the target in this particular iteration) think the answer is—and can you be the one to see the world from his perspective more closely than your opponents? In a sense, it’s the heart of not only poker but many a social situation. How good are you at figuring out how others see the world—and at gearing your own actions accordingly? Remember: Objective reality doesn’t actually matter. Subjective perception, and your ability to tune into it accurately, is key to the win.

On a 2008 episode of Poker After Dark, a popular television show of high-stakes cash games, two high-profile players, Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson, played a round of Lodden Thinks for $10,000.

“I want to bet on Clint Eastwood’s age,” Brunson says to open this particular game. Daniel Negreanu volunteers to guess. He’ll be the Lodden. Once he’s “locked it down”—that is, has thought of his response and locked it in—the guessing can begin.

“I’ll play this one,” comes Phil Ivey’s voice. He turns to Brunson. “Will you play this one with me? For 10,000?”

Brunson nods. “Yeah.”

“OK.”

“OK.”

Brunson starts at 21. Ivey can now either accept the under or propose a higher number. He counters with 40. Now Brunson can either accept the under or go higher. Immediately, he counters with 60. Now things start getting more serious. Ivey stares him down a bit before offering, “62.” Sixty‐four, counters Brunson with a smirk. Sixty-six. Sixty-eight.

Phil reflects. “How dumb is Daniel … let’s see.” He knows his edge is to read his Lodden. He doesn’t need to have a clue as to Eastwood’s real age.

“You’re not signaling him, are you?” asks Brunson.

“In some way we are,” Ivey responds. Because of course, part of the game is watching the Lodden’s reactions and seeing what you can extract from his responses. Like so many things in life, this is a game of people, not hard truths.

There’s a slight pause as Ivey shoves all his chips into the middle of the table with pocket sevens—they are still playing a high-stakes poker game, after all, and the pot is now more than $8,000—and then counters with 69. Seventy-two, says Brunson, as Ivey sees that he is up against a superior pair of eights. Ivey comes back with 73. Brunson ups it to 74. Ivey accepts the under and they turn to Negreanu. “You lose,” Brunson says confidently to Ivey as they wait for the answer.

Negreanu laughs. “I had 73.”

Ivey loses the pot in the middle but wins 10 grand all the same. Brunson shakes his head in disbelief. “He’s 77.” It’s like he can’t believe that someone could possibly not know that.

As Ivey departs—with that hand, he’s lost his $20,000 buy-in—Phil Hellmuth, another elite player at the table, chimes in, reminding him that he owes him from their Lodden Thinks bout earlier. One dime. Not slang—actually 10 cents.

Ivey rummages in his pocket and throws a dime over the table. This round of Lodden Thinks is at an end. Brunson knew the answer, but Ivey knew his man.

Sometimes, though, knowing your man may not be enough if you’re not careful to observe the specifics of the interaction—and too much personal knowledge can actually get in the way of winning. Erik Seidel—my guide through the world of poker and one of the most respected and successful players in the game—recalls one of his own most painful Lodden moments, against the Lodden master himself, Antonio Esfandiari. It was 2014, and Seidel had come to South Africa for a $100,000 tournament. He hadn’t particularly cared to play in it, but Dan Harrington, another famed stalwart of the poker world, had been trying to complete his quest of traveling to 50 countries, and they had already traveled to Australia for the Aussie Millions, so the timing seemed opportune. And so they made their way to Johannesburg. The tournament was a bust—only nine players, all pros—but the trip was proving to be eventful. A safari planned, a stay in Cape Town, some tours of local sites, a little time spent away from it all.

That morning, Seidel, Harrington, Jungleman (the nickname of poker pro Dan Cates; he happened to have captured the $100K a few days earlier), and Esfandiari found themselves on a bus on their way to a lion park. It’s not surprising that they were soon playing Lodden Thinks; at the time, it seemed Esfandiari would take any opportunity to engage in the game he’d helped create.

The Lodden on this particular round was Dan Harrington, and Seidel and Esfandiari were doing the betting. The question: How much money would it take for Harrington to forgo wearing socks ever again? Soon, the guesses were flying, with Seidel quickly arriving at the half-million mark. Seidel was confident: He and Harrington were old friends, after all; he knew his man. The stakes were high.

“I’m pretty sure it was over $5,000 for the question,” Seidel tells me. “And it wouldn’t surprise me if it was 11 or 12 grand.”

Esfandiari quickly agreed to the under, and they looked expectantly at their target. The winner: Antonio Esfandiari. Harrington had put his number at around $160,000.

“That’s crazy!” Seidel remembers telling him. “To never wear socks again?”

Even now he shakes his head. “It was so tilting. I mean, he goes to the gym, he exercises. No socks, ever? Really?”

Seidel had done what he was supposed to do: He’d used his knowledge of Harrington, their yearslong friendship, to decide that something so uncomfortable would command a hefty price tag.

Harrington certainly didn’t need the cash.

But knowing your man in the abstract isn’t enough. “I wasn’t watching him closely enough to see his reaction,” Seidel recalls. “Antonio was.”

The abstract doesn’t matter, no matter how honed your portrait may be. What matters is the moment. His current state. His current frame of mind.

As it turns out, Seidel knew Harrington better than Harrington knew himself. After giving it some thought, Harrington admitted that his stated number was likely far too low. But Seidel had already lost. “I have to admit I was really tempted to just pay him the $160,000 and make him suffer through never wearing socks again,” he says.

Seidel laughs. “Antonio has probably made millions on Lodden Thinks.”

For weeks after I first encounter the game, I keep playing through the layers of Lodden Thinks in my mind. It’s a neat distillation of so much of what I’ve been trying to articulate about the complexity of poker—and the complexity of the life decisions that it models. It’s a constant circle. There’s the math, the calculations, the strategy derived from hundreds of thousands of Monte Carlo simulations for the game-theoretical solutions. But there’s so much more. As John von Neumann, the father of game theory, knew, the human always gets in the way of the mathematical model. That’s why he couldn’t even build the perfect model: He wanted humanity, and humanity could always surprise you. You need to know the base strategy. You need to adjust based on the specific individuals. And then you need to adjust further based on how those specific individuals are feeling in that exact moment, in that exact situation. And what if they don’t fully analyze everything themselves and, like Harrington, confidently state the wrong guess about their own preferences, forgetting for a moment what such a guess would actually mean? You have to account for that, too. Otherwise you’ll lose the bout of Lodden, the hand of poker, the tactical negotiation. Someone can always be confidently wrong, even about their own mind.

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