Math or feel? You need them both to win in poker



Do you play by feel, by math or some combination of the two? Many players segregate themselves into these categories. However, I think you can’t play exclusively in one of those categories and be a successful player. If you’re a “feel” player, don’t worry, I’m not going to say you have to learn a ton of complex math to be successful. Likewise, if you’re a “math” player, you won’t have to abandon any of your math skills to incorporate the feel balance needed for success. Over the next few months, I’m going to focus on some of the math-vs.-feel concepts and how you can apply them to make better decisions.

If you think you don’t need to know the math of poker to be successful, you’re partially right. You don’t have to understand all of the calculations or be able to figure out complex odds, but you do need to accept the fundamentals and the reality that the game is mathematical. If you ignore math you’ll be using a lot of negative numbers as you track your bankroll. Whether you know or care how to calculate these numbers it doesn’t matter as long as you accept them and apply them.

Let’s look at playing pocket pairs when facing a raise heads-up. We need to look at the effective stack size (EFS). This is the total amount that can be won or lost; it’s the smallest stack involved in the hand. We then apply the Rule of 5 and 10, which tells us we don’t want to call more than 5-10 percent of the EFS preflop to try to flop a set.

Why does this matter? The odds against flopping a set are about 7.5-to-1. This means you’ll flop a set about 12 percent of the time. If you invested 12 percent of the EFS preflop, you’d have to win the entire effective stack every time you flop a set, and that just won’t happen. Sometimes you flop a set and lose the hand, and many times your stack. Sometimes you flop a set and win some additional money but not the entire EFS. Sometimes you flop a set and don’t win any more than what is already in the pot. This doesn’t mean you always have to fold if someone raises more than the rule allows. You certainly have the option of reraising them, but at least when the amount is above the profitable range to call to flop a set, you can rule out calling and decide to raise or fold based on the player and situation.

Something else we have uncovered here is the concept of implied odds. In the aforementioned example we want to potentially win 10-20 times our initial investment in the pot (this is the amount we are implying we can win, thus giving us our implied odds). Otherwise, calling is not profitable because the math will not be in our favor. I even recommend trying to stick more to a 5-7.5 percent preflop investment so you have an opportunity to win 15-20 times your initial call.

If I know calling isn’t profitable I can rule that out; I now can decide whether to raise or fold. If I’m facing a raise from an early position player, a very tight player, someone who I don’t think will fold preflop or isn’t likely to pay me off if I flop a set, I tend to fold. If I’m facing a raise from later position, a looser player or one I think might fold preflop, I’m more inclined to raise.

Raising gives me the chance to win the pot preflop and gives me the lead as the preflop aggressor. I’m more likely to win postflop with a continuation bet regardless if I hit my set. I’ll also most often be raising in position, which forces opponents to call and play a bigger pot out of position, fold or reraise me. Most opponents aren’t going to four-bet you without a very strong hand, so when they do you can easily fold your small-medium pairs knowing you’re likely racing at best and will not flop your set 88 percent of the time.

Using the Rule of 5 and 10 (or 5 and 7.5) we can make better mathematical decisions preflop. If we ignore this rule, we’re simply gambling with the odds against us and aren’t playing profitable long-term poker. Sure, we may get lucky occasionally, but if we invest too much with our small pairs to try to flop a set, we’ll be handing money to our opponents over the long haul. If we abide by the rules based on the math we’ll make decisions easier on ourselves and will be more profitable at the tables.

Decide to Win!

— Lee Childs is founder and lead instructor of Acumen Poker. He also is an instructor with the WPT Boot Camp. Go to

Ante Up Magazine

Ante Up Magazine