Hold the presses! I’ve finally figured it all out; poker is really an easy game. Just follow this advice:Only play the nuts, bet the hand for maximum profit and don’t get sucked out on.
The problem with this is you only have some control over playing the premium hands. If you only play the nuts, you don’t play much and you limit your ability to bluff, semi-bluff and outplay opponents; plus, the nuts may not really be the nuts because of changes on each street. Pocket aces are the nuts preflop and your opponent makes a reasonable call with K-K or an unreasonable call with 7-3-off and the flop comes K-7-3; pocket aces preflop get cracked. So how can you win consistently, enjoy the game and avoid tilt? Play situational poker.
In every field there is a debate between the technical side (the math players) and the psychological side (the feel players) of how to make decisions. Investors follow technical and fundamental analysis and the psychology of the market. In mental and physical health care there is the actuarial or statistical analysis vs. the holistic diagnosis. In poker, too, there are the math guys and the feel guys. And there are the situational guys, reading the situation, adjusting their play, being adaptable.
Each side of continuum does OK in all fields, but falling for this illusion of alternatives can be catastrophic, because you limit yourself. An illusion of alternatives occurs when one is convinced there are only two possible solutions and one way has to be chosen.
There are never only two possible solutions, two dichotomous ways of looking at situations, but if I can get someone to think there are I win. In poker you can check, fold, call, bluff, semi-bluff and, most important for the higher-level game, control the bet size.
The best solution for decision-making takes aspects of what works best in the particular situation.
The solid answer of how to play is that poker is a competition in which situational decisions are constantly made. We always and only have access to limited information.
The number of decisions made in a session of poker exceeds what the typical mortal experiences in a week; a decision is made on each street of each hand.
The field of decision-making research is conclusive that all decisions are situational. Assess the situation and make the best decision based upon all the information you have at the moment. Information is always incomplete; knowledge is always incomplete. Action is constantly changing; action is required in poker… There’s no time for a conference call or a life line.
Poker is a game of situational decision-making; the better you become at reading the situation and being flexible, the better you will do. Speed of reading and of changing your game is essential. Reading the situation isn’t just reading the table, it’s the ability to read the player, the patterns and knowing the fundamentals of probability, odds, outs, implied odds … in other words, the math.
If you’re a feel player and only play the player, you’re open to bias and perceptions about other people. And, of course, the loose player who calls every raise with J-2 offsuit sometimes hits, and if you’re at a table with four of these guys, one of them will always seem to hit. Reading tells and patterns are hard work and not always correct, since they’re subject to the information you have. I tried an experiment at a tournament recently. When I had a great hand (flopped trips) I would get my chips ready and look like I was eager to get my money in. I even made a mistake and bet out of turn. Actually, it was an honest mistake, but the know-it-all next to me told me he saw my tell. So I capitalized on the so-called tell and was able to execute a great bluff later on in a higher blind. Then, of course, you think you have a great read on a player and he spikes his two-outer on the river.
If you’re a math guy, you play the probabilities, the outs, the odds… but what happens when you have pocket aces and get called by 3-4 offsuit because your opponent doesn’t believe you, doesn’t pay attention to your table image, doesn’t understand your big bet, doesn’t care about position, stack size or bet size and winds up with a flush? Your aces get cracked, again.
I recently reviewed a Power Point by the Federal Aviation Administration regarding training in Critical Thinking and Situational Awareness and Decision Making. The advice offered first defined situational awareness as having an accurate and unbiased understanding of where we are, what is happening, what is changing and what could happen. Developing good situation awareness requires unbiased data-gathering by seeking cues in the environment, putting this data together to give understanding and projecting ahead to what might happen next.
To do this, one has to scan a range of sources, evaluate the information without bias, test for accuracy and reliability, understand it using what we know along with our previous experience and do mental “what ifs” when considering possible actions and outcomes.
Adhering to a set way of playing won’t work. In a column a couple of months ago I wrote about grokking the table. In that article I used this definition: “To grok (pronounced GRAHK) something is to understand something so well that it is fully absorbed into oneself.” In Robert Heinlein’s 1961science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, the word is Martian and literally means “to drink.” But metaphorically it means “to take it all in,” to understand fully, or to “be at one with.” Today, grok sometimes is used to include acceptance as well as comprehension, to “dig” or appreciate as well as to know.
You can grok the table systematically by playing situation poker and practicing situational decision-making. Only then can you grok the table, get into the zone and play at your peak on a regular basis.
And, as always, the basic tenant of Head Games is to keep your head in the game.
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.