Poker Logic

Making Judgments on Shades of Gray

Poker Logic"There are times when all the world's asleep
the questions run too deep" -- Supertramp

Some things about poker seem obvious on the surface. Poker requires a lot of decision-making, so a person who is good at making decisions has an edge, right?

It's not so simple. We have to look at the kinds of decisions a person needs to make when playing poker! We are getting a lot of information, but we are also denied a lot of information. We face these sneaky opponents who constantly try to feed us incorrect data and hide the true stuff. At the same time, we also give information to our opponents, which they then use to consciously return information to us, and which leads to them unconsciously transmitting more data!

It's one big mess.

To make it even more complicated, sometimes there is more than one "correct" answer to a situation. And, sometimes the "correct" response we make depends on our opponents for it to be the best response. For instance, it's no use at all to give off a false tell to an opponent if the guy happens to take that moment to look at the waitress walking by and not see our tell!

A huge percentage of that stuff that is "poker" is the actions we take based on the situations we are in. "It depends." Those two words, it depends, are often just used as a joke when talking about poker because so much of poker is situational. But those two words go to the heart of what it takes to be a good player. Mastering "it depends," and then mastering it better, is a constant challenge to a player. It's the way we can continually improve. Mastering "it depends" is poker.

Okay, so doing the right thing in each circumstance is not a groundbreaking idea. But, what many thoughtful players don't appreciate is the tool they use in coming to good (or bad) conclusions. Logic. In poker decision-making, logic is the Holy Grail.

The term or mental process called logic means different things depending on the context. Logic is a branch of philosophy. Logic is also a branch of mathematics. The definition of logic that matters in poker (or at least here, since I'm writing this!) is: logic is the science of correct reasoning. In poker, we want to come to correct conclusions -- even if the correct conclusion is sometimes wrong! For instance, if you read an opponent for a bluff and call him, and the opponent was bluffing, but he overlooked his hand and actually has the nuts, this bad result is unimportant. Doing the logical thing is doing the sensible thing. Sometimes in poker un-sensible things happen. We can't be concerned about that. We should only strive to do what is best, based on the information we gather.

And this brings up the fact that logic in poker is usually not the logic of mathematics. Mathematical logic deals with absolutes, with objectively correct answers. If 2+2=4 and if 3+3=6, then 2+2+3+3=4+6. Logic in poker is mostly dealing with non-objective information and conclusions. Applying logic under indefinite circumstances if more difficult than simple mathematical logic where there is a known right answer. Great poker players correctly answer questions that do not have a definite answer. Great poker players see a bit of information -- a player bets, then looks away -- and weigh the likely meaning of this information. In this case, where the guy looks away, this is a common tell for a player who has the goods, who is not bluffing. But now suppose before looking away the player aggressively bets, splashing the pot. This is a standard tell for a player who is bluffing. Uh-oh, conflicting data!

Sometimes the answer is easy. Sometimes the answer is clear mathematically. If the pot is $3000, and the player bet $2 all-in, you call. But, most situations are not clearcut at all -- somebody bets $40 at a $160 pot and you have a middle pair. Like the conflicting data example, figuring out the right play can be very hard. It depends and it's indefinite -- the person betting might not even be sure if he's bluffing or not!

When faced with these situations, most sensible players go through a logical thought process to come up with a decent answer, even if they don't realize that is what they are doing. I believe though that these players would come up with better answers if they consciously viewed the thought process they go through as logic -- not the math logic of being able to recognize black from white, but making judgments on shades of gray, deriving conclusions that are probably correct.

Poker very seldom lets you know for a certainty (before the fact) that you are right. The great players act based on conclusions they draw from incomplete, indefinite and contradictory data. The good thing is that poker offers us infinite opportunities to consciously practice our logic. Every single hand, including ones we are not in, present us with logical challenges, logical mysteries. He did "A", then she did "B", which probably means...

Since winning poker is the mastery of the logical and the mastery of the illogical (your opponents are trying to get you to do the wrong thing), players should be more concerned with finding what action is "best", not what action happens to win an individual pot this time. Appreciate and encourage your own good uses of logic, and examine your logical mistakes, regardless of whether pots are won or lost.

Also: Poker Decision Making, Bad Poker Decisions and YA Tittle and Losing Poker