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Changing the Math

What and How

Poker Math"Knowing WHAT to do...is about 10% of the game.
Knowing HOW to do it...is the other 90%." -- Doyle Brunson


Some people easily get what Doyle wrote. For others, the concept comes across as if he's speaking Martian. They spend all their time focusing on the what, finding the correct play. When they find it, they think they are done. But all they have is the 10% tip of the iceberg.

An example: bluffing the river in a situation where you know your opponent holds little, but your hand is worse. For instance, you judge your opponent has a busted Ace high flush draw, while you have a busted straight draw. He has Ace high. You have Jack high. There are ten big bets in the pot. By bluffing you will win this pot sometimes -- not always, not never, sometimes. Deciding to bluff is the correct what to do. But donít stop there, thatís just 10% of winning poker!

By far more important than that basic observation that a bluff is called for is the ability to pull the bluff off. I called this "executing" in a previous column. Clearly if when Rhonda bluffs in this situation she wins 75% of the time, that is far better than if when Billy bluffs he wins only 15% of the time. With these different success rates, after 100 similar hands playing $10/20, Rhonda will be ahead $14,500 (75 times she wins $200, 25 times she loses her $20 bet), while Billy will only be ahead $1300 (15 times he wins $200, 85 times he loses his $20). Even though she only wins the bluff five times more often than Billy, Rhonda wins more than eleven times what Billy does!

This is an extreme example, but itís clear that if Rhonda similarly consistently executes better than Billy, she is going to win far more money than him -- even though they both always choose the same action! The how of poker, the execution, leading to better success rates, this is what winning is all about.

Donít get me wrong, Billy made the right choice, and could still be a winning player. But his game peaks out at the 10% of what. Heís conquered the relatively simple challenge of figuring out what is the mathematically best choice. What he hasnít learned to do is manipulate the more important how.

If you are playing for money, every poker actionís results are part of a mathematical equation. The fact most players donít think about the math doesnít mean it isnít there. Rhonda and Billyís bluffs led to a mathematical result. But if Billy is sitting there proud of himself for finding the $1300 profitable what, he sure is missing the boat. Finding the proper what -- Billy knowing that a bluff is the right move -- is a relatively basic, rudimentary skill. It sure isnít the end of the road. Itís merely the elementary school part.

Great players routinely change the math of their situations. They execute the how in ways that makes them win bets that other players do not get. And winning limit poker is all about bets -- a bet won here, a bet saved there, a pot stolen here, a successful snapping off of a bluff there.

Suppose after the river card is dealt, you are last to act against three opponents and you hold the nut hand. Obviously you bet. That is a what that isnít in doubt at all. But your job as a player isnít over -- the how you make that bet could be the difference between getting one or two or three callers (or getting checkraised!). If how you make that bet can get you one or more extra bets from your opponents, as a player you sure better be trying to find the right how. The mathematically correct move is to bet, but if betting quickly with your left hand instead of slowly with your right wins you an extra bet, you sure should be betting with your left hand, and not merely patting yourself on the back for having the sense to bet the nuts in the first place.

Finding the right action is not nearly as important as making it work. How (and why) you do things matters a lot more than what you do. Think "how am I going to do this" and not merely "what am I going to do."

See also Poker Expected Value and Poker Variance