Changing the Math

Math Skills + People Skills = Poker Execution

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

Some people read this line and think Doyle is 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 tip of the iceberg. (Personally, I think the percentages are more like 33/67, not 10/90.)

Example: bluffing the river in a situation where you know your opponent holds little, but your hand is worse. Suppose 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. By bluffing you win this pot sometimes -- not always, not never, sometimes. Deciding to bluff is the correct what to do. But don't stop there, that's just part of winning poker!

More important than that basic observation that a bluff is called for is the ability to pull the bluff off, executing the bluff. 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.

This is an extreme example, but if Rhonda similarly consistently executes better than Billy in other aspects of the game, she will win far more money than he will -- even though both players always choose the same action! The how of poker, the execution, leading to better success rates, this is what excelling as a player is all about.

Expectation is not constant. It's not generic. Two people doing the same action for the same reasons can have very different results. Good execution does not make a great player, but great players have great execution.

Don't get me wrong, Billy made the right choice, and could still be a winning player. But his game peaks at the what. He's conquered the relatively simple challenge of figuring out what is the mathematically best choice. What he hasn't learned to do is manipulate the more difficult how.

I'm not belittling the knowledge needed for the "what to do". That knowledge is critically important to be a winning player, but a large chunk of the knowledge needed to be a winning player is self-evident. For example, having the knowledge that playing AA in Hold'em is a good idea isn't difficult to learn. Some poker knowledge is difficult to learn, but a large amount of poker knowledge, like recognizing AA is a good hand, is not at all hard to learn. In contrast, developing superior execution seldom has such "easy" parallels.

Having the knowledge to play AA is basic; how you play AA makes a world of $$$$ difference.

If you are playing for money, every poker action's results are part of a mathematical equation. The fact most players don't think about the math doesn't mean it isn't there. Rhonda and Billy's bluffs led to a mathematical result. But if Billy is proud of himself for his profitable 15% success rate, he is missing the boat. Finding the proper what -- Billy knowing that a bluff is the right move -- is an important skill, but it isn't the end of the road.

Great players routinely change the math of their situations. They execute the how in ways that make them win bets that other players do not get.

Why Billy can do the best he can and only succeed 15% of the time, while Rhonda can succeed 75%, is possible for a myriad of potential reasons: table image established, age, sex, a better ability to "sell" a bluff, prejudices held by the opponent, etc. As an obvious example, talking about a bluff, suppose Billy is a 25 year old mouthy guy, while Rhonda is a grandmotherly 65 year old. In general, the grandmother will be able to bluff successfully more often.

In this example, Rhonda's greater profit comes from exploiting age and gender prejudices of opponents. Billy can do nothing about that. However, many times two players will achieve different results even by taking the exact same action for the exact same reasons because of execution. Great players find ways to consistently squeeze a few more dollars from every situation.

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 isn't in doubt at all. But your job as a player isn't 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... not merely patting yourself on the back for having the sense to bet the nuts in the first place!

Often when people write about this subject they tend to oversimplify it. I'm not saying the "what", the knowledge of the right thing to do, is a minor thing. It's just most of what is included in the "what" of poker are things that are generally easier to learn (like learning AA is a good Hold'em hand to play). In short, this means...

A player with great knowledge but poor execution probably will be a winner.
A player with poor knowledge and great execution probably won't be a winner.
But if you strive to be a top player, you should seek to have great knowledge and great execution... and that great execution is what will do more to set you well above the others who don't execute well.

Put another way, learning the knowledge to generally do the what correctly could take you a few years. Learning to maximize how you exploit that knowledge is the job of your poker lifetime.

Having a solid foundation of strategic knowledge is overall more important than tactical skills, but having knowledge without the ability to act on it is like using a gold bar as a doorstop. Knowledge is not the end of the road. It's the beginning of the road for a winning poker player. Acting on your knowledge in a skilled way is what gets the money.

Merely having knowledge isn't enough to be a top player. Merely being able to execute non-random choices with the random cards you are dealt is not enough. In the life of a solid poker player, there is no conflict between knowledge and execution. Instead, they are two aspects of the same thing: top-level, winning poker is about inspired execution based on a foundation of solid knowledge.

Learn and perform, and then learn to perform better.

See also Poker Expected Value, Poker Odds and Gambler's Ruin, Poker Variance and Good Variance vs. Bad Risk