The Executioner's Song

Poker Math Skills + People Skills

Poker Math Skills"Any 2nd Lieutenant can see an advantage; a great General seizes the day."
-- General Lew Wallace

Lew Wallace was a good writer ("Ben-Hur") but by most contemporary accounts no better than a mediocre General. I don't even completely agree with his statement since sometimes, especially in poker, it is quite hard to recognize an advantage. Still, Wallace's comment helps reveal one thing that separates many merely good players from great ones.

Once in an Internet discussion concerning the value of math skills versus people skills in poker, one person disagreeing with my view wrote something that crystallized for me a lot of wrong thinking some poker players do.

I wrote of an example of two people facing the exact same situation. I said perhaps John Smith always plays in the most profitable way for him when encountering a situation, and makes over the course of his life $15 per time that situation comes up. However, when Jane Jones encounters a similar situation, she does the same thing, but she manages to be more successful, making $95 per occurrence.

My debate adversary said this made no sense. How can John Smith's method be the best he can hope for if Jane Jones does better in the same situation? If he's thought about it since then, he may have seen his error in missing it, but of course it makes sense. Why John Smith can do the best he can do but only make $15, while Jane Jones can make $95, is possible for a myriad of possible reasons: table image established, age, sex, a better ability to "sell" a bluff, prejudices held by the opponent, etc. Just as an obvious example, suppose we are talking about a bluff, and John Smith is a 25 year old mouthy guy, while Jane Jones is a grandmotherly 65 year old. In general, the grandmother will be able to bluff successfully more often.

In this example, Jane's greater profit comes from exploiting age and gender prejudices of opponents. John can literally 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:


Suppose two people both know that the best course of action mathematically is to bluff. You conclude your opponent doesn't have much, but you have even less. A bluff is best. A bluff is profitable. But, it's very little help to you at all to know you should bluff if: you don't know how to make your opponent fold! John Smith still makes $15 each time this situation comes up. Let's now compare him to George Jackson. George knows how to give off a reverse tell. He knows how to trick an opponent into acting incorrectly via some mannerism or body language or inane table chatter. George executes better than John. George, in this situation, is able to play better than John. Great players find ways to consistently squeeze out a few more dollars from every situation.

Handicapping a situation is only part of the challenge before you. Mathematically deducing that a bluff is correct is the easier part. Executing, succeeding, better than other players is the challenge.

Previously, I wrote a column on strategy versus tactics, where I said tactics in a vacuum had no value. In the above case, if you happen to bluff correctly on the end, it doesn't mean much if you didn't do it because you knew (or suspected) it was the right thing to do. I said then that strategic thinking is both more important and more profitable. Here a person should conclude a bluff is correct. That's the big thing. That's the critical element.

But now the use of appropriate tactics comes into play. Now better players find the better tactics to maximize profits. Once you figure out what to do, you move on to figuring out what to do to maximize. Sometimes you might bluff with a speech, sometimes you might bluff silently, sometimes you might glance away, sometimes you might stare dead at your opponent... "It depends" when you do each of these, and most of the choices need to be made in a split second.

Some people will have natural advantages in some situations -- like grandmotherly Jane Jones when bluffing -- but good players seeking to be great need to be constantly looking to milk extra dollars (or even pennies) out of all these situations they face. This is not easy. But players need to remember that expectation is not constant. It's not generic. Two people doing the same act for the same reasons can have very different results. Good execution does not make a great player, but great players have great execution.

See also Poker Math, Poker Expected Value, Poker Odds and Gambler's Ruin and Poker Variance