Poker Players With Two Brains

Left Brain Meet Right Brain

Left Brain Right Brain Poker"The brain is an apparatus with which we think that we think." -- Ambrose Bierce

Many people look at the most successful "old-school" players as brilliantly "intuitive" -- players who come to conclusions by instinct, by feel, without a deliberate thought-process, they just "know." For a hundred years, those people with the best feel for the game and their opponents were the dominant players. After all, poker is a game of people. For the past twenty of so years, another type of player has come to prominence -- players whose game is based primarily on mathematical analysis of situations. After all, poker is all about getting the best of it over the long run.

Another way to look at this is to view the instinctive players as "right brain" people, because the right half of the human brain is home to our intuitive, artistically creative abilities. The mathematical players could be seen as a "left brain" people, because the left half of the brain processes our verbal, analytical and logic activities. The right half of the brain is analogical -- meaning it tends to draw conclusions by analogy. John was bluffing the last time he scratched his head when the board paired, so now in a different hand when the board pairs and John bets while scratching his head, he is (probably) bluffing again. This is decision-making by analogy -- in different situations (different hands) if you discover some similarities, then there are likely more similarities. On the other hand, the left-brain is analytical -- every aspect of a situation is broken down on it's own, analyzed, on a way to coming to a correct conclusion.

Clearly these two ways of making a decision have similarities, but they are also very different, especially when applied to poker. Many intuitive players are openly hostile to viewing situations as mathematical equations. They just know what the right thing to do is. In effect, they can read their opponent's minds. If you know your opponent's cards, it seldom will be necessary to spend much time analyzing. The job is done. And then many mathematical players who can calculate the correct action are openly hostile to the idea that a player can just know what to do when the correct action is often truly complicated to figure out.

Which way is better? Well, like many either/or questions, the answer is... neither!

I'm pretty sure that God gave us two halves of a brain for a good reason. We should be using both sides of our brains to win at poker. Why would anybody want to play with half a brain??

And more than we should use both sides of our brains, we must. Correct logical analysis can only be done from usefully gathered data. If a friend calls and asks you to come over to help fix a car, and you take the time to accumulate all the right tools to change a tire, only to find that the friend does not have a flat tire but rather a busted carburetor, all your logical tool-gathering was worse than worthless. It was wrong.

In poker, we mostly use the skills from the right side of our brains to gather data. The right side notices the phenomenon of John scratching his head when he bets. But then, the left side will usually come to a better, more complete conclusion about what to do than the analogical right side will. The right side may observe the scratching, but the left side will be sure to take into account that the second time a fly had just landed on John's head! Correct poker thinking comes from gathering data, and then putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and then making the move that is the most profitable in the long run. It's not much good to be able to discern information about our opponents, if we then don't know what to do with it. And, it's no good to know what to do with information if we are awful at gathering information!

Every poker player uses both parts of the brain. The most right-brained player still knows how to add 3+3. The most left-brained person still notices when an opponent reacts as if hit by lightning when a particular card is dealt. This is not an either/or situation. We do use both sides of our brains. But everyone is bound to use one side a little or a lot more than the other.

People wanting to be fully-rounded, complete, winning poker players need to work on developing both sides of their brains, especially the side that does not come natural to them. To play this game, you need your whole brain -- and then some.

See also Poker Stereotypes and Playing with Enthusiasm