Poker Decision Making

How and Why and What

Poker Decisions"Believing is easier than thinking. Hence so many more believers than thinkers." --Bruce Calvert

John and Tom walk into a cardroom. John just sits down. Tom chooses his seat. They both did the same act, but Tom did his for a reason, and that reason is known to him but (usually) not to us. The "what" in poker is the action that you see. "Why" and "how" are fully or partly hidden.

Mediocre poker players focus on what to do. They don't want to trouble themselves with the why or especially the how. They just want to "do".

One of the terrific aspects of poker is that it is a mass of contradictions. Winning poker comes from playing when you have the best of it -- not specifically from knowing you have the best of it, or even knowing how much the best of it you have. You can have a great player and an awful one facing the same situation. The great player can analyze and study and draw absolutely accurate conclusions while at the same time the awful player can be completely clueless -- and they can still both end up doing the same action (like calling an all-in bet).

Of course, over a period of time the players who do the correct thing because they know it is correct are going to win out over the players who sometimes happen to do the correct thing by accident. Knowing the why and how of actions are the important skills players need to develop, even if during any particular hand the unthoughtful players can blunder onto the correct "what".

But learning the "why" and the "how" are pretty darn difficult. Poker is so simple in the "what" actions -- bet, check, call, fold, raise. With only a handful of possible actions, it is remarkable that the "why" and especially the "how" have nearly a bottomless pit of possibilities.

Reading descriptions of hands posted for discussion on the Internet often is fascinating simply because the person asks, "what should I have done?" If somebody replies with one word like "fold", if the three choices are raise or call or fold, that answer is like saying "door number three". It's like choosing an answer at random. It has a one in three chance of being right. The correct question for the person to ask is: "why should I do what I should do, and how should I do it?" The correct answer would reveal a why and how... and the what would be a footnote.

While most players don't seem to like thinking about the whys, they are terrified of the hows. It's an old cliché to say people only use 10% of their brain capability (except for Omaha players who on a good day use 1%). Even if it is hard, figuring out the "how" is the work of poker.

Sometimes the "how" will come easily. In many situations talented players will recognize the how in an instant. But the how has many levels of complexity. Playing tournaments, I often face people I face all the time. To play well against these people, I have to work hard at it. And what I work on certainly is not the "what". I think about how to play Miami John or Phil Ivey. What I do is the result of a "how" plan that comes from "why" reasoning.

Of course, planning makes sense when you play with regular opponents. Playing with strangers makes planning harder. Still, "how do I play against a group of strangers" is a huge, difficult question that you could think about forever. Just because the how of a situation is a difficult nut to crack doesn’t mean that you shouldn't get on the job of cracking it.

The "what" gets all the obvious attention. It's the things we see. The why and the how are more personal. We keep them more to ourselves -- and so do our opponents. We all tend to hold more dear those things that are more personal, more private, more our own. Working on our hows and whys, and cracking the hows and whys of our stronger opponents are the true work of a poker lifetime.

See also Poker Anti-Skills, Bad Poker Decisions, Making Choices and Poker Logic