Sherlock Holmes on Poker

Elementary, My Dear Poker Player

Poker Details"I interfere whenever and wherever I please."
-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, via Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes would likely have made an excellent poker player. Winning poker involves breaking codes, misdirection, manipulation and the fundamental ability to discover the truth when others attempt to hide it.

Sometimes seeing the truth is not hard. For example, an opponent's bluff might be painfully obvious. But other times, the systematic elimination of the known can lead to the discovery of the unknown.

"The true is discovered by eliminating the untrue... When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Poker has some moments of certainty, like when you have the best possible hand, but for the most part we need to wade through a sea of unknowns as we make decisions. This aspect of the game becomes more important the higher the level of your opponents. Mediocre and worse players have little imagination and play by rote. Top players like to do things that don't just confuse other players, but that the other players don't give serious consideration to. When dealing with top players, the improbable tends to morph into the probable.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

While crime detection likes facts, sometimes known facts don't exist. All that exists is data. This is where the greatest similarity to poker occurs. When playing poker we have truckloads of data, but often there isn't a fact to be found (beyond the exact value of our own hand). A mistake every player makes (time and again for many players) is to twist the data they have to "prove" a theory that they started with before any data existed.

The most common example of this is many losing players believe they are great players, and no amount of data will dissuade them from that belief... at least as long as one tiny bit of data supports the theory. I've seen some tournament players who got assaulted by the deck one day which allowed them to win a major event end up convinced they are in fact top players. Somehow getting pocket aces ten times in an hour, and winning with all of them, becomes an "I'm a great player" data point that offsets years of data from dreadfully unsuccessful play.

"Where there is no imagination, there is no horror."

Great poker players are not devoid of fear, because great poker players are not idiots. Great players know when to exercise caution. Great players aren't afraid of danger, they even solicit dangerous situations because they know how to handle themselves in such situations, but when they do this they are aware of the risks.

"It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you."

Great players are not reckless. They don't see themselves as bulletproof. The danger level of situations is simply one more piece of data to insert into your playing equation. Many novices see top players make bold moves on television, and don't understand that the bold move is not reckless, but rather made by a player who fully understands the risk.

"I am glad of all details, whether they seem to you to be relevant or not."

And of course this is an item that will forever separate the great from the mediocre, or worse. The Dr. Watson's of the world might not find much value in details, but the devil is in the details. Tiny details can unlock the mysteries of life and of a poker game, even if they often don't. I'm glad to have every detail an opponent gives me, and I am constantly on the hunt for details that I can use this second or this century.

"What one man can invent, another can discover."

And the game is afoot. Your opponents are constantly inventing. Our mission is to unravel the contrivances of their inventions to find the truth.

See also Poker Empathy and YA Tittle and Losing Poker