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Poker Smarts

Intelligence and the Smart Poker Player

Smart Poker"Career opportunities are ones that never knock." -- The Clash

Poker is a game dominated by smart people. Now before every player starts lining up to collect their Nobel Prize, let me explain. Poker values all sorts of different kinds of intelligence. (And also don't forget wisdom is better than knowledge.)

David Sklansky once wrote:
"Top notch thinkers (by that I mean people who have the ability to answer questions that have a definite answer using deduction, induction, analysis or similar thought processes) are as far ahead of average or even good thinkers as top notch athletes are as far ahead as average or good athletes."

In a poker context, the logical flaw in David's idea is enormous because top-notch poker thinkers answer questions that do not have a definite answer! Correctly discerning the best answer to really tough questions is so much more difficult than questions that have a clear right or wrong answer. Complex thinking that takes into account multi-dimensional and often conflicting data, and then comes to a solid, logical conclusion, is what is truly difficult and valuable in poker, and this world.

Why isn't poker dominated by physics PhD's? Because they aren't necessarily great multi-dimensional thinkers. Poker players brilliant mathematically who succeed in poker do so because they master (are "smart" in) an array of talents and thought processes, not merely disciplines that value "definite answers".

Look at history, who has been valuable, who do we remember? Look at every day life, who do we turn to in a pinch? Look at poker, what are the traits of people who do well over a long haul? In all these, multi-dimensional thinkers who logically digest indefinite information are the "smart" ones.

David further contended that if they had to top notch Physics PhD's could become better lawyers than average lawyers of any type except possibly criminal lawyers where acting is so important.

David's first idea sent him tumbling down a steep slippery slope with the second. The principal secret of excellence (even more than "success") in most any field, particularly intellectual ones is... desire. Passion.

Even a clearly superior mind will seldom achieve the level of success of the truly motivated. Politics is similar to practicing law. Who were the great American politicians of the last 40 years of the 20th Century?... Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. While Clinton is well-above average in intelligence, the other two certainly were not Aristotle. They succeeded brilliantly in their fields though. No physicist, or any other far smarter person, could hold a candle to these men because of their desire to achieve what they did achieve.

Take a fairly smart person who wants to be an attorney against an extremely smart person without any passion for it, and the better attorney will virtually always be the person with the passion.

Being intelligent, even being more intelligent than a competitor, doesn't mean a person will do a better job. In general, the physicists of the world would make miserable lawyers, if only because they didn't want to be lawyers! And don't say, "but if they wanted to be lawyers...", if they did, then almost all would not be or want to be physicists.

In general, the only lawyers these physicists could be better lawyers than are those lawyers who don't want to be lawyers. An unmotivated physics PhD has next to no chance to be a better lawyer than some person who has the burning desire to be a lawyer.

In times of crisis, either personal or national, people turn to multi-dimensional, multi-talented people. They turn to people who think logically in uncertain circumstances, not those who can merely deduce objective answers. Throughout history, look who these people have been. In your own lives, look who these people have been.

Those with limited skills, like a person who has only mastered physics, are not very valuable in a crunch. They play a role, as all intelligent people do, but it's a secondary one, because they are secondary thinkers.

And this is very much a poker discussion. Logical reasoning is most important in all the imperfect human activities, like poker. People who think situationally, people who perceive and deduce the best possible action given incomplete and contradictory and even multiple correct answers are those who do well in poker -- and in all times of crisis.

Smart people are good at many things; smart poker players are good at many things. Just because one fellow can divide polynomials and ten other people can't doesn't mean that this one fellow is even half as smart as the other ten -- not unless all of a sudden everything in the world depends on being able to divide polynomials twenty-four hours a day.

Intelligence is knowing and understanding a situation, then proceeding correctly. Intelligence is something you demonstrate in a wide variety of life circumstances, from playing poker to bargaining with a used car salesman. To think a physics PhD is likely to be best, or even above average, at either one of those is laughable.

The smartest people are ones who can handle any situation or contingency, not just one. We remember these people. We learn from these people. History is full of these people. The type of person history spits up for us to admire and be thankful for is a person with a broad range of knowledge in many subjects. David would value a sack of flour because it could become a loaf of bread. I value a loaf of bread because it is a loaf of bread.

Being truly "smart" is not so much about being able to discern what are objective truths (137x24=3288), but what is the smartest course of action in an indefinite situation: Should we invade France in Spring or Summer?

Logic is the science of correct reasoning, and most reasoning is indefinite, even after results are known. In poker, if a person logically deduces a bluff is the best action, and it works, it may even have been true that a checkraise bluff would have been a better action. Knowing the correct play is not as important, or difficult, as knowing how to execute the correct play. The first part, the definite/math part ("I should bluff"), only achieves its value when combined with the other, non-definite thinking necessary ("what must I do to successfully sell this bluff?").

Being or acting smart is the ability to function logically and sensibly in all situations that confront you, not merely ones where there is a known "correct" answer. That's mostly simple stuff. That's not very smart smarts.

Poker is one area where this is all proved time and again. Logically collating indefinite information, coming to conclusions that are probably best, this is poker smarts. Being able to recognize black and white, even if most people can't recognize that black and white as well, that's just not as smart.

Also see: Poker Experts