“Why You May Not Be As Good a Player As You Think You Are, And What You Can Do Today To Become Better One”
An article from the late Lou Krieger.
Ask any poker player if they consider themselves to be good at the game, and 3 out of 4 will assure you that their skills range anywhere from good to great.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear “good to great” spouting from the lips of just about every player I run across, I’m assuming that nearly everyone at the poker table considers himself or herself to be a better than average player.
Better Poker But that can’t be…
Average, by definition, places one squarely in the midst of the pack, and if everyone were a “good” player, the definition of average would simply be a bit higher on some overall scale of poker skills than most of us would be prone to place it.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one you won’t run across in many other endeavours, particularly in competitions where the skills are visible and on display for all to see.
Try this if you don’t believe me. Pick a tough line-up of poker players. Tournament champs, cash game players, it doesn’t matter. Then ask any local amateur player (perhaps he’s a guy who plays small limit games at his golf club or once a week in the back room of the Elk’s Lodge) how he’d fare against a tough lineup like that. “I can hold my own, or something similar, is probably what you’ll hear in response. But if you’d ask that same guy about his expectations playing one-on-one against a professional basketball player, or what his chances would be in a round of golf against any touring professional, or how many rounds he’d last with a professional boxer, he’ll probably offer a slim-to-none assessment.
Even if you picked a game like chess, where no particular physical skills are required, you’d probably get a similar response. So why the disparity where poker is concerned? Maybe part of the reason has to do with poker’s macho nature. After all, most poker players are guys, and we’re supposed to be good at the game; it’s one of the ways we define ourselves. But it doesn’t hold true with chess. We’ve never talked ourselves into believing we are superstar chess players, and haven’t vested the same chunk of ego into that game. It is demeaning, we believe, to lose at poker. But if we were going mano-a-mano against Kasparov, or anyone even close to his skill level, we’d realize that we had no chance at all, and so there’d be no shame at all in admitting it.
But that’s only part of the story. The other part comes from the iceberg analogy. You know, only one-eighth of an iceberg is above the surface; the remainder is below the water line. Poker is like that too. When we watch good players, whether in a tournament or a cash game, we only see a small portion of their skills at work. Good plays and bonehead blunders alike are frequently obscured from view because we seldom see our hero’s cards, or those of his opponent. Moreover, many of the money winning and money-saving skills demonstrated by superior players are neither as dramatic as a Kobe Bryant slam-dunk, nor akin to a daring sacrifice that results in a checkmate from a chess maestro. In chess, even if we can’t always assess the viability of a move while it’s occurring, we have the blessing of hindsight. Every move is recorded for posterity and can be analyzed for years to come. So that grandmaster’s ploy, which may have looked like the kind of blunder only a patzer would make, might really be an innovation of major proportions. But in poker we usually don’t see what’s going on, and there’s generally no historical record to draw on.
But what if you could watch a terrific poker player at work; what would you hope to see?
In one situation he might fold a hand like A-J under the gun. Two rounds later he might raise with the same hand in the same position. What’s going on here; is just guessing? Maybe. But maybe there’s more to his apparent whimsical decision-making than meets the eye. After all, the mix of players at the table might have changed. And even if the names and faces remain the same, poker is always in flux. There’s a lot going on at the table that we can never see, even if we had access to the cards being played and most of the time that’s a mystery to us too. This is pokers “it depends” quotient (the seven-eights of the game that is difficult to discern from watching), simply because much of it is obscured from our view. Even when it’s not, the view from the table, from the battle’s front lines, is usually different than it appears from the rail.
So our amateur watches the pros and doesn’t see much difference from what he witnesses in his home game. Oh sure, the stakes may be higher, and he might notice that the games are both tighter and more aggressive than his Tuesday night game back home, but there are still pairs and straights and flushes, draws that never materialize, and bluffs that work and those that don’t. And because so much is hidden from view, our hometown hero has a hard time seeing the relative differences in skill level, and as a consequence frequently sees himself on a par with the best players in the world. Something like that’s just not going to happen when he’s watching Kobe Bryant take off from the foul line and dunk the basketball, because our hero knows he needs a trampoline and a stepladder just to reach the rim.
The truth of the matter is that most players are average. Some are a little better, others a little worse. But the vast majority of poker players are right there in that great, gray middle ground. And you know what? When you are playing in a casino, where the pot is raked or time is charged to sit in the game, there’s always a bit less money coming out than going in. And those in the middle ground will be, by definition, lifelong losers at poker.
It may not be a vast sum of money, and it may be easily replaceable by income that’s earned elsewhere and used to subsidize a player’s poker hobby. And at the end of the day, the cost of playing poker for fun and recreation may well be a bargain compared to other money draining hobbies, like boating or restoring classic cars. Nevertheless, the majority of poker players, particularly those who play in card casinos where there’s a cost of doing business that must be overcome before one shows a profit will lose money. And even if the money doesn’t matter, the blows to the ego that accompany it can hurt quite a bit.
What can you do about it? You can resolve to get better. Poker is a wonderful blend of skills, many of which are difficult to come by, often elusive, and frequently hard to grasp. Many have said that playing against the late Stu Ungar was like playing with your cards face up and his face down, he was that good at discerning his opponents hands. While you’re not going to reach Ungar’s skill level merely through drill and repetition, there are a raft of other skills that can be learned the way one learns anything else, by study and practice. And if you haven’t begun to learn them, it’s high time you did. It’s the only way you will ever be able to lift yourself above the vast middle ground that by definition is average. And in poker, average equates to a money-losing player.
If you play hold’em, it is really easy to learn most of the math you need simply by memorizing the odds against making hands in certain situations. Sure it’s nice to learn how to compute these sorts of things, but if working out probabilities is not your idea of fun, you needn’t worry about it. It’s already been done, thank you very much, by others. Besides, in the heat of the game, you scarcely have time, and certainly not the availability of a pencil, paper, and pocket calculator, to do these equations while trying to keep up with the game.
If you’ve flopped a flush draw, the odds against completing your flush are 1.86-tp-1. How hard is that to memorize? It’s about as tough as memorizing your zip code, and that’s not tough at all. If you flopped two pair and figure it will take a full house to win it for you, the odds are 5-to-1 against that happening.
These are learnable by nothing more complex than rote memorization. And if you want to become a better than average player, you need to learn these basic relationships or else you have absolutely no objective basis for deciding whether to continue playing your hand, or whether you’d be better off folding and saving yourself some money. This skill takes no mathematical ability at all. All that’s required is the desire to ferret out these relationships, the will to commit them to memory, and the curiosity to understand their implications.
Mathematical skills aren’t the only poker skills you can learn. But they tend to be a bugaboo for most players, and many people seem to fear anything, regardless of how rudimentary it might be, that has to do with numbers. And the numerical relationships necessary to play hold’em effectively are simple stuff. Look, it’s a lot easier than memorizing basic blackjack strategy. Yet many of you have done that. You didn’t calculate basic blackjack strategies all by yourself. Someone else did the hard work. We just have to learn the rules derived from all those Monte Carlo simulations and apply them. It’s the same with much of poker’s mathematical parameters.
There are a lot of learnable skills in addition to poker math. You can learn how to run a bluff, and how to catch one. Which hands ought to be played from which position, given the composition and texture of the game you’re in, is another requisite skill, and it’s also easily learned. While there’s a lot of “it depends” that goes into deciding whether to play your first two cards, starting standards provide the benefit of the many theoreticians who have proffered suggestions about which hands are playable from early, middle, and late position. That you might have to deviate from that“theoretical listÃ¢‚¬ of hands is not important. Standards offer a point of departure and you can tighten-up or loosen your requirements depending on your interpretation of game structure. A play-or-fold standard for starting hold’em hands is a stepping-off point. And if you don’t have that you’re toast. You are flying blind, playing by whim, and probably bleeding money as a result.
I’ve just touched on the kind of skills you ought to have in your poker toolkit, and in future issues I’ll delve more deeply into some of the specific techniques you can work on in order to improve your game. And if the thought of being an average player is depressing to you, and you feel that there are miles and miles to go before you reach the superstar level, you can take comfort in this. One of the grand and wondrous things about poker is that superstar abilities are not required in order to make money at the game. All that’s needed is for you to be somewhat better than your opponents ( good enough, actually, to overcome their skills and the cost of playing the game and you can certainly learn to do that, can’t you?