"Poker is the game closest to the western conception of life... where - at least in the short run - the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens."
John Luckacs

Here’s an experience to which any keen poker player can relate. Having slept off a rough time at the tables the night before, you fire up a video from your favorite training site, fresh and eager to learn. You pick a ‘big name’ player, who for this article we shall refer to as ‘Colin’. Colin shows you a ‘live sweat’ video, where over the course of an hour of play, he’ll show you his decisions in real time. By the end of the session, every decision that he made seems obvious, since you understand his reasoning perfectly. You log out of the training site, after a quick ‘Like’ on the video, convinced that it’s only a matter of time before your innate poker genius starts paying off. After all, Colin is a high stakes pro and you know everything Colin does, right?

There are three problems with the familiar anecdote above:

  • Colin may have ‘learned’ poker empirically
    In which case his poker knowledge is a blend of good and bad strategies which are sufficient, in the long run, to beat the current games. How much of this snapshot of his play was actually good strategy, not even he knows.
  • Colin’s description may be just a narrative
    It is rare to watch a video with the coach’s thought process in real time. Usually we see a retrospective analysis with the video paused at relevant points. The analysis that is given hours or days after the hand was played is likely to be different from that conducted at the time. Some top players are very aware of their own cognitive processes; others perform enough off-the-table work that their on-table work is just an extension of those processes. However, for self-professed ‘feel players’, their edge at the poker table is likely to lie in decision-making factors which they are not consciously aware of. Their retrospective analysis is of little use to us if their real skill is in identifying game flow and their opponent’s state of mind.
  • Even if every one of Colin’s explanations was perfect, you still aren’t better at poker
    If your memory is excellent, you now have explicit knowledge about how to play the situations described. However passive learning cannot give you tacit knowledge, since that can only be acquired by experience. This is the difference between knowing ‘How’ and knowing ‘What’. You could now give an excellent analysis of this video, but you still aren’t ready to apply the ideas discussed in the video to novel poker situations.

Time to grow legs

We’ll assume Colin is smart, really smart, and his decision-making process at the poker table is honed to near-perfection. With each hand explanation he discusses different factors. How does he think of all of these factors in every hand? He must have a super-fast brain… Phil Ivey only 1-tables, maybe that’s how he wins… I should 1-table, with a big list of all the factors Colin talked about in the video… oh, but Colin’s so smart and I’m just, just… STOP! For your peace of mind, Colin does not think about every single factor that he knows about in poker for every decision that he makes. He doesn’t even think about every relevant factor.

This is how self-aware, top professionals win at the poker table: They segment all possible poker situations into identifiable classes. They use pattern recognition to recognize when a given class of decision occurs. When a class of decision occurs, they select the metric appropriate to that class and only consider the factors in that metric. They then use the data they have about their opponent with the metric to make their decision.

There you have it- the poker decision is a game of competing metrics. If you have a better metric than your opponent for a given situation, then you will beat him in that situation in the long run. Of course, if you have read my other articles on decision-making you already know that discovering the right metric is the real challenge…

The poker decisions section of this site is designed to help you to do just that. I’ll show you some of my own metrics, backed up by game-theoretical analysis. I’ll show you how to go about selecting a metric for a given decision, and I’ll show you how to tune that metric in the face of new data. If you integrate all of the knowledge you find here into your own thought processes, you’ll be a better decision-maker, both on and off the poker table. So join me outside the fish bowl, it’s time to grow legs