...it's about making the right decisions. Also sprach Doyle Brunson and given my current ROI I'm not going to argue with him.
In some ways the idea is self-evident. We play poker with the long-term goal of winning, but the way we actually get there is by making correct decisions. And extrapolating the concept we can reasonably conclude that the most successful poker players are the ones who make the most correct (either the largest number of correct or the 'correctest') decisions.
I'd like to apologize for my pedantic and stilted prose today. This afternoon I spent 45 minutes talking to my insurance agent.
So how do I become a better poker player? How do I make more correct decisions?
I suspect if you asked poker players why someone like Chris Ferguson or Jen Harman is so good at the game the answers would include experience, knowing the odds, hand-reading ability...
I don't need to 'suspect' anything, I will go and post this very question at a poker forum. BRB.
Okay, it'll take a while to get responses so I'll just keep yammering on here and get back to that later. Irrespective of the answers I receive I think it's apparent that the Holy Grail which we seek is an explanation of why some poker players make better decisions than others. And equally clearly a large part of the answer is "they know more about the game than the poor saps who couldn't tell you the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come if you gave them a bit of paper that listed the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come."
So is that it?
I don't think so.
In fact I'm becoming increasingly convinced that what separates great poker players from good ones and good ones from donkeys isn't the depth of knowledge of the game at all. It's the ability to consistently make the decision that the player knows to be correct. This idea may sound silly, but so does setting fire to a leaf and inhaling the fumes. As a cigarette smoker of 30 years I guess I am well-placed to entertain the plausibility of silly ideas.
In any tournament or cash game the players will have differing levels of understanding of the fundamentals of poker, but in my experience these differences are not great. I used to play a lot of limit hold 'em around the $25/50 limits where essentially everyone knew the odds and the standard plays. The vast majority of players had decent hand-reading skills and knew situations where it was profitable to run a bluff or make a loose call to pick off a likely bluff. And yet some players were consistent winners while others financed my drinking problem.
The simple answer is the losing players were making all the classic poker mistakes. Playing too many hands, going too far with hands, chasing draws without the correct odds, and so on. And they made these plays despite 'knowing' that they were clear mistakes.
So why would anyone do such a thing? It may sound sufficiently unlikely that you are currently wondering if I am fabricating the whole thing as part of some cunning plan to make a joke about beavers. Well I'm not. Honest. In fact about thirty minutes ago I made exactly such a play myself. One of me watched in horror as another one of me clicked the "call" button. When I failed to hit the draw that I had no business chasing the one of me that was operating my eyes blinked at the screen. All of me then closed PokerStars and came here.
At this point one of you may be elbowing another of you in the ribs saying "oh, he's going to talk about tilt, we know all about that let's eat ice-cream." NOT SO FAST! Simply giving a name to a phenomenon doesn't explain anything. I want to pull this puppy apart and examine its intestines. Besides 'tilt' implies a deviation from a norm. Poker players making sub-optimal decisions even when they know better is the norm.
Let's play with some working hypotheses. Presumably when we make a poker decision that we know to be incorrect there is a reason. In the most general terms, there must be something about the incorrect decision that appeals to us. After all, the one of us who balances the check book at the end of the month is a pretty assertive character, so the one of us who is determined to make bad decisions must have a strong motivation to do so and have the ability to overcome the wishes of the check-book balancer.
Who is this bastard who keeps destroying my bankroll?
Since we've exonerated the mathematical, rational, logical me, it must be one of those characters who is frequently at a loss to explain himself. Possibly the one who will start crying at the sight of a Monet, or become unaccountably furious when examining the shape of a paper clip. We may never unambiguously identify him, but it seems that he has been spending far too much time hanging out with my unconscious. And that in itself produces something of a paradox because the unconscious knows a great deal about poker and could be a major asset if it wasn't for this business of whispering in the ear of the me that has the responsibility of clicking the "call" button.
In fact it's far more important than that. Because another thing the unconscious knows about is the unconscious of other poker players. And if we could get it to spill the beans we'd have the ultimate poker edge.
In Part II of these musings I'll suggest that the vast majority of the beans are still in the bean jar but that one or two have escaped. More accurately, one of me will suggest that.