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Poker : Feel Or Math

Most people believe they are either a ’feel’ player or one that solely looks at the math.  In order to be a successful and consistent winner in poker there is a place where experience meets the math.  It is true that most still lean to one end of the spectrum, but it is important to open yourself up to the other way of thinking.  Much of the ‘feel’ of the game comes with experience, whether it is from playing over many years or just a relationship you have with your opponent.

The more you listen and trust your instinct the sharper it will become.  After time it will become as finite as any math equation.  On the other side, knowing basic math such as the odds of making a flush and knowing if you have pot odds in order to call with a straight draw is enough to make you a competent player, but just like anything else you need to have a desire to learn more in order to get to a higher level of thinking.  Once you start accumulating these tools you will find out two things.  One, your confidence will grow and with that your success will increase.  And two, you will find that you do not want to stop learning.  It is a very addictive cycle that will have you constantly evolving into a better player.

When one is faced with a large decision, using both types of decision making allows you to reach a more sound decision.  As an example we can look at a hand that requires both.  Let’s say we are dealt pocket fives and call a raise in position against an opponent (Player A) we have ample experience with.  We know Player A is very tight and aggressive when he thinks he has the best hand.  The flop comes down Kc10c5c giving us bottom set.   Player A leads full pot to which we elect to raise three times his bet.  Player A responds with an all in for four times the pot.  Instead of just using one tool in your arsenal, you can find a place where the math meets the experience.  This method is called “Game Theory”.  First you analyze all the different hands Player A can hold.

Then, using your experience with Player A, you assign how likely they are to hold each hand.  For example, the hands that Player A could hold include: a flush, a bigger set, top two pair, AK with the ace of clubs, a combo draw such as QcJd, or a complete bluff.  Now based on our experience with Player A we can assign percentages to each one.  Since we know him to be very tight unless he has it we can eliminate the bluff and the combo draw.  A flush seems most likely (40%), a bigger set next (30%), AcKx (20%), and top two (10%).

These numbers will come based solely on you read of Player A and over time will become more precise.  Now we can use the math to determine if we should call or not.  We will win against a flush 34% of the time.  Against a higher set 4% of the time.  If your opponent holds AcKx you will win 69% of the time, and top two 79% of the time. Now based on Player A’s full range you can figure out exactly how often you will have the winning hand.  (40%*34%)+(30%*4%)+(20%*69%)+(10%*79%)=36.5%  Though the math looks difficult rounding up or down allows you to do simpler math.

40% * about 1/3 = about 13%
30% * about 5% = 1.5%
20% * about 2/3 = about 13%
10% * about 80% = 8%

So, 13% + 1.5% + 13% + 8% = 35.5% which is a little more than 1/3 of the time.  Now we can look at pot odds to figure out if we should call.  If you remember Player A went all in for 4 times pot meaning we will be risking 4 to win 5 or 1.25 to 1.  That means in order for a call to be successful we need to win 44% of the time.  Because we are only around 36% we have to fold.

If our opponent were loose aggressive or if we picked up on an external or internal tell the numbers will swing towards him having a weaker hand and most likely allow us to call.  As your experience increases and your math skills sharpen, what looks like an intimidating process will turn into second nature.  In some less complicated examples you can put your opponent on 2 possible hands making the math easier as well.  On a river bet where your opponent has either “the nuts or nothing” you will just need to determine how often he is bluffing.  Then a quick look at the pot odds will give you a conclusion.

One of the best parts of poker is that you need to be constantly learning and changing in order to be successful.  The harder you work and the more tools you pick up the better the chance that you will make the correct decision when it matters.


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