Logic vs. intuition when playing poker

Recently a good friend with whom I serve on the Board of Directors of an engineering society gave me a box full of old Poker Digest magazines dating back to 1998. The publication was later sold and is no longer in business.

A number of the issues included columns that I had written. My photo at the start of my columns displayed a much more youthful George. I remember him well.

In the May 4, 2001 issue, Rolf “Ace” Slotboom focuses on a common “Misconception . . . in Poker.” Playing limit hold’em, with Ace-King (“Big Slick”) in the hole, using their intuition, most players always raise.

Slotboom says that’s wrong. It’s the wrong logic. Whether or not suited, he would much rather limp preflop. The logic here is that a raise might force out the opponents he would prefer would stay in, hands such as A-10 and K-J that are dominated by the A-K. The A-K has a big edge over those hands; better that the players with those hands are not forced out of the pot so they can contribute to his pot, hopefully.

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What’s more, after limping pre-flop, when the A-K connects on the flop (about one out of three times), giving him a big pair with top kicker, he is in a perfect position to check-raise to build his pot.

On the other hand, were he to raise pre-flop from an early position, someone with a strong hand may three-bet, leaving him playing heads-up and out-of-position. There are situations when a pre-flop raise is the logical play to make, Slotboom explains: “In a late position with three or more opponents already in the pot, he will have to hit his hand to win. Big slick will hardly ever win a multi-way pot unimproved. In that case, it makes good sense not to raise before the flop. Logic is essential.”

In the May 17, 2001 issue of Poker Digest, eminent poker psychologist, Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, explores logic vs. intuition.

“Some people have the ability to know something directly without analytical reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our mind, and between instinct and reason (logic),” he wrote. “Intuition is the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. We shall allow our intuition to guide us.”

Some people have an instinct, a sixth sense, a gut-feeling, a hunch. Perhaps it’s a premonition or a sneaking suspicion — intuition. Some more so than others.

In his column, Dr. Schoonmaker cites famed poker guru Doyle Brunson. In his popular poker book, Super/System, Brunson recommended: “Stick to your first impression. Have the courage of your convictions.”

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That’s fine so long as you have this gift we call intuition. But there are pros and cons.

In support of using logic, Dr. Schoonmaker observes: “You can win steadily by being logical because so many players act illogically.”

But, don’t overlook intuition. Some players are quite intuitive; others must rely on logic when making key decisions. Be cautious. If you are always using logic, the better players learn how to read you — and have the ammunition to beat you out, especially in very aggressive and high-limit games where “an excessively logical approach can become counterproductive against fine players.

“So, use your hunches once in a while. Be selective. Mix it up. Otherwise you are bound to lose. You will play in the wrong games and use the wrong strategy.”

Here’s the bottom line: logic and intuition are both important when playing poker. Logic is essential to being a winner, but your intuition could be on the mark. Some poker players are innately more adept at it than others.

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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