Play the player!

May 30, 2005 3:22 AM

An old poker player once declared, "Aces are a 12-to-1 favorite — unless someone calls." There’s a lot of wisdom in his humor.

In other words, there is far more to poker than the science of odds, probabilities, and expected outcomes. Mathematics is just one ingredient of the game, and seldom the decisive one.

Poker theory, strategies and percentages are valuable knowledge for any player. But, when you take up your position on the green felt field of card combat, your only aim is to win — and, to do so, it is sometimes necessary to act contrary to the rule.

Two factors — players and luck — intervene to make poker the unique challenge it is.

We can exercise a little control over luck. Our only comfort is that, over the long run, the amount of good and bad luck will balance the scales.

The real danger was best expressed by Napoleon chronicler J. Christopher Harold when he wrote in his work, Bonaparte In Egypt, "Those who mistake their good luck for their merit are inevitably bound for disaster."

The most significant dynamic in the game is the player. Poker, more than any other competition, pits the wisdom, knowledge, cunning, experience (and yes, luck) of the players against each other.

It is ability, not theory, that is the measure of a player. Is a maximum bet after the flop by a Johnny Chan more dangerous than one by a less experienced, less accomplished player? Almost always.

One of the greatest players of the game, Doyle Brunson, in his work on poker, Super System, is unequivocal that it is a game of players far more than percentages.

"More than any other game, poker depends on understanding your opponent," Brunson writes. "You’ve got to know what makes him tick. More importantly, you’ve got to know what makes him tick the moment you’re involved in a pot with him. Don’t just play your cards, play your people."

Poker’s most prolific author, lecturer and theorist, Mike Caro, agrees. In the Introduction to his Book of Tells, Caro writes, "Once you’ve mastered the basic elements — psychology becomes the key ingredient separating break-even players from world class superstars."