Play the players,
not just the cards

Oct 9, 2006 4:23 AM

There’s an old poker adage that states, "Aces are a 12-to-1 favorite . . . unless someone calls." There’s a lot of wisdom in the 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.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur summed it up well: "In war, there is no substitute for victory."

Mason Malmuth, David Sklansky, George "Profit" Elias, and Tom McEvoy are some highly regarded authors and theorists. But at the table, they’re there to get the chips, not to propound on poker "scripture."

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

We can exercise little control over luck. It can confound the science of the game; but, so too, can the players. 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."

But 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 John Bonetti, Russ Hamilton, Chris Moneymaker, or 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.

Brunson writes, "More than any other game, poker depends on understanding your opponent. 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." He concludes, "Don’t just play your cards, play your people."

One of poker’s most prolific authors, lecturer and theorist, Mike Caro, agrees with Brunson. 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."

Women at the table make some male players nervous. "A woman will ask you how your heart bypass operation went, then, when you start sharing your deeply personal, life-altering experience with her, she check-raises you!" an elderly gentleman complains.

"Men don’t like to lose, especially to a woman, and especially if she outplayed him," says Barbara Enright, a world class player with more tournament wins than any woman (and most men).

A long-time Las Vegas player with a clear understanding of the matter is Don Williams. He says, "Whenever a woman sits down in a poker game today, the weaker sex is anyone with the second-best hand."

One of the fundamental problems for those who rely on theory, statistics, and probabilities to succeed is that they make the fatal presumption there is some kind of correctness or justice inherent in such an approach. However, in poker, fairness is a fantasy.

Poker is a game of risk and competition. Although intellectually challenging, it is much more than an academic pursuit. Otherwise, a player could just sit and wait to play only hands having the very highest expectations of winning.

Such an approach to the game is boring, unimaginative, uninspired poker. While it may be slow but certain over the long run, it is not as profitable as a knowledgeable, experienced, savvy, intuitive, aggressive approach can be.

Here, then, is the key ingredient that separates the capable, careful, player from the truly lethal poker artist.

The skilled craftsman knows the numbers, considers the element of luck, analyzes the circumstance, the individuals, and then acts.

Hans "Tuna" Lund puts it in perspective. Asked why he likes tournaments, he answers, "Because I figure half the people in any event can’t play well enough to get into the money. That gives me a big edge."

President Teddy Roosevelt, himself a poker player, gave a speech once in which he presented his philosophy that it is better to act decisively than it is to play soft: "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

A movie that did not receive a lot of acclaim but is nevertheless an excellent film, one every serious poker player would enjoy, is Searching For Bobby Fischer.

Although the focus of the movie is chess, the story and theme are immediately pertinent to poker. It concerns the issue of strategy vs. psychology, theory vs. realty.

The movie is about a young man who learns to play chess in an urban ghetto park for money. The hero’s antagonist is a young man who learned his chess at the side of teachers and tutors.

Clearly, theory and probability are fascinating subjects for discussion. But, when it’s time to fold, call or raise, you’ll need more than odds and percentages to play winning poker. It takes intuition, discipline and courage.

Bet on it.