DECISION MAKING

LONG-TERM SUCCESS in poker comes down to the quality of your exe- cution at the table. The money you make, the number of tournament titles you own, and the respect you get as a player are mainly a result of your ability to make correct decisions. Grasping exactly how to make correct decisions is such a critical part of success, yet many players don’t spend enough time working on it. They assume that their constant focus on gain- ing greater tactical knowledge automatically upgrades their decision- making abilities as well. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

There is a critical difference between having tactical knowledge and being able to extract that knowledge in order to make a correct decision. For example, when facing a bet, your decision making could be broken down like this:

1. What is my opponent’s range?
2. What odds is the pot laying me?
3. What is my equity vs. my opponent’s range? 4. What are the odds that my hand will improve? 5. Will my opponent pay me off if I hit my hand?

In the process of making a decision, you evaluate the answers to these questions. This is different from the actual answers themselves, which are derived from, for example, your tactical knowledge of pot odds, equity, and your opponent’s skill. Ideally, you want your decision-making ability to be on the same level as your tactical knowledge. When they are out of sync, the following two problems can occur:

  1. Players outlevel themselves when they attempt to consider fac- tors in a hand without the knowledge to back it up. This hap- pens when a brand-new player tries to spot a physical tell on their opponent. Having watched TV, they think this is what they’re supposed to be doing. Their mistake is that they’re attempting to apply knowledge that they don’t have yet. It’s like trying to pump water out of a dry well. While this problem is often thought to be the exclusive domain of weaker players, it also happens to highly skilled players when they don’t adapt to a drop in their mental functioning when tired, tilted, or distracted.
  2. Players make poor decisions when their decision-making process fails to utilize their existing knowledge. The well isn’t dry, they just can’t drink from it.

A poker player making the right decision is essentially the same as a golfer, quarterback, or downhill skier selecting the right shot, pass, or angle. Athletes spend countless hours not only honing their techniques, but also their decision-making abilities. They know that all their hard work can be wasted if they are not able to make the right decision when it matters most.

Within the decision-making process, there are three types of knowledge accessed by your mind:

• Intuition: Intangible Competence reacting in the moment.
• Thinking: Conscious knowledge that requires effort to extract.
• Instinct: Knowledge trained to the level of Unconscious Competence.

Players often make the mistake of assuming that intuition and instinct mean the same thing, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Intuition utilizes your entire range of knowledge, whereas your instinct is only based on knowledge that exists at the level of Unconscious Competence. Between them is a conscious decision-making tool that you don’t always use as effectively as you’d like: thinking.

Intuition

Intuition is a strong feeling, sense, or thought about the right decision in a hand that is based on new and existing knowledge, particularly intangible competence—new knowledge that you can’t yet explain. Intuition hap- pens spontaneously while in the zone or playing at a high level. When you’re faced with a decision, both new and existing knowledge react to the unique details of the situation and result in an intuitive decision. This is the mental equivalent of a goalie making a split-second adjustment to block a shot, a defensive back in football sniffing out a receiver’s route to make an interception, or a tennis player picking a lethal moment to hit a drop shot.

Poker players who tend to rely mainly on their intuition are often called “feel players” and refer to their intuition as their “gut.” These players still think through hands, but when choosing the right play, they rely more on feelings than constructing an argument in their head. And while this may come naturally to them, it doesn’t mean that their gut is always right.

The farther you fall from the zone, the more your feelings are influenced by flaws in your tactical and mental game. At these lower levels of perfor- mance, you’re no longer able to make smart intuitive decisions and rely- ing on a feeling becomes risky. You might feel as though your opponent has a very strong hand, but you’re really only looking for a justification for folding because of your issue with risk aversion. Or, your gut might be saying your opponent “doesn’t have it,” because you like to make hero calls or you’re seeking revenge from a previous bad beat. These examples highlight why it’s important for all players—especially feel players—to not blindly trust their gut at all times.

Many players believe that they should trust their gut or intuition more often, and even give this advice to other players. They don’t realize that they first need to trust and understand their gut reactions, and not just blindly rely on them. If you were playing live and faced a tough decision, you would never ask a random stranger for advice. You would, however, consult with a person who has repeatedly proved to be a reliable source in helping you make good decisions. You can learn to trust your intuition in the same man- ner by gathering data on how often and in what situations it tends to be reliable. Whether or not your intuition proves to be overall more trustworthy than your conscious reasoning, there is still edge to be gained by knowing when to trust it and when to go against it.

Typically, players go with their gut while in the zone and only begin to question it when they’ve fallen out of it. Questioning your gut makes sense when playing out of the zone because you no longer have access to your full range of knowledge. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should completely ignore it in these cases; you just need to include it as one of several other factors to consider when making a decision.

If trusting or going with your gut is a problem for you, gather some data to identify the situations when you tend to go with your gut and when you typically go against it. The next step is to consider the educational value of choosing to just go with it. Think of these instances as paying for your poker education. If you go with it and are correct, you win (or save) money. If you go with it and are wrong, you will lose money, but you will probably learn something in the process. Going with your gut often means folding, which means you may never find out whether or not it was right. This requires you to have a high tolerance for uncertainty. That uncertainty can be so difficult for some players to deal with that even when their gut says to fold, they’ll call just so they can avoid feeling uncertain.

All players have an intuitive sense; some are just more tuned in to it and value it more. If you’re ignoring this level of decision making, or can’t identify its flaws, you’re not capitalizing on the potential edge to be gained from it.

Instinct

Instinct uses our most ingrained and basic knowledge to inform our deci- sions. It’s common to view players with strong instincts as having an innate gift that doesn’t result from any training. The truth is, you don’t have to be a “natural”: Instincts, can be enhanced by training knowledge to the level of Unconscious Competence. This knowledge is so well trained and basic that you may struggle to explain decisions that are made using it—a phenomenon called “expert induced amnesia.”1 When knowledge is so deeply ingrained, you can sometimes forget the steps and details that it took to learn it so well. This concept can explain why experts sometimes make terrible coaches. It’s also important to understand that your instincts can be guided by your bad habits and C-game leaks. Even though they’re undesirable, they too are mastered skills.

Grasping the difference between instinct and intuition can be hard because they’re both unconscious reactions that can be difficult to explain. An intuitive decision is hard to explain because it includes knowledge that is so new you can’t yet explain it. An instinctual decision is tough to explain because it’s based on so much knowledge and experience that you can’t explain it anymore.

Thinking

In between intuition and instinct is thinking, i.e., the conversation in your head. The ability to think is what allows players to be consciously active in their decision-making process. It is how they can weigh information from multiple sources, replay previous action, focus on certain details, and filter out what’s irrelevant. Thinking is how some of the most important decisions are made, and yet it’s often taken for granted. Only when an issue like tilt blocks a player’s ability to think do they realize how terribly they play without it.

The thoughts you hear in your head are in a part of the brain called work- ing memory2. For a poker player, working memory is some of the most valuable real estate in their mind. It’s essentially a mental desk where they can consciously work with data that gets brought in from many dif- ferent sources, such as memories, observations, instincts, previous action, HUD stats, physical and timing tells, bet sizing, pot odds, and table chat. Research3 has shown that there’s a limit of between five to nine pieces of data that can be considered at any one point in time. Since this differs slightly in each person, it’s logical to assume that elite, winning players have a larger working memory than the average player.

While the size of working memory is limited, “chunking” is a way to get more out of it. Chunking is when the brain compresses a lot of informa- tion into one small piece, kind of like a zip file or a cue card. Chunking can be illustrated in the way football teams name their plays. Each football team has a unique language for plays that helps them commu- nicate large amounts of data very quickly, for example, “Right Double Gun Montana Screen Left.” Just these few words allow the quarterback to instantly give detailed instructions to the other 10 offensive players. Pages could be written about each player’s assignment during the play, however, intensive practice and study allows them to recall all of it with just a few words.

In poker, an example of chunking several pieces of information is color coding players or stats on an HUD. Green might mean a loose and pas- sive player, red might mean a dangerous and aggressive player, and yellow might mean a bad regular. When any of these players 4bets and you have pocket jacks, you don’t necessarily need to remember their screen name, review your notes, look at their stats, or replay previous hands to arrive at your decision. Simply looking at a single detail—their color—instantly gives you enough information to know that green and yel- low might mean fold, and red means call.

When you’re working on your game, chunking can give you a quick, use- ful reminder about an area of your game that you’re trying to refine. For example, if you have an issue with hero calling, having a note on your desktop which simply says “hero call” might be all you need to remind yourself in the moment not to do it. That two-word reminder represents the tactical inefficiencies of hero calling, the way you feel after making a bad hero call, the deep mental root of why you hero call, and why it is a sign of underestimating your opponents. By putting in the work to chunk this information together, you make it easily retrievable without having to use up much capacity within your working memory.

To make the concepts of working memory and chunking easier to under- stand, below are several examples of how they can apply to a poker decision. Let’s say you’re in a No Limit Hold’em tournament with a below- average size stack, the blinds fold around to you, and you have pocket queens on the button. You raise and are re-raised by the big blind. In a vacuum, you might be thinking about the following things:

• Your opponent’s range
• Your opponent’s stack size
• Your range
• Your strength versus your opponent’s range
• Your stack size
• Your stack size if you win or lose the hand
• Your opponent’s previous actions prior to the hand

Assuming you’re playing well and in a solid state of mind, processing these seven factors and coming to a decision isn’t a problem. In fact, some factors are even calculated quickly because of chunking. Now, let’s assume you’re in the same spot except you have a fear of losing money and you’re near the bubble. This is what you might be thinking about:

• Your opponent’s range
• Your opponent’s stack size

• Your range
• “I’m probably going to get sucked out on again.”
• Your strength versus your opponent’s range
• “I have a good hand but it’s not the nuts.”
• Your stack size
• “I could fold and make it into the money.”
• Your stack size if you win or lose the hand
• Your opponent’s previous actions prior to the hand
• “I could probably pay off my student loan if I made the money.”

While chunking allows you to expand on the number of things you can con- sider at any one time, there are still too many things going on in your head to handle all at once. Plus, since excessive emotion has the power to shrink the size of working memory, you now have less space to consider more things. You’re likely to get lost in the hand and fail to think about important factors, such as your opponent’s range. If you can’t isolate the right pieces of information to focus on, you’re going to make a mistake. And even if you force yourself to think about the right things, you won’t be able to think about them in the same way—fear has diminished that power too.

When making a decision, the factors in your mind are not weighted equally; some will understandably have more of a presence than others. To illustrate this concept, here is one more example using the same hand situation, only this time you’re playing at your first TV final table and the villain is Phil Ivey. In this situation, the space in your working memory might be broken down like this:

  • Your stack size – 5%
  • Your opponent’s stack size – 5%
  • Your stack size if you win or lose the hand – 6%
  • Your range – 7%
  • Your strength versus your opponent’s range – 7%

• Your opponent’s previous actions prior to the hand – 7%
• Your opponent’s range – 10%
• “I will look really stupid if I mess this hand up on TV.” – 24% • “Holy shit, it’s Phil Ivey!” – 29%

In this example, more than half of your working memory is consumed by your fear of making a mistake and the fact that you are playing Phil. Very little is left to help you make one of the most important decisions of your poker life. This is clearly not a recipe for success.

This example also shows why mastering skills to the level of Unconscious Competence—the highest form of chunking—is so important. Anyone that thrives in high-stakes games has a very active working memory. With standard tactical knowledge mastered, players such as Tom Dwan have a lot of extra space within working memory to focus on high-level details. Tom doesn’t need to worry about things like odds, ranges, and positional con- siderations. Even higher-level concepts of the game are automatic, which is why he can seemingly play several moves ahead of his competition.

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