Great poker stories feature two types of heroes: bold players with impeccable instincts and mathematical geniuses capable of performing amazing calculations. You may have heard tales of Doyle Brunson running over his opponents no matter what cards he was dealt, or Stu Ungar memorizing every card drawn from a six-deck shoe.
But which strength is superior in the long run?
The surprising truth is that gut feelings are often more useful than mathematical reasoning, and that most players’ instincts are sharper than they know.
Andy, a friend of mine who plays poker regularly, recently told me about a hand that perfectly demonstrates how it can be costly to rely too heavily on numbers and ignore your instincts.
He was playing $1/$2 no-limit hold ’em at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and he raised to $10 after being dealt Ac Kh in first position.
One player called from middle position, and everyone else folded.
On a flop of Ks 4d 2h, Andy felt safe with top pair, top kicker, and he decided to check, hoping his opponent would then overplay his hand.
After the middle position player bet $15, Andy called, then checked again when the turn brought the 8s. Now, his opponent bet $40.
At this point, Andy took control of the aggression and raised to $100, which got him an immediate reply of “all-in” for $90 more to call.
As he was telling me this, Andy remarked, “I was sure I was beaten, but what could he have? I was only losing to pocket twos or pocket fours.”
In fact, the opponent had Kd 8c, having picked up two pair on the turn, and scooped the pot, leaving Andy frustrated and reloading with a fresh buy-in.
In this case, Andy’s reasoning failed due to a fallacy common among players who focus on math. He had the idea in his head that because the number of hands that could possibly beat him was small, his opponent probably didn’t have one of those hands.
That is not necessarily the correct conclusion. In fact, it’s almost never valid. It is quite common to find yourself with a very strong hand and still be able to fold correctly, knowing that your opponent’s hand is even stronger.
Andy would have been far better off asking himself not what hands his opponent could have, but what his gut was telling him. That much was clear: He was sure he had the losing hand after his opponent went all in. In this case, Andy’s instinct was spot-on, and trusting it would have saved his stack.
Over the years, I have seen time and again that these gut feelings are stunningly accurate for experienced players. The logical brain is easily fooled by the right numbers and tricky arguments. The instinctive brain, on the other hand, learns from raw experience.
When you face decisions at the table, remember to simply ask yourself whether you think you are beaten. Chances are, whatever your answer, it is the right one.
Corwin Cole is a poker coach whose instructional videos can be found at CardRunners.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.