Lies told about psychology in poker

Editor's note: In last month's issue of Bluff magazine, Mike Caro, the Mad Genius of Poker, finally came clean and professed his theory that psychology trumps math when it comes to winning at the poker table:

In poker, math is meaningless and psychology is paramount. There, I finally said it … and I'm glad. each time I got close uttering those words, I lost courage and choked back the sounds. Out came silence, only silence. What made me afraid to speak the truth? Oh, I guess it was mainly a couple poker people to whom mathematics is sacred. If you dare define the real power of psychology in poker or point out the limited role of mathematics in the heat of poker combat, they lash out publicly, insanely, desperately. They hate to hear it.

How it happened:

About a month ago, I got my guts back. A semi-young player approached me, seeking a quick consultation.

"Doyle," he began, meaning the great Doyle Brunson, "wrote that you're 'Mr. Fix It' and that he consults with you about poker strategy. Are you available?"

I blurted out what I always do in similar situations: "I'm honored when people value my advice, but I'm not doing any personal tutoring right now, not until I finish some projects I've promised that are five years overdue. If you like, e-mail me and I'll put you on a waiting list. I'm guessing it's going to be at least a year, though."

"I'll give you 2,000 for an hour," he said.

"What if I just give you 10 minutes for free?" I countered, trying to be both charming and stubborn and, at least, succeeding in the latter.

Strangely, what turned out to be 20 minutes of consultation in a nearby coffee shop was valuable to me, and it was his consultation I'm talking about.

He wanted to know, "Just how important is it to do math at the poker table?"

"Not important at all," I said immediately. "But don't quote me on that. It causes a whole lot of anguish whenever I even approach that subject publicly."

"Anguish? Why?"

"Oh, I'm not really sure."

I stopped, ran a finger around the rim of my coffee cup, pondered.

"I think what it is," I eventually continued, "is that there are a few experts who look at everything analytically, which is good, but have no people skills in poker. So they assume that the math and the logic they've mastered is all there is to it. They think everyone else is stupid for not grasping small nuances within a chain of logic, while they themselves are almost completely blind when it comes to social interaction."

He looked at me politely, though surely he knew I'd jumped the rails, and patiently waited for me to continue. I really didn't plan my words. They were just all coming out -- all at once -- from somewhere deep, deep within me where they'd been hidden. So long, hidden.

"It's like this," I explained. "I can give them a sequence of numbers like 4, 6, 9 and ask what comes next and they'll say, well, it could be 13 and it could be 13½, and they're both right. Either answer could follow that sequence, one by adding one more than was added previously each time a new number appears and the other by adding 50 percent more to the previous number. Fine. They're sharp. My mind works that way, too, so I know where they're coming from. But show them a layout for an ad and ask them where the artwork should go for maximum impact and it's like, 'duh.' Suddenly you're like an alien to them, because there's no real answer they can fathom by following the logic that they know.

"They don't realize that there's an even bigger kind of logic that governs interactions with other people. Because they're blind to this powerful force, there's really very little they can do to plan a strategy to win people over. They don't see how people work. They just don't get it.

"You're wondering what this has to do with poker, right? Well, just like in life, there are two very different main categories of intelligence. One is rigidly defined -- analytical and mathematical -- and the other is abstract and psychologically based. To those who specialize in the former, interaction with people is not a logical endeavor. But they're wrong. At poker or at life, psychology, manipulating people or opponents, reading them, knowing how they're likely to react and having a contingency plan -- that's all logic. It just doesn't seem so to those who try to win only through rote analysis."

Now what you've just read is very close to the words I chose in the coffee shop. As you can see from the reconstruction, I got carried away in the concept. So I forced myself back on track with, "And in poker, to answer your question, the math doesn't really matter at the table. Sure, there are a few times when it's wise to count the pot, know the odds of making a hand, and gauge your decision relative to those 'pot odds.' But mostly, it doesn't matter. People like me are obsessed with statistics. We analyze poker for you, and we use what we discover to recommend what hands to play, when to raise, when to fold. So why would you want to use complex math at the table? We've already done it for you."

And then he spoke. And when he did, he changed my life.

"So why do you care what other experts might say about you if you stress the importance of psychology over math?" he wanted to know. "They only know one thing, you know both things."

He was right -- why should I care? And this is how I want you and me to become acquainted. Yes, I've lived in the Kingdom of Nerd, where I've researched and programmed and used up a lot of my years finding answers to obscure poker problems. But now, today, I have the courage to speak out, thanks to an impromptu student. And what I'm speaking is this: I'm going to teach you poker. I will deal with odds, analysis and mathematics, but you don't need to master these.

Good instincts will get you just about as far, because, contrary to what some people will tell you, it's almost impossible to analyze a poker situation at the table and come up with the right answer. Almost all the answers I use come from analyzing away from the table and making the conclusions part of my game plan.

And since I give you those conclusions for free, you don't have to do the research yourself. But what you must do to maximize profit is try to develop an understanding of your opponents. Some of you will have a natural talent for this and some will call it hard work. But it's always worth the effort, because that's where the profit lies.

And that leads us back to the beginning. At poker, math is meaningless and psychology is paramount. Maybe it doesn't sound quite as strange now.

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