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Why Sharp People Sometimes Fail At Poker

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In the past few months I’ve been spending a little more time with people from the advantage gambling community. Advantage gamblers are people who win money gambling (sometimes a lot of money) playing games against the casino, in the sportsbook, at online casinos, or sometimes in other venues. For instance, they might bet sports, play blackjack, play video poker, or play any of a number of other games that offer the player an edge under the right circumstances.

Some of these guys are very, very sharp, and they have won hundreds of thousands from their pursuits. But a thing I’ve heard from more than one of them is that they tried to win at online poker… and failed.

I’ve also heard of a different group of sharp people who have sometimes struggled with poker—chess players. A number of top chess players, including those who have achieved the highest ranks of Grandmaster and International Master, have taken up poker with varying degrees of success. Some have done quite well, while others, I understand, not so well.

So the question has been gnawing at me lately. Why do these sharp people who have what it takes to be wildly successful gambling and/or playing a different strategy game sometimes have such a tough time with poker?

I don’t know the answer. If I get some time, I may interview some people from these fields to see if they have insight. But I want to use the rest of this article to speculate wildly.

Lack of Psychological Mastery

My first theory revolved around the psychological aspect of poker. My view is that poker is essentially a math problem. But in most cases it’s an extremely complex math problem, which makes it difficult to “solve” the game in the same way that tic-tac-toe and other simple strategy games and casino games can be solved. Canadian poker at www.pokersites.ca with topics in game theory. Since it’s a math problem, you don’t need psychological insight to play this game well. You can just solve the math and go from there. (This is why bots, which have essentially zero psychological insight, can win at poker.)

But for the overwhelming majority of human beings, solving the math is very tricky. An understanding of psychology can simplify things and create straightforward solutions to what would otherwise be complex problems.

For instance, when someone bets $30 on the turn, I often know exactly what sort of hand to expect from them. Why? Because I understand how they think about the game. I understand how their emotions guide their decision-making. And therefore I know that this sort of hand they would be $30 with, this sort of hand they would bet $80 with, and this sort of hand they would check. These hand-reading shortcuts allow me to make accurate decisions without a lot of data points on a player and without reverting to a potentially complex game theory-derived solution.

When I coach students, I often realize that these little psychological shortcuts I use are very much learned. I was not born knowing that players shade their bets smaller when they feel a certain way about their hands or that players will tend to react to excessive 3-betting in a certain, predictable way. I learned these shortcuts through experience and likely a little bit of aptitude for acquiring these insights.

This psychological part of the game, however, plays nowhere near the role in many other gambling games or in chess. Blackjack, for instance, is 100 percent math. There is a computer-generated solution to every situation, and one must simply memorize the answers. There is of course some psychology in dealing with the heat one might get from pit bosses and other casino administrators, but a robot could easily play the game itself perfectly.

So I’m guessing that some of the sharp people who fail at poker don’t have quite the same aptitude for understanding the psychology of the game, so during their experience playing, they don’t acquire the right shortcut insights. To speculate even more wildly, I would imagine people who win at gambling by understanding market movements (a skill sometimes relevant in sports and parimutual betting) might have more aptitude on average than blackjack or video poker players.

Bad Feedback

All successful gamblers understand that winning a bet doesn’t mean you did it right and that losing doesn’t mean you did it wrong. The goal in gambling is to get a consistent edge on a long series of bets. How any individual bet comes out is irrelevant.

So I would expect any successful gambler to realize that if your opponent bets, and you call with a draw (getting correct odds) and miss, you’ve still done it right, and you should make the same decision again in a similar situation.

But the variance in poker is more subtle than that. Poker requires you not only to slap probabilities on what cards will come, but it also requires you to estimate hand ranges for your opponent. Say you get the money in and your opponent shows you the nuts. Ouch. Did you do it wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you estimated the hand range correctly, and you just got unlucky to run into the nuts. Or maybe you estimated incorrectly, and your opponent would actually have the nuts more often than you estimated.

Say you make a bet and your opponent folds. Good, right? Not necessarily. It’s possible that you overestimated the chance that your opponent would call with a weaker hand, and therefore your bet ended up being -EV.

Running into the nuts or getting too many “bad” folds with your bets can give you false feedback on what you’re doing. This is the sort of feedback that may trip up people used to other gambling games.

Reverting To Emotional Decision-Making

Nearly everyone wants to play poker a certain way. Generally risk-averse people like to play tight, make cautious folds, and feel confident that they’re doing the right thing when they put the money in. Generally aggressive people like to bluff and force the action.

The math of the game, however, requires that you strike a balance between these “styles.” The psychological shortcuts of the game require that you switch between these modes (and some others) to take advantage of the systematic errors your opponents make.

Again, I think that people are able to fight their natural emotional inclinations if they have convincing evidence that doing so is correct. But poker offers up enough confusion, enough confounding signals, that I’ve found virtually everyone ends up playing the way that makes them feel good rather than the way that makes the most money.

Final Thoughts

I think success at poker requires proficiency in three major areas: analytical ability, psychological aptitude, and emotional control. It is an incredibly frustrating, yet intellectually demanding game. It stands to reason that people can be proficient in pursuits that require one or two of the major poker skills, but struggle with the others.

If you have any thoughts about this, please comment.

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20 Responses to “Why Sharp People Sometimes Fail At Poker”

@ Sat Feb 18, 2012 06:45:02 AM

Great post Ed. I really enjoy pieces like this that look at the game on a really conceptual level. Thanks very much.

@ Sat Feb 18, 2012 11:05:27 AM

Hello Ed. Every Friday I play my “Home Game” over at Johnny’s Bar. Everyone knows that I read poker books and everyone (every week) harasses me with comments such as “did the book tell you to play that way!” or “what does the book say about that!” Because ALL of these geezers are convinced that the ONLY way to play poker is the way that THEY have been playing for the past 30+ years or just as you said they are comfortable with what they are doing.

Actually it’s kinda fun to watch as my stack grows in size as they grow silent towards the end of our bar room tournament.

Looking forward to reading my next book “How to Read Hands”

@ Sat Feb 18, 2012 05:40:07 PM

Ed, I think you hit the nail on the head. It might be profitable to, as you say, “interview some people from these fields to see if they have insight”. But if they really have insight then why are they struggling? I think you, as a notedpokerauthority :) have more insight than they do.

@ Sat Feb 18, 2012 08:09:28 PM

I agree with JJS … you *are* the noted poker authority :-)

I think that just because the sharps know the right play doesn’t mean they can pull the trigger.
You gotta have some gamble to play poker … precisely because it is unsolvable. Perhaps some of these overly analytical minds don’t have it.

Just my initial thoughts

Ed Miller
@ Sat Feb 18, 2012 08:55:39 PM

I agree that having gamble certainly seems to help… at least it seems to help get you to the highest levels of poker.

@ Sun Feb 19, 2012 08:42:32 AM

Sounds spot on. I see myself with all 3 of those characteristics and consider myself a good low-stakes player.

I also like what you said about shortcuts. Lately, when I play, I go a lot by feel. I’ll stare down an opponent, and I’ll count the pot odds, but deep inside I’ve got to go by feel when the decision gets tough. A lot of tells are subconscious anyway, so maybe the feeling part of my brain will pick up on something that the analytical part of my brain hasn’t. That’s a shortcut, in a way. Memorizing all the various tells and what they mean is way too much when you play casually. I don’t play as much as I used to–but I’ve been through enough hands that in my life that I assume my brain will do the work for me. Sometimes you just have to soak it in and play accordingly. There’s no more hand range in front of me that I’m adhering to for late, early and middle position. If it feels good, I’ll play it.

@ Sun Feb 19, 2012 10:17:13 AM

One of the most insightful articles on poker play I have read! The less tangible skills in poker are truly the difference between a good player and a great one.

@ Sun Feb 19, 2012 08:59:18 PM

I’m guessing the biggest problems come from lack of real effort/time taken to learn the game properly. You didn’t mention whether any of these people actually dedicated themselves to learning poker, or whether they put down 2 or 3 deposits then gave up and announced online poker is too hard.

But in any case, it’s an interesting speculation. I’ll add a few more factors that aren’t attached to being smart:
Tilt – being smart doesn’t mean you can play well after losing a big pot, and that’s a huge winrate killer
Luck – many people can’t deal with bad runs of variance and would give up. Others change their styles to losing ones to try to avoid losing big pots or looking stupid when a bluff doesn’t work.
Friends – most pros attribute some of their success to having good poker buddies to talk about theory with
Observation – live or online, you have to pay attention as much as possible. Live is a mix of betting habits and live tells, online is much more about betting habits.
Money management – winning at online poker isn’t as hard at 5c/10c as it is at $1/$2. It could be some of these guys just played too high before they had time to learn everything.

Like I said though, get an Ed Miller to mentor any chess player weekly for 2 years, and have them play 10 hours a week, I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t be a winning player able to generate at least a small income.

@ Mon Feb 20, 2012 02:45:17 AM

The point about bad feedback is huge. It could probably be a topic for someone’s psych thesis. Learning to play poker is so different from how we learn most things in life. Think about the idea of conditioned responses. When we are winning, we feel good about it, but as you point out, that doesn’t mean we’re playing well. It sucks when you’re on a losing streak, and the fact that we play for money only compounds the normal emotional response. But again, just because we’re losing doesn’t mean we’re playing poorly. Psychologically, I think this is a lot to overcome.

Seth Baldwin
@ Tue Feb 21, 2012 01:02:05 PM

Great post, Ed. I have two thoughts: The first is to say, why are we assuming the sharps aren’t good enough at poker? How long does it take to get good at poker? 100,000 hands? Maybe the sharps who aren’t good (yet) have only played 5,000 hands and they will be winning players by the time the get to 100K. That said, your hypothosis on psychology rings true to me. By psychology, I (and you) mean what I know about what my opponent knows. I consider myself a sharp (computer science). At first, I had no idea what my opponent knew. It seemed like my opponent could think anything — there were no contours or high density areas I was aware of. Sometimes I would assume my opponent thought like I did. That was almost always wrong. It’s only in the last couple years that I read a few books (Hand Reading, Harrington on 6-Max, Dynamic Full-Ring) and have been practicing online with a HUD that the classic loose-passive to tight-aggressive designations actually mean something to me from a tactical perspective, not just a strategic one. Most sharps are used to an objective solution. Chess has clearly right and wrong moves. To play “objectively correct” poker is to miss a ton of value against most opponents. Just last week I was playing 5-10 NL live. I had 200B as did the TAG in the SB. The L-P in the BB had 50BB. I openend with ATs, the SB 3-bet and the BB cold called. I 4-bet, got the TAG to fold AK and got the LP to go all in with T8s.

@ Tue Feb 21, 2012 04:34:24 PM

Seth B., you make interesting points regarding the assumption that your opponents “think like I do” and “sharps are used to an objective solution”.

I have more experience with chess than I do with poker (I am USCF rated 1820). When I played a series of games against friends who were around 1100 strength, I had trouble at first. I was making defensive moves but what I was defending against were threats that these 1100 players didn’t have any chance of seeing.

After a while I learned which threats I needed to pay attention to, and which ones I could ignore (as in “he’ll never see that”). Then I started winning faster and more easily.

So maybe the “sharps” are spending too much time looking for the optimum play rather than the play that takes advantage of their opponents weaknesses.

@ Fri Feb 24, 2012 02:47:59 PM

I really think that what stops really good chess players from becoming great chess players(moving to the next level) is their inability to trust their intuition during ingame play. Essentially they try to analyse every decision in real time and the fact is once trained our sub-conscious(intuition) is better at making fast complex decision then one’s rational mind. I think it is the same thing for chess players trying to be good at poker, if they try to analyse every decision in the moment then they will never improve beyond a certain level. One note: I think alot of chess players haven’t played enough hands to really know if they are good or not. One’s intuition isn’t going to be very useful until you have alot of experience. From what I understand they are quite of really good poker players that are darn good at chess as well, like Punketty (Niman Kenkre). I talk more about this in my book Poker Mindfulness that well hasn’t yet become a best-seller :)

Peter Baum
@ Thu Mar 01, 2012 10:23:13 AM

Let me throw in my 2 cents as a versatile game-player (stocks, bridge, card counter, sports systems, etc.) who is pretty new to poker.
I think the adaptation is simply a language issue. When someone bets 3 units in 2nd position pre-flop, that communicates to you in a way that it doesn’t quite yet for me. I remember that in (literally) my 2nd hand playing for money, someone bet 5 units after the flop ahead of me. Holding top two pair, I folded since he *obviously* had made a set to make such a bet. Having now played for six months, my language skills are improving. Note that the language is different from the math, since many players are making inferior plays. And I heartily agree with Seth Baldwin that it takes a long time to learn the language. I also presume that as a player advances, the language changes, along with the type of opponent. That may be why players have difficulty when they move to higher stakes. While I could afford to play for higher stakes today, I’m making it a point of truly “getting” the language of 1-2 before I move up.

@ Mon Mar 05, 2012 01:15:35 PM

I’m assuming that you are including raw math ability in analytical ability?

My take on this is that the game is far too complicated for most people to wrap their heads around so they stick to platitudes that they feel comfortable with like “play tight” or “be aggressive.”

I think it comes down to belief systems. People end up convincing themselves that a certain play is proper for reasons that are not rigorously logical or correct. 99.9+% of the conclusions that people make about a correct play are incorrect. So the learning process is severely disrupted.

Maybe the sharp people didn’t put enough effort in to get over the hump? Or maybe your perception of how sharp they are is an overestimation?

I make a very good living playing this game but it took me about 6-7 years to really start crushing games and I am about as sharp as they come. I have thought about the game A LOT on my own and have read many books as well.

Perhaps they are accepting too structured an approach to the game? Reading books reinforces this.

For example, I regularly raise UTG in live nl ten handed games with hands as weak as 54s and I show a profit in these situations. Yet there are no books on the market that currently explain how or why this is profitable and I’m certainly not going to go out of my way educating people.


[…] about poker-related topics rather than only giving poker instruction. His February 2011 blog post Why Sharp People Sometimes Fail At Poker is one example. In it Ed writes about advantage gamblers, those who win betting sports or playing […]

@ Thu Mar 15, 2012 04:00:08 PM

Hi Ed, how does one become a premium member? Link does not allow me to sign up! -Ricardo

@ Wed May 30, 2012 06:47:57 AM

Great Post! Specially crafted minds for games like Chess think logically: A player has to abide by a certain set of rules, and everything can be played out in advance. Poker is not the case however:
Poker can be very drastically different, players bluff, lie and trick everyone else on the table. This kind of thing is what trips up a lot of new players.

Online Poker Newspod
@ Thu Aug 23, 2012 01:50:42 AM

A very interesting article. I was particularly interested in the point you made about chess players sometimes not being so good at poker. Chess strategy evolves around strategic certainties whereas poker has too much variance in the fact you don’t know what cards you will get; just like the markets, these players don’t respond well to uncertainty. I think online poker is also difficult in this regard because you can’t interpret body language as there is no face-to-face communication. I also believe online poker poses greater pressure and is perceived as a more serious gamble, as opposed to sports betting for example, which could be viewed as a more relaxing undertaking.

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@ Sun Dec 08, 2013 05:09:21 PM

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Al S.
@ Sat Apr 26, 2014 02:55:32 PM

The article is accurate. I made some articles myself on this same issue and a video. I have a friend of mine who is VERY analytical with a 165 IQ. Really good poker player but he struggles. I was surprised to find that I am a better poker player than he is for NL. He lacks the psychological aspect.

Sometimes you might see this as a posted hand on a forum compared to being at the table and being in the hand. Sometimes a posted hand analysis loses accuracy due to psychological factors. Which doesn’t always means tells BTW.

If I have to rank them in order.

#1 Emotional Control, I call this Discipline
#2 Analysis, I call math skills
#3 Psychology

Although there are some live pros who aren’t math experts but have an amazing intuition for the game.

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