Popular culture feeds us stereotypes of maths geniuses ripping off casinos by using their super brains to beat the odds; this is the fun premise behind the Kevin Spacey film, 21. This film was based on a real-life MIT Blackjack team who used card counting to make money. But does this stereotype hold true for Poker?
The Maths in Poker
Ability to calculate probability is an essential starting point for anyone serious about winning at Poker. Understanding the odds as the game breaks down allows you as a player to make calculated decisions. Good players know the odds of different outcomes at the turn or the river. So if you need an ace from the final community card knowing the probability will feed into your strategy.
Knowing Your Odds and Outs
Understanding probability is critical, and here’s why. Let’s say there is one card left to fall on the river and you have four hearts, so you need a heart for a flush. In this situation, some quick maths tells you:
- There are 13 hearts in a deck.
- Three are in your hand, with one on the board.
- There are two cards in your hand and four on the board, so there are 46 possible cards.
- With nine possible hearts out of 46 cards, the odds are four to one.
You can read more about getting to grips with Poker odds here.
Once you have that information, it can feed into other non-numerical data you are processing. And this non-numerical data will give you critical context to help make your bet.
The Poker Arts
We know that maths is a pretty important skill in Poker, but it should only act as a prerequisite. No-one is the best player in the world because they are great at maths – that’s like saying Ronaldo is a great footballer because he can run fast. There are many skills which make a top Poker player and here are four of my favourites.
Of the many playing styles in Poker, some are unique, but most styles can be broadly categorised into four groups. It is worth understanding your own style, complete with its strengths and weaknesses, and understanding which styles your opponent is playing so you can outmanoeuvre them. Here are the main recognised styles:
- A ‘tight’ style is one of few risks.
- ‘Loose’ is the opposite of tight and involves more gambling.
- An ‘aggressive’ style is about big bets and putting other players under pressure.
- A ‘passive’ style means the players will let opponents dictate how the play unfolds.
Each player will have a different range which will depend partly on their style of play.
Discipline in Poker is about maintaining a level head and not being swayed by the action. Making value bets and keeping a cool head isn’t easy; often there will be provocation and tension at the table, and it can be tempting to bite. Also, you can be seduced into gambling on a big hand going your way, but making consistently poor bets will see you lose in the long run.
Making a poor bet that pays off is still a mistake; it’s good decisions over time that will see you win. It can be frustrating seeing players fortuitously win big hands, but keeping discipline and focus is critical. It sounds simple, but most players lose it at some point in a game.
Trying to decide what your opponent has, what they think you have and what they think you think they have is a real challenge.
If you can understand where your opponent is mentally it can allow you to get an insight into their hand; maybe they have a ‘tell’ when they get good cards or maybe you can get a read on their mental state. This can all help determine what cards they have, how they are feeling and ultimately how they may decide to play.
If you can manipulate how they think you’re feeling then even better. If your hand is great, you may want them to think it’s poor. So many skills are at play here: acting, empathy, observation, and memory to name a few.
If you get wound up by other players and the game, it will impede your decision making. In most games there is some gamesmanship; whether it is verbal or in small actions, players will try and get under your skin. At the same time you must be unaffected and understand their behaviour as it may be giving something away about what they are thinking.
Tilt can also mean stresses brought on by the game in general. Poker can be maddening, the luck component can be devastating and for a player to keep their composure throughout is one of the signs of someone having the temperament to succeed. Not to mention that tilt can adversely impact your bankroll management.
So Are Maths Skills Vital?
To get to the top the ability to process numbers is crucial but this skill can be learned by most people. If you’re serious about your Poker then make sure you understand the numbers side but to be a successful player it’s the other components that will make or break you. Having a great strategy, remaining calm, being able to read other people, and the ability to disguise your actions make up an important part of every great player.
Maths skills are probably more important in a fixed-limit game where the breadth of actions you can make are narrower; here maths is perhaps a bigger part of the overall picture than a no-limit game where more differentials come into play and maths is perhaps less important. But knowing the basic probability calculations and processing them quickly is an advantage you should definitely have.