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Poker: Psychology or Percentages

Poker: Psychology or Percentages Part One

One of the most frequently discussed questions regarding expert poker play is whether the most important aspect is knowing how to "play your cards" or knowing how to "play your player." Another way to put this is whether the most important factor is percentage or psychology.

Since I have often been accused of putting undue emphasis on the mathematics of poker while neglecting the "human" side of it, I have decided to set the record straight with this article.

First of all, it is not correct to say that all poker decisions are based either on percentage or psychology. There is a third factor that is oftentimes even more important than the other two. This factor is logic. How each of these factors is used in a poker game will be explained shortly.

The controversial question is what fraction of expert poker play can be attributed to each of these factors. In other words, is poker one-quarter percentages, one-half psychology, and one-quarter logic? If not, what is the breakdown?

Part of the answer depends on the game in question. Doyle Brunson has said that poker is a "people game." It is important, however, to remember that Doyle's game is usually no-limit poker. Without question, no-limit is much more psychological than fixed-limit poker. This is because a player may very well fold a very good hand if the bet is high enough. Knowing whether you can bluff a certain player with a big bet is mainly a psychological question. Similarly, when you do have a big hand, it takes psychological skill to know how much you can "sell it for" so that a lesser hand will call. (This accounts for Doyle's feelings.) But even no-limit play makes frequent use of both percentage and logic. Before coming to any conclusion, let us take a closer look at these factors. Exactly how are each of these factors used in a poker game?

Percentages are most widely used when determining the probability that your hand will improve to the best hand. This probability is then compared to the pot odds when deciding whether to call or fold with a hand that ought to improve to win.

Likewise, you need to know percentages when you have a hand and your opponents are drawing to beat you. There are many situations in poker that are almost strictly percentage plays.

For instance, whether you should try for an inside straight (which you know will be good if you hit it) with one card to come in limit hold 'em poker, is almost purely mathematics. Even here, though, the play becomes a pure odds question only after you have psychologically evaluated the situation as one in which you could not get away with a bluff if you missed.

When playing seven card stud, if you have, let's say, a pair of aces against what appears to be three different four flushes (in different suits) on fourth street, you are in trouble. You will get 3 to 1 odds on a bet, but you are more than a 3 to 1 underdog.

Knowing when to try to "knock players out" of a multi-way pot is another mathematical decision. Finally, your choice of starting hands in very easy, loose games, in which a bluff will rarely work, is mainly a card playing decision rather than a people playing decision.

Purely psychological decisions are most often encountered when you are considering a bluff or a call with a hand that can only beat a bluff. In most cases, part of this decision is based on reading your opponent's hand and his actions in previous betting rounds. Even here logic and psychology play a part in your decision, since you must recreate the hand to make the best decision.

As already mentioned, psychological plays are at their purest in no-limit poker. There is no substitute for knowing your opponents in this game. The technical expert against a bunch of strangers will do far worse than a somewhat less knowledgeable player in this same game who knows all of the opponents.

Knowing your players is not just important for bluffing situations. For example, suppose a player, who you know to be tight, calls a raise with a deuce showing in seven card stud.

Now, he pairs deuces in sight. Since you know he is a tight player, you can be fairly sure that he does not have three deuces; it is unlikely that he would have originally played a pair of deuces. Had he been a loose player, you couldn't be sure. This is just one of a multitude of poker situations in which your play is based mainly on psychology. We now come to logic. It is this third rarely mentioned aspect of poker play that I think is most important, especially in a limit game.

When I speak of logic, I am speaking of the formal type of reasoning that is characterized by frequent use of the words "if... .then," "or," "and," etc.: If I do that, then he will do this.

Good examples of almost purely logical plays occur in the last round of play, especially against a single opponent in a limit game. Suppose you are first to act: you have a good hand and suspect that your opponent has either a hand slightly worse than yours or that he has a complete bust. What should you do?

Logic says to check. If he has a decent hand, he will bet if you check. So, you don't have to lose any money by checking. You may, however, gain a bet by checking if this entices him to bluff with a busted hand that he would have folded had you bet.

This situation is mainly a logical one. But notice that there is also some psychology to it since you made a "read" on his possible hands as well as what he figures to do with them.

In this same instance, if it appears that his hand is quite a bit worse than yours, it may be right to bet, relinquishing your chances of snapping off a bluff. The reasoning is that he will probably call your bet but show his hand down if you check.

An example of a logical play in an earlier round is as follows: You are first to act in a head up situation. You have what appears to be the slightly better hand. In reality, though, you suspect that your hand is somewhat worse. Still, if you check, you must call if he bets. Furthermore, if you check and he checks behind you, it probably means that your hand was in fact the best hand.

Now you have given the worse hand a free card! Therefore, you must bet in this situation especially since you needn't fear a raise.

A clear example of this case happens frequently in seven card lowball. You have a 7, 5 showing, and your opponent shows 7, 6. Your hole cards are 8, 2. You must bet here.

An analogous situation in seven card stud might be when you show king, 9 against an opponent's jack, 5 showing and you have two tens in the hole. Since your opponent is worried about two kings, you should bet even if you think there is a good chance he has two jacks.

Once again, I could have given many more examples of poker plays based mainly on logic.
Let's get back to the original question. Is poker mainly a card game or a people game? Is it most important to know your psychology, your percentages, or your logic? Are the most frequent situations that arise in a game mathematical, logical or psychological?

The answer is none of them. Those situations that I mentioned earlier in this article are all quite rare. They are rare in that very few poker situations can be played well based solely on one of these three disciplines. In fact, almost all poker situations require all three simultaneously. This is your answer. The true expert does not just play his player or play his cards; both factors are closely intertwined in nearly all poker situations. Even those situations mentioned earlier were not purely mathematical, psychological, or logical. Typical poker situations are even less distinct in any one category. Let us look at a couple of examples.

Poker: Psychology or Percentages Part Two