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I’ve spent over forty years living two parallel lives. In one I am degenerate gambler, a horse player and a poker junkie; in the other, a respected scientist. I’ve kept them separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But this is now changing. I’m writing these column on poker strategy but I am going to try to bring to them new life, new vision. I’m going to take an approach that is, so far as I know, never been tried. I am going to try to build each piece around one or more psychological (that’s my field) principles and show how each can help us make solid decisions, improve strategic thinking and, hey, add to the bottom line.

I’ll begin with a look at the topic I spent those years researching. Technically, it’s called “implicit” processing. It’s what’s happening when people say things like “well, I don’t really know why I thought she’d do that; it just seemed intuitively obvious” or “I just reacted instinctively, I wasn’t thinking.” In short, I’ve studied how and why people often make decisions that are right even though they don’t know why or how.

Okay, okay, I hear you, you’re bored already. You’re thinking: “This professor guy is gonna go off the end of the pier on me —- and I absolutely will NOT take a quiz at the end.” Don’t worry, lecture’s over, on to poker.

Doyle Brunson, in his classic Super System, wrote that at his poker tables there seemed to be a lot of subconscious information floating about. He wondered how some of it, like how his opponents play, just seemed to just appear in his head. Many have commented on this paragraph and wondered whether he was right and, if so, why. Well, it turns out that a lot is known about it. And, yes, Brunson was basically right (as he usually is), but the topic is complex.

Here are the more frequently raised issues:

  1. What is “intuition” anyway? Basically, it’s a vague, largely unconscious feeling, like a voice, far away, whispering something like, “muck ‘em, now.” The feeling is muddy, fuzzy, hazy: “Just call, he’s gonna check the turn,” or “Re-raise, that’s a steal attempt.” It also pops up, unfortunately as: “Oh, shit, bad call.” You recognize the message but do not know what triggered it. Sometimes, later, you can figure out what it was but not always and not easily.

  2. Is it a “sixth sense”? No. First, the numbering is off. We actually have 15 or so senses, if you doubt me, consult a intro psych text. Second, the term “sixth” is often used as though it’s paranormal, an ESP kind of thing. I don’t want to start a fight here (email me if you do), but there is no such thing as ESP; intuition is utterly normal and everyone has it.

  3. Is it really subconscious? Yes. Our brains are really good at picking up patterns from the world around us and they do it outside of awareness. You want an example? Think about language. We all speak and understand at least one language. The rules for word order and meaning are so complex that linguists don’t fully know them. Yet, as children we learned these rules —- and we did so without any conscious effort. We just picked up on the patterns as it was spoken around us. Intuitive knowledge is acquired in just this way – in language or in poker.

  4. Is it a “gut” level feeling, an “instinct”? Not really. The term “gut” is used because it often has an emotional component but it’s just our brains doing their thing. It gets called an “instinct” because it seems natural and automatic. Instincts, however, are unlearned biological reactions. Implicit knowledge is learned. But, hey, we’re talking poker here not evolutionary biology. Call it what you want.

  5. Does it lead to good decision-making? Yes, but, importantly, not one-hundred percent. The system “satisfices;” it provides “pretty good” decision-making. If you want perfection, you need conscious control. Poker, of course, is a game of partial information so the implicit system works fine.

  6. Can you learn to use your intuition? Yes, but you need practice. The system operates by detecting patterns and you need to put in your hours. The more time you spend at the game, the more you will develop a sensitivity to its complexities —- even though you will be hard-pressed to tell anyone what you’re learning. You also need to pay attention; players who focus on the game and what other players are doing build up their intuitions faster.

  7. Do some people (women?) have more of it than others? No. Those who are better are those who have had more experience or been more attentive. Intuitive abilities differ little from person to person. If “women’s intuition” is real it is because women pay more attention in social settings than men and they become tuned to patterns of personal interactions that men are oblivious to. At the poker table, we are all equals.

  8. Do pros use it, and if so, how? Of course they do. The top pros put in a lot of hours so they’ve built up an amazing storehouse of unconscious knowledge. They also know when that distant voice is saying something relevant. They pay no attention to that “I-just-got-a-feeling-about-this-hand” nonsense. If they say stuff like, “I can just feel this next hand is gonna be a biggie” it’s just another piece of empty table-talk. These ‘feelings’ are about as reliable as a Ouija board.

Okay, that’s the professor’s lesson for the day. Practice, pay attention. Give your implicit learning system the chance to do its thing. You’ll feel your intuitive sense of the game emerging, that off-stage voice will begin to whisper useful things in your ear and slowly you will develop a sublime, Zen-like appreciation of the game.

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