The poker learning process

March 26, 2008

The process of improving, at poker, skiing or French, requires learning. Learning is the process of acquiring skills, knowledge, understanding via accumulated experiences and memories.

Traditional learning processes such as learning to ski or to speak French involve basic aspects of the new item followed by repetition and perhaps testing. Once one has achieved a satisfactory level of competence, the instructor (or instruction book) adds another aspect to build on the foundation, repeats it for clarification, and then tests the student’s mastery of the new aspect, perhaps in conjunction with the previous learning.

Poker doesn’t work that way very well. First, you have to learn all the rules and all the hand values just to see how it works. And as soon as you start practicing you are stuck with the problem of trying to come up with some basis for determining when to bet/raise/call and how much, even while you are still trying to remember the rules and the hand values. You start to realize how complicated it becomes.

You start to learn absolute hand strength, but then realize that it isn’t absolute hand strength that matters but rather relative hand strength that is important. Then you realize that your estimated relative hand strength is determined not only by the board, but also by your opponents’ playing style and your position, both of which keep changing. You learn you may have to play your hand differently in a cash game as opposed to a tournament, and that stack sizes factor into your decision making. You learn about variance, pot odds, and begin to understand that you are making decisions based on imperfect information and that making the best play may not win this hand even though it is the best play over the long run.

You might read about how to play given situation (ie. slowplaying trips), but the cards are so random that it doesn’t come up very often. Then when it does come up, something about the situation is different that the one you read about (ie. there’s a flush draw on the flop, or you have a low kicker and two other people have shown interest in the pot) so the advice may backfire on you if you don’t learn to take more factors into consideration. Even more to the point, you’ve read so much about so many different situations that you don’t remember all the specifics that have to be in place to make this play successful.

Or take flushes for example. First you learn what a flush is. Then you learn that it beats a straight and three of a kind but loses to a full house. It’s easy to see when you have a flush, but after being beaten a few times when your opponent has a flush, you start to notice when there are three of a suit on the table, and you may become hesitant whenever a flush is possible. Then you realize that sometimes people will feed on that fear and will bluff when three of a suit appear. At some point you will start to see when a flush is possible because there are two of a suit in the flop.

You’ll start to wonder how to play top pair on a flop when all the cards are of one suit, or what to do with two low cards of that suit, or how far to go when you have only the Ace of the suit, or the Queen or the Jack. Eventually you learn that there is no answer other than, “it depends”, and there’s a heck of a lot more to learn.



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