Poker is a game played with the heart as much as the head, but is that magic gut instinct only the reserve of the pros?
The worst thing about that Kenny Rogers song The Gambler is the chorus. Doyle Brunson and his Super System collaborators managed 500-odd pages on when to hold’em and when to fold’em; Kenny managed one crap platitude. If he decided to write a song about chess, he would doubtless include a line about how you have to move your pieces around to win. However, his asinine lyric does beg an interesting question. Poker is a series of decisions, and the important ones are invariably difficult. How do you know what choice to make?
Usually when you ‘know’ what to do, it’s because you’ve been paying attention. You think the guy might be bluffing based on his earlier play. Maybe your notes tell a different story to his bets. It’s reasoned analysis. The pieces fall into place, you have a percentage read and it feels good to be proved right.
Sometimes, though – and here, grudgingly, Kenny Rogers is right – you just know, intuitively, what the right course of action is without any support from analysis or reasoning. You’re convinced your opponent is trying it on, but you don’t know how you know – and often the feeling is right.
In Super System, Brunson sets a lot of store by his hunches: ‘In the rare situations when your card knowledge and best judgment leaves you in doubt, go with your strong feeling… and not against it,’ he wrote. In his introduction to the book, Brunson even mentions ESP as a possible factor in some players’ success, which really would be spooky: ‘Sometimes you don’t even know how you know… only that you’re sure of what your opponent has. I believe some good poker players actually employ a degree of extra-sensory perception.’
It would be a massive edge. Playing poker with psychics can’t be that much fun. However, if you’ve ever had a great session where you were totally focused and those instinctive decisions were coming easily, you probably felt close to being a mind-reader. There’s certainly something going on, although according to poker author Lou Krieger, it probably isn’t telepathy: ‘Just because we can’t explain the details of how we got somewhere, doesn’t mean it was magical, or otherworldly; it can be a form of learning that takes place without our being aware of it,’ he says.
So where does it come from? The first thing to notice is that these flashes of intuition are more frequent when you’re playing well and are in tune with the game: what sports players call being in the zone. If you’re alert and focused, your brain is going to be working harder than you think. The flood of information from the senses is usually filtered by the brain down to a manageable trickle to stop us going mad, but plenty slips under the radar. When you know someone has entered the room without hearing or seeing anything, it’s your senses working on a subliminal level – a difference in air pressure, perhaps, or a few unfamiliar pheromone molecules working their way into your nose. If you’re playing poker and in the zone, this is where intuition will come from. While we’re sitting at the table and observing, making notes, categorising and adjusting our own play, our subconscious minds are beavering away to themselves, effortlessly collating and learning. ‘Your brain is a mini-computer and the subconscious recognises winning (or losing) patterns much faster than the conscious mind does,’ says Lynn Robinson, a consultant and author on the subject of intuition.
Here’s how Brunson puts it: ‘You build up a history of every player you’ve ever played with… you’ve got some kind of information on them. It’s there, buried in your mind. And you don’t have to concentrate to get it out. When the time comes to use it, it’ll come naturally – you won’t have to force it.’ The key to using your instinct is believing in it, as Brunson says. If you’re running well, chances are your hunches will be, too.
Leading British Pro Dave Colcough is a firm believer in intuition. ‘If you’re standing next to someone and you say something that upsets them, you know immediately. You don’t know why, but you pick up on a vibe. This is something I use the time at the poker table. Most of the time when people are uncomfortable with hands I can pick up on something, even though I don’t know what it is.’
Krieger believes the most intuitive player was The Kid. Stu Ungar had phenomenal powers of concentration and awareness and his reads were legendary. ‘He really had that savant quality about him. He always seemed to know what to do, although he always seemed at a complete loss as to explain how he got there.’ In 1991 at the final table of the 4 Queens Poker Classic in Vegas, Ungar famously called Mansour Matloubi’s all-in river bluff with 10 high, prompting Matloubi to declare he would never play heads-up with The Kid again. Matloubi obviously thought there were black arts at work, but he was just up against one of the most giftedly intuitive minds in the game. It’s a poker skill which attention should be paid, says Krieger.
‘Intuition is as important as any other form or source of knowledge, whether it’s doing maths at the poker table, reading body language or other tells, or just coming up to conclusions that lead you to take the correct action, even if you can’t explain the process by which you got there,’ he argues.
Can it be learned? ‘Intuition is definitely a skill you can develop,’ says Robinson. ‘It’s not unlike learning to play the piano; the more you do it, the better you get at it.’ Make sure you’re playing your best game and your instinct will sharpen by itself, in other words. Perhaps, in the end, it’s just a question of practice – and learning to listen to the little voice inside your head.