Think Better

How to Think Better

You 3-bet ADiamondKDiamond and actually hit the flop this time: AHeart 10Heart 10Club.

You calmly make your standard sized continuation bet.
But then your opponent raises all-in.

Time to put on the thinking cap.

But what should you be thinking about here? What do you usually think about when facing tough decisions? And are you methodical with your reasoning or are your thoughts scattered and frantic?

The Art of Effective Reasoning

How does a Chess master think so many moves ahead?

He is a master of his mind. He employs a practised decision making framework.

He compiles a list of realistic possibilities and then traverses each branch of his decision tree evaluating its tactical merit.

We can apply the same technique to poker.

The Technique

Mentally list your possible options.

Then take each one in turn and give it a finite amount of consideration, so that you still have time to consider the other possibilities. As you evaluate each option, if it becomes obvious that one play is inferior, then eliminate that option and move on.

If you have 3 options (e.g. call raise or fold) and two options seem close, can you eliminate the third? If so, then return to the first two and give those your full attention.

Pro tip: buy yourself some time, by starting this process while it is still your opponent’s turn.

Practice Off the Table

It’s best to develop this skill off the table when you are not facing time pressure.

Write it down.

How do you structure the logical analysis of a hand?

Use the information available to you (such as positions, reads, and actions) to establish a range for your opponent.

Consider your most obvious plays from the highest level. For example, if your opponent has checked to you on the flop, simply compare the merits of checking or betting.

What will he do if you bet?

Note, this is easier to contemplate than checking, since that introduces a new card and subsequently many more possibilities.

Perhaps he is a maniac and there is a high probability he will check-raise you. And you only have a medium pair that you’d like to get to showdown. Then, our analysis is over! We check.

Look for these short-cuts to a quick solution, avoiding more complicated branches of the decision tree if possible.

Try some drills.

Once you’ve written down a framework. Then, take 5 hands you’ve played recently, and walk through them using your process.

When you’re ready, attempt it in a real game, playing just one table. See how many hands you can play in a row with your new organized mind.

I suggest having a pad and pen next to you so that you can document the experience. It is bound to be quite challenging at first, but you will quickly improve given steady applied effort over time.

Capture what actually is happening when you think about the hand. Reflect on how this differs from your intended analysis.

Are emotions creeping in and warping your logic?

Try to get to the bottom of the emotions and explore why they lead to suboptimal thinking. By bringing regular awareness to these things, you can break free of erroneous habitual thought patterns and gain more control of your mind.

Revisit and refine your framework. Perhaps some cues or mantras may help.

Getting Smarter

Over time, as you gain more knowledge and experience and your reasoning powers improve, your analysis should deepen. In the example above, you evolve from “should I check or bet” to “should I bet small, average, large, or check”. You can also plan further ahead and apply chunking: “should I small-bet/call or small-bet/fold”?

Previous stratagems that required conscious consideration become second nature. And overall your decisions may become faster. Your knowledge moves from conscious competence to unconscious competence.

You can notice and track these improvements either through journaling or keeping a more empirical log.

And this can represent a far more reliable performance indicator than something as variable as win-rates.

If you try to apply this or have other ideas, please share your thoughts and findings!

  • Garrett

    This is a terrific post. We are of the same mind. I have been working on my own cognitive behavior for the last three years, mostly in DBT(Dialectic/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). It is very difficult to change behavior.

    Your article was great, the process is a good one and finally, someone like yourself could detail that out in a step by step tutorial that would create the basic framework for study. One point: when you start off table learning you do not know what to study and in what order. I think what you suggests answers this problem.

    I know two Authors who are starting this now, its a ”workbook” form, that’s great. It’s inadequate in relationship to the complexity of the game, hell’s bell’s were talking OGT/Nash equilibrium levels for god-sake’s.

    I have been working on this behavior problem for 10 years(not all poker.)

    For example: I held AK on the Button, The flop was AK7. Both Pre-flop, Flop, Turn were 10BB(3/5)bets. All folded except CO. He flat called my bets. The turn and river were bricks. I shoved at the river 40BB, CO called. He had pocket 77.

    So I ask myself what did I miss, why did I shove rather than check or min bet? Answer: This is impulse behavior of “shove, shove, shove” that pops up and totally confuses the logical thinking part of my brain. Then later asks, the question?

    Why was the villain still calling such strong bets?

    I am now working on those detailed steps from beginning to end, To compensate for the lack of logical, cognitive thinking with solid training, where your actions are based on sound academic study.

    Keep up the good work.


    • Steve Sinclair

      In the end, can you fold top two, even if you check or min bet, and villain shoves? Of course, it’s player dependent, but still, most times I think you’re just screwed in this particular example.

  • ila

    Great Post!

  • David Hutchinson

    Strange, I was looking into this myself, and it pops up here. In chess the way a grandmaster thinks is called falsification. he thinks through the move and then attempts to judge that move by the opponents possible reaction which does the least damage. once he finds the optimal move he use’s that move. he attempts to disprove the chess move first to find the best move, hope this makes sense..

  • Emma Goldman

    Mike, thanks. I personally would have loved your ideas on the original hand and lines of thinking. As you know those paired boards are bears.

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