Monday, January 04, 2010
Last week, my in-laws treated my wife and me to a welcome break from the New England winter in the form of a Caribbean cruise. One of the highlights for me occurred one afternoon when I participated in a Texas Hold'em poker tournament I learned about from my wife's mother, who remembered that I used to play poker regularly during grad school around the time Mrs. Van Horn and I started dating.
Back then, my group didn't play Texas Hold'em that much, and I have since indulged my interest in the game only intermittently, watching games here and there on television and occasionally joining co-workers in informal Texas Hold'em tournaments with very small buy-ins.
Playing for a few hundred dollars and facing complete strangers were both new to me, and the buy-in was just enough so soon after starting to work again that I did have to think it over a little bit. But I wanted to know what it would be like and how I would do enough that I finally decided at the last minute to play.
Although I did not win -- only the top two players won money -- I did far better than I expected to, finishing third after eliminating four of the other ten players directly (two of them in one hand) and leading my closest opponent at one point by a factor of three. Bragging aside (not to mention probably also admitting that I don't know what to do with a huge lead), what really fascinated me were a few thoughts I had about the process of learning as a result of that game.
Poker is simple in some respects and complex in others. It is fairly straightforward to estimate the potential strength of one's hand at any given point and, at least in Texas Hold'em, to come up with reasonable estimations of what an opponent might possess.
Betting patterns can help one refine one's estimate of what an opponent might have, but the ability of an opponent to bluff has to be accounted for. (e.g., There are whole books about "tells" -- minor expressions or actions that can indicate deception -- that have been written with the object of determining whether an opponent might be bluffing.) So the rules of the game are simple, but its strategy is actually quite complex. What interests me here is the fact that both explicit knowledge and intuition are both involved at all levels of the game.
As I just indicated, there are different mixtures of explicit knowledge and gut feel for different aspects of the game and I suspect that this might vary over certain ranges by individual. For example, I am almost certain that it is possible to calculate the mathematical odds for any given hand to win. (I'd normally check on something like this and provide a link, but I'm writing this on a plane and probably won't be home until after midnight... [Actually, it ended up being 2:30 am. I woke up at six, for work beckons. Oh, and I'm less sure that this can be done, but the question is still interesting to consider. --ed]) I don't know how to perform such calculations, but I did notice myself feeling generally better or worse about my pocket cards after the deal as I played different hands even before thinking something like, "Hmmm. An ace and a seven in diamonds. Good high card and a fair chance for a flush." Clearly my subconscious was working from previous experience on some level.
Thinking about what I did right and wrong after the game, I wondered whether I might want to learn how to calculate the odds of my hand winning. Strange as it might seem, decided against doing so -- for now. At the time, I was not able to state explicitly why this seemed like a bad idea to me, but on reconsidering this point, I now think I understand what I was grappling with: The details of such calculations (and maybe the results) would distract me from learning other aspects of the game, among them figuring out how strategies generally evolve over the course of a game and how they can vary among individuals.
Among the reasons I might have run into trouble later in the game was that I realized too late that the risk of staying in a hand changes in multiple ways as the game goes on. For one thing, due to increasing initial bets it's more expensive to see the up-cards and this fact in turn seemed to make players more reluctant to stay in with the weaker hands they might have chanced earlier in the game.
On top of that, bluffing can really pay off at such a point: One of the two players left after me took advantage of this fact to bluff me successfully, one of the three most important plays in the game as far as I was concerned. (This is not to say that I got bluffed easily. I did call a bluff by the other top player early in the game after considering a fold. I decided to stay in when I realized that his bet made no sense. I remember feeling quite comfortable with that decision, although not completely sure about why. This first-hand experience of using intuition was part of what I was after when I decided to play.)
So I would say that eventually, I could improve my game by learning how to calculate odds, but that at this point, I still need to learn too many other things about the parameter space of the game before going into that much detail. Something I observed suggests that I am right: The people who talked before the tournament about their gaming on-line dropped like flies early on. I strongly suspect that this was due to their concentrating too much on the mathematical aspects of the game and too little on learning how to read their opponents: You don't see your opponents in on-line poker and so cannot observe everything they do. (Incidentally, I considered and rejected the idea of playing on-line poker for that reason alone: On-line gaming in general and on-line poker in particular do not appeal to me. That said, people who are weak at estimating how good their hands are might do well to practice on-line.)
I wouldn't call myself a serious student of poker, but if I were to study anything at this point, it would be tells. But still, it's really too early to do that in much detail, either. At this point, I'm a rank beginner and not too sure that the cards weren't a little bit kinder than average to me. What I would really need to see are more examples of play before I can gain an overall grasp of what a game of poker typically entails and where I am strongest and weakest. (The best advice for someone like me would be of a general nature that touches on all the important points of the game without dwelling on any one of them.)
In parallel with gaining experience, I could conceptualize the knowledge by making it more explicit or studying certain issues in more detail as I feel ready for them or in need of them. (This is an example of the spiral theory of learning. To get lost from the outset in details about one issue or another as the on-line players may have would be an example of what I have heard called "over-thinking," although I regard that colloquialism as misleading. Such an approach strikes me as rationalistic, but there could be any number of other reasons someone might make such an error.)
Poker appears to be a good model for certain aspects of how we learn generally. In a certain respect, I am almost glad I didn't win that tournament. I might not have learned as much as I did about how to approach poker in particular and knowledge in general.
Today: Corrected a typo.