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The Poker Mindset – Attitude #1

by Matthew Hilger |  Published: Feb 22, 2012


Matthew HilgerThe Poker Mindset is a set of seven attitudes that every poker player should try to master, regardless of their game, limits, or technical skill. They are realities to be aware of and attitudes to adopt to succeed at poker over the long term.

Just like technical skills, the Poker Mindset will help you make better decisions at the table. In fact, in some situations it could be argued that defects in your Poker Mindset could lose you more money than defects in your technical game.

This is the first article of a series where I will examine each of the seven attitudes of the Poker Mindset. It includes excerpts from my book, coauthored with Ian Taylor, The Poker Mindset.

Attitude #1: Understand and Accept the Realities of Poker

Many players fail to achieve success in poker because they fundamentally misunderstand the game. To understand poker, an aspiring player needs to understand the Five Realities of Poker.

Poker is a game of both skill and luck.

A popular debate among the poker community is whether poker is a game of skill or luck. Each hand dealt is effectively a new start, so logically it would seem that the way to win would be to try to win each hand. A skilled player cannot do anything to increase his chance of winning the hand other than getting his opponents to fold.

However, poker is not about winning the most hands; it is about winning the most money. The net result of this is that the stronger players tend to win fewer hands but more money (in general this is true, but there are some successful players who play quite loose). It is difficult to think of any other game in which the best players win the fewest games; this unique facet of poker often makes it look like a game of luck.

But there is also a considerable element of skill. At various points in a hand, players are asked to make betting decisions. They must analyze the clues available to them, and then use their judgment to make the best betting decision. Where there is judgment, there is room for error, and where there is room for error, there is naturally a skill element.

In the short term, luck is king.

Although poker is a game of both skill and luck, in the short term it can be very difficult to spot the skill element at all. The skill in poker is to lose less with your losing hands and to win more with your winning hands, but even this is an imprecise science over the period of one hand. It is quite possible to make good decisions in a hand and be punished for it, or, make bad decisions and be rewarded.

Even over the slightly longer term, things don’t always run smoothly for the skilled player. A good player can run badly for quite some time through a combination of being dealt poor cards, taking bad beats, or simply being outdrawn at a higher-than-average frequency. It is easy for these individual slices of luck to aggregate into either a very good or a very bad run for a player.

In the long term, skill is king.

The good news for the winning player is that if you play long enough, luck will cease to be a factor. Mathematicians know this intuitively, but for those of us less mathematically inclined, imagine a coin being tossed. If you toss a coin ten times, you would expect there to be about five tails and five heads. As we would expect, five is the most likely number, and four and six are also quite likely, but the chance of a more extreme result is still significant. There is approximately a 17 percent chance of tossing seven or more heads.

But what if we toss the coin 100 times? If we now calculate the chance of getting 70 or more heads (the same proportion as before), we find it is now only 0.004 percent. The more times you repeat a random event, the less likely it is that you will get an extreme result.

This mathematical theory, called “the law of large numbers,” has important consequences in poker. As you play more and more hands of poker, the chances of you being extremely lucky or extremely unlucky decrease. Play enough hands, and the luck factor is virtually eliminated, leaving skill alone to determine results.

Unfortunately, it can take a very long time for the effects of luck to be negated. We can say that after 100,000 hands a winning player will almost certainly turn a profit, but even this isn’t certain, especially if he is only a very marginal winner. The more hands you play, the less important luck is as a factor.

Poker is a game of small edges.

A lot of money flows back and forth across a poker table. For example, a $20-$40 limit hold’em game might have an average pot of around $250. With pots this size, you would expect the players who were winning to be making a lot of money.

However, poker does not quite work like that. While you may be winning $250 at a time, the short-term luck in poker means that even a good player will not win too much more than his fair share. Once you take into account the rake, even the best players are barely turning a profit when compared to the size of the average pot. Put another way, a good limit player will take several hours on average to eke out a net profit equal to the size of an average pot.

All of this stems from the fact that winning poker players make money from their opponents’ mistakes, which are generally small in nature. Even when opponents call bets that they shouldn’t, they still almost always have a chance to win. Their little mistakes add up over time, allowing the better players to win, but they will never win as much as it might seem they should given the average size of the pot.

Poker is a game of high variance.

This is the effective conclusion of all the realities of poker. Poker is a game of luck and skill, but in the short term, luck is king. Think about a $20-$40 limit player who makes an average of $40 per hour. In a six-hour session, he could expect to make around $240, which is about the same size as an average pot! It is not hard to see how the result of one or two pots can turn a winning session into a losing session or vice versa.

A good player both understands the Five Realities of Poker and accepts them. To put it another way, if you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game. Next month we’ll look at the second attitude of the Poker Mindset — Play for the long-term. ♠

Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books” and is a coauthor with Ian Taylor of The Poker Mindset, available at Kindle, Amazon, and