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Think Straight

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Jul 11, 2012


Gavin GriffinIn the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), if you’re going to build a fighter and have to choose one background for that fighter to come from, the consensus is to choose a wrestler. The strong foundation of wrestling holds the weight of all of the other disciplines better. In poker, the foundation you should look for is math and logic. If you start with a mathematician, it will be much easier to train him to be a great poker player than someone from ,any other background. There are a few exceptions, but this is more often true than not.

I was recently playing in a game with a man who was a walking embodiment of the exception. This man, we’ll call him Mr. M, has a background in math and works in a world where logic and emotional control prevail. In fact, if given some training, and some work, Mr. M could be a winning poker player when on his “A Game.” He starts off each session in a good state of mind, plays decent cards, has an OK amount of aggression, and is only a nominally losing player. Once he loses a few pots, however, things change. He starts to tilt, getting emotionally tied to his wins and losses. He begins to become erratically aggressive, thinking that because he got beat by someone with bad cards, he should start playing them because “they are the ones that win.”

I like it when he gets like this because it demonstrates something to me that I often need to remember. These swings, both emotional and financial, are something we are all susceptible to at the poker table. Everyone will go on a large downswing, both within a single session, and over several sessions. These downswings can have an effect on our state of mind and our play. When Mr. M gets so upset that he turns from a small losing player into someone a game can be built around, the lesson is clear. Emotions are the enemy of logic. Clarity of thought and execution of strategy comes when only logic exists within our brains. Therefore, emotions are the biggest threat to our winrate and bankroll.

Mr. M has demonstrated some other key things to me as well. I heard him talking about some hands to his neighbor. The vast majority of his poker related conversation included the contents of the hand he just folded and how it related to the board. If he folded 10Heart Suit 3Heart Suit and the board came with three hearts, he lamented over the flush he would have had. If he folded Q-5 offsuit and it came Q-Q-5, he was upset over the missed full house. If “nines are running hot,” he would play almost any hand with a nine in it. He was letting the hands he folded and how they fit with the board dictate what sort of cards he would play in future hands. This led to a realization for me. Losing players are trying to make hands, winning players are trying to make money. I have long wondered why intelligent people, with lots of evidence to the contrary, play so many hands and play them so poorly. This realization made it clear to me. They aren’t trying to make money. Making money is a byproduct of making hands. This is why suited hands and offsuit connected hands are so popular amongst the losing players. They are trying to go as far up the hand ranking chart as they can. Winning players have one thing on their mind. “How do I make the most money?” This isn’t the top priority for a losing player. The top priority for them is “how do I make the most hands?” This simple realization has led me to a better understanding of why losing players play the way they do.

Well, why should I care why losing players play the way they do? All I should really care about is the fact that they continue to play badly, not why they do it. One of the better books I’ve read about psychology, strategy, and mentality as it relates to poker is The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In it, he says: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Knowing your opponent allows you to understand them. Once you understand them, you can exploit your understanding of them. Exploitation is a key to winning. Winning is what we’re here for.

When people ask me what tips I can give them to become a better player, I think they are looking for a simple, straightforward answer. There is no simple, straightforward answer to becoming a better player. The answer I usually give is this: First of all, have fun. If you’re not having fun, your decisions will be compromised. The second thing I usually tell them is to try to learn something new every time you play. Learn from people who are better than you. Learn from people who are not as good as you. Mr. M is a great example of this. He’s got all of these lessons right in front of him. An intelligent man, he could easily learn from those around him. Instead, he chooses to ignore these lessons. Instead, he focuses on emotions and past results, allowing them to affect his future actions. On the contrary, I await his lessons gladly and hungrily incorporate them in my lifelong education on the journey to be the best poker player I can be. ♠

Gavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG