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Embracing Ignorance

by Jonathan Little |  Published: Feb 01, 2014

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If you ever hope to become an excellent poker player, you must embrace the fact that you do not know the answers to numerous questions that constantly come up in poker. If you do not know something, as an active, engaged learner looking to improve your game, you should try your best to find the answer. Most people simply read articles, books, and poker forums, hoping to stumble upon the answers. While this is a reasonable initial step, it will not take you too far. In order to actually improve, you must get a group of like-minded peers who genuinely want to discuss your thoughts and questions. You should also hire a poker coach who can give you concrete answers to your questions. Once you figure out how excellent poker players tackle a problem, you should ideally be able to notice where you lack knowledge and also learn how to figure out the answer. What makes an excellent poker player is not someone who thinks he knows everything but someone who has a broad base of knowledge coupled with the ability to solve almost any problem he encounters.

While it is true that the knowledge base in poker is constantly growing at a startling rate, as we figure out what we know about topics ranging from optimal strategy, to exploiting specific player types, to psychology, if we are practicing conscious ignorance, we also learn what we do not know. The absolute best players are constantly challenging even the most basic assumptions about the game and improving at a much faster rate than their peers.

Take, for instance, the simple act of figuring out how much to raise before the flop when the action folds to you before the flop with a 50 big blind stack in the middle levels of a poker tournament against reasonable competition. As far as I know, the initial open raises of the 1970s tended to be between three and five big blinds. Players eventually adopted the assumption that raising to three big blinds before the flop was both standard and good. I know this to be the case because when I first started playing poker, every book I read said, as if it was a fact, that any raise size before the flop besides three big blinds was suboptimal. In today’s game, most world class players raise to between two and 2.25 big blinds.

You should hopefully be wondering both how and why this change occured. What most likely happened was the best players realized they could raise with a wider range with the intention of folding to any sort of aggression from their overly tight, passive opponents if they raised to a smaller amount. They also noticed if they min-raised, they would induce more calls from the players in the blinds, which is an excellent result, as taking a flop in position against a wide range is an acceptable result.

While the best players in the world tend to be innovators, everyone else simply follows the leaders. A few years ago, I noticed the biggest winners online min-raising as their standard opening raise once the stacks became somewhat shallow. Sadly, I was a touch slow to adopt this adjustment. Once I experimented with a bit, I saw how this simple adjustment can instantly raise your winrate as well as force you to learn how to play well after the flop.

While I like to think of myself as an innovator in today’s game, I still look to my peers for inspiration. Current strategic adjustments you will likely see in the near future, if you haven’t already encountered them, are smaller three-bet and four-bet sizes, which in turn will lead to smaller bets on the flop and turn. These small postflop bets will lead to both smaller and larger river bets with wider ranges than you are probably used to seeing. You will also see a greater awareness of the psychological aspects of poker.

Dr. Patricia Cardner and I recently wrote Positive Poker: A Modern Psychological Approach to Mastering your Mental Game, which I think will become an instant classic in poker literature. Eight years ago, I was totally ignorant to the fact that being in shape and staying mentally sharp could help my poker game. I was an overweight kid who sat in a chair and played online poker all day. I don’t quite know how mental and physical fitness got on my radar, but once it did, my life totally changed for the better. I am now in shape and can think clearly for many more hours than before. I imagine many poker players are still ignorant to the fact that poker takes place beyond the felt.

Once you know how to go about figuring out what you do not know, you will be well on your way to becoming an excellent poker player. I suggest you push the boundaries and do not accept conventional wisdom as the undeniable truth. As your skills and knowledge base improve, make a point to look further and see which questions remain unanswered. You will likely find that the more you know, the more you don’t know. ♠

Jonathan Little, 2-time World Poker Tour champion has won more than $6 million in tournaments since 2006. He is sponsored by 3bet.com, Instapoker and BlueSharkOptics and teaches poker at FloatTheTurn.com and www.JonathanLittleSecrets.com. Follow him on Twitter @ JonathanLittle.