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The Successful Modern Gambler

by Ed Miller |  Published: Dec 06, 2017

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I get one question from new poker players more than any other. “Can I make it as a successful player?” usually with the follow up, “How long will it take me to get good enough?”

I’ll be honest. It’s not a question I like to answer. One reason is that it’s impossible for me to know if someone I’ve never met has the skills (or aptitude to develop the skills) to succeed. But another reason is that I’d probably bet against each of the inquirers. The reason is that the set of skills needed to succeed are uncommon, and most people don’t even know what they are.

Now this isn’t to say that it’s impossible to become a successful gambler. Quite the opposite, actually. If you do develop the necessary skills, you will find profitable gambling opportunities all over the place. I wanted to devote this article to an overview of what I think it takes to be a successful modern gambler.

Math

I think you need to be able to do some math—particularly the math of probability. In the past I think it was possible to succeed gambling without explicitly doing math. But I don’t really think that’s realistic anymore. Furthermore, beyond knowing the math of probability, I think you need the “word problem” skill. That’s the ability to take a problem expressed in words and accurately translate it into an equation to be solved.

Modeling

Many, if not most, opportunities for profitable gambling require you to do some modeling. Modeling is how you deal with incomplete information and/or interactions that are too complex to be solved directly with math. For example, say an opponent raises all-in and you are deciding whether to call with K-10 or not. You need math to solve this problem, but there is a big missing piece of information before you can start with the math. You need a model for how your opponent chooses hands to raise all-in with. If you assume your opponent raises only the best hands, you’ll get one answer after you do the math. If you assume your opponent chooses hands to raise randomly and is aggressive with many of them, you’ll get a different answer.

Modeling is the skill of filling in the incomplete or unknown information with reasonable assumptions, allowing you to do the math to get EV (expected value) estimates for available bets. Almost all profitable gambling requires some modeling, and it’s critical to build models that consistently fill in the blanks in reasonable, close-to-reality ways.

Counterparty Bias

Many gamblers get reasonably good at the first two skills and at that point they really think they have something. They can build models and then do the math to get EV estimates for all their gambling situations. My model says this is a good bet, so I’ll bet it. My model says this is a bad bet, so I’ll pass.

In many cases, however, being at this stage sets you up for massive overconfidence. Many, if not most, gamblers who fancy themselves sharp have developed to this stage and no further. A lot of these folks win, but they don’t get the results they think they should be getting. Most chalk that up to running bad.

In reality, there’s more to being a successful gambler that most people miss. The first is understanding the extremely important concept of counterparty bias.

Virtually all profitable gambling opportunities have two things in common. First, there’s a counterparty—if you’re making a bet, then you are betting against another person. Second, there’s competition. By the time the opportunity to make the bet got to you, other people who are also trying to make profitable bets probably also got a crack at it and passed.

The fact that every bet has a counterparty (with the arguable exception of slot machines and video poker), and that almost every bet also has competition creates a bias in the opportunities that come to you.

Most models will make the assumption that the opportunities that reach you are random. Your opponents are dealt cards randomly. They make decisions in a predictable and understandable way.

But the opportunities that reach you absolutely aren’t random. They tend to be biased to be worse than random. First, your counterparty presumably also wants to make good bets. If you think you have a good bet, most of the time you also implicitly think your counterparty has a bad bet. But your counterparty is trying to avoid bad bets and make good bets. You can’t just treat your counterparties as a mindless zombies, indifferent to the bets they make. They will tend to offer you bad bets more than good ones, and you need to take that into account.

Furthermore, the competition is an extremely important factor to consider. Say someone raises from early position and you are on the button. Your model of your opponent’s play suggests that this is a profitable spot to reraise.

You have a slight problem to consider. There were four or five players with hands between the original raiser and you on the button. All of these players chose to pass on the reraise. If this was such a good spot to reraise, why did they do that? Why wouldn’t they seize the opportunity themselves?

Obviously it could be because they aren’t very good at poker. But the reality is that the best opportunities tend to get snapped up quickly by the competition, and so the opportunities that end up falling to you tend to be biased to be worse opportunities than they would be if they were just random.

Understanding and correctly accounting for counterparty bias is an absolutely critical gambling skill.

Intuition

The best gamblers I know not only can identify good bets, but they do so with uncanny speed and accuracy. They aren’t just right—they’re right within half a second. I think this quick thinking really matters.

Obviously it matters in poker—especially online poker where decisions come at you fast. I think it matters in live poker too. In my experience, the longer you need to take to think about your decisions, the more likely it is that you will miss an important factor and will end up making not just a slow decision, but a bad one also.
Basically, speed matters in gambling. And those that have the easy speed also tend to have the necessary accuracy as well.

The only way to build intuition in my experience is repetitive practice. You have to make a zillion decisions, and you have to examine your decisions after the fact to look for flaws in your thought process.

Final Thoughts

These aren’t the only skills you need to be a successful modern gambler, but I don’t really think you can be very successful without them. The good news is these skills are developable, and if you do master them you will have a huge advantage over most others you encounter on your gambling journey. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.