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Gamble 102: Remove Your Biases To Become A Strong Poker Player

by Nathan Gamble |  Published: Oct 07, 2020

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There were six, heavy set guys sitting around a table. It was a round, glass table that barely contained the drinks, leftover pizzas, stacks of chips, and bowls of stale pretzels. There were two packs of cards, one red, one blue – both warped from time, heavy shuffling, and countless beers spilled on them. The chairs everyone sat on varied, some from the kitchen table – muted, brown wood paired with green, patterned fabric that was popular in the ‘90s – some dingey grey and buckled at the seams as they were decades old.

The TV glowed faintly in the background, but none of the guys really cared. They were there to bluster back and forth as they pretended to be poker players. They dropped phrases like, “I’ll see your $5 and raise you $5 more!” and “Nice hand man, if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” A big winner on the night would take home $200 and a buzz.

After my initial introduction into poker at seven, it was this scene that drew me into poker and never let me go. I was 10 years old when I first remember them coming over to our house to play cards. They were loud, boisterous, carefree, and irreverent. I was instantly interested and once again talked my way into a seat behind my dad, not to play, just to watch.

They were mainly a group of guys from my dad’s work, computer engineers who had allowed time to grind down their bodies while they kept their minds sharp. Dave would always show up with a cold pack of Fosters; it was a four pack of 25 oz. cans that was as much a part of the game as the cards and chips. Dave was chugging his beers and bemoaning his boss, poker was played to kickback with the group and complain about life.

This was pre-Moneymaker, pre-solvers, right before online poker really started taking the poker world by storm. This was poker for poker’s sake, for the fun of giving each other a hard time. It was raw, it was gritty, and I got to witness every moment of it.

The games rotated based off of who was dealing but the most popular was always Guts. Everyone was dealt three cards face down and players had to decide if they were in or out; you could always cut the tension in the air with a knife as everyone held out two fists, a coin in the left hand signifying they had a hand to play, the right hand signifying a fold. If two players continued forward then the winner would receive the pot and the loser would have to seed the pot for the next hand. If no one went for it then everyone had to match the pot – $1 antes sounded small but pots would swell to hundreds of dollars as players kept chasing their losses.

None of the hands stick out in my memory – they all collide together into a montage of fast-moving cards and piles of chips being thrown back and forth. I wasn’t playing at this point, just getting my education in the game and coming to realize that I wanted to play cards. I wanted to be a poker player.

For the longest time I believed that everyone was introduced to poker in a similar fashion, board games with parents and watching the adults play poker every few months. I felt this was just the norm, the traditional upbringing of anyone that you met at the poker tables in any casino across the nation.

Ironically it was brought to my attention that this was not the norm by a man that believed the direct opposite to be true. On Aug. 10, 2020 Matt Hunt posted on his Twitter, @MntalHlthGaming:

Why the poker community is so fractured: Literally none of us grew up wanting to be a pro poker player. Nobody Does. We’re all using poker as a surrogate for something else, which is why it so rarely leads to real happiness and fulfillment for any of us.

Clearly, this went against my entire beliefs about poker, and against how I was introduced to poker. So, I started a conversation with Matt and something readily became apparent – he is British and had a very different viewpoint.

As it turns out, in England the conventional path to poker comes much later in life; traditionally in university around 20-21 years old. Two different parts of the world, two completely different ways of being introduced to the game. We had two separate backgrounds, two viewpoints of what cards and chips meant and how they become a part of life. Neither one of us was right, neither one of us was wrong. In our area of the world our introduction was fairly common and more ‘conventional’ than the other route.

You may ask yourself, where am I going with this? Let’s bring this full circle back to poker, the crux of this interesting duality. In poker there are multiple ways of approaching hands, but they generally boil down to two agreed upon avenues: a passive route and an aggressive route. Think of them as two branches of a tree as they are often referred to as the aggressive game tree or the passive game tree.

Many people will argue their side is better. The aggressive side will say it makes more sense to be aggressive, to raise and bet the majority of the time in order to maximize value and steal more pots. The passive side is content to sit back and wait, to check more often, to call more often. They allow the aggressive opponents to do the betting for them and realize their equity – they like to make their hands before putting money in the pot. Both sides are adamant that their way is right.

What if the answer was more in the middle than you think? What if you were willing to have a conversation instead of a debate or a merit contest? People get adamant, they get worked up, they become blinded to facts and new ways of thinking because of cognitive biases’ holding them back. When you allow emotions to take control in poker then you may miss a play that is more profitable; just because things should happen when you make the right play, doesn’t mean they always will. That doesn’t mean you should stop making the right play or continuing to search for a better one.

Poker is a mental game, you must remove your biases and be willing to listen to people that you disagree with in order to learn and grow. If you aren’t willing to continue advancing your gameplay, I guarantee you four of the nine people at your next table are actively putting in the work. They will be the winners of the future while you still complain about luck. If you talk with people and challenge your beliefs then you will also learn how to be a better poker player.

I highly recommend checking out Matt Hunt’s work on strengthening your mental health as it pertains to poker as well as life. He can be found on Twitter at MntalHlthGaming and on his twitch channel Mental Health Gaming. ♠

Nathan Gamble is a native of Texas where he learned to play the game of hold’em from his father. He is a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, the first coming in the 2017 WSOP $1,500 PLO8/b Event, the second in the 2020 Online WSOP $600 PLO8/b event. A fixture of the mid-stakes mixed game community since moving to Las Vegas in 2019, he can often be found playing $80-$160 games at the Wynn. He is active on Twitter under the username Surfbum4life and streams mixed game content weekly on twitch under the same moniker.