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What To Study First?

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Apr 03, 2024


More and more players are becoming attracted to poker, and most of them are playing no-limit hold’em. Some of them become quite serious about the game and spend a lot of time studying.

Study is extremely beneficial. Beginners who study can improve very rapidly. Players should continue to study as they advance. Most of the top experts continue to study, often using solvers to analyze complicated situations.

But there is a big gap in their studies. No-limit hold’em is one variety of poker. Poker is a gambling game. Perhaps, they devote a little time to poker theory or to other variations. However, they have completely forgotten to study gambling! Good gamblers usually triumph over good game players. Good gamblers win more and seldom go broke.

A lot of gambling decisions are purely mathematical. Everyone should know about expected value (expectation) and equity. It is essential to learn these concepts which enable correct decision making.

Do you know what odds are, and how they relate to winning percentages? Do you know the difference between getting (taking) odds and giving (laying odds)? If you are getting 3 to 1 odds on a bet, how often must you win to break even? If you are laying 2 to 1 odds on a bet, how often must you win to break even?

These ideas are basic to gambling on casino games, sports betting, etc., but they are essential to playing intelligent poker. Concepts like MDF (minimum defensive frequency) underlie much of what solvers do. If you don’t understand them, you will continually make bad decisions.

Civil War veteran and writer Ambrose Bierce once said, “The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling.”

Knowing the basics of gambling will help you make better decisions in business or investing, especially if you are trading (speculating) in stocks, bonds, options, commodities, or bitcoins.

It is interesting to learn what martingale systems are, and why they fail, and also the intricacies of gambler’s ruin. When poker players talk about GTO or Game Theory, they seem to think that Game Theory is a poker tool, not a mathematical method for making decisions.

I am writing this shortly after the Super Bowl, which was won by Kansas City in overtime. The numerous pages of Super Bowl odds and props made for a variety of situations in which gambling knowledge combined with handicapping ability probably allowed astute bettors ample opportunities to find bets with plus equity and bad gamblers to throw away a lot of money.

Also interesting were the coaching decisions. When the game went into overtime, San Francisco won the coin toss and elected to receive. This is clearly correct under regular season rules, but playoffs have different rules about overtime. Under playoff rules, this was a terrible decision from a gambling point of view. It appears their coach either didn’t know the rules, or hadn’t given this playoff overtime situation any thought.

Afterwards one of the Chiefs players mentioned that they had discussed it, and decided what to do in all situations. This discussion included what to do if the other team managed to score a touchdown and go up by 7 on their first possession. (KC decided that if they came back with their own touchdown, it was right to go for a 2-point conversion.)

Another gambling (mathematical) decision that frequently arises in football games, and which coaches often get wrong, is when to ‘go for it’ on fourth down.

In summary, I strongly advise you to add some study of gambling and its underlying mathematics to your poker study (or NFL coaching job.) ♠

Steve ZolotowSteve ‘Zee’ Zolotow aka The Bald Eagle or Zebra is a very successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 40 years. With two WSOP bracelets, over 60 cashes, and a few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his Vegas gaming time to poker, and can be found in cash games at Aria and Bellagio and at tournaments during the WSOP. When escaping from poker, he spends the spring and the fall in New York City where he hangs out at his bars: Doc Holliday’s, The Library, and DBA.