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Poker Strategy With Matt Matros: Testing Your Analysis

Matros Explains How To Avoid Results Oriented Thinking

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Matt MatrosThink of a poker hand you played recently, preferably one that went to the river. Got one in mind? Good. Now review your decisions on every street from start to finish. At each point, determine if there was any way to improve your play, or if an expert might’ve used a different thought process to arrive at his or her decision. Try your best to look at the hand from a fresh perspective, removing yourself from the analysis as much as possible. For extra credit, repeat this exercise for a few dozen of your recent hands, recording ratings of your own play.

OK, now that you’ve taken these steps for one or more of your hands, it’s time for the real test to begin. (Faked you out, didn’t I!) The real test — the one that determines how influenced you are by results, and whether you’re capable of honest assessments of your own play — consists of three questions. For each hand you analyzed, ask yourself: 1) Did you win the hand? 2) Did you decide that you made the right decision on every street? 3) Are your answers to questions one and two the same?

If you answered “yes” to either question 2 or question 3, it’s possible you’ve committed the poker sin of Results-Oriented Thinking. This sin is the biggest pitfall in the game. The quality of a poker player’s decisions is completely independent of who won the hand, and dependent only on the information available to a player at the time of the decision.

When you’re reviewing your hands, it can be almost impossible to pretend you don’t know what your opponent had, or what the river card was, but cultivating this mindset of pretend ignorance is crucial. The best poker players replay their hands in their heads as if from scratch. I’ll often catch myself coming up with a logical reason for how I played a hand, only to discover that I actually played the hand completely differently. When this happens, I’m happy! It means I’m not letting what I did influence what I should have done.

For question 2, if you consistently answered “yes” then you may be systematically overrating yourself when reviewing your own hands. (Either that or you’re the greatest player in the world, and you can ignore the rest of this article and proceed to collect your millions.) This impulse is natural, and can even come about because you’re trying so hard not to be results-oriented. “Sure, this play didn’t work out,” the self-biased player might say, “but I don’t want to let that fact affect my thinking.” This player may be right sometimes, or even most of the time, but if you find yourself always concluding that you played great, then you’re in trouble. Luckily, I know some ways to solve your problem. First, before you even look over your hands and come to any opinion about them, show them to a poker friend whose game you respect. If this person is a good friend, he or she will have no trouble telling you when you completely botched a hand, and you’ll begin to have a more accurate view of your own play. Second, start collecting other people’s hands to analyze. By removing yourself from the equation, you’ll have more freedom to judge poker plays purely on their merits. Eventually, you’ll be able to transfer this skill to hands you’ve played yourself. Third, in any analysis, consider the decisions from the perspectives of all players in the hand. When you realize that an opponent actually played his or her hand well, you might start questioning the genius of your own decisions.

If you consistently answered “yes” to question 3, that means when you win a hand you think you played it right, and when you lose you think you played it wrong. These are classic symptoms of Results-Oriented Thinking. In this case the fix is similar to above, but with a slight twist. You should still collect hands from other players to analyze, but you should immediately remove the showdown results before you look at anything else (or even better, have someone do this for you). Now you can’t be biased by the results, because you have no results! Of course this technique won’t be possible for hands you’ve played yourself, as the results are likely burned in your brain. But whenever you can, analyze hands where you don’t know what cards the villain held, or who won, or even what the turn or river cards were if the action ended before then. Soon you’ll start focusing your decision-making only on the information at hand, and you’ll become a better poker player — one who is not biased by results — very quickly.

If you can honestly tell yourself that you rate your own hands the same way you would if they were hands a friend had sent to you, and if you sometimes think you played well but sometimes acknowledge that you played poorly, and if your analysis of a hand is only tangentially related to (and not dependent on) the result of the hand, then congratulations — you’re probably a pretty good poker analyst. All you have to do now is apply your improved though process when you’re in the heat of competition at the poker table. That ability is, unfortunately, a whole other skill set, and a topic for another column. In the meantime, learn to improve your hand analysis, and learn to avoid Results-Oriented Thinking. Doing this is the first step toward becoming a consistent winner, one whose results speak for themselves. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player, and a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. He is also a featured coach for cardrunners.com.