The Power of Math in Poker
Poker math knowledge is an undeniable and integral skill in poker.
Yet, many players (even some pros) don't fully appreciate the math's importance. When I first started playing poker, it perplexed me why learning poker math wasn't more prominent and encouraged.
This is understandable and perfectly fine for many players who don't like math and play the game for fun. However, any player who wants to achieve a strong competitive edge needs to embrace and learn practical and useful math at the tables.
Here is a true story about another industry where math's importance wasn't fully appreciated for many decades.
Moneyball is a 2011 biographical sports film starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics baseball general manager. In 2001 Beane was devastated by Oakland's loss to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.
To make matters worse, the Oakland Athletics team was losing some of its star players. Also, they had a limited budget for purchasing players for the team. Billy Beane knew he needed some drastic changes to be competitive. He was open to challenging old-school thoughts.
During a scouting trip to the Cleveland Indians, Beane met Peter Brand, a young Economics graduate from Yale who had radical ideas about assessing players' value. Brand ends up working for Billy Beane.
Instead of focusing on the estimated worth of any individual player, Billy Bean and Peter Brand focused on which players could be assembled to win the most games for the Oakland Athletics. In other words, they purchased undervalued players so they could maximize their budget and win more games.
This was revolutionary at the time.
Their method was genius and highly risky, but it worked. After a rough start in 2002, the Oakland Athletics achieved a record-breaking 20 consecutive game wins.
They then went on to the American League Division Series, where they played against the Minnesota Twins. Although they lost, what they achieved in 2002 using the math to maximize their budgeted dollars and win games was noticed.
John Henry (the owner of the Boston Red Socks) realized that using math to assess a player's value to a team was the future of baseball. He made an offer to Billy Beane to become the general manager of the Red Sox.
Yet, Beane declined Henry's $12.5 million salary offer. If accepted, he would have been the highest-paid general manager in baseball at the time. Wow!
The Boston Red Socks went ahead and implemented the math anyway. Two years later, they won the 2004 World Series using the model that Billy Beane and Peter Brand had pioneered.
The Boston Red Socks hadn't won a World Series since 1918. They finally defeated the Curse of the Bambino*1 that had plagued the team for 86 years. Not bad!
The moral of the story is that math's inescapable logic and power to pick the best players to win games wasn't used in the baseball industry until the early 2000s. At first glance, this seems incredible that it wasn't thought of before since baseball was (and is) a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Yet, this true story shows that shortsighted thinking continued in the selection of ballplayers until two trailblazers who were willing to risk it all showed by example the power of math in selecting a winning team.
Note #1: The Curse of the Bambino was a superstitious sports curse. In 1918 the Red Socks sold Babe Ruth (known as the Bambino) for $125K to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season.
The Boston Red Socks did not win the World Series from 1918 until 2004 (86 years later). Before 1918, they had been one of the most successful professional baseball franchises.
When I first started playing and studying Texas No-Limit Hold 'em, I found several practical poker math gaps. This puzzled me.
I suspected it was missed, but with poker being so huge, that was tough to understand.
The movie Moneyball highlights that significant gaps in knowledge occasionally exist—even in massive industries such as baseball and poker. It reinforced my thoughts that some practical poker math had been missed.
Mastering Poker Math Volumes 1 and 2 are created to help fill these practical poker math gaps.
"Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add
what is specifically your own." ~ Bruce Lee
Texas No-Limit Hold 'em is tough and getting tougher by the year. It is exciting, challenging, and fun.
At its core, poker is a game of information. It uses controlled aggression, knowledge, discipline, experience, patience, pattern recognition, courage, resilience, strategy, tactics, adaptability, learning from your mistakes, and much more. During all interactions, playing the player needs to be front and center in your mind.
Mastering Poker Math Volume 2 (like its predecessor: Mastering Poker Math Volume 1) is designed to illuminate poker math and how to integrate it with the rest of your game. By learning and applying the knowledge and strategies within, you can:
This book does a comprehensive study on how to:
Estimate the Worth of Your Hand Against Opponents
The information, strategies, and mathematics presented here will help you estimate the worth of your hand at any given time.
To accomplish this, we will deep dive into probabilities, equity, range analysis, trapping, disciplined folding, and the metagame. We will also cover developing higher-level skills and plugging your leaks. Throughout the material, integrating poker math with all of your skills will be encouraged.
Make Excellent Risk Assessments
By learning the probabilities, equity, expected value, and more, you will be better prepared to make sound risk assessments during your hands.
We will deep dive into your risk versus potential reward throughout this text when contemplating folds, calls, raises, re-raises, and all-ins.
Your goal is to gain as many chips as possible when you win hands and forfeit the least number of chips when you lose.
A critical question that all good poker players continually ask themselves is:
What is my risk versus potential reward?
Determining your risk versus potential reward is frequently difficult but always necessary. We will explore how to use all of your knowledge, experience, math skills, instincts, and intuition to do risk assessments.
Risk versus potential reward becomes more complicated because of:
Texas No-Limit Hold 'em is all about making good decisions with imperfect information. Determining your risk versus potential reward is a crucial component to making better decisions more confidently and consistently.
Mastering Poker Math Volume 2 focuses on helping you to determine the current (and potential future) worth of your hand against your opponent(s). With this information, you can make sound, thoughtful and intuitive risk assessments repeatedly.
In other words, channel your passion, knowledge, and skills to minimize your risk and maximize your potential rewards.
The book: The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King – Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time by Michael Craig is a fascinating read. It is about a billionaire banker named Andy Beal who went heads up against some of the world's most famous poker players in the early 2000s.
The A-list players he went up against included: Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Todd Brunson, Howard Letterer, Jennifer Harman, Ted Forrest, Barry Greenstein, Chip Reese, Gus Hansen, etc.
Andy Beal is a savvy real estate investor, businessman, and self-taught in numbers theory. He is also a quick study and a strong competitor. When Beal played the pros, he discovered the following:
Andy Beal noticed that the pros weren't as fundamentally sound as he had expected. It was clear they were excellent at thinking, counter-thinking, varying their play, and reading opponents.
What Beal found fascinating was that they seemed to get a lot of basic pot odds decisions wrong. Beal concluded that he could substantially reduce or even eliminate the pro's advantages if he made mathematically correct moves every time.
Beal also strived to identify his weaknesses and worked on shoring them up. He sought to deprive the pros of their strengths and get them out of their comfort zones. If Beal could make the contests about fundamentals, he might have an opportunity to win.
For a few years, Andy Beal became one of the top heads-up players worldwide.
Although this was in the early 2000s, it shows that even the top pros aren't invulnerable. Andy Beal demonstrated that it doesn't take a decade or longer to become a top-notch player. He had raw talent, confidence, resources, a strong mathematics background, and a willingness to learn and grow.
A high percentage of poker players, including some pros today, still don't have a good grasp of the math's full power and eloquence.
Understanding poker math can help you become more competitive, assuming you have raw talent and are willing to dedicate the time and energy to make poker math an instinctual part of your game.
Learning poker math at a deep level and blending it with the rest of your game builds a powerful structural skill in Texas No-Limit Hold 'em.
Almost all excellent players must learn poker math to be successful at the game. There may be a few exceptions, like with anything else.
Yet, why not influence the game in your favor by internalizing the math?
There are two ways to learning poker math:
Human Insights Missing from Data
In September 2016, Tricia Wang gave an excellent Ted Talk called The Human Insights Missing from Data. She studies and advises companies on the patterns of how people use technology.
In her enlightening speech, Ms. Wang explains why many large companies make bad decisions, even when they have access to unprecedented amounts of data.
Tricia Wang provides a powerful example when she worked for Nokia and doing field research. At the time, Nokia was one of the largest cell phone companies in the world. They dominated emerging markets like China, Mexico, and India.
Ms. Wang had done much investigation on how low-income people use technology, especially with her China fieldwork.
She observed how the poor people of China were drawn to technology. This group was fascinated with iPhones (and other smartphones) that allowed them entry into a high-tech life.
The people were willing to use a large part of their income to get this amazing technology. Ms. Wang realized that even the poorest in China wanted smartphones. Her research strongly indicated a significant change was coming.
Tricia Wang presented her data and insights to Nokia. They balked because the big data they were using didn't tell them that the poor wanted smartphones.
The large volumes of data Nokia had gathered looked at previous trends and not where the market was headed. Nokia had become too dependent on high tech and not enough on real-world expertise.
The rest is history. Nokia made a huge mistake by ignoring the boots on the ground, fact-finding, and analysis. Instead, they listened to big data.
Nokia's business fell off a cliff. As of 2019, Nokia had only 16.1% of the cell phone market. This was the cost of not listening to the information uncovered from human observation.
A major takeaway is although massive amounts of data spit out from computers is essential, it must be tempered with experience, knowledge, research, intuition, analysis, and more.
Never underestimate the human brain's power and its ability to bring insight and rational thought to data!
Now Back to Poker
Texas No-Limit Hold 'em is incredibly complex. Poker math is a significant part of the game, yet it must be merged with all of your other skills to unleash its full power.
Let's dig deeper.
Computer Programs and More
Today outstanding computer programs, tools, and techniques are used for training and for playing.
Here are some primary ones. There is:
All this technology has a place in Texas No-Limit Hold 'em.
Nevertheless, our ability to use know-how, experience, intuition, and common sense are equally crucial.
Computer programs aren't perfect since imperfect humans design them. Depending on them without combining all of your other poker skills is a flawed path to success.
Poker math and data from computer programs, tools, and techniques all have their place in Texas No-Limit Hold 'em. Yet, to become a top player, this knowledge needs to be combined with the power of reading players, situations, and circumstances and making excellent decisions at the poker tables with incomplete information.
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"A must read if you’re serious about improving your game."
~ Tom Britton
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This blog has been created to help you gain a competitive edge using poker math and how to integrate it with the rest of your game. Enjoy! ~ Chuck Clayton