On my recent trip to Madrid I thought it would be a good idea to print out several hundred pages of 2+2 and blog posts. Some were oldies but goodies and others were of the newer variety but all in all it was a collection of some of my favorites. One post, in particular, was Mr. New Employee at Full Tilt Poker (aka HDouble)’s Recipe for Poker Success in which he makes the case that the mental ingredients for a successful poker player include:

Ability to absorb and recognize patterns
Concentration
An understanding of probability
A thirst for improvement
Discipline
Courage

Yes, yes, this seems like a proper list. Yet after reading this I felt somewhat bothered. I couldn’t put my finger on it but long after moving on to other posts my sub-conscious kept pushing this post into my conscious thought. Eventually, I realized that the reason for this was that I agreed with the theory but there was something incongruent. I re-read and re-read the post and stumbled across the likely culprit. Speaking about the ability to absorb and recognize patters, HDouble says:

“This is the only ingredient in the list that cannot be learned.”

Is that true? Is pattern matching genetic? Is one’s poker advancement limited to certain levels based on some physiological ceiling?

My thinking is that it’s not that pattern recognition can’t be learned, it’s that successful pattern recognition isn’t properly addressed in most poker literature. The vast majority of poker advice says things like; if you get check-raised by a good player on the turn then you need to fold anything but the strongest hands. Of course, what they don’t tell you is that a good poker player has read the same books and may be playing to your tendency to fold to aggression on the turn.

At best most poker literature offers some minimal hand reading advice and encourages you to rate players on a loose to maniac scale. Again, it’s not that more advanced pattern recognition can’t be taught but most poker literature stresses the mathematical side of the game rather than the psychological or advanced strategy side. In part, I think it’s because it’s hard to give instruction on how to play in these advanced situations. There’s no easy formula or chart that can teach you how to play in every situation.

Pattern recognition is more reflective and insightful. It exercises a different part of the brain than does your normal ABC poker. It’s about asking “Why” instead of “What.” Why is your opponent playing his hand that way? Why is he calling my big bet with such a weak hand? Was I inviting a call by the way I’ve played the hand? One can learn to think like this though it’s not necessarily natural and may not come easy to some.

I recently saw an interview with Daniel Negreanu where he outlined the various levels of poker strategy. Level one is what you have. Level two is what you think your opponent has. Level three is what your opponent thinks you have. Level four is what your opponent thinks you think he has. He said that can go on for six or seven levels but his point was that the game involves layered strategies.

With rare exception will you see much poker literature devoted to this sort of thinking. One exception is Dan Harrington’s new book. He actually encourages this type of thinking and gives several bet by bet examples where he explores the thought process of each player. It can be very enlightening to see a hand played and understand why every single player thinks he’s making the correct move based on not just what they have but what they think their opponent has and what they think their opponent thinks that they have. I’ve had the benefit of getting some post-game feedback from my opponents and it’s interesting to hear them tell you why they did or didn’t buy into a bluff or why they decided to call you down even though you thought you were communicating a monster hand.

But how easy is it to learn pattern recognition? Well, let’s try a little experiment. Take a piece of paper and tear it into four pieces. On the first, write “Blue,” on the second write “Green,” the third “Red,” and the fourth “Yellow.” Mix them up and then pick one, read it, and then immediately close your eyes and name everything you can in the room that is of that color. For instance, if you picked blue, imagine in your mind everything in the room that’s blue. After a few moments, open your eyes and see how many things you got and how many you missed.

Now, pick one of the pieces of paper, read it, but instead of immediately closing your eyes, look around the room and notice everything that is of that color. Now close your eyes and try to think of all of the items of that color. Open your eyes and see how many you got correct and how many you missed. My guess is that the second time around you named a much higher percentage of items than you did the first. If color is simply a pattern, you’ve just learned how to become better at pattern recognition.

So weve just proven that pattern recognition can be learned. It’s simply a matter of knowing what to recognize. Put another way, it’s about asking the right questions so your mind knows what to pay attention to.

Now, let me just wrap things up by saying that my goal in writing this wasn’t to find fault in HDouble’s post. I took one sentence out of a very insightful article because it seemed incongruent to me. There’s a chance I didn’t even understand the context fully or that using a modifier like “most of the time” or “virtually” that the statement may have taken on a different meaning. Hopefully this post just gets people to think about the game a little differently.

4 thoughts to “Thinking About Recipe for Poker Success

  • Lonny Lowe

    This is one of the great post that I have read so far. I think that this exemplifies how success in poker happens. In any game, a player must be able to understand the game. Also, dedication to the craft by a poker player will help. Sum up all the qualities of a good player and for sure all casino money will be raked.

  • Hugh Jassell

    i agree. i have yet to find a part of poker that can’t be learned. you just have to know what to learn.

  • hdouble

    GREAT post Bill. You made me rethink my original statements, and you hit the nail on the head. Probably a better way to say it would be, “People who are naturally good at poker or have ‘card sense’ have an intuitive ability to break situations down into categories (i.e. pattern matching).”

    I mean, what really makes Stu Ungar so good? I have to think that it’s some combination of instinctual reading of other players, instinctual pattern matching type stuff, and a lot of learning from experience, of course.

    Thanks for revisiting my post.

  • iggy

    damn, insightful post, bill.

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