Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2011) in Poker Player newspaper.
It’s both illogical and unfair to criticize poker opponents for making plays that seem obviously stupid to you. Almost anything that seems obvious wasn’t that way a minute before you first understood it. For every dawn, there is a darkness that comes first.
That observation doesn’t just apply to poker. It is a fundamental life truth. And, so, let’s make today’s self-interview about the earliest times I grasped things about poker and life. There’s today’s word – “earliest.”
This will cover my journey to discovering great truth, and hopefully it will parallel what other players and other people experienced, too. Go.
Question 1: When was the earliest time you realized it was possible to beat poker?
I vaguely realized that you could win at poker at age 11 or so. I lost all my money – about $5 – in a family poker game. It happened while visiting my aunt and uncle in Austin, Texas.
I’d played not knowing for sure whether a flush beat a straight. And as I travelled back to my parents by Greyhound bus afterward, with no money left to buy food or candy, I thought about the experience that had sparked this suffering. I knew I had done something wrong and that poker couldn’t be just luck or I would have had a reasonable chance of winning.
Question 2: How early were you able to beat poker?
I began to beat poker when I was in high school. I had read a book by Herbert O. Yardley. It was called The Education of a Poker Player. Although today I might quibble with some of the things he said, the book convinced me to play conservative poker – tight poker.
There were a few games among my classmates, some that included older men who let me sit in, and even one with faculty members. I found all of these games easy to beat, simply because I was clever enough to sit back and watch them compete for the majority of pots while I routinely folded.
I didn’t know a lot of finesses. I just knew that if they played most of their hands and I only entered pots with high-quality cards, I was going to win. And I did.
Question 3: When was the first time you started understanding that tells exist?
Mostly in my high school years.
In that same book, Yardley described something he called poker “simpletons,” if I remember his terminology correctly. They were the ones who always acted the opposite of what their hands should emotionally suggest.
When I began to do my own research and observations, I realized that almost all opponents exhibited this trait – not just Yardley’s simpletons. More experienced players would be more subtle, but they were always trying to convince me in some manner that they were weak when strong and strong when weak.
Question 4: When did you first realize that you could win by playing aggressively, instead of defensively?
I took a giant leap away from tight play in Gardena, California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I had befriended Art Sathmary, John Fox, and Dean Zes. The game in those days was draw poker, and all of us used to go to breakfast after the clubs closed by law. We’d talk poker and tactics and tells.
Sathmary (known by his waiting list initials, ASQ) is one of the most stable winning players I’ve ever met, Fox (who died a few years ago) was brilliant, too, and revealed his secrets in a book, even before Doyle Brunson coaxed me into poker publishing. And Zes was a mathematician and professor who had calculated precise poker odds.
Looking at Zes’ charts, I became convinced that more profit often could be made by raising than just by sitting, waiting, and playing it safe. I continued with my own statistical research along those lines.
It was a great revelation. You could win by playing tight. But you could win more through selective aggression and dominating a game.
Question 5: Why do actions of others seem stupid to people?
I think for many people, feeling superior is important. If they know the name of a foreign city and the people they’re talking to don’t, they perceive themselves as a notch above the others. That’s true even if they just learned about the city last week.
It’s the same with poker. Once they realize that a certain tactic is less profitable, they belittle opponents who use that tactic. And that’s true even if they’d been using that same tactic a month ago themselves. It makes little sense to think of others as stupid or suckers or donkeys for these reasons. But people do it. I try not to. And so should you.
Question 6: Does it upset you when players make decisions that cost you money because of their ignorance?
No. Those plays don’t cost me money. They provide me with money. Even if the poor play is successful this time, I know that all such plays bundled together add to my bankroll. That’s because players who make mistakes cost themselves money.
That money has to go somewhere. Eventually, it comes to me. So, why should I be upset when opponents act in ways that build my bankroll? They may fail to help me this hand and take the pot. So what? At least they’re trying to help me. And eventually they’ll succeed.
Isn’t that a better way to look at it?
Whenever we’re feeling superior about what we know that others don’t, we should stop and think. When was the earliest time we understood what that person doesn’t? Did we know it when we were four years old? Twelve years old? When?
Asking ourselves those questions helps us understand a great truth. Now that we’ve talked about it, we realize that believing that other people or other poker players are stupid for not knowing what’s obvious to us is pretty stupid in itself. And suddenly that’s obvious. Right? — MC