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Poker: It's About Decisions, Not Results
The point of view expressed in the title of this piece is, I have always believed, so obviously true that no sensible poker player could doubt it.
However, the other day I reiterated it to a not-quite-awful player sitting on my left.
He looked at me like I had just arrived from some other strange, foreign place - perhaps Planet Matusow - and opined, rather unpleasantly:
"What in the f**king world are you talking about? Poker is about results, poker is about money. That is it. That is all it is."
What Really Counts?
This perspective is pretty common among today's players.
You hear comments like, "Well, I haven't played with her enough to really know but she usually seems to be sitting behind a bunch of chips."
Or, "Yeah, I know that was a mistake but the only thing that counts is that I won the pot."
Or, "You may not like the way I play, but I've got more chips than you do."
Well, there are some minor truths buried in remarks like these.
And, of course, that original crack from the guy on my left is both quite right and quite wrong.
But, and this is the interesting part, his remark is right in utterly uninteresting ways but wrong in deep and profound ones.
If you don't appreciate the distinction, you'll never become a solid player.
So, a short exegesis on decision-making versus results.
Focus on Money Misses the Point
Every hand in poker is going to confront you with a number of decisions, from initial choices to fold, call or raise, to the wildly complex and gut-wrenching ones that put your entire stack at risk.
In the long run, how you fare will be primarily determined by the decisions that you make.
Yes, of course, we all play for money.
Yes, of course, the final results logged in our records (you do keep records, don't you?) dictate how well we are doing.
And, yes, of course, those who are winning players know this because they have more money than they would have if they weren't playing poker.
But this focus on results, on money, misses the point.
Look for the Underlying Cause
Let's take an analogy from science.
In the sciences, the search is always to find the cause of an effect, the underlying reason why something happens.
More often than we scientists would like, we get sidetracked because we think we've found the "real" cause and stop searching.
Suppose you keep having headaches.
You do a lot of careful experiments and discover that if you take aspirin as soon as the first pains appear the headaches go away.
So, you conclude, not totally wrongly, that aspirin cures headaches.
However, you don't really know why aspirin does this, and that is the important question.
If you were to look more deeply you might discover that aspirin has anti-inflammatory effects and anti-inflammatory drugs cure headaches - a fact that would become critical were you to develop an allergic reaction to aspirin.
You could then seek out some other anti-inflammatory, and continue to garner the benefits.
See the point?
In poker, if you focus too intensely on immediate results, on money won and lost, you will be doing the same thing.
And the same kind of unhappy outcomes can result.
New Environments Call for New Tactics
How does that happen? Easy.
Two wild, aggressive players sit down at your table and the game takes on a new cast.
You visit another cardroom where the style of play is different.
You move up (or down) in stakes and confront games that have a tempo and structure alien to the one you're used to.
In each case your results will likely change because the decisions you're making are no longer optimal.
It's as though the side effects of aspirin were now getting to you. But if you appreciate the anti-inflammatory factor, life will be fine. Switch to ibuprofen.
In the new game, make different decisions.
Short-Term Focus, Long-Term Pain
Here's a bit of solid advice.
Cut back on the amount of emphasis you put on your short-term results.
If you're typical of most players you're probably worrying too much about what you've lost in recent sessions or being too narcissistic based on how much you're ahead.
Focus, instead, on the decisions you're making.
If you make the right decisions more often than your opponents and commit fewer errors than they do, in the long run the results will take care of themselves.
If you play tournaments this advice is even more useful.
Tournaments have a larger luck factor than cash games. The blinds go up, which puts pressure on everyone to play hands they might prefer to pass on.
The "short-stack" problem forces players to make the all-in move with less-than-wonderful hands. And, of course, much of the game turns on coin-flip situations where if you lose you're gone.
Consequently, even the very best tournament players can go weeks, months, years without much success.
If you look just at their bottom line, at the amount of money won in some relatively short time frame (and yes, a year is a short time for tournament players), you might begin to think that they've lost their edge or haven't kept up with the game, or something.
Perhaps they have, perhaps not.
The answer will almost certainly turn out to be based on their decision-making.
Overall Approach, Not How Much You're Up or Down
Of course, finding the balance isn't easy because there is that grain of truth in the comment of the unpleasant gentleman on my left.
Indeed, the money counts; it is the ultimate coin of the realm, the final arbiter of how good a player you are. But if you focus on making the right decisions, you'll be okay.
At the end of the day, don't worry too much about what you won or lost.
Go over decisions that you made. Replay difficult hands in your head; analyze them.
Look over situations where you might have played differently.
Assess the soundness of what you actually did. Honest analysis of decisions made will get you a lot further than basking in the glow of a big win or stewing over a loss.
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and co-author of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
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