I never cared for Math when I was in school.
I was scared of it.
I always had difficulty figuring out even the most basic math and as time wore on my reliance on calculators and excel spreadsheets made sure that any firing mathematical neurons would die.
Then I found poker. Why, oh why, didn’t they teach poker in math class? Perhaps then I would have spent more time paying attention to my work.
I regret it now. Poker gives me a reason to use math and I don’t want to whip a calculator out in the middle of a hand.
Not Using Poker Math is Not Just a Leak
I can honestly say that I have managed to play poker, and remain in profit, for the past five years even though I have never calculated a sum in my head and then used it as part of my decision-making process.
It’s not just a leak. It’s the type of problem that allows sharks to swim through the gaps and tear my head off. I know that. And yet there is still something about math that I am scared of.
In my desperation I turned to Jonathan Little, two-time World Poker Tour (WPT) Champions Club member and fanatical producer of poker training books.
Surely, he cannot be that good without a fundamental understanding of poker math. Perhaps he could help me overcome my fear.
Lee Davy: Do I need to learn math?
Jonathan Little: There are a lot of different types of math in poker.
The most basic-level math is centered on pot odds and questions such as ‘How often am I going to win this hand based on the number of outs I have?' are important.
I don’t think there is any way around learning these numbers. It’s part of the essential knowledge that underpins your game.
There are players, especially old school players, who will have you believe that decisions are made by the gut - that intuition guides their poker decisions.
This is bad advice. How can you rely on your gut when you need to know how often you will hit your gutshot? That’s a mathematical decision.
You also get this problem with a lot of amateurs. They take a card, go searching for a gutshot, and hit it. They do it again, and hit it.
Now they think this is a good type of draw and will always call irrespective of the pot odds being offered.
Then you have the reverse of this philosophy when you see players missing most of their flush draws all of the time at the start of their careers and then stop calling -- even when they have the right odds -- because they believe flush draws are crappy.
LD: I once read a math book by Bill Chen. I was trying to improve and overcome my fear. By the end of the book I was in a worse state. Can the math be simplified?
JL: Bill’s Mathematics of Poker is not a book you should be reading to ascertain the basic fundamental math of poker. That book deals with overly complex math.
What you have to do is recognize how often each draw will hit based on the number of outs that you have.
That math is somewhat mandatory and you can easily Google various charts online that you can memorize verbatim -- exactly as you must have done with a hand-ranking chart.
Understanding pot odds is also a mandatory requirement. If you are miscalculating your pot odds, or not even thinking about them, it’s going to be a disaster.
Quite often in NLHE with your good draws - like open-ended straight draws and flush draws - you're almost always getting the right price to draw to those on the flop. And sometimes on the turn -- especially when considering implied odds.
So you need to learn how often you are going to hit your hand and be able to compare that to the pot odds. The math involved in that is quite simple.
If you really want to be good at poker you need to learn this. It really is foundational. There is no hiding from it.
LD: Are there other ways of learning this stuff?
JL: A good alternative is to just get a deck of cards out and start playing around with it. Run some simulations.
Have some chips, play the hands out on a table and watch how often these draws hit and miss. I think if you visualize things, instead of trying to learn pure calculations, that may help.
We all learn differently. Some people are visual, some learn through reading, some learn through experience.
If you are a competent poker player and are doing acceptably well, you’ve probably learned your math situations through experience. I bet you know what you are supposed to do 80% of the time without even thinking about it.
Also, if you're playing poker with players who are not that great, then you don’t have to be that great yourself. Anyone can win at poker if you're better than your opponents.
If your opponents don’t know this stuff then it’s not really that big of a deal for you to know it. But you have to recognize that if you want to get good at poker you really need to learn this stuff.
It’s a foundation that you must learn. If you want to run a marathon you are going to have to learn to walk.
LD: I recently heard that top quality Scrabble players learn volumes of words without ever caring about the meaning of those words. Can all of this math be done through the memorization of charts like they do in Scrabble?
JL: You can’t learn to spell without understanding letters. To learn poker you need to learn pot odds. You need to learn what the math implies when you start considering ICM, or bankroll management, or trying to find balanced ranges.
I know the principles behind these factors and how to use a calculator. There are various equity calculators available to people to use online.
These are especially easy to use when playing heads-up but slightly more difficult when the action is multi-way.
I learned to play poker a very long time ago and I learned how to deal with ranges very well because I was always all-in when playing Sit n Go (SNG) situations where the stacks are really short.
I needed to know how often I was going to get it all-in against a range of hands. I spent six hours per day, every day, studying equity calculations and ICM spots. I got really good at it through repetition. That’s another way you can learn.
It’s like the theory of using flash cards. Once you know a flush draw will win 20% of the time there are no math sums to run. You already have the information you need.
LD: So players can learn the most common range of decisions rather than having to calculate outs each time a hand needs to be played out?
JL: If you memorize the most common outs, such as six outs when you have over cards, or eight outs with most straight draws, nine outs if you have a flush draw, or more if you combine them.
If you learn these numbers you will do just fine. There are also some tricks you can learn on the Internet that can help you.
I don’t need to look at them because I have learned this math through repetition. I don’t have to think about it anymore. I just look at the board and know what my math is.
I have been studying ever since I started playing poker. I read 20-30 poker books before I even played for real money.
When I first started playing I had no money. When I deposited $50 it was a lot of money for me so I certainly didn’t want to lose it. I try to get all the knowledge I can before I actually risk anything in a game.
LD: How important is it for players who are deficient in math to learn to improve outside of the game?
JL: If you want to be good at anything you have to study. None of us would turn up in a hospital surgery room and try and do open-heart surgery, so why should you expect to turn up at a poker table and play poker without knowing what you are doing?
You need to figure out if the plays you are making are good - math will help you with that. I didn’t sit down and learn math per se.
I was plugging spots into calculators, clicking calculate and then figuring out what actions make the results worse or better. You need to make sure that you review your play on a regular basis.
Ask yourself: 'What could I have done to have made this better for me or more difficult for my opponent?' Answering that one question will improve your game immeasurably.
A lot of this math is really something you can learn by memorizing a chart. Everyone learned the hand rankings of cards and in the same way you can learn pot odds and equities.
Once you memorize the charts you are done. You don’t have to solve everything. It does get difficult when you are deeper stacked, and playing against multiple opponents, but that’s not for the beginner.
People play a lot but they don’t study enough. It’s a common problem throughout the game and not just related to mathematical understanding.
More Poker Tips from Pros
- Poker Tips from Pros: A Pro Take on an Amateur Poker Tournament
- Poker Tips from Pros: Proper Hand Selection in MTTs
- Poker Tips from Pros: Maria Ho Shares How to Make Millions
- Poker Tips from Pros: Ring Rust & the Q-8 Rules
- 4 instructional tournament hands in our Online Poker Tournament Tricks (2020 edition with Jesper Hougaard)