Can Intuition Lead You to Good Poker Decisions?

Phil Ivey

I've spent over 40 years living two parallel lives. In one I'm a degenerate gambler, a horse player and a poker junkie; in the other, a respected scientist.

I've kept them separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and just the full-bore fun in the other.

But this is now changing. I'm writing these articles on poker strategy, but I'm going to try to bring to them new life, new vision. I'm going to take an approach that, as far as I know, has never been tried.

I am going to try to build each piece around one or more psychological (that's my field) principle(s) and show how each can help us make solid decisions, improve strategic thinking and, hey, add to the bottom line.

I'll begin with a look at the topic I spent those years researching. Technically, it's called "implicit" processing. It's what's happening when people say things like "Well, I don't really know why I thought she'd do that; it just seemed intuitively obvious" or "I just reacted instinctively, I wasn't thinking."

Technically, It's Called "Implicit" Processing

Doyle Brunson
Brunson: Figured out early in his career there was a lot of subconscious info floating around a poker table. And then made a fortune with it.

In short, I've studied how and why people often make decisions that are right even though they don't know why or how.

OK, OK, I hear you - you're bored already. You're thinking: "This professor guy is gonna go off the end of the pier on me - and I absolutely will not take a quiz at the end." Don't worry, lecture's over; on to poker.

Doyle Brunson, in his classic Super/System, wrote that at his poker tables there seemed to be a lot of subconscious information floating about. He wondered how some of it, like how his opponents play, just seemed to just appear in his head. Many have commented on this paragraph and wondered whether he was right and, if so, why.

Well, it turns out that a lot is known about it. And, yes, Brunson was basically right (as he usually is), but the topic is complex.

Here are the more frequently raised issues:

1. What is "intuition" anyway? Basically, it's a vague, largely unconscious feeling, like a voice, far away, whispering something like, "Muck 'em, now." The feeling is muddy, fuzzy, hazy: "Just call, he's gonna check the turn," or "Re-raise, that's a steal attempt."

It also pops up, unfortunately, as: "Oh, shit, bad call." You recognize the message but do not know what triggered it. Sometimes, later, you can figure out what it was, but not always and not easily.

2. Is it a "sixth sense"? No. First, the numbering is off. We actually have 15 or so senses. If you doubt me, consult an intro psych text. Second, the term "sixth" is often used as though it's paranormal, an ESP kind of thing.

I don't want to start a fight here (e-mail me if you do), but there is no such thing as ESP; intuition is utterly normal and everyone has it.

3. Is it really subconscious? Yes. Our brains are really good at picking up patterns from the world around us and they do it outside of awareness. You want an example? Think about language. We all speak and understand at least one language. The rules for word order and meaning are so complex that linguists don't fully know them.

Yet, as children we learned these rules - and we did so without any conscious effort. We just picked up on the patterns as our mother tongue was spoken around us. Intuitive knowledge is acquired in just this way - in language or in poker.

4. Is an "instinct" a gut-level feeling? Not really. The term "gut" is used because it often has an emotional component but it's just our brains doing their thing. It gets called an "instinct" because it seems natural and automatic.

Instincts, however, are unlearned biological reactions. Implicit knowledge is learned. But, hey, we're talking poker here, not evolutionary biology. Call it what you want.

5. Does it lead to good decision-making? Yes, but, importantly, not 100%. The system "satisfies;" it provides "pretty good" decision-making. If you want perfection, you need conscious control. Poker, of course, is a game of partial information so the implicit system works fine.

6. Can you learn to use your intuition? Yes, but you need practice. The system operates by detecting patterns and you need to put in your hours. The more time you spend at the game, the more you will develop a sensitivity to its complexities - even though you will be hard-pressed to tell anyone what you're learning.

You also need to pay attention; players who focus on the game and what other players are doing build up their intuitions faster.

Daniel Negreanu
Daniel Negreanu: Renowned for his great reading ability although scientifically it's likely from practice - not an innate ability to read people's souls.

7. Do some people (women?) have more of it than others? No. Those who benefit most from their intuition are those who have had more experience exercising it, or have been more attentive. Intuitive abilities differ little from person to person.

If "women's intuition" can be said to exist, it is because women pay more attention in social settings than men and they become attuned to patterns of personal interactions that men are oblivious to. At the poker table, we are all equals.

8. Do pros use it, and if so, how? Of course they do. The top pros put in a lot of hours so they've built up an amazing storehouse of unconscious knowledge. They also know when that distant voice is saying something relevant.

Does Daniel Negreanu Really Read Souls?

They pay no attention to that "I-just-got-a-feeling-about-this-hand" nonsense. If they say stuff like, "I can just feel this next hand is gonna be a biggie," it's just another piece of empty table talk.

These "feelings" are about as reliable as a Ouija board.

Okay, that's the professor's lesson for the day. Practice; pay attention. Give your implicit learning system the chance to do its thing.

You'll feel your intuitive sense of the game emerging, that off-stage voice will begin to whisper useful things in your ear, and slowly you will develop a sublime, Zen-like appreciation of the game.

Author Bio:

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.

More strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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Dave 2016-02-12 01:16:34

Couldn't disagree more with you here. I think you are missing his point entirely. All good players know not to let emotion control their decision making. What he's saying, is that after many many hours of play, sometimes, great players don't have to think about every decision. They simply know that a certain play is the right play, because they have seen this scenario half a million times. For example, you are deciding whether or not to make a hero call. You will review the action in your head to narrow his possible range, but you'll never know with certainty if he's got air or the hand. You then have to rely on your experience aka "gut feel" or tells you may not have even known you picked up, to tip the scale in favor of either a call or a fold. I use strategy and feel all the time. You can't win by only playing on "instinct." But high level poker requires an enormous mental effort, and this is one way your subconscious makes your poker life easier. You won't always be right, but if you're right most of the time, that's when "feel" is simply subconscious experience lending a hand. Some people have great feel and some don't. Some people are perceptive and some aren't.

Patrick Barnaby 2013-05-21 17:15:16

I have it - very strong Intuition, I'm not a professional player but I made a profit 10 months in a row without fail and the first 6 months I made a profit every day without fail. I turn 50K into 350 Million so I think I should become a professional player but I just play for fun but still as if its real money.

Bob 2012-11-26 09:11:35

I totally disagree with this article. It's a good effort by Mr. Reber to try and utilize skills from a field unrelated to poker to his advantage, but basically what he is telling us is it go by feel or "intuition". There are definitely (with out actually counting ) more articles out there telling us to not get our emotions involved, then there are ones telling us to go by "feel" or "intuition". Emotions are by definition irrational, but 100% created by the thoughts that go through our brains. So if you have a "good feeling" about a move its because you have very quickly or quietly or subconsiously calculated some favorable outcomes. But without stopping to understand what these calculations are or were, by analyzing and cataloging or using a formula or "RATIONALLE" to understand the science behind our actual decisions, then we are undermining our feelings, by not using common sense and reason to justify what could simply be, the wrong feeling.

Interesting, but wrong. Sounds like a good excuse to not think if you ask me.

Clinton Frischenmeyer 2012-07-26 00:27:01

I just played tonight and had a guy call me when I had the straight. He had 4 outs for an all in pot and hit. Then half hour later I hit a set and I went all in and a guy called and had to hit 2 and a 5 on turn and river to win and did! But I would do it all again and hope to get the call. Bad night but without those guys out there we could never consistently make money and that is the key.

snell 2012-03-19 06:14:58

I am a swedish psychologist specializing in training
professionals to read pokerface, focus attention and
controlling your own pokerface.
My clients are pokerplayers, politicans, personal leaders,
security personnell and so on.
The training requires 4-5 h/day during a week and the
results are an average increase of 60%.
So, it is possible to hone the subconscious.

Steven 2011-12-31 17:00:07

Great topic and an interesting angle worthy of many more pages!

I think we've all been in those situations where you have this undefined feeling (not) to make the call, even though it would defy how you would 'normally' set out to play. I was a bit confused about what it was you were saying in the end, though.

One the one hand you are saying poker pro's don't hone these intuitive feelings about a hand at all, but on the other hand you are saying we should learn to develop these intuitions.

As a scientist myself, I don't believe in any form of ESP, but I can imagine these undefined feelings about a hand to represent part of one's social 'presence' on the table. It may make people feel more confident, which may (unconsciously) rub off on oppononents.

So, as an expert, ARE you advocating to listen to this "gut feeling", or not? And when would you do so, and when not? I would have loved to hear more science and direction on that part!

Keep up the good work!

Peter Burrell 2011-11-19 08:31:34

arthur another great article. I am a psychology major in college. Pokerboy knows, john and vince i feel bad you cant understand the brilliance that arthur is relaying. Arthur you dont even need the fifth paragraph. Poker is a game, a sport, of thought and who can "out think" or "out wit" the rest of the players. And like any sport you must practice more and better than the other players if you expect to be a better player. Well written again. On to the next article arthur.

John 2011-11-18 14:32:30

"Those who benefit most from their intuition are those who have had more experience exercising it, or have been more attentive."
It says right there and several other times that it is very important to maintain focus, and also never says that intuition is the most important thing, but the article was on the concept of intuition, not about what is the most important psychological aspect of poker

Vince 2008-04-01 02:58:00

Pretty good article. But i does not address the most important psychological aspect of playing winning poker. What you have listed hear about intuition is intersting but hardly something new. "Intuition" if in fact there is such a thing is greatly enhanced through preparation, through practice and from experience. And improving ones ability to be "intuitive" will, I believe surely help his poker game.

That said the most important psychological aspect of playing poker is Maintaining focus.

PokerBoy 2008-03-29 01:54:00

Great article Arthur. I look forward to reading more from you here at PokerListings. Excellent site btw!

I believe you are correct in all/most of your points. However I think more women than men are paying attention to their intuition. My feeling is that A. men to a greater extent then women are at the mercy of their ego and B. not as in touch with their physical bodies i.e. paying attention to gut feeling (as you correctly say has an emotional component).

Really intuition is the ability to NOT THINK (deactivate the ego) and allow the answer to come effortlessly via a thought or an emotion. As you said the answer/feeling will then arise from the subconscious which in turn has amassed information based on unconscious observation (e.g. the child that learns to understand language without having developed an ego or become conscious of its awareness).

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