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The Building Blocks of Poker: A Beginner's Guide to Pot Odds
In 2007-08 the economic crisis affected us all in different ways.
I was working for a rail freight company and my responsibility was the movement of steel. Few people had money for a new car.
The steelworks reduced capacity. My trains ran lighter and lighter. The writing was on the wall. The entire management team was displaced.
We were sent to Cranfield University to undergo a series of tests. The company would reward the highest test scores with positions in the brave new world. The rest would be made redundant.
A few weeks after the tests I was called to HQ to see the Managing Director (MD).
“We have a problem with your Math test scores,” he told me with a worried look on his face.
"Oh," I said, equally concerned.
“You failed, miserably.”
I wasn't as surprised as the MD. I had always had a mental block when it came to Math. The complexity of it irritated me. I was a writer, a creator, a dreamer. I couldn't do Math.
"But you are responsible for millions of pounds in revenue and operating expenditure budgets and we have no problem with your performance," he said. "Please explain how you manage?"
"I use a calculator. And when the Math gets too complicated I find someone smarter than me to figure it out," I told him.
Let Go of Poker Math Anxiety
The MD sent me back to re-sit my Math tests. I scraped through, but I could have lost my job -- all because of my inability to grasp Math.
Several years later I quit to become a professional poker player and my limited understanding of Math began to hurt my progress. I knew my rate of improvement lay in the review of my game.
I hired a coach, and he would ask me why I made certain plays in certain spots. I couldn't provide satisfactory answers.
My "monkey mind crashing cymbals" way of dealing with equity and pot odds meant 100% of my difficult decisions were decided by intuition alone. I was guessing. I was gambling.
I knew, to become a long-term winner, I needed to understand how to make the right mathematical play when intuition alone would not provide me with the correct answer.
But there was a problem. I would look at pot odds and equity charts. I would set aside time to memorize them. But nothing would sink in. There was a mental block.
I would feel anxiety creeping in when I started to learn Math. The words on the page would blend into a pool of black death. My mind refused to learn Math. I never became a professional poker player. My weakness in this area was one of the reasons why.
When dealing with a mental block it's important to figure out where the roots have taken hold. For me, it went all the way back to school. I was too scared to put my hand up and ask the Math teacher to explain concepts I didn't understand.
I didn't want to look uncool. I didn't want to look stupid. Throughout my teenage years, fitting into the tribe was more important to me than learning about right angles. My inability to do Math was nothing more than a story I had created in my childhood that had formed into a belief and then a conviction.
Had they taught us Math in school by allowing us to play poker, then perhaps things would have been different. But they didn't. We learned the old fashioned way. But today, I am not afraid of looking stupid or putting my hand up and ask for help.
"My Understanding of Pot Odds Gives Me an Edge"
Thinking back to my experience at Cranfield University I can learn a great deal from my conversation with my MD. Back then I told him that I would rely on smarter minds than mine to figure out Math.
I can do that in poker. I am in contact with some of the world’s greatest players. So I reached out to a few of them to seek opinion.
Roberto Romanello is Wales' All Time Live Tournament money earner with over $3.3m in cashes. He is also a World Poker Tour (WPT) and European Poker Tour (EPT) champion and one of the most intuitive players on the live circuit.
"Pot odds are incredibly important in poker," he told me, "and an understanding of them has played an important part in my career.
"One of the big mistakes I see players make is when they are short-stacked and seem to think it's still correct to call off a portion of their stack and use the excuse that they were pot committed.
"It's a critical juncture in their tournament because if they lose the hand, they end up short and struggle to stay in the game. In these circumstances it's far more important to protect your stack and be ready to take advantage of excellent opportunities for a healthy double up and progress from there.
“I find my knowledge and understanding of pot odds gives me an edge when deep stacked and playing against players who don’t understand the theory as well. I become super alert at this point.”
Another Debt Owed to the Devilfish
Luke ‘LFMagic’ Fields is a Grosvenor United Kingdom Poker Tour (GUKPT) Main Event champion and online poker professional. Fields credits the late, great Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott as his pot odds mentor.
“The application of pot odds in poker is undoubtedly paramount to a beginner," Fields says, "who needs to utilize everything 'learnable' as they build a better understanding of the nuances and game flow of poker; the parts that come with continued experience.
"For me, looking back at playing online poker simulations and freerolls when I first got bitten by the poker bug, I first heard of pot odds from a tutorial DVD accompanying a chipset and case by the late great Devilfish.
"He explained the importance of making sure you get a 'good price' for your investments in pots with drawing hands in relation to stack sizes and implied odds.
"In the DVD he gave the rough mathematics behind calculating pot odds on the flop of 'number of outs multiplied by 4 and minus 2' and then for the turn as 'number of outs multiplied by 2 plus 2.'
"This crude and simple way of calculating approximate pot odds served me so well I still always pass it on to friends who ask.
“I used to play a lot of live cash starting out and being able to calculate pot odds instantly and put them in relation to the pot size was undoubtedly a big step in my progression as a poker player at first as you learn the difference between a profitable and a losing spot!
"Now that I primarily focus on MTTs and short-stacked HU PLO Hyper SnGs there are obviously other considerations that come into play especially with the increased addition of tournament variations such as SKOs etc. but a sound understanding of pot odds is still a built-in necessity for any poker player."
Pot Odds = Cornerstone of the Game
World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner Jim Collopy has over $1.3m in live tournament earnings. The American calls pot odds the cornerstone of the game and expresses how important they are in all formats of poker.
“Pot odds influence every poker decision as an elemental cornerstone to the game. The concept and application fundamentally shape each and every hand for every poker player,” he says.
"For Texas-Two tournaments antes are the catalyzing crux to the pot odds dilemma. With experience comes preference and particularity. Pot odds develop in complexity in unchartered waters.
"Delving into mixed games, rotation formats, Mississippi straddles, NLO8 vs. PLO8, super progressive knockouts, et al. is pivotal to the rounders' repertoire. Traditional Texas two is training wheels on the spectrum of pot odds depth."
Arguably the Most Important Concept
Paul ‘Action' Jackson is one of the most popular pros on the UK scene and has won $1.5m in live tournaments. Here is the experienced pro talking about pot odds and naked emperors:
"Pot odds (often referred to as "equity" nowadays") are vital and arguably the most important concept to grasp.
"Given that you have a decent understanding of poker then understanding the risk-reward of making individual plays, i.e., calling hoping to hit a card or indeed betting to 'price out' your opponent from hitting a card against you (so they make a mistake if they call) is exceptionally important.
"I used to find it easiest to work out pot odds using the 2 and 4 rule. You have about 2% per perceived out for each card to come. So on the turn if you feel you can only win by hitting a flush, and you have 9 outs, you have about 18% chance of winning.
"Therefore you have an 82% (100-18) chance of losing so the risk (the amount you have to call to try and hit) must get you the appropriate reward (the chips in the pot already and potentially any additional chips you think you might get (if not all in) on the river if you hit your card.
"If you are on the flop then you will have two lots of 2% (turn card plus river card). Potentially, though, you need to anticipate (if you are not all-in) how big the turn bet might be as you might need to hit on the turn if you think your opponent will bet so much as to price you out with a big turn bet.
"Pot odds have not changed and never will. If you toss a coin the odds of it landing heads or tails will never change no matter how intelligent a way someone can pretend to determine what is, in reality, a straightforward calculation.
"So no matter how clever someone might talk about it in words often designed to make them feel more intelligent than they are, the core maths is the same. And the emperor is, in fact, naked when he has no clothes on!!"
Don't Be Afraid; Ballpark is Good Enough
So what have I learned? My block with Poker Math is purely mental.
I have the ability to calculate pot odds, like anybody else does, and should make learning calculations a regular part of my day if I want to improve as a poker player.
Brain-training apps and Math test books are an excellent way of doing this, as is reviewing your hand histories and applying Math to see where you are making mistakes.
The term ‘pot committed’ is senseless unless there is a mathematical reasoning behind it. Don’t be in a rush to depart with your chips when running below 20 big blinds.
To be a great poker player you need to be great at the fundamentals of the game and pot odds are part of that framework.
Keep it simple: both Fields and Jackson offer simple to remember methods of calculating pot odds. You don't need to be 100% accurate; a ballpark figure is good enough.
Use your knowledge and understanding of pot odds in two-card poker games to advance to more complicated mixed games where a sound understanding of pot odds is equally essential -- especially Limit games that are very Math orientated.
Finally, don't be afraid of Math and pot odds. You can learn how to apply these methods; you just need patience, understanding and a lot of hard work.
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