Important Skills That Can Be Enhanced Through Playing Poker
Despite being just a game, poker can enhance your thinking in a number of areas.
Early on Wednesday morning, 55-year-old German professional poker player Hossein Ensan captured the World Series of Poker Main Event title and the $10 million first-place prize that came with it, outlasting Italian pro Dario Sammartino in a lengthy heads-up duel.
Over the past two weeks, ESPN provided daily coverage of the Main Event, the most well-known and arguably most prestigious poker tournament in the world, a $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold’em event which attracted 8,569 entrants in the WSOP’s 50th year.
Largely thanks to ESPN, poker gets more media attention during the Main Event than any other time of the year. For casual fans, it might be the only time they watch or are even exposed to the game on an annual basis.
This is a shame because Texas Hold'em is a fantastic game which can be used as a teaching tool for a variety of important life lessons.
When I was in high school, I started a poker group called the Dead Poker Society. We still meet up on college breaks to this day, and I owe a lot of my mindset and thought patterns to those years I spent playing poker with my friends.
I believe that everyone stands much to gain from developing poker skills. In particular, schools should embrace poker, incorporating it into parts of the curriculum and offering it as an after school club. And because playing the game is fun, learning and improving is self-encouraged. Here are areas where poker can be valuable in helping one grow.
Probably more than anything else, poker is a game of math. At a very basic level, younger kids can learn math by figuring out what chips they need to put in to call a bet or how many big blinds they have.
However, things get more complicated quickly, with concepts such as pot odds, which can be used to determine the amount of equity (chance to win a hand) required to make a call. You can calculate your equity by placing your opponent on a range of hands including value and bluff combinations, and then determine how many outs (cards which will give you a winning hand) you have.
You can make decisions on bet sizes based on the pot odds you’re giving to your opponent and your stack to pot ratio. Study push/fold charts to see when as a short stack you should go all-in pre-flop. It goes on and on.
Players with strong math skills, who know how to make these calculations and can do so in their heads (or at least make good estimates) have a big advantage and will be more capable with numbers in everyday life.
Attention to Detail
“You need to understand that everything you do at the poker table conveys information. You can’t be like all loosey goosey having a sandwich, being on your phone…” — Daniel Negreanu (MasterClass)
For all the jokes that have been made in the poker community about those famous lines at the start of poker legend Daniel Negreanu’s MasterClass trailer, the message couldn’t be truer. This is a game that requires serious concentration.
When you’re in a hand, you need to be aware of all the action that’s taken place in order to have the best idea of what your opponents might have and what decisions to make. But it’s just as important, if not more important, to pay attention to what’s happening when you aren’t in a hand.
This is when you can study other players, looking for any tells or patterns in their games that you can use against them. Do they bet the same amount every time they have a big hand? Do they take a drink of water every time they bluff? If you aren’t following closely, these are things you’ll miss out on.
In an era of limited attention spans, poker is a game that rewards being aware of your surroundings.
Patience and Composure
Poker players call it “running cold”. Sometimes, you just can’t be dealt a decent hand to save your life. In these times, it becomes easy to get frustrated. You might feel tempted to play cards you otherwise wouldn’t, or make bluffs out of boredom and a desire to make something happen.
These are almost always bad choices. You have to acknowledge dry spells as part of the game. The same goes for bad beats. Sometimes, you get very unlucky, losing with a very strong hand. Alternatively, after a winning hand, you may feel unstoppable, capable of playing anything. This is also a problematic approach.
In each situation, you must maintain your discipline and not let events of the past impact your mindset moving forward.
Every single time it’s your turn to act, you have to make a decision. Poker is a game of incomplete information, which means there will always be unknowns. The outcome of a hand is always in doubt.
Because of this, logic and risk management are huge. Your focus should be on performing the action that will make you the most chips in the long term, even when that means folding.
Each hand is a story under a different set of circumstances. It’s up to you to determine if the story your opponent is telling makes sense and to tell a compelling one yourself in order to win the pot.
Adapting to Situations
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson
You’ll never face the same exact situation at the poker table. Even if the cards are the same, chip stacks, player personalities, the number of players at the table, etc. will all change. Tournaments are different than cash games. If money is involved, there will be additional decisions to make based on the payout structure.
Because of this, you have to be willing to make slight adjustments to your game at all times. You’re always trying to make the best decision possible, but depending on a number of factors, that best decision can change.
Understanding this will open up new dimensions to your game and the way you think about the game. If you think a player is picking up your strategies, alter them in a way that works to your advantage. Always be evaluating alternative options. Don’t settle.
Sometimes in life, it can be important and highly valuable to take a step back and analyze your current situation. What road are you going down? What progress have you made? Where do you need to improve?
Poker is the same way. It’s advantageous for you to be able to identify where you are succeeding, so you can maintain those same habits, and where you are struggling, so you can study more in those areas.
The incentives do so are obvious — you’re losing out on chips! If situations keep repeating themselves, don’t neglect them or pass them off as bad luck. Be honest with yourself. Learn and make the necessary adjustments. Apply that to your life, as well.
Dealing With Randomness
One of the main things separating poker from another mental sport like chess is that in poker, the best player doesn’t always win. That can be difficult for newer players to understand and for even experienced players to come to terms with.
You can make every decision perfectly, and your opponent can still have the best hand. Or, they can get lucky and hit the exact card they need to win. Guess what? It’s a part of the game.
When this occurs, rather than being results-oriented, it’s important to analyze the decisions you made. If you played the hand well, you should feel good, regardless of the outcome. Alternatively, if you made a bad decision, even if you ended up winning, acknowledge that.
In the long run, everyone gets unlucky. Don’t let it get to you. Only worry about what you can control.
Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium. During the college basketball season, his bracketology is featured at bracketmatrix.com. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.