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  • The Poker Brain

    June 27, 2022

    I’m very excited to share with you all my new book, The Poker Brain: Improving Your Process at the Table Through Optimal and Exploitive Thinking.

    Since you’ve taken the time to visit my site, I thought I’d share the Introduction with you here. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’re excited to read the book!

    INTRODUCTION to The Poker Brain

    Your bet hits the felt, and the dealer announces that you’re all-in. You keep a fingertip atop your cards to make sure they aren’t snatched away, and then you dare to peek across the table at your opponent. They simply stare, maybe at you, maybe at the board, maybe at nothing in particular. They neither move nor talk nor seemingly even breathe. “Clock,” someone eventually says. A beleaguered floorperson makes her way over and informs your opponent they will have 60 seconds followed by a ten-second countdown before their hand is declared dead. You try not to squirm as the floorperson watches the clock, afraid to look away. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…” but then your opponent budges. The cards slide toward the muck. What did they have? More importantly, what in the world were they thinking about all this time?

    They say that 90 percent of an iceberg’s mass sits below the surface, invisible to the casual observer. The same is true of strong poker play. When someone bets, folds, raises, or calls, that’s merely the surface-level view of what is often a deep and profoundly complex thought process.

    How can such elaborately detailed decision-making happen at the table in mere minutes, or even seconds? Indeed, sometimes the clock is very much a poker player’s enemy. Part of the beauty and the frustration of our game is that you can’t consider every last piece of information before coming to a decision. So often I’ve found myself lamenting my inability to spend 20 or 30 minutes at the table evaluating my opponent’s range, counting combinations, or even reviewing a tournament pay structure. Poker is not just a game of limited information, but of limited time.

    To combat this problem, professional players work hard away from the table building up their knowledge of countless patterns to speed up their decisions at the table. Crucially, professionals have also mastered the art of prioritizing what to think about when. In short, the pros have streamlined their thought process. They know how to think through a hand in real time, and make the best decision they can within the limits imposed by the game itself. Their brains are capable of doing amazingly thorough analyses extraordinarily quickly. I’m here to tell you that you can have just such a poker brain for yourself.

    What makes a poker brain different from an ordinary brain? While everyone’s gray matter is unique, there are a few essential qualities that almost all good poker brains share. Don’t worry if your brain doesn’t meet all of these criteria just yet—that’s what this book is for. 

    First and foremost, the poker brain is unbiased. All things being equal, it has no preference for betting over checking, calling over folding, opening over passing. It wants to take all these actions in the appropriate frequencies, but it is not any “happier” or “sadder” choosing one over the other.

    Almost as importantly, the poker brain is indifferent. It doesn’t let the rise or fall of a chip stack affect the analytical process any more than it should. It doesn’t care if you, the player, are winning or losing, except to the extent that such winning or losing influences the current decision. (Often this influence is quite small.) It has no investment in the results of any particular play. It only cares about the process.

    A minor, but certainly required, attribute is that the poker brain is numerate. It is not necessarily a superhuman calculator or mathematical genius, but it is comfortable in the land of stack sizes, pot sizes, bet sizes, and the ratios between them. It never misses the numerical context of an opponent’s action, and it carefully considers the sizes of its own bets and raises, without necessarily needing to do much mental arithmetic.

    Finally, and maybe paradoxically, the poker brain is ignorant. It knows that it doesn’t actually know anything. It is playing a game of incomplete information, and it always accounts for the game’s inherent uncertainty in its decision-making process. Even if it’s armed with encyclopedic knowledge of solver-generated solutions, it knows that it’s playing against human beings, and that there might always be something about its opponent’s play worth exploiting. As such, it is always open to new ideas and strategic viewpoints, and always ready to throw out old methods—even and especially when those methods have previously resulted in great success.

    With these assets in place, the poker brain avoids many pitfalls so common in ordinary human brains.

    It doesn’t let emotions interfere with its analysis (although it does take into account how opponents’ emotions are affecting their play).

    It does not hate losing any more than it likes winning. “Loss aversion”, where losses feel more painful than wins feel good, is a near-universal feature of normal brains. But to the poker brain, losing a dollar is the exact opposite of winning a dollar.

    It does not mistranslate numbers. Most brains see 1% and .01% as “very unlikely” and stop there. Even worse, most brains see 55% and 75% as very closely linked in the “more likely than not” category. Largely because it avoids translating them into language, the poker brain knows that these numbers are extremely different and it reacts to each of them accordingly.

    It does not get complacent. For most brains, there is nothing worse than a little bit of success. They do something that works, and then do it again and again despite any new theories or information or research they might come across. The poker brain doesn’t make that mistake, because it knows its own limitations. It understands that an idea’s success does not equal a blanket validation.

    To equip you with such a brain, we’ll first discuss how to think through a hand in the absence of any information about your opponent. You might have heard this approach referred to as playing “optimally” or “game theory optimally” or “GTO.” It all boils down to the basic idea of having a plan that stands up well to any of the ideas your opponent might come up with. We’ll look closely at the principles behind optimal play, and how you can use them to inform your thinking about a hand as it’s happening.

    We’ll also take a deep dive into the myriad ways your thinking might change based on your opponent. Everything from prior hands your opponent has played, timing tells, bet sizing tells, verbal tells (including revelations about an opponent’s mood), non-verbal tells, betting patterns, and interpersonal dynamics may make it a good idea to deviate from optimal strategy. A strong player learns to identify all the various mistakes amateur players commonly make, as well as pick up on the “trends” at the professional level that tend to make even other strong players predictable. And of course, a good player learns the best way to take maximal advantage of each error.

    We’ll examine how both optimal and exploitive (other writers use “exploitative”, which is fine—I simply prefer the shorter word) play change in different scenarios, and how such changes should affect your thought process.

    Finally, we’ll lay out a framework for how to sort through the reams of information available in the heat of battle, and allow you to focus on the most important things first, and the least important things not at all. Should you be thinking optimally or exploitively? Or both? We’ll answer these questions and more.

    Lengthy analysis away from the table can prove vital to developing your poker intuition, and the benefits to your poker brain will accrue in wonderful and surprising ways. Magnus Carlsen is both the best “bullet” chess player (games that take only a few minutes or less) and the best “classical” chess player (with games taking as long as eight hours or more). This is not a coincidence. By adding knowledge and expertise, chess players are able to evaluate new positions much more quickly. The same is true in poker. Do enough work away from the table, and you’ll find yourself capable of quicker, more accurate decision-making at the table.

    To that end, I’ll be reviewing hands from my own play (and a few from my students) that incorporate the principles under discussion. Think through them at your own pace, and come up with your own answers to the questions I pose before you read on. The vast majority of my experience comes from tournaments, so this book only includes tournament hand examples, but almost all of the concepts apply to cash games as well.

    If you’ve ever found yourself unsure what to think about first when you had a tough poker decision, or how best to consider the information before you at the table, or if you just have a nagging suspicion that there is something missing in your game that’s preventing you from taking the next step in your poker journey, then this book is for you. Come along with me, as we all try to improve our poker brains.

  • The Game Plan

    August 17, 2020
    Can’t believe I haven’t said this earlier in this space, but buy my book The Game Plan. It’s good. And the ebook is now just ten bucks.

    Can’t believe I haven’t said this earlier in this space, but buy my book The Game Plan. It’s good. And the ebook is now just ten bucks.

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A full-time writer/poker player/poker coach, Matt Matros grew up on the East End of Long Island in Westhampton, New York. He has a bachelor’s in math from Yale, and an MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

As a poker player, Matt is a known for having a strong theoretical background in the game, and his three World Series of Poker bracelets seem to back his theories up. As a writer, Matt has published the strategy narrative The Making of a Poker Player (Lyle Stuart), more than 100 columns for CardPlayer magazine, and several short poker-related pieces for The Washington Post and CNN Money. Matt’s fiction has appeared in the UC-Santa Barbara journal Spectrum, and in The Westchester Review. He is always working on a novel.

Matt Matros resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife Ivy.

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