Poker rule #1: your gut is not as reliable as you think

You really do have to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em, and most of the time trusting your gut is a copout, says poker champion Liv Boeree.

Liv Boeree: So I guess the thing you have to think about in any given poker situation is that you're dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and it's all about how to make the best decision in any given moment. So the first rule of thumb is how to extract the most money or chips from your opponent when you have a strong hand, and how to lose the minimum when you have a weak hand. And you're never going to be a hundred percent certain where you are: Are you beating them or do you have a worse hand? So you have to sort of construct a strategy that is mathematically optimal in each situation. 

Well, I guess people tend to think of intuition as their gut instinct and my rule of thumb in poker is to only fall on my gut instinct if my sort of logical, my slow brain, the system two as it's sometimes called, has not come to any conclusive answer. A lot of people are tempted to go, “This is too tricky, I don't know!” and then go, “Yeah, well, my gut instinct says this; I'm going to go with that.” But the best thing to do is to work with both, your sort of slow brain and that gut. 

Say you were playing against your opponent and you've noticed that actually they’re someone who's very solid, they never seem to bluff, and you might have a hand that you would normally call with (say 90 percent of the time), but you know this guy, he's just never bluffing, never doing it. Well, actually this might be one of those rare situations where you do throw your hand in the muck, where you have a very strong feeling that you're just not calling; even though mathematically it says it should call,  you shouldn't do it. 

I guess the art part of poker is when you have these flashes of inspiration where you need to deviate from the math, and the science is knowing whether that deviation is the right thing to do at the time.

When it comes to your intuition as a poker player I would say do use it from time to time, but it should not be your starting point. You, as a rule of thumb, should always go for the slow “system two” analysis, see what answer that comes up with, and then also to check in with your gut. Say you're in a really big hand, and your opponent has bet, often I'll have an instinctive response; I'll be like, “Oh that's a bluff,” or “they have a really strong hand,” and I'll make a note of it, I won't just go with that answer.  

I'll go, “Okay now let's work through the mathematics, let's look sort of through all the other bits of information: what have they done on other cards?” and so on, and then see if those two answers match up.” 

Now, if they both match up, great, I've got an easy decision, but if one is giving a conflicting answer to the other, then usually you tend to rely on the sort of the mathematic/logic part. However, it's really, really close with the mathematics, then I'll fall back on that gut instinct. But as a rule of thumb your gut is not as reliable as you think.

You often see these like memes on the Internet, which is just like, “Always go with your gut! Trust your instincts!” and so on. And I personally think that's a copout. I think that's often the lazy way out for when we are faced with a really tough decision in life, of just going, “well… answer X.”  

Our brains they love to simplify things, to do things in black-and-white, but we live in a very complex world, and that's not always the best route to take. So in a nutshell, your gut instincts can be useful, but as a last resort. We've evolved of these amazing brains for a reason, so we should be using them. 

Want to win at poker? First, understand how your mind works. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains the mind’s two thinking systems: System 1 which "is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach," and System 2 which is "the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates." Champion poker player Liv Boeree explains that if you want to rake in the chips, you’ll need to harness both these systems. The game requires players to make decisions in circumstances of great uncertainty, so learn to balance your mathematical reasoning with your gut instincts—however, when those two systems give you strongly conflicting messages, Boeree says the win is usually based in logic, not intuition. Your gut is valuable, and can often be the key to reading a tell or bluff, but it "isn’t as reliable as you think." Find out more at www.livboeree.com.

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