I’ve always loved writing; it’s fun, it’s massively therapeutic and it’s a way of communicating your inner thoughts without actually having to talk to anyone. Who wouldn’t love writing?
I’m often told that the key to being a good writer is to “write what you know” and this sounds like solid advice.
I’m going to ignore that advice today, because I’m going to write about maths. If you’re already a poker-maths genius, you don’t need to read any further. If you love poker but hate maths and have convinced yourself, through fear of maths being horrible and hard, that you don’t need to think about maths to win at poker, then you should read this, because I think it will help you.
Let me give you my background with maths, in the interest of clarity, so that when I actually give you advice, you know you’re getting it from a numbers noob, a mathematics moron, a statistical schmuck, and not from anyone who has any clue what they’re actually talking about.
I was not the dumb kid at school. I was bright, excellent at English, competent with the other humanities, but utterly thick at maths and science. I do think there was an element of not giving a shit, I didn’t care about numbers as much as novels, but it wasn’t just lack of application, it was very much lack of ability.
I was placed in the remedial maths group at thirteen, in an optimistic attempt to get me a maths GCSE via an easier, lower-tier exam. It wasn’t really a remedial group, it was the maths dumbs (like me) and the disruptive kids. In truth, it was a grade-curve-wrecking damage control class, taught by Adolf Hitler’s granddaughter. Awful, and no help to my poor maths ability, although I eventually got a B. Fuck you, maths.
Then I went for a job as a trainee croupier and the interviewer said “now the maths test.” I brown-trousered right there. I remember thinking that I really wanted the job, and I was about to bomb it because of shitty, pointless, horrible maths.
There were ten questions, of which the hardest was 35×3+17. I remember it well, because I was chuffed when I got it right. I passed the test, and I told the interviewer the maths had made me nervous. He said:
“Thing with maths, love, is it’s always the same. I was testing to check you were numerate, I haven’t got time to teach you to count. Since you can already count, I can teach you tricks based on reliability of maths and your own memory. Maths isn’t so hard to tame.”
I suddenly got good at maths, or more accurately, arithmetic. As a four year roulette dealer, I had some seriously mad mental-arithmetic skillz. The toughest spirit of competition I’ve ever encountered is in a casino-dealer break room when a Countdown numbers round is on. I had finally cracked one tiny corner of the massive, daunting cube of terror that is Maths; I was emboldened.
It took me two years to bring maths to my poker game. At first, I didn’t need it, I thought. I still defend that thought, because at the time I felt I could get to a point in my poker game when I would be able to put my opponents on their exact holding every time. I thought that was the skill of the game. If you actually could put an opponent on their exact hand, then you wouldn’t need maths, because you’d see that K-high was worse than A-high and you’d pass. Obvs, right? Fuck maths, the numbery twat.
One day, I came across a long article on advanced EV calculations for a very specific type of spot. I understood none of it, none at all. I forced myself to read it to the end, because it was like evidence of aliens to me. I claimed to be a poker player, I claimed to love poker, and yet there was obviously a whole culture within my poker world that I knew nothing of. My confused eyes were popping out of my head.
The size of the numbers stuck with me. I had no idea what the calculations were doing, or about, and even 7 years later, I probably wouldn’t, but I saw the end product of the monster calculation was +0.2. This seemed like a very small number to me. I was left with the desire to find out why this guy was getting so excited about 0.2% of anything. That was it, that was all the article meant to me after 300 lines of numbers and letters in brackets.
What I took from the article was that someone who was clearly a more experienced player than me didn’t think he’d always be able to put his opponent on an exact hand. He appeared to be claiming that this wasn’t going to be possible, however hard you worked on that part of your game, it would never be enough. That article exposed a layer of subtlety that terrified me.
After I put the article down, I had the same feeling I’d had the day of the croupier interview; I was about to lose my grip on something I loved because of fucking maths.
I wasn’t having it. I decided then and there that I would aim for the day I could understand an EV calculation for a miniscule, marginal spot that had 17 brackets and used every letter of the alphabet.
I am still a very long way off that day, and accept I may never get there, but I’m still aiming.
I now understand that I should put opponents on ranges of, not exact, hands. I should be making educated assumptions about the % likelihood that I will win this pot from this point on. I should know roughly how much is in the pot, and what the % of the pot the bet I’m facing or making is. I should be thinking about how much an opponent will commit if this happens next, or that happens next.
This is the first step on the hard road to bringing maths into your poker game, there are no numbers in the previous paragraph, but it’s all about maths. I decided not to be scared by maths because it is just a language, it’s a more efficient way of describing things that I can say in words, and it will refine some plays I’m already making.
Maths the only language that reveals the darkest secrets of the marginal spots, and the longterm winners understand the marginal spots. You can improve your wins, not by becoming a fluent master in that language, but simply speaking it slightly better than your regular opponents.
One of the great joys I have in poker, is that not everyone who plays has to be a player. Some people play poker like I play Roulette, and they love it that way. I love having poker-punters at my table, and I love to see them win (occasionally).
I’ll quite happily punt £20 on Roulette whilst having a beer, knowing I can’t beat the game in the longterm, because it’s fun, and I can win on that night and buy a fantastic pair of shoes. Poker can be beaten, because there are some opponents I can beat over the longterm; poker is potentially shoes for life.
I don’t want to be a poker-punter, I want to be a poker-player.
I think I’m writing about this now because I finally consider myself to have moved out of the beginner category and up into the intermediate player category, using maths as a ladder. It’s very rewarding to feel really good about my game, even though I know I’m not a good player, at least I feel like I’m actually a player.
I don’t intend this blog to be preachy, if you just play poker for fun, then maths doesn’t need to bother you, you can still win sometimes without it. If you are currently where I was a while back, loving poker, getting some results, but feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task of tackling the maths, I’m aiming this at you.
Start with one thing. Go on a poker forum, look at some beginner strategy articles and find something that interests you. Read about it, talk to other geeks about it, focus on one thing. When you do that, it will naturally reveal to you where your newly developing skill is being held back by other gaps, and then you can focus on those.
Don’t be automatically intimidated by loud players who seem to spout a lot of numbers, some of them spout a lot of nonsense. After the game, investigate what you’ve heard them say. It’s amazing how often poker room hearsay about the likelihood of poker happenings is in disagreement with the opinions of maths.
Remember, every new thing you learn makes you better than someone else, don’t worry too much about the players who are better than you, you can avoid them, or luckbox them, until you learn more. Focus your attention on identifying and then outplaying the weaker players.
Don’t worry about understanding a whole article. Read something, take what you can, look into that bit. Some poker writers are shit writers. I’m not denigrating their poker knowledge, it’s just that they forget that they know things that the person reading their article might not know. It’s easy to let this knock your confidence. You think you’re stupid because you don’t understand exactly what’s being said; it’s not your fault, it’s the writers’ job not to make assumptions in beginner strategy articles. Also, read more than one writer, or watch more than one video on a topic, because it helps to form your own opinions and ideas.
Never submit entirely to uniformity. Once you start to get used to the reliability of statistics, don’t assume anyone else is always right in how that knowledge is best applied; never forget your own game. I’m convinced poker-players need to use maths to be consistently successful, but they need to add imagination and flare to be great players. While I think it’s wise to be open-eared around more experienced players, I think even at beginner level, it’s vital to allow your own instincts to come out of the cage, don’t let them get flabby, even if they’re likely to be mental sometimes.
Above all else, don’t be scared; maths isn’t so hard to tame. I promise you, if you’re worrying about the relevance of maths to your poker game, you already know more than you think you do.