*This is the last entry in a three-part series detailing many of the misconceptions the general public has about Texas Hold’em. Much of the information in these articles apply to poker in general. However, I am specifically talking about Texas Hold ’em because it is easily the most well known and most popular variant of poker.
In the first part of this series, I tackled the myth that Texas Hold’em is a game of chance by explaining many strategy concepts in poker and using examples to show how good players evaluate common scenarios in the game in order to make strong decisions. That part can be found here: Part 1. In part two, I discussed nine more common misconceptions about Hold’em, including how big hands appear far less frequently than you would think, and why a perfect pokerface isn’t essential to success. That post can be found here: Part 2.
In this final part, I’d like to discuss a controversial idea: specifically, that poker can be used as an educational tool. What I hope to convey is that poker, if taught the right way without an emphasis on gambling, can teach many important skills and life lessons. Kids can actually benefit from learning and playing a game many rule out as nothing more than a gateway to compulsive gambling.
Why is this? Because when learning is fun, it is no longer learning. The concentration when playing poker becomes solely on the game, and not on all the individual elements that it composes. No one thinks to themselves, “I’m really training my decision making and risk management skills by evaluating whether or not to make this call.” Instead, they are just concentrating on ending up with the right decision, because they are incentivized to do so within the game.
In fact, there are things we all need practice on which poker can aid with. Here are 10 important traits and abilities that can be enhanced through poker.
1) Math: Math is a fundamental element of poker, and is used in nearly every situation in the game. Younger kids can learn math by figuring out that if they want to call a bet of 35 chips, they will have to put in a 25 chip and 2 fives. Other more complicated applications of math include calculating how many chips one will have remaining if they call an all-in and lose, and making decisions based on pot odds. It’s safe to say that playing poker requires the use of math skills, and players better able to work out numbers in their heads have an advantage at the table.
2) Logic: Should I check or raise? Fold or call? Every poker hand is like a puzzle. However, it’s a game of limited information, so logic comes in handy when deciding what action to take. During a hand, a player has to evaluate the strength of their hand, and how strong they believe their opponent to be. If a player believes they have the best hand, they will then have to determine what size of a bet they should make to either get their opponent to call, or fold if the opponent may be drawing to a better hand. Alternatively, they could check if they believe their opponent will do the betting for them. When acting, they also have to consider position on the table, blinds, stack sizes, and chips already in the pot.
3) Memory: Never underestimate the power of memory. From remembering an opponents general play style to what moves they have made with specific hands or what hands someone had when making a specific bet, having knowledge of people’s past actions helps tremendously when determining their future actions or trying to figure out what hand someone may have. For instance, if someone always bets half the pot on the flop when they have a flush draw, and they bet half pot on a two-heart board, there’s a decent chance of them having that draw. No one is actually that predictable, but you get the idea.
4) Patience: There are times at the poker table when you simply can’t catch any decent cards. It’s simply bad luck, and it happens to everyone. There will be stretches where you see twos and threes nearly every hand. How do you react to this situation? Do you get rattled and begin to play weak hands just to feel like you’re in the game, or will you be patient and wait to start hitting cards again? It’s perfectly okay to play a poor hand every now and again to try and get lucky or bluff at a pot, but far too often do players just get frustrated and throw their money away with cards they know they shouldn’t play.
5) Composure: You’ve just doubled up a player, and it’s put a huge dent into your chip stack. Often times after people lose a big hand, they’ll go on tilt and play more aggressively, or just get angry at the table, which compromises their judgment. It is very important to keep a calm head and not let one or two bad hands destroy an entire game. This is the same as in life, where you can’t let your emotions get out of control, causing you to make decisions you’ll eventually regret.
6) Decision-making: You’ll find that many of these skills go together. This is true, as several different factors can be used to make a decision. Many of the smaller aspects such as math, logic, and memory go into decision-making. In the end, poker is a game about using all of the information at your disposal in order to decide upon the best strategy. It is very important in life to be able to evaluate the best solution to a problem, and understand how you reached your conclusion. If a player goes all-in, and you have him covered with a comfortable portion of your stack remaining, you deduce yourself to likely have a better hand, and know from memory that he usually only checks with a very strong hand, then by putting this all together, the call becomes much easier.
7) Risk Management: I love the stock market analogy when it comes to poker. In poker, you are selective in which hands you play, just as you would be in stocks you choose to buy into. Then during the course of the hand you evaluate the risk of losing the hand versus the amount you stand to gain by winning a pot to determine if you wager more chips. In the stock market, you want to buy low and sell high- it’s the same concept. The name of both games is making +EV decisions, putting your chips or money in spots where you’ll likely be able to earn more of each, and playing poker is great at helping make these decisions. The stock market isn’t the only place this skill becomes valuable. Being able to minimize risk and maximize reward can help in a variety of situations.
8) Psychology: Personally, the psychological aspect of poker is the one I find most exciting. I really try to get into the mind of my opponent, and try to piece together what runs through their head as they make a decision to find out what kind of a hand they have. I also like to try influencing their decisions by specific things I say or expressions I make. Now I’m not saying you should try to read people to take advantage of them like I would in poker, but understanding emotions is crucial in developing relationships with others, and playing poker can help you figure out where someone’s head is at.
9) Self-Evaluation: Everyone needs to be able to critique themselves to see what they are doing that is right, or what’s working for them, and things they to stop doing or improve on. While playing poker, you need to realize if you’re playing too many hands, or too few hands. Are you betting too lightly that you’re giving away odds to call, or are you betting too heavily and missing out on value? Poker can help you learn to see your mistakes and figure out a plan to fix them.
10) Adapting to Situations: Out of everything on this list, the ability to adapt to different situations is likely the most important. Every poker table is different: the people, the chip distributions, the general pace and flow. It’s all different. You have to figure out how people are playing on that given day and use it to your advantage. In life, there are going to be times where you’re in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation, but that can’t stop you. You have to be able to get a grasp of what’s going on and make the most of it.
This concludes the poker misconceptions series. I hope after reading this, you understand that poker is a game of skill, not to believe every Hollywood myth about the game, and to understand the potential benefits of playing poker. Most of all though, poker is an extremely fun game and much more than a gateway to a gambling addiction.