Friday, December 12, 2008

A Good Poker Player

What does it mean to be a "good poker player?"

The question popped into my head because of something that Short-Stacked Shamus wrote, where he mentioned Richard Nixon being a good poker player. And some part of me thought "well, he'd almost certainly get his butt handed to him by your average $25NL player today, though." The other part listened to what that part of me had said, and thought "yeah, that's a good point."

There's just so much new material, so much more research done, so many computer programs and simulations done now that what was considered "good" before can't possibly cut it anymore. I play with the idea that the toughest pros of 20 years ago if brought forward to today's game would cause huge waiting lists of other people wanting to sit in for the easy money. I have a feeling that if you took the final table of the WSOP ME in 1988 and plopped them down at a Party Poker's $200NL game, I might make a killing.

[How I'd fare in a live game versus the same players is possibly a different story; my point regards the theoretical understanding of the game]

You don't believe me? There are plays and strategies today that weren't figured out yet at that point. Many of them. To take a limit hold 'em example, it wasn't until relatively recently (late 90s) that it was first postulated that raising and re-raising with a flushdraw on the flop when you have two or more other players in with you is a winning move. "Equity" wasn't a concept people were good with, in large part because without a computer to calculate it, equity was at best a sketchy guess. And if equity as a concept is largely unknown to you, or you don't particularly have any idea of what your equity might be like, your plays must be mostly based on guesses.

Let's say I'm dealt the two black kings, raise in the cut-off, called the big blind, and the flop is 9-8-7, two hearts. Let's say I have a pretty good idea of what range my opponent has. Should I bet? Given my opponent's range, I can estimate my equity pretty well, probably to the point of +/- 5%. Would Doyle have been able to, 20 years ago? I doubt it. I remember reading that David Sklansky spent a lot of time sitting with a deck of cards, just dealing out hands and writing down results to figure out some kind of equity. An extremely slow version of PokerStove, you might say.

Certain things about poker are timeless. Reads. Tilt. Playing tight. But in the past few years, with the help of computers and not the least the amazing boom in poker that made lots of very intelligent people who otherwise may have spent their brains analyzing something other than a card game suddenly argue flop textures, we now know things about continuation betting, bluffing, equity and EV, that we just flat out didn't know 20 years ago. Or 40, in the case of Nixon.


tenbob said...


This is a massive mis-understanding of the game and of the players that played the game back then. I remember when I was 14 (1990 but he was old school) being taught about your percentage of the pot you could win in a 5 card p/l game HU with a flush draw by my uncle, when drawing one in a raised pot, vs a 3 draw.

Equity is a very basic principle of the game, maybe it wasnt spelled out back in the day, but trust me basic principles were well in place in most of the games, maybe the understanding was poor in general and poker seen as a gamble, but good players always won for a reason.

Fredrik Paulsson: said...

I didn't mean to say that the idea of equity (or "chance to win") was unknown 20 years ago; of course it wasn't. They probably didn't call it "equity" (Theory of Poker, first published in '94, doesn't speak of equity anywhere as far as I know, for instance). But the values that people used as estimations for how big of a chance they had to win the pot were guesses.

Good players win for a reason; it was true then and it's true now. I'm not saying they just sat around raising and folding on whims, I'm saying that had they sat down at a table with today's players of the same limits, they would have been in big trouble. That "good" is a qualifier that compares you to who you're playing against, not an absolute description of skill.