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Math vs. Feel
Webmistress "Troi" 03.30.2007

Wow. So math versus feel, huh? That's a pretty broad topic, but I will try to keep it brief here. I think that "math" and "feel" players have very different skills, and lots of them are successful. But to be a really good player you'll need to combine those skills. And I think that math players are better suited to limit and feel players to no-limit (since we seem to be talking about Texas Hold'em here.)

Thought Processes

First, let me explain my understanding of how a "math player" thinks and how a "feel player" thinks. A "math player" keeps track of stack sizes and pot sizes. Calculates the odds of hitting his hand on the flop, turn, and river. Figures the odds of his hand being good if he hits it. Generally "does the right thing" if the math tells him to call, raise, or fold.

A "feel player" goes with her reads on other players. Always tries to put other players on hands. Folds to strength, bets into weakness, playing her opponent's hand. Figures out opponents' betting patterns and tendencies. Tries to sense what the other player(s) will do next, and goes with her gut feeling as to whether she can win the hand or not.

Second, I don't think that the thought processes of the math player and the feel player are mutually exclusive. I do, however, think that knowledge of the basic math of poker is necessary for any player. For example, in Hold'em, you're 2:1 against one of your cards on the flop if you hold ace-king, you're 7.5:1 against flopping a set when you hold a pair, and you're a 19:1 dog on the turn to river your set when you hold a pair.

So yeah, you need to do the math. In your head. But a good feel for other players' tendencies and the sensitivity to read them are also very important skills. E.g., if you know you're getting the right odds to call but sense that your opponent probably has you drawing dead, you should fold. And if he bets enough to give you the wrong implied odds to call, but you know he's on a stone cold bluff, you should call or raise.

Notice that the math player is focused on his own hand and odds, and that the feel player is focused on her opponent's hand and strength vibe. Sometimes the feel player will play any two cards if she's up against the right opponent in the right situation.

Learning Processes

Knowing the math is essential for anyone. There are dozens of good books on all forms of poker out there, chock full of expected value calculations, pot odds and implied odds, and all that good stuff. If you haven't read at least one, then you should.

And yeah, there are books on poker psychology and tells on the market. But they won't help you very much. Sure, you can read that "strength means weakness," and "weakness means strength," and that "some players don't play poker to win money." But you won't internalize that knowledge until you actually put in the hours at the felt and see it all a few times.

You should already know whether your basic tendency is toward the math or the feel. So how do you learn and improve? If you're a math player, start looking at the other players and try to figure out what they're holding. Especially when you're not in the hand. I find that it's much easier to read people when you have no concern over the outcome of the hand. Try to figure out who will win the hand whether or not there is a showdown. This exercise is more useful in no-limit since there are fewer showdowns. And there is usually more psychological pressure due to larger bets.

If you're a feel player, you should read, read, read all about poker math. Get the pot odds, implied odds, drawing odds, expected value, yadda yadda all down cold. Keep track of the pot size at all times, even when you're not in a hand. Keep track of the betting too, and figure out who made wrongly-sized bets (if there's a showdown and you see the cards.) Play a little limit, too, where math is king.

Choosing a Game

Aha! Now we're getting down to it. In limit, math is, in fact, king. Because the bet size is restricted, you'll be able to very accurately track the pot size and calculate your hand odds vs. pot odds and implied odds. In limit, implied odds are somewhat less important than in no-limit, since you'll rarely be able to win more than a small fraction of someone's stack. And that means there's less psychological stress involved. You can rarely go broke (or bust someone) in a single hand. And if you do, it probably wasn't for very many chips anyway. So if you're a math player, you're already naturally suited to limit.

Feel players: don't despair! You're well suited to no-limit. In no-limit there can be quite a bit more betting pressure, and hence more psychological pressure, in any and all hands. And guess what. More psychological pressure means that people become easier to read. People under stress will tend to revert to their instinctual behavior patterns, and since you're sensitive to peoples' behavior, you have an advantage. You'll be able to push people off pots when they show weakness, and you'll be able to avoid traps when they show strength (even if they don't bet.)

Put it Together

Just remember: no matter how good you are in the math or feel department, you can always get better in either or both. And I believe that you will need both to become a really good player.

As you work on the math, it'll become easier and more natural. You'll be able to free up your brain power to focus more on reading people. And as you work on the feel, you'll get better at reading people and your confidence will grow. So get out there and do it!