How to become a live pro, Part 1: Poker is really complex


Poker fantasy is so alluring. When you are winning, when the deck is hitting you in the face, when you on are the good side of coolers, nothing in the world seems easier than poker. And therein lies the rub.

Variance is a two way street however human beings are only capable of seeing the “bad” side of variance. When we are experiencing the “good” side of variance, ego and memory bias work together to alter our perception and convince us that “good” variance is just “normal”. So while we are winning during positive variance, we believe it is due to our awesome skill which enables and drives the Poker Fantasy.

Poker reality

The reality is that poker is comparable to Chess in terms of complexity and the skill required to master the game. Notice I said “master” not simply have a winning session. Because Chess has no variance the skill aspect of Chess is 100% front and center.

However, since poker has a variance component, that variance component combined with human memory bias, ego, and misperception masks the skill element and complexity of poker. The result is that players have a severely limited view of just how complex poker is. Players tend to develop all types of erroneous systems, methodologies, theories, dogmas, etc about poker that have little basis in reality.

But seriously, how complex can poker be? Well, there are 1326 possible preflop two hand combinations possible. Below is a table of how many hand combinations there are possible vs. opponents.

Opponents / Number of possible hand combinations
1: ) 1,225
2: ) 690,900
3: ) 238,360,500
4: ) 56,372,258,250
5: ) ≈ 9.7073 × 1012 (more than 9 trillion)
6: ) ≈ 1.2620 × 1015 (more than 1 quadrillion)
7: ) ≈ 1.2674 × 1017 (more than 126 quadrillion)
8: ) ≈ 9.9804 × 1018 (almost 10 quintillion)
9: ) ≈ 6.2211 × 1020 (more than 622 quintillion)

There are 1,712,304 different possible boards (flop, turn, river) that are possible. If we were to apply the # of possible boards to the above table we’d get numbers that were beyond ridiculous (as if 622 quintillion isn’t ridiculous enough already!).

Human factor

The above is just the simple math of possible hand/board combinations. Now factor in the human element. Is your villain aggressive, passive, or neutral? How skillful is your opponent? What about multiple opponents? What about the influence one opponent has on another opponent? What about the influence one opponent has on another opponent who has on another opponent?

But wait there’s more. Now let’s include game dynamics such as: Position, effective stacks, bet sizing, preflop, flop, turn, and river actions.
But wait there’s more. Now let’s include the human dynamic such as: fatigue, fear, anger, ego, tilt, focus, lack of focus, joviality, indifference, etc.

Poker formula

Now, think of the numbers of the above table and multiple those numbers by every factor we can think of and the total complexity of the system (i.e. poker) works out to something like:

A x B x C x D x E x F x G x H x I x J x K = SUPER COMPLEX. And if this weren’t enough, some of the factors do not apply multiplicatively but exponentially so the “complexity equation” actually looks more like this:

Becoming a pro

Okay, okay, okay, so poker is really complex, what does that have to do with whether or not I should turn pro?

Because step #1 in the question of “Whether or not I should turn pro” involves having a realistic understanding of the task/challenge you want to undertake.

What would you say to someone who said, “You know, the last couple of months I’ve been playing pick-up basketball down at the YMCA and I completely killed the game. I’m thinking about dropping out of school and becoming a professional NBA player.”

What about someone who said, “You know, Last night I was singing at a Karaoke bar and everyone loved my singing so I’m thinking of quitting my job and becoming a professional singer.”

You would tell the above person that just because they can beat the locals at basketball or rock the house of the Karaoke bar down the street doesn’t necessarily mean they could/should quit everything and chase the dream of becoming a professional. On the flip side, it’s possible they could become a pro but they would have to proceed in stages. Each stage would be a proving ground and if they cannot master and conquer each “stage” then they simply do not have what it takes to “turn pro.”

Well the same thing can be said in poker. It is possible to become a poker pro, but to do so means going through a gauntlet and if you can get through the gauntlet and progress through each stage then at the end you will have proven yourself and have become a poker pro.


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