How to read your opponent to win in poker & battle

I read an interesting piece on today on how the very best poker players are always learning: “The line that separates a good poker player from a winning Poker player is the willingness to constantly learn, observe, and adapt.” What I also found interesting was the contradiction between perception and self-control: “Successful poker players survive because of self control and eyes that carefully read each opponent. Do not bother playing if you do not have self control and is impatient. You will only lose. Self control is about the art of suppressing your emotions so you can carefully analyze the exact situation you are in, which in turn, will help you make wise decisions.”

So it’s interesting that the ability to read ‘subtle signals’ is now being recognised as a science with the help of latest technology: “At the MIT Media Lab, Pentland leads a team of about a dozen researchers who have developed a range of small, wearable electronic devices that can easily and accurately gather the kinds of social data needed for such analyses. These devices track not just the physical location of the people who wear them, but also the finer details of a person’s movement— in effect, his or her body language — and several distinct features of his or her vocal behavior. And by taking note of people’s proximity to others and the patterns of their movement, the team can foster new insights into collective human behavior: the subtle differences between effective and ineffective teams, and the structures and incentives that either improve or block collaboration.”

OK, but poker players aren’t going to purchase the services of the MIT Media Lab, though you never know, maybe the Media Lab staff use their expertise to play poker? After all it’s not the first time academics have used their knowledge to beat the house, though that’s previously been using maths systems. Specifically, as it says in Wikipedia the MIT Blackjack Team, a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and other leading colleges utilized card-counting techniques and more sophisticated strategies to beat casinos at blackjack worldwide. The team and its successors operated from 1979 through the beginning of the 21st century.

That said what can the best poker players do to follow through on the need to “constantly learn, observe, and adapt”? If they wish to raise their game through greater perception of their opponent, not simply the maths of the cards, what is there available to help? Well I for one am interested as greater perception is one attribute I have worked hard to progress. Instead of emotional self-control I am more focused on ‘balance’, or staying cool, which is certainly required at the poker table. But what I have come across that reminds me of the need to learn, observe and adapt is the the theories of Colonel John Boyd:

Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd breaks this cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:

  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one’s current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one’s current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

Sound useful? If you are an elite poker player and want to know more read this blog post ‘OODA and you’: “These are ruthless times, ” it concludes.

Me in a tank with a grin on my facePhoto by Stuart Glendinning Hall

Me riding a tank in 1994, smiling.