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Can Everyone Learn Poker?

I was reading a post at Memphis MOJO's new poker and bridge blog, Just Sayin', and it sparked a thought that has occurred to me more than once. Can poker be learned?

It's a very basic question that probably needs a bit more explanation. In my opinion, there is a certain mindset/personality/level of intelligence that benefits a poker player. I won't be so bold as to say exactly what it is, mostly because it is sorta mercurial. It's that instinctual understanding of the game, or that die-hard aggressive nature tempered by logic thought, or the ability to understand everything happening around you, block out the white noise, and put together what's important. It is all of these things and more. But whatever it is, it leads me to one conclusion, it is Impossible for some people to learn poker. And those people are the life blood of the game.

Have you ever had a friend who just couldn't 'get' the game? I'll offer an example from the Wall Street Game. There is a certain player I will choose to not name who is widely regarded as terrible. People actually cringe when the person is playing because they do not want to deal with the inevitable bad beats that come with a less-than-seasoned donk. This person has played fairly regularly at the WSG since I initially found the game, almost a year ago (time flies, man). And the WSG is all about discussing hands and strategy. So why isn't this player learning?

You may argue that the player is not studying the game, and therefore, play alone will not teach him how to play. I say to you that you are studying too much if you think that studying from books and hand histories is the only way to learn something. Doyle Brunson did not read books or blogs to learn how to play poker. Phil Ivey did not go over his hand histories in Poker Tracker in order to plug his leaks. Those are definitely ways to study the game, but to learn the game, you have to play and learn from experience (I challenge anyone who thinks a player can become excellent without playing a hand). And you can learn from experience without the need of a book or hand histories provided that you have the right mind for the game.

What I am really discussing, at least in the outset, is the idea of players who naturally 'get' the game. Now, these players aren't necessarily winning players either, but they have a potential to be winning players if they can apply what they instinctually know (or instinctually learn, if you prefer). For instance, I present to you Woffles. For all of Woffles entertaining blow-ups, Woffles gets it. A long time ago, Woffles and I were chatting over the girly IM when I mentioned that I thought he had a mind for the game. He can discuss hands and concepts in a way that is not merely culled from books and regurgitated like he is preparing for a pop quiz. He is willing to challenge commonly-thought principles, not in a baseless, blind way, but in a curious, exploratory manner. You may not see it in his rant posts, but speak to Woffles about the game in a reasonable manner and you will see that Woffles 'gets it.'

Even so, there was a time (3 mos ago) when Woffles was probably break-even or even a net loser at poker. It was because he lacked some discipline, something that I also must overcome. It's the lack of discipline that will allow a player to build up a roll over months only to lose it in two tilting nights, something I know Woffles (and I) have done more than once. This discipline element of poker is another story. I am not discussing whether an individual player who 'gets it' is disciplined and can actually apply it. I am merely discussing how certain players can think about the game (usually in the cold, hard light of day) and really understand it on an instinctual level.

It is my opinion (and I invite critique), that there is also a type of player who does not and, more importantly, cannot 'get it'. People's brains work in different ways. Some excel at math, while other excel at writing or art. We are each special little snowflakes, even the drooling meathead who sucks at both. And likewise, some people have the mind for poker. I am sure it involves a slew of mini skill sets, including math skills, empathy and an understanding of human nature, pattern recognition, and memory. While some people may have the perfect skill set for poker, other people simply do not. They can study all that they want, but ultimately, they will hit a glass ceiling of skill. Those are the players who make the game beatable. Those are the problem gamblers. Those are the guys who play a tournament and get pissed that you raised when you wanted the side pot because, "By the river, I woulda hit my straight, man! We coulda busted him!" I'm not here to bust him. I'm here to accumulate chips. Dousche.

One step further, I am sure that there are people who have natural skill sets that benefit online poker play or live play specifically. Multiple big name professional poker players cannot win online. Does that mean that they suck at poker? No. They may just not have the skill sets necessary for online poker, but do have the skill sets necessary for live poker. They may be less patient in front of a computer screen or have more impulsive behavior. They may just rely more on their empathic sense and reads to play great live poker, and that simply does not translate online. Regardless, the point remains: some people 'get' online poker and others just don't, or can't.

I'll leave this open for discussion, since Lord knows I am no expert on the matter. But I would love to hear from certain more successful bloggers or readers. Is there a portion of the population that just naturally 'gets it' and are built for the game? Are there portions of the population that will never get it? And is there a middle ground, a player who does not have the natural skills but can learn/study enough to get to the highest level? I'm not talking about improving. As I said on Memphis MOJO's blog, some players learn how to suck less, rather than how to be good. I am talking about players learning how to become that instinctually talented player.

I leave you with one last idea. I have heard numerous times that most professionals start their careers with a string of improbable good luck, that lulls them into thinking that they can go pro, only to then learn what a tough road it is. I always thought of that early success as luck, but couldn't it also be a little bit of instinct from the new player, the same instinct that allows them to suffer losses after the 'lucky spell' ends and then get right back on the horse and actually prove themselves as a name pro?

I don't have the answer, but I sure like the question.

Until next time, make mine poker!

posted by Jordan @ 10:00 AM,


At 1:11 PM, Blogger WillWonka said...

I don't have the answer and I do also like the question.

In my humble opinion, there are lots of guys that don't 'get' it and if I find that it is a lot of the time an 'ego' thing because they think they get it.

Some people don't want to get and just play for the entertainment knowing they are going to lose in the long run.

Anyway, we need these people to play and should always encourage them ;-)

At 1:58 PM, Blogger RaisingCayne said...

Very true. I think there's a lot of people out there that just "get it," and a lot that just "don't get it."

I've got a friend of mine that's a complete donkey tool when it comes to poker decisions, and yet for some reason he honestly believes he's a decent player, (albeit with no evidence to prove the theory.) All my poker conversations with him increase my faith in the game as a very profitable hobby, as I know there's players out there like him, that JUST don't GET IT. It's definitely these players we want at our tables!

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

No doubt that it is great to have players who don't 'get it' at your table. But as poker bloggers who each strive to become great players, are some of us fated to fail because we do not have the necessary innate skills? That's what really intrigues me.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger CC said...

Can it be unlearned?

At 4:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The basics of poker knowledge are the maximum that some will attain in "poker skills" and that is all that they'll be able to "learn".

Other's can pick up the game easy and learn the tips, technique and strategy it takes to win.

Can everyone learn?

Can everyone learn to be a brain surgeon?



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