There’s no doubting that poker is a game of skill. In fact, skill is such a critical element of the game that the Olympics is even considering poker as a sport.
The best players will study all the strategies and techniques, the risks and the returns, rehearsing them over and over until they become instinctive and second nature.
At the same time, poker is also a psychological game; a meeting of minds in which you must understand the behavior of your opponents as well as yours. You can learn all there is to know about the Chen formula and David Sklansky’s hand ranking tables, but if you can’t keep a cool head, none of it will matter. Once the game starts getting away from you, doubt, uncertainty and panic can bring everything you have worked for crashing down in just a few hands.
If you want to see how this works, just check out the movie, “Molly’s Game,” out on DVD from April 10. Tracing the remarkable true story of Molly Bloom, the film shows how she built one of the most exclusive poker games in history, including leading businessmen and stars, such as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
One of Molly’s top players was Harlan Eustice. He was neither a film star or a business tycoon, but he was a mean poker player, playing a cool, calm game and never getting draw into hands he didn’t want to play. He was a calculated, conservative player, who was brought in to give Molly’s weekly game a sense of professional credibility; something which he did with clockwork regularity until one night when he completely lost his cool.
Beaten by the river card on a hand he was convinced he was going to win, Harlan’s game falls apart before our eyes. Instead of his trademark careful consideration, he tries to go big on every hand to recover his losses, and by the end of the night, he is down a massive $1.2 million. As well as being a great film for any poker fan, “Molly’s Game” should be watched by all players as a lesson in what happens if you don’t keep your cool.
Of course, staying cool isn’t always easy, as comedy actor Kevin Hart showed when he took on running legend Usain Bolt in their recent PokerStars ice bath challenge. While Bolt chilled out in the freezing water, Kevin Hart was anything but cool, losing the challenge without even setting foot in the bath. Perhaps he should’ve taken lessons from Harlan Eustace — on one of his good days, of course.
For all the skills and techniques involved in the game, you can never escape from the random deal of the cards. Some days you will get what you need on almost every hand while on other days you won’t seem to catch a break all game, and your opponents will appear to enjoy a ridiculous run where every card falls perfectly into place.
There is nothing you can do about the cards, but there is plenty you can do about how you play them. Firstly, you need to play each hand on its merits and not get drawn into worrying about a run of poor hands. Secondly, you need to avoid doing a “Harlan” and chasing your losses. Save the revenge for when your hands get better; don’t try to force a bad hand to compete with good ones. If all else fails, take a break. When it’s not your night, it’s not your night, and it’s better to walk away than to destroy your confidence and leave struggling for the next game, too.
You have to trust your skills and judgment to win in the long run. But you also have to appreciate that there will be days when all the tips and techniques and tables and formulas in the world won’t make a difference to your cards. That is the real skill of poker.