Sometime in the 90s, I enrolled as a computer science student at a certain Canadian university. The first year was tough enough. The program had an 80%+ drop-out rate. I survived thinking how tough it was, not knowing what was ahead of me in the second year. I had to take a course in discrete mathematics with one of the best computer scientists in the world. No sweat. I took math courses before and always excelled. But this time it was different.
The professor (who will remain unnamed throughout the article despite my temptation to reveal his identity) had a habit of furiously picking on individual students in the class (there weren’t that many of us left), and firing questions. If you did not know the answer, you would face more questions, and then public ridicule and scolding for being “an incompetent washout who has no clue about anything”.
Half-way through the semester it became clear to me what the professor was doing. Lots of us in the class simply did not have solid foundation and grounding in the subject in order to do more advanced work. We were indeed incompetent washouts because we had not mastered the basics. The professor’s questions were not really that difficult. But they presupposed an assimilation of basic concepts to a point where they became second nature. When a student would pause to think of an answer, the professor would pace back and forth in front of the class lashing out at his victim: “There is nothing to think about!!”.
What is the point of the story?
Well, thanks to my computer science training I realized that mastery of anything cannot come without complete mastery of the basics. This applies to computer science, poker, painting, or any other endeavor that involves knowledge and/or skill.
Mastery of any subject can be thought of as involving two steps:
1) Mastery of Basics
2) Mastery of Advanced concepts/plays
When Step #1 is completed, the basic performance becomes automatic. An expert player does not need to think about what odds the pot is laying him in the middle of a hand or how many outs he has to his nut flush. There are certain elements of poker that can and should be truly mastered so that they become automatic. I am talking about the mathematical elements of the game. Pot odds, effective odds, implied odds, reverse implied odds.
Why master the basics? Is it not enough just to figure it out when the situation arises? I believe the answer is no.
First of all, mastering the basics is absolutely essential in order to win at higher levels. You may win by an “approximately” correct play at the lower levels, as long as you make less mistakes than your opponents. In general, the higher you move, the greater will be the degree of skill that your opponents will possess. If your opponents mastered the basics and you have not, they have an edge in that aspect.
Second, mastering the basics allows you to focus on advanced play. If you have to think how to shift gears when driving a car with a manual transmission, it may be that you are not seeing that pedestrian crossing the road ahead (this actually happened to me. Luckily I stopped in time). In poker, you don’t want to be bothered with thinking about the mathematical aspects of the game. You want to know them. You want to think about other aspects of the game such as psychology, situation at the table, quality of your opponents’ current play, quality of your current play…etc.
Third, advanced play is not really possible without mastering the basics. If you have no grasp of pot odds, a read on your opponents may not be that valuable.
Fourth, mastering the basics allows you to quickly recognize weak players and steaming players on tilt. If you automatically recognize a mathematically incorrect play, you will be in a position to evaluate or select your table better. Moreover, it will quickly become clear which players are playing too loose.
Playing winning poker is about increasing your edge over your opponents as much as possible. You will not be able to do that without solid foundations. If your game is off, this is perhaps the first place you should look at. What is your grounding? Are poker concepts just some vague ideas that sometimes make sense and sometimes do not? Do you feel that you are mathematically “unsure” of what the right play is? Do you try to become a “feel” player because you don’t want to become “just another book player”? If your game goes sour, go back to basics. Don’t skip steps. Master the essentials. Then you will be in a prime position to apply advanced concepts.
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