Poker: Getting better, with patience

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS latest film, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen has a nice little joke about poker. He can't play the game but wants to improve. A lady who has quite different designs on him offers to gives him lessons. They sit, she coolly inspecting her hand, Woody clutching five cards in front of his glasses. He sorts them furiously, realigns them, shuffles again, resets them, and stares at his hand. Finally, she asks him how many cards he wants to draw. 'Four,' says Woody.

It is an open question how, or even whether, one can learn to play better. You can read the books, you can observe your opponents. There are always players around the table willing to explain how they played so well, how you played badly and - especially when you win the pot - how lucky you were. Let them talk - you may learn something about their play.

The most public teacher of the day is Mason Malmuth, who conducts monthly seminars in the pages of the Card Player magazine. Malmuth has a personal rule never to give advice or comment on hands at the table. He logs around 100 hours a month playing poker in Las Vegas, so he is not disposed to advise losing players how they might beat him.

But in his column, Malmuth is prepared to unwind a bit. He recently offered an acute analysis entitled 'What your opponent thinks'. He gave a simple example, but in his explanation it becomes pretty complex. Suppose you are big blind at Hold 'em, everyone folds around to the player on the button, who just calls, and the little blind folds. You have A-J off-suit. Do you raise or just call?

Malmuth says that what you should be thinking about is: How well does your opponent play? How well do you play in relation to your opponent? How well does your opponent think you play?

He recommends a variety of responses: If your opponent thinks you play very tightly, you should just call. The reason is if small cards hit and you had raised, your opponent may be encouraged to steal the pot. If your opponent thinks you play passively, you should raise, to increase your chances of stealing if you don't hit a hand. But if your opponent thinks you play too aggressively, do not raise - it won't have any effect. If your opponent thinks you play very well, you should be inclined to raise, because he will tend to play cautiously against you.

Malmuth concludes by saying that he can imagine situations in which the correct play would be exactly the opposite of all this.