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It seems that Texas Hold’em has always been the top poker variation but that is not the case at all!  Texas Holdem was played almost exclusively in the wildcat oil fields of West Texas for decades before it was brought to Las Vegas by Crandall Addington, Doyle Brunson, and Amarillo Slim in the 1960’s.

By now, most poker players know the Texas Hold’em poker rules. One of the aspects of the game that makes Texas Hold’em so popular is that with only two cards hidden and five cards in full view of everyone, a lot of beginning poker players think that Texas Hold’em is easy to master.

Believe it or not, Texas Hold’em is a very, very difficult game to play correctly!

Let’s take a look at one of the subtleties of Texas Hold’em.

Poker is Much More than Just Cards and Hands

A relatively new concept in poker is called GTO which stands for Game Theory Optimal.  This concept states that the mathematical side of poker can be deduced from the results of millions of hands and a perfect mathematical model can be derived from such a massive analysis

This makes Texas Hold’em exponentially more complex as it introduces advanced mathematical concepts and the entire field of game theory into what was once just a simple card game that people played for real money.

What is Game Theory?

First, we should note that the complex concept called game theory was called….game theory!  Much of the narrative ideas behind game theory come from the world of games!

Game theory is the science of social intercourse between and among people.  These people can be adversaries and game theory usually treats them as such.

As a result of trying to formulate usable concepts about social interactions from the competitive side of such interactions, the formulators saw it correct to call the philosophical analysis after the reality of competition inherent in games.

What is Game Theory Optimal in Poker?

The idea is to reduce all poker variations into a mathematical model that protects the player from serious mistakes that cost money.  Everyone says that a complete GTO model is not yet here and may never be developed simply because poker is way too complex for a well-rounded mathematical model.

What Makes Poker so Complex?

Here are just a few of the elements a good poker player has to think about as he or she manages their way through a hand.

  1. What were the two positions on the pre-flop round of betting?
  2. How experienced is the opponent on this hand?
  3. Does the opponent have a known history of bluffing?
  4. Does the opponent’s series of bets make any sense?
  5. What are the pot odds, implied odds, expected value and other concepts of poker math?

Even with only two cards hidden, Texas Hold’em is awesomely complex especially because a good bluffer can steal pots in which the pot odds are too small for an opponent to call.

Game Theory and Balance

Most books for beginning Texas Hold’em players have a very short list of acceptable hands to call or raise with in the under the4 gun position.  This applies to players to the left of the UTG player, as well.

The idea is that a neophyte player will make too many mistakes if they are “allowed” to open with lesser hands.

Game theory comes into play with the idea that a rigid, small set of acceptable opening hands pre-flop makes the player too predictable.  They won’t be able to profit enough from their call or raise bets pre-flop because everyone at the table will know that they are betting from strength.

Game Theory and Linear Thinking

Often in any game of skill, a player will say to herself ”If I do this he will do this, then if I do this he will do that”, and so on.  This often leads to very confused thinking and leads to many mistakes.   Poker in this sense is as much a game of skill as are GO or chess.

In fact poker requires more skill in the sense that there is information that we have to infer from everything that has transpired in the hand up to that point while in GO and chess, as complex as they are, everything is seen; nothing is hidden.

Game theory accomplishes this feat of keeping players’ thinking linear by forcing them to see every action they take as a function of an action taken by the opponent or to be taken by the opponents.

Isn’t this the Same as the Thinking Just Mentioned?

It seems similar to the thought process mentioned above—if I do this he will do that and so on—but it is very different.  The thought process just mentioned sees each player as an independent actor disconnected from the opponent while game theory forces players to see that every interaction is a kind of Yin-Yang situation.

The Subject-Object Dichotomy

In its own way, this is very much like what Robert Pirsig spoke about in his monumental book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in which he said that in Western societies there is a disconnect between subject and object while in Eastern societies subject and object are seen as both different and yet the same descriptions of an act or an interaction.

Game Theory and Assumptions

It is far too easy for a player to assume what an opponent is betting on.  Game theory forces players to justify every assumption to the extent that they stop being assumptions and become well thought out conclusions.

Every decision we make that can be codified under a rubric of logic and critical thought can be a learning process for poker.  We might have to make employment decisions, housing decisions, and a vast number of small decisions such as what do we need at the supermarket for the weekend?

No Decision is so Small that an Assumption is Okay in Place of a Reasoned Decision

Game theory can be applied even to the question of how many tomatoes to buy since, as a kind of game, we can see that tomatoes are not simple enough to make assumptions about!

  1. Is it tomato season locally?
  2. Will my guests like tomatoes in their salad?
  3. Is the price of tomatoes exorbitantly high?
  4. Is the price so low that it pays to buy a lot of tomatoes and put them up?

These might seem mundane and obvious but when we extend the same thought process to complex matters we find very similar thinking!  Game theory has applications to everyday life!

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