Intuition in Poker

What is the role of intuition in poker?

Intuition is a form of anticipation, when you are not coming to a given result or decision knowingly, but instead subconsciously. In poker this means that you make a decision without having a logical justification, but you still feel that decision will be correct. I’d like to expand a bit on this topic today, so this article will be more philosophical than educational.

Why is intuition important in poker and why do we talk about it that often? The answer is obvious. The game of poker is a series of making decisions. Even if someone plays only at one table, he’ll have to make a decision every 30 seconds. A professional player who plays 8-10 tables at the same time, will makes 15-20 decisions in a minute, which means they have only 3-4 seconds for any situation. It’s very important to emphasize that in poker you have to decide – regardless of it being a good decision or not – and on top of this you should hurry, because you only have a limited amount of time. Often, you don’t have time to think over all the small details, so you are forced to make a decision based on your instincts. It’s easy to see that if someone chooses the right decision in these situations, he has an edge in the long term.

What you shouldn’t do

The first thing is that you shouldn’t force it. Intuition either comes by itself, or it doesn’t at all, but you should never convince yourself of it. There are especially intuitive players who often value intuitive decisions over ones made based on statistical facts or just common sense. Others never get any hunches and must rely on acquired knowledge and experience.

On the other hand, don’t expect to have intuition about random things. In my opinion you can only have instincts regarding things you have some experience with. I listened to a poker podcast where the host was asked a question about how much he valued his instincts. The host answered that he almost always trusts them and makes his decisions on them very often. However, intuition in poker doesn’t extend to fantasy – you can’t play a suited hand just because you feel you will make a flush. No, intuition is only relevant when it comes to things like if your opponent is bluffing, or if he has a very strong hand. You can also sense that your marginal hand can be good at showdown, but you certainly can’t feel out that the cards in the deck are in a certain order just because you’re feeling lucky.

When to trust your instincts

I’m pretty sure the following situation will have happened to you. You have a medium strength hand on the river, let’s says top pair with a weak kicker, and your opponent overbet shoves all in.You immediately get the feeling that something’s not right, but it would be too expensive to find it out. That’s when certain thoughts cross your mind…

  • Should I fold?
  • Should I call?
  • Did I have a similar situation earlier?
  • What did the opponent have that time?
  • Or did this player do something similar earlier?
  • What can they lose or win with this hand?
  • What can I lose, if I’ll decide wrongly?
  • Do I have any statistics regarding this situation for this opponent?
  • No, is that good or bad?
  • What do they think about me?
  • What hand ranges can I have in their eyes?
  • Because your time’s up soon, you make a decision. You call, your opponent had a bluff and you win a huge pot.

What actually happened? You couldn’t think over every small detail, and you also couldn’t tell why you made your decision, but your decision was correct. Neither the available time, nor the available information was sufficient to be confident in our move. You had a hunch that the opponent can bluff often enough, so the expected value of the call will be good.

That initial feeling in the gut

True intuition is one that dawns on you in under a second. When you didn’t think anything over, but you already have a strong impression. You call this the first impression. If you can walk away from this article with just one important piece of advice, it is to trust in these impressions! I’m willing to say that in over 75% of cases the first impression will turn out to be the right one. There are players who might even be right 90-95% of the time. If you have time and other information the best course of action is to think everything over fully, but I advise you not to stray too far from the first impression, unless you have a very good reason.

Article created for PokerStars School by Pintér ‘TropiFish’ Márk