Understanding Intuition

by Henry Jacobson


Poker professionals talk a lot about the work they do away from the table. Study done away from the table involves deep thinking that most of us don’t have the time to do when we are in-game. In reviewing hands away from the table, we can develop detailed hand ranges for our opponents on every street based on a variety of factors. We can also think in some detail about the way our opponents perceive our hand ranges and images.

I sometimes spend several hours analyzing a single hand. Some might ask “why would you spend so much time on one hand?” My answer would be that there is a lot of connectivity between specific situations in a single variation of poker, as well as between different variations. There are also different ways to profitably play a hand. The study we do for a specific hand can support our play in thousands of yet un-played hands.

Henry Jacobson WSOP 2016

Henry Jacobson

Depending on whom we listen to, the ratio between time spent in-game and studying away from the table varies. My own ratio tends to skew towards a heavier study regimen. Most professionals would recommend a regimen of 90% of their poker hours spent in-game and 10% spent on study away from the table. I tend to be in the “more is better” camp where study is concerned. I spend approximately 20% of my total poker hours on study away from the table.

That said, I think a player’s grasp of their optimal play vs. study ratio is a critical component of their approach to the game. A successful balance between play and study depends heavily on an individual player’s strengths and limitations and is ideally a product of the player’s self-awareness.

For example, my brain does not have the raw computing power of many elite poker players. When I play No Limit Hold’em, I do not have the ability to consistently push out detailed hand ranges for my opponents in real time based on combinatorics and card removal progressions along with a variety of other post-flop factors. This is the world of wizards and that’s not me. Consequently, I need more study time away from the table than they do.

I need to work through lots of hands in order to establish “default reads”. A default read refers to the ability to identify a correct play based on a current action’s relationship to similar situations we have played or studied. While we must still put our opponent(s) on hand ranges, default reads can give us a head start. And while not necessarily at the fingertips of our conscious minds, these building blocks of information are manifest in our subconscious.

Manifestation refers to the knowledge that is manifest in both our conscious and subconscious minds based on a lifetime of experiences, observations and learning. This “manifestation base” includes all of our poker-related experiences, including the poker hands and situations we study on a deep and detailed level away from the table.

Intuition refers to the recognition of that which is manifest. It may express itself as a by-product of the conscious memory of a hand we played in a recent session, or as a less specific recognition that we should take a particular action in a certain situation.

We can see this process occurring in our day-to-day lives as we make decisions based on information that while consciously incomplete, represents the best set of information we have at the moment on which to base our decision. This brings us to another old maxim worth paying attention to: “Trust your intuition”. While this is good advice, it is understandably misunderstood by many.

The problem starts with a misunderstanding of what “intuition” means. It’s a somewhat murky definition and depending on which reference we use can be defined in different ways. If we go to Merriam-Webster we see “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference”.  Hmmm…a clear reference to intuition as recognition is not provided here. However, if we dig deeper and look to the origins of the word “intuition”, provided by the same source, we see that it derives from the Latin words “in- + tueri”, or, “to look at”. It is here that we find the source of our missing reference to recognition. It is the idea that intuition is fairy dust or something other than the recognition of that which is manifest that gets people confused.

So, the next time we get what feels like a “hunch” at the poker table and it accompanies a reasonable amount of logic, go with it. We are likely to be good more often than not.

More articles