Poker Brains vs. Poker Balls

By Gerald Hanks | April 6, 2011

Many of the most talented and accomplished players in the history of tournament poker have taken a cerebral approach to the game. Chris Ferguson, Howard Lederer and Dan Harrington have all achieved some of the highest accolades in the poker world due to their firm grasp of the fundamentals and their mathematical and logical talents. They have translated their skills and experience in fields like finance, computer programming and chess into millions of dollars at the richest and most prestigious events in poker.

Other players, who have had just as much success and have poker resumes just as impressive, use unbridled aggression and sheer force of will to overwhelm their opponents. The late great Stu Ungar, a high school dropout, had a natural talent for betting big with marginal hands and forcing his opponents into disadvantageous situations. Doyle Brunson, while widely renowned for his knowledge of the game, also advocated a take-no-prisoners approach and often wrote about using aggressive tactics as one of his primary weapons.

Although each approach can reap rich rewards, the differences between them beg the question as to which is actually more effective. Is it the analytical mind of the chess grandmaster, or the daredevil spirit of a skydiver, that truly makes a great poker player? Do the tools for success at poker lie north of the neckline, or south of the beltway?

(Please keep in mind that this piece uses the term “balls” in the figurative sense. Many female poker players have exhibited the same aggression, tenacity and drive that their male counterparts take pride in at the tables.)

Poker players need brains to do the math

Pot odds, implied odds, outs and odds: success at poker does require some basic mathematical skills in order to make the correct decisions. Does the player have the necessary pot odds to call a big bet on the turn? Does he also have the implied odds to make his draw and take out his opponent’s entire stack? Are there enough outs left in the deck to merit chasing the draw?

Poker players need balls to take control of the action

Most poker players understand that their opponents’ mistakes are the main source of their profits. The best way to put opponents off their game is with aggressive bets and raises. When opponents are off-balance, they’ll make mistakes: bet when they should check, fold when they should raise, and call when they should run away.

Poker players need brains to detect betting patterns

When an opponent gets into a stressful situation, he will often rely on “tried-and-true” betting patterns as a coping mechanism. The intelligent, observant player will pick up on these patterns and decipher exactly what they mean.

The smart poker player can also notice when the opponent strays from his usual pattern and take advantage of the situation. For instance, if an opponent slowplayed a flush in previous hands, but bets big into an apparent flush later, the observant player will pick off the obvious bluff, leaving his victim to ask, “How did you know?”

Poker players need balls to instill fear into opponents

One of the biggest differences between pros and amateurs in big buy-in tournaments is that the pros are not afraid to lose. Amateurs, who may have paid up to $10,000 of their own money to play, will often play “not to lose” rather than use the aggressive tactics they need to win. Pro poker players often take advantage of the amateurs’ fears by making big bets and putting them to the test.

The saying goes that “scared money never wins”. Many players, when faced with big bets from Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen or other aggressive players, will play with money that is absolutely (and justifiably) terrified.

Poker players need brains to read “tells”

While online poker players rely on betting patterns and timing for most of their information on an opponent’s tendencies, live players also can use an opponent’s body language, eye movement and voice inflection as tools in their decision-making process. Although physical “tells” are often not as pronounced in real life as they are in poker movies, they can often be magnified within the context of a tense, quiet poker room.

Poker players need balls to act on their reads

The ability to read poker tells, while important by itself, is practically useless without the courage to act on those reads. If a player doesn’t make the right decision given the information he’s obtained from his reads, he often misses out on the already-infrequent opportunities for profit. In these instances, a player’s hesitation can lead to him becoming an opponent’s favorite punching bag.

Poker players need brains to determine the best situations

Many of the more cerebral poker players rely on their ability to “pick their spots”. They recognize when they have the advantage, whether that edge lies with their cards, their chip stack, their skills or their position. Like a master tactician, a smart poker player surveys the terrain of the green felt battlefield, moves his pieces into place, and prepares to vanquish the enemy. These players do not act out of a sense of machismo; for them, poker is a game of strategy and skill, not bluster and bravado.

Poker players need balls to control their own fears

The late great Amir Vahedi said it best when he made the final table at the 2003 WSOP Main Event: “In order to live, you must be willing to die.” Players can often not only use aggression to instill fear into their opponents, they can also use it to quell their own anxieties. If a player understands at the outset that his chip stack will take a beating due to his aggressive style, then he can embrace those risks and push through the fear.

So which vital organ is more important for success at the poker table? Most poker players would agree that the two are interdependent rather than separate entities. Even the most intellectual players still have a component of their personalities that embraces the risk and aggression involved in poker, while the most rabid “maniacs” can still do the math and make the reads just as well as their more analytical opponents.

Success at poker doesn’t always require a big bankroll, but it does take big brains, a big heart, and (as AC/DC sang) “the biggest balls of them all!”

By Gerald Hanks

Gerald Hanks is from Houston Texas, and has been playing poker since 2002. He has played cash games and no-limit hold’em tournaments at live venues all over the United States.


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