Developing Your Poker Mindset, Part 5: Intuition

Poker intuition is a level of thinking that can only be developed from experience. The more experience you have, the more accurate you can feel where your opponent is most likely to be in a specific situation. This is not to say deep analytical thinking isn’t important because it is. But combine that with intuition and killer instincts and you’ll be extremely hard to beat. Players like Daniel Negreanu or Phil Galfond, for example, seem to have that natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any real proof or evidence.

Obviously, these are players that have seen just about every situation there is in poker a hundred times over. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t rely on your instincts at the table. Most players don’t trust themselves at all. They constantly second guess themselves which causes all kinds of anxiety every time a big decision comes up. Quite often this results in players making the wrong decision and instantly knowing it was wrong from the very moment they made it. Hey, I’ve been there. And I know damn well you have too. But as the years have gone by, the more I’m able to recognize familiar situations and the more I’ve learned to trust my gut.

So, what is intuition and how can it be attained? Well, it’s really not that big of a mystery. It all starts with creating good habits – automatically doing or knowing things so well that you can do them without even thinking. When riding a bike, do you think about how to ride it? What about brushing your teeth in the morning? No, you just do it without a second thought.

Now, of course, poker is a tad more complex than a few daily activities, but the point to be had here is that the process of doing so has been automated. Well, even complex tasks can be automated to a point once you’ve experienced them enough times. Have you ever typed in a password without thinking about it? Or opened a combination lock without a second thought? Now those are a little more complex than say, lacing up your shoes. But you’ve done it enough times that you don’t have to think about it. If you did, you’d probably screw it up.

This is true for poker as well. If you’ve been through a certain situation enough times, you know how to react. Overthinking it will only lead to anxiety and most likely the wrong decision. If you have top pair on a super dry board and a tight player check-raised all-in, go with your gut. If you overthink it, you may come up with reasons why this time is different, or he can’t possibly have it, or whatever unreasonable logic that pops in your head. If you go with your gut, you just know he has you crushed and therefore you should fold.

I’ve coached several students and it’s always the same story. They go against their first instinct, overthink common situations, then curse themselves afterward. Then tilt starts to creep in because they knew the right action but still made the wrong decision. Bad play ensues and money goes down the toilet. Will you always be right? Of course not! But when you trust your gut, you’ll either be right or you’ll learn something. It’s a win-win.

On the other hand, if your experience is limited, you certainly don’t want to be acting on impulse alone. The key to trusting your poker intuition is when you’ve built up a sufficient amount of skill for the decision you face. If you don’t have a foundation of education and experiences over many thousands of hands played, making plays based on feel will be pretty hard to come by. So, if this is you, I would recommend playing many hands where you take super standard lines, as well as a large amount of off-table study.

If you do have the required experience, however, you have no reason to not trust your poker intuition. But again, you’ll either be right, or you’ll learn something, so don’t curse yourself if your instincts were wrong. Use it as a learning experience. There are so many unknowns in poker that even the most qualified of soul-readers are going to be wrong here and there. That’s what makes this game so great – five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. So, the next time you have that gut feeling, go with it, trust yourself and go from there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 5-part series on developing your poker mindset. If you have questions or other topics you’d like to see covered, comment below.

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