No Fold'em Hold'em Letter

Brian Alspach

Poker Digest Vol. 3, No. 5, February 25 - March 9, 2000

In the Poker Digest ``Letters From Our Readers'' section, Vol. 2, No. 22, there was a letter from a reader asking for help in no fold'em hold'em because of her or his seemingly constant losing sessions. This article is in response to that letter and perhaps presents a different slant on the matter.

Let me digress for a few moments and discuss learning. I taught mathematics to university students for more than 30 years and frequently heard the post-examination story, in an endless variety of manifestations, of how the student really understood the material but her or his mind went blank during the exam, etc. (It has many similarities with listening to bad-beat stories.) Most of those students were never going to continue with graduate studies in an intense discipline like mathematics and discover what I discovered: There is a huge difference between undergraduate studies and graduate studies!

The difference is not the level of the material--the difficulty arising from the level of the material, for a student at that level, is about the same for all levels. No, the primary difference in graduate studies is the level of expectation. You are expected to truly understand the material. That is why a typical course load for a graduate student is two courses instead of the four to six courses undergraduate students typically do.

It's virtually impossible for a student with five courses to develop a true understanding of all the material. Thus, students study to try to do well on exams. Their understanding is frequently superficial and can disappear under stress. People who truly understand something do not have their minds go blank; the understanding is deeper than that.

How does a graduate student develop a deep understanding? It's done by constantly thinking about the material in hand, discussing it with other people interested in the same material, and when that is done, thinking about the material some more.

What does this have to do with poker and the letter from the reader? Perhaps you can guess where this is going given the above digression.

My essential message to the reader is to read all you can about the game and then think about it. However, I have much more to say as the preceding sentence by itself is almost useless. First, there are many sources for reading. There are many books, magazines, and Internet groups. There's no lack of reading material.

Let me now give you some advice on what you read. By and large, much of what you read is at a fairly detailed level. For example, starting hands are rated, when to call and not to call is discussed, when to raise is discussed, and so on. If you accept this advice at a superficial level, you will encounter serious problems: Some of the advice is contradictory. You will be playing like a robot, and you will be confronted with situations not covered by any of the advice. There are some people who maintain that if you play low limit no fold'em hold'em like a disciplined robot, you will win in the long-run. I am not convinced that is true, but in any case you should try to improve your game.

Above I mentioned the virtue of thinking hard about material in order to develop a deep understanding. What does that mean in the context of reading much material on poker? For me, deep understanding in the poker context means being able to articulate general principles underlying the detailed advice being given. Thus, what one should be doing is looking at the advice being given by some collection of writers, thinking about what is being said until you understand and can articulate one or more principles guiding their advice.

The importance of articulating a general principle yourself is that this means the principle is in your own language and you relate to it. You can apply it to new situations because you understand it and you can modify it when necessary. It can be very rewarding.

I recall clearly when I was an undergraduate student and not enjoying memorizing a list of formulas for solving different kinds of problems involving volumes of solids of revolutions. I was joyous the day I figured out the underlying principle for any problem of that type. I promptly forgot the formulas and solved any such problem whenever I encountered one using the underlying principle. I also didn't forget it...ever.

Discovering general principles underlying poker situations is not easy. Some writers mostly write about particular situations and never write in terms of underlying principles. Other writers mention general principles and illustrate them with particular examples. You must think hard about what all of them are saying until you can make sense of it in your own context.

An interesting test of how well you are doing by following general principles is to play in a new venue and see how quickly you adapt to the game at that particular venue. It can be a real eye-opener.

Good luck!

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