Don’t Trust Your Gut
Trust your instincts. Follow your heart. Be yourself. Go with your gut.
There is a growing trend in society recently to dish out poker strategy advice that essentially says, doing what feels right, is right. The same idea carries over to poker when players are given advice to “trust their gut,” because your gut always knows the best play. The gut is even glorified by feel players such as Phil Ivey, who seem to have such strong instincts they’re like Luke Skywalker using the power of the force. Plus, there has probably been a time when you didn’t listen to your gut and you paid the price. It’s brutal to know you had the right play in your mind, so you tell yourself you’ll never again go against the “don’t trust the gut” advice. Of course, eventually you go against it and say the same thing. Frankly it’s a good thing that you don’t always trust your gut—it is not perfect and to use it right, you need a good strategy.
Players also make the mistake of discounting the gut entirely and instead rely on a purely logical and analytical approach they find in poker strategy articles to make decisions. Both extremes—overly trusting and overly discounting—can be corrected with a strategy for using this powerful part of your decision making.Trusting your gut in poker can be a big mistake when you’re not aware what your gut is and when it can misguide you. I’ve found the best way to develop a strategy for using the gut is to take the mystery out of it.
Poker videos, like the one below, can help out with identifying the right and not-so-right things about your gut in the mental game of poker.
Your A-B-C Poker Game
The gut is a feeling, sense, or reaction that you have when making a decision. A gutshot poker reaction comes into your mind so fast that thinking could never produce it. Thinking is a very active process where you’re considering information and putting pieces together in order to come to a conclusion. That process may only take a few seconds, but your gut gives you an answer seemingly at the speed of light. You may think about the gut reaction and decide whether to go with it or not, but thinking is not what gives it to you.
This instantaneous answer doesn’t arise out of thin air, it comes from unconscious knowledge that you have in your mind. Here in lies the key to determining when to trust your gut and when not to—unconscious knowledge can be both new and old. When playing your A-game or in the zone, that high-level play is fueled by new unconscious knowledge you gather while playing, typically coming from being focused and having an ideal level of energy. That new knowledge is what gives you, for example, a strong feel for the way the table is playing and how your image is perceived.
On the flip side, when playing your B- and C-game, you don’t have enough energy to think properly and you rely more on old unconscious knowledge. This unconscious knowledge comes from studying the best poker videos and playing the game over months and years. Now, some of that knowledge represents areas of your game that are strong and so routine they happen automatically, like mucking 7-2 off suit under the gun. But some of this knowledge is outdated or flawed, and can’t be trusted.
Build a+EV Strategy for Using Your Gut
Being able to distinguish when you’re playing well from when you’re playing poorly, regardless of how you’re running, is the key factor to consider when deciding whether to trust your gut or go against it. This is another reason the A to C-Game Analysis from the Becoming a Great Loser chapter in this poker strategy guide can be helpful. Completing it will allow you to more easily spot the changes in your game and thus know what do to with the feeling you have about the hand. Below are some additional thoughts to help you build a strategy.
Don’t trust your gut when you’ve lost poker tilt control, you're tired, extremely nervous, or any other instance when your ability to think has been significantly compromised. At these times, you’re left with your C-game and the flawed unconscious knowledge will be informing your gut. It will tell you it’s ok to gamble, call down light, bluff raise the river, or play too passively. Whatever the specific mistakes you make when at your worst, that’s what will feel right and what your gut will tell you to do. When this happens, you either need to quit and take a short-break, or push yourself to think through those reactions by using a Strategic Reminder.
Sharpen Your Poker Playing Skills
While I don’t suggest you go with your gut when you’re playing poorly, I highly recommend that you keep track of gut reactions you have then when you’re finished playing. Add them to your A to C-Game Analysis, so you’ll have a clearer and more accurate idea of your C-game. At a minimum, this poker tip will make it easier to recognize when you’ve dropped into your C-game. Plus, when you analyze why calling, for example, would even spring to mind in that spot, you’ll be able to correct the faulty or incomplete logic in your C-game. These types of gut reactions expose the root of a weakness in your tactical or mental game. Players often miss the opportunity to study them and improve.
Don’t trust your gut if you’re new to playing poker, even if you’re in the zone. Your game is unproven and your instincts will likely be relying on something else other than the requisite skill needed to beat the game.Besides, a newbie in the zone is probably just experiencing overconfidence. Leave the more complex poker tips to the advanced players – at least, in the beginning.
Experimenting with Gut-Based Poker Play
Don’t trust your gut when you’re overconfident because you’re more likely to overestimate the likelihood that you’re in-game decisions is correct. Thus, you’re going to wrongly trust your gut when you don’t have an edge or aren’t playing great. This can easily happen when you’re running well, since it’s easy to assume that winning means you’re playing well. Being able to recognize the signs of overconfidence is very important to keeping your faulty feelings in check. If you can’t recognize when you’re overconfident check out chapter 8 in my first book.
Trust your gut when you are in the zone and your decision making is fueled by new unconscious knowledge. When your energy, focus, and decision making are ideal, you have access to your entire range of poker tips for your Texas Hold’em game and your gut is the most accurate it can be. That doesn’t always mean it’s correct, since poker is a complex game. But if you get it wrong, you didn’t know enough to get it right anyways, so learn from it and move on.
Trust your gut as an experiment. I wouldn’t advise this poker tip for beginners or anyone who has severe mental game issues to do this. But if you are a keen student, able to handle the bankroll swings, the emotional impact of mistakes and are in a good state of mind, consider always going with your gut. Why? Simple. When your gut is correct, you win, and when it’s wrong, you learn something.
What Compels You in Poker?
For example, if you find yourself in a spot where your opponent may be bluffing the river and you have third pair, your instinct to call could come from unconscious knowledge that has noticed he is bluffing a lot of rivers. If you keep calling in these spots and win, it is likely that your gut was spot on. If you keep calling and lose, then you have identified something to work on—either something is flawed or missing in your technical knowledge or there is a mental game flaw compelling you to call.
Finally, like everything else in poker, using your gut for experimental purposes needs a strong sample size. Don’t assume that being right or wrong once should influence all future decisions.
Jared Tendler, MS, LMHC is licensed therapist specializing in sport psychology and is the leading authority on the mental game in poker. Throughout his nearly 10 years coaching poker players he has worked with over 500 players hailing from over 45 countries, including many of the top players in the world. He is also the author of two best-selling books on the subject, The Mental Game of Poker 1 and Poker 2.