Monday, September 25, 2017

The Limits of Learning

Was talking with someone not too long ago about the various writing, editing, reporting, and teaching I’m currently doing, just about all of which continues to involve poker in some fashion.

On the side (when not on farm duty) I try to write a little fiction, hoping to gather a bit of early momentum toward a third novel. Took a long time for me finally to finish the first one, Same Difference, then another seven or eight years before reaching the finish line with Obsessica. But at the moment that sort of writing is only happening now-and-then. For the most part I am still writing and editing poker articles, still reporting on tournaments, and still teaching one college course per semester that concerns the history of poker and its relevance to American culture.

You must really be good at poker, then, right?

That was the question put to me by my friend, one I’d fielded many times before, though it had been a while. I imagine most who spend a lot of time covering tournaments or working in poker in some fashion or another get asked the same thing, perhaps often.

I’ve learned a lot while standing just a couple feet away watching others play poker, I replied, and it’s true. Observing others -- both incredibly skilled players and rank amateurs -- certainly provides a kind of ongoing poker education for those who are paying attention (a requirement when reporting).

Watching live poker is much different from watching the game as it is shown on television or even on live streams online, and not simply because of the lack of hole cards. It’s a little like the difference between watching a football game in person versus on television. You can see the whole “field” -- i.e., not just the part where the action is occurring -- and thus potentially can notice certain contextual elements that prove meaningful.

Over time and through repetition, the tableside observer also necessarily becomes familiar with certain patterns of play, much as someone might when playing. I’m referring to things like bet sizing patterns (both preflop and postflop), how certain board textures produce common postflop sequences, and how the preflop-flop-turn drama can relate to a river denoument (a final value bet, a big bluff, an anti-climactic check down, and so on).

That said, I have to admit my viewing of poker when reporting is often of the passive variety, albeit with a lot more attention to surface-level details than one experiences, say, when a person “watches” a television show or movie while scrolling through his or her feeds. The effort to chronicle the essential elements of a given hand or situation sometimes (often?) makes it challenging to appreciate all of those other meaningful though ultimately non-essential bits happening all around.

In fact, a lot of times it is better to shut out all that contextual noise, as it can get in the way of recording central “text” or narrative of the hand.

To continue the analogy, consider all that you’re able to see from the stands at a football game -- the backfield, both lines, the entire secondary, and then, once the play begins, the blocking scheme on a running play, how routes are run on a passing play, the type of zone or man coverage downfield, everything else happening away from the ball, and so on.

Then (let’s say) you’re going to be required to report only what the left tackle does on each play. Imagine you work for Football Outsiders or some other stat-crunching outfit that deals in “advanced analytics,” and that’s the narrow task you’ve been assigned. Easy enough to do (with a little training), but while you’re watching the left tackle you obviously can’t appreciate how well the receiver on the other side of the field is running his route. Or much else, really.

The same would likely be true if you were strictly required to report only the results of each play (say, for more traditional statistical purposes). You’d miss a lot else that might be relevant. So, too, does the reporter noting only stack sizes, positions, bets, board cards, and showdowns fail to take in everything else available to him or her.

There are limits to what those sitting at the table and actually playing the hands can learn, too, of course. The limits faced by those watching and reporting are more significant, though -- much greater than might be suggested by the short distance between observer and the game being observed.

Photo: “Brain 19,”

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