Why Intelligent People Sometimes Struggle with Poker


Like a great many things in life, poker success is more closely associated with hard work than intelligence. Many intelligent people come into poker planning to run over the game. After all, most strategic games are won by the smartest, and so they have had success playing games all their life. Unlike many other games, intelligent players face specific obstacles that hinder their poker progress and haunt them at the tables. At most poker tables, the best player and the smartest individual are different players.

This is not to say that a high IQ won't prime you for poker success. A good player is one who is disciplined, cunning, aware, open-minded, and studious. Excellent poker players also possess analytical ability, mathematical ability and people skills. Of those who possess all of the aforementioned qualities, the players with the most intelligence rise to the top. The best players in the world are usually very intelligent, and had to overcome these obstacles.

All players are predisposed to believe our opponents think like we do. This is often not the case. This is especially problematic for intelligent people; the gap in thinking between your below-average player and the most intelligent is often very wide. To illustrate this, let's look at the different levels of thinking in poker:

Level 1 – What do I have?

Level 2 – What does my opponent have?

Level 3 – What does my opponent think I have?

Level 4 – What does my opponent think I think he has?

Level 5 – What does my opponent think I think he thinks I have?

…and on and on, into the abyss.

To extract the most value from a good hand or lose the least (or win by bluffing) with a bad one, you must stay one level of thinking ahead of your opponent. Since smarter people also think their opponents are thinking about their hand on many levels, they often make a mistake that puts them two or more levels of thinking ahead of their opponents. The consequences of this are often terrible.

The most common example is playing with Level 3 thinking against Level 1 thinking players. Attempting to represent a hand is a play destined for failure in this scenario. Your level 1 thinking opponent is thinking "How well do my cards connect with the board?" and so representing a hand against this type of player has little deception value, if any. A Level 2 response of thinking about what your opponent has and acting accordingly is more likely to succeed.

Here's an example of what a smart guy, fellow PocketFives contributing writer dgillis, told me he struggled with:

"When I first started learning cash I went all the way to the bottom, .01/.02. I would use a continuation bet into a ragged board with an overpair and when he flat called my first instinct was that he's just flatting me to checkraise me off on the turn. What I really should have been thinking is that he knows nothing about position or starting hand requirements and just hit his two rags on the flop that he called with because he was bored. I ran into very few people who were even capable of understanding the "float" concept but I constantly looked for it, because it was a part of my game."

When thinking about a play, it's best to stay exactly one level ahead of your opponent's thinking. This is often a challenge, especially before you have reads, but stay on top of it. Playing two or more levels ahead of your opponent will cost you money.

People with high IQs tend to try advanced moves rather than simple moves, where simple moves are more appropriate. This causes a phenomenon called FPS, or "Fancy Play Syndrome." Fancy Play Syndrome is a term coined by the one and only "Mad Genius of Poker," Mike Caro, to describe players who are often trying to execute fancy plays without understanding when they will work, or when they will fail.

Smart problem solvers are taught to find the right solution, then look for a better one. In poker, the simplest solution is often the best. Playing your good hands fast and your bad hands slow is frequently the best solution. Some more intelligent players will assume that this is too obvious and transparent, and look for more deceptive solutions. This results in "Reverse Poker", where players both check their great hands, and bet their bad hands too often.

Beyond these examples, people with a high IQ often suffer with interpersonal relationships. Intelligent people are often less popular growing up, and because of this, have less social interaction and inferior social skills. Some bury themselves in books and studying. Since poker is a people game, this is an especially difficult obstacle. Support your theoretical intelligence with “street smarts.”

Those with street smarts are blessed with the gift of common sense, and have practical knowledge, especially concerning human behavior. Also, they are often hungier. To quote Gordon Gekko from the hit movie Wall Street, "Most of these Harvard MBA types – they don't add up to dogshit. Give me guys that are poor, smart, hungry – and no feelings. You win a few, you lose a few, but you keep on fighting." If you are hungry and ruthless enough, an intelligent person can succeed. Just be sure to learn the street smarts of poker.
Jennifear is a proud Contributing Writer for Pocketfives.com and a Presto Award Winner for 2006's Most Valuable Poster, as voted by the readers of PocketFives. She teaches private poker lessons, and you can find the details at Jennifear.com. A discount on these lessons is available if you support pocketfives.com by joining a poker site through one of the site links.

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  1. This is an amazing article. I deal with this stuff everyday when playing at the low and micro levels , your below average players dont think about representing a hand or playing a hand for value on different streets. So when you try and make a bluff with a hand you have to think about what level of thought the player your playing against is on.

  2. good article.  good point about trying not to think 2 levels ahead of your opponent…its a key concept.  Also the "Give me guys that are poor, smart, hungry – and no feelings" I’ve always said that to people.  

  3. Great article!

    I used to run into this problem all the time in microstakes. I’ll be holding something like 8h7h and raise in position getting one caller out of the blinds.

    flop will come 5d6hAd

    villian will minbet (LDO), and I call (good odds on open ender)

    turn Kh

    villian again minbets, and I call (open ended, and now flush draw)

    river 6d (pairs board and possible flush)

    villian minbets again, and I 3bet 10x, just over full pot

    villian snap calls and shows As2s and I’m left wondering where it all when wrong…

    To me, my line looks like I rivered the flush. To him, he has two pair(!) and couldn’t possibly dream of folding.

    To counter this, when playing micros now, I just pretend like I never learned how to bluff or slow play. If I flop a monster, like a nut flush or quads, I lead out, and if I get 3bet, I 4bet.

    Rather than trying to outplay the level 1 thinker, I find it is best to just play very straight forward and let him make all the mistakes. FWIW this makes it much easier to mass multitable. Just sit back, forget evertything you thought you knew about poker, and watch the chips stack up.

    Again, great article!

  4. im pretty sure intelligent people own poker tables… and the not so intelligent people pay their rent… its a good thing PHIL IVEY isnt intelligent or else we wudnt have nething to look forward to this november haha