It was the old US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who said: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don't know.”
What he was saying, even if he didn’t do so particularly eloquently, is that there are factors in our control that we know about, there are factors outside of our control that we are aware of, and finally there are things that we simply have no knowledge of and cannot foresee happening.
You might think that Rumsfeld was talking about poker. He wasn’t – he was actually referring to weapons of mass destruction in this case. But the quote makes sense when we think about it in that context.
In poker, there are the controllables – i.e. those factors we are able to manage as and when we can. Then there are variables that we know of but have no control over, and then there are instances at the poker table that we have no ability to manage.
First of all, let’s think about the things that we cannot control in poker:
· The cards we are dealt
· The actions of our opponents
· The flop, river and turn
There’s nothing we can do in our power to change that: there’s no god we can pray to, no spirits we can summon up, no deity we can call upon for divine intervention. Anybody who believes that the universe can reward them if they want something enough is, frankly, on the highway to a loss.
When you think about it, those three things above are the main variables that are present at the poker table. However, even so, there are still plenty of dynamics that we can not only control but also use to our advantage.
While we accept that there are some things that we have no control over on the felt, there are still dynamics that we can utilise to gain an edge on the players at our table.
Let’s take a look at each, one by one.
When the dealer sends those two cards our way, we are ultimately in control of how we play them.
Of course, we have no control over their quality, so if we are dealt a 9-2 horror show, then clearly the control that we have is to dump them and start again with the next round.
Whether we are given a strong starting hand or something that is going to take some work, we can – to some extent – control the table with our actions.
We can play our hand on its merits, controlling as and when we call, raise or fold, or we can command control by raising and bluffing if we want to exert power over our rivals.
It goes to show that we can command authority almost regardless of the cards we have in hand.
Most players will have experienced negative emotions in their poker game, and the resultant decisions they make aren’t steeped in sense and smart thinking.
It could be a bad beat, or failing to really nail an opportunity to profit when you have pocket aces or similar.
What tends to follow is emotion-led nonsense – an aggressive raise or foolhardy call that ultimately ends with your chip stack dwindling as a result.
By taking control of your emotions, you are actually protecting your chips, and that in turn will help you to maintain your skin in the game for longer.
We are all different as people and personalities, and that is reflected on the poker table.
Not all of us favour an aggressive approach on the felt – that is just not who we are. That being said, it is this type of personality that can ‘bully’ others in tournaments and cash games and that can lead to easy wins with the minimum of fuss.
The big bluff is not in everybody’s armoury, but all of the best poker players in the world – professional and otherwise – know when to put the hammer down and dominate the table.
Those are just three elements in our control at the poker table: our hand, our opponents and our emotions. Master that holy trinity and you will go a long way towards prolonged success.
Controlling the pot
We’ve given this theory its own heading simply because it is so important.
While there are those ‘known unknowns’, to borrow some Rumsfeldian philosophy, on the poker table, we can drive a bulldozer right through them if we take command of our game.
Most beginner players have three choices pre-flop or even between each betting round: call, raise or fold.
However, one thing that advanced players such as Phil Ivey do so well is using the bet function, which allows them to take complete control of the pot – both in its size and its eventual destination.
If you are dealt a strong hand, building the pot is your main focus to ensure that when the cards are revealed, you are the winner of the hand and have the opportunity to maximise your reward.
You will need to calculate the optimal size of bet: too big and you might scare off your opponents too early, but too small and you won’t maximise your position.
Let’s also consider position. It’s always good to be the first mover: lay down your marker and see how your fellow players react.
The big blind is always an advantageous position, and don’t be afraid to raise here to really put the pressure on your rivals.
Hopefully, this has given you the confidence to take control of your next poker game. Yes, there are factors outside of your control, but by managing the variables that you do have some influence over, you can really begin to dominate those around you at the table.
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Words: Josh Dixon