For some people, poker is solely a game of skill and strategy, while for others it is merely down to the luck of the draw. In fact, poker is a game that takes into account both experienced players improving their strategic thinking in order to make decisions, and the elements of luck that many players consider to be evidence of their soul reads.
The debate rages on as to whether soul reads play such an important role in the game of poker. Do soul reads and our instincts help or hinder when it comes to playing competitively, especially when it comes to something as high stakes as poker?
Soul Reads – what are they?
Soul reads refer to a remarkable move a player makes against their opponent that they claim is fuelled from being able to read their opponent almost to the level where they look into their soul to see whether they were bluffing or not. Some suggest that poker star Chris Hellmuth’s winning streak is fuelled by amateur players attempting soul reads in order to try to “own him” but actually sabotaging themselves.
This can be especially useful in poker games, such as Texas Hold ‘Em. Occasionally it does work and fans are treated to the footage, which in turn convinces many other amateur players to attempt the same thing. Usually, it fails. Some players use the idea of making soul reads as a way to cover up their ill-timed moves. It’s easier to attribute a decision to an attempted soul read, rather than a lack of thorough analysis of the information at hand which is naturally a key component of poker. But, often there is a legitimate reason to make a soul read or to bluff when playing poker. For instance, increasing the stakes helps progress the game.
You could gather more information on an opponent’s tell, and lose in the short-term to gain in the long-term, or you could gain from the tilt equity when your opponent wins a hand and becomes complacent or loses their own strategic plan.
It should be noted that some players who are known for making successful soul reads also often make mistakes. Making soul reads is not a fool-proof strategy, but it works on our instincts and ability to make fast decisions under pressure with limited information.
Can you trust your instincts?
There is a lot of research in the field of competitive play – whether it is poker or other competitive sports – on our instincts and whether these instincts benefit or cost us. Research dictates that what we deem to be our instinct is actually our brain subconsciously already processing the information. So we may think we are being guided by the forces of destiny but, in reality, we have actually taken in the information and made an informed decision.
As Abraham and Collins outlined in 2011, trusting instincts in competitive sport often equates to being able to make fast decisions, compared to classical decision making which is a lengthier process. So, it would make sense in this context that instincts are a result of the brain processing the information at a faster rate subconsciously in order to make these quick decisions. For instance, during the Six Nations in 2018, England coach Eddie Jones backed his gut instincts several times, including the decision to select Mike Brown. The decision likely came from his brain’s overall analysis of the players and opponents and not some sixth sense about Brown.
However, one branch of sports science suggests that we must also ignore our instincts. If instincts are our brain making shortcuts to give us ideas as to what quick decisions to make, perhaps sometimes instincts serve to make a judgment quickly as a priority, rather than one that is correct or fully informed (subconsciously). Our first instincts might be our initial ideas on what to do in a situation but may also be trained more to push us to decide quickly and, therefore, irrationally. But when we know that more time can be used, such as in a tense poker game, our instincts might have more time to fully formulate a better decision.
Can you train your instincts?
If your instincts are just your brain working at a heightened rate, is there a way to train this aspect of your mind as there is with most other areas? When it comes to poker, some cite the idea that strategy can be taught and gained through experience, but instincts come naturally and you either have them or you don’t. But based on what these reactions actually are, it stands to reason that we could actually train our instincts in order to be better at going with our gut or making soul reads.
Sport scientists and theorists discuss the idea of developing a ‘killer instinct’ whereby you are able to succeed and score, win, or close the match when you are in the winning position. There are some simple ways in which this instinct can be further honed. These include playing practice matches with an intent to win, rather than just to go through the motions. Creating match-like conditions can help you build the mental fortitude of being in the zone. It is also suggested that players help themselves by developing a winner’s mentality by simply thinking of winning and reinforcing the positively determined attitude that they are more than capable of doing so.
This could also be transferred over to poker. The players who are known for soul reads and relying on their instincts and bluffing abilities are those who have racked up the number of games they have played; practice makes perfect as everyone knows. Ultimately, you can train your instincts in any sport or competitive game such as poker by practicing and playing with a steely intent to win every time.
When engaged in competitive play in any sport, you are constantly striving to improve. Some improvements are easy to tangibly monitor, such as muscle growth or improvement with certain plays on the pitch. Other aspects of competitive sport are harder to measure growth in – such as our instincts. But, given what we understand now about how instincts work, we should be able to work towards improving them and testing out our abilities to be more instinctual. This stands for playing competitive poker as much as it does football or rugby.