I am not a poker player. But I have seen references to top poker players, which makes me wonder what skills it takes to stand above the rest among professional poker players. Two possibilities occur to me.

The first is the ability to read people. The skill of being able to look at another person and tell when they’re feeling stressed or relaxed and when they’re pretending they’re feeling stressed or relaxed. The skill of noticing the patterns of behavior that accompany certain situations (the “tells”). And the skill of being able to conceal your own behaviors at the table so the other players can’t accurately read you.

The second is the ability to read the cards. To be able to look at what cards have been revealed and be able to immediately figure out the probabilities of what other cards may be dealt to you or may be in the other players’ hands and what the chances are of you having the best hand.

I understand both are important and necessary. But which skill is the most important? Psychology or mathematics?

Tough question. I’ve always been mediocre at both skills. I know all the math/odds principles but my calculations are wild estimates at best. I also know all the principles of position betting and check-raising and semi-bluffs and all the shit you need to know to shake someone else up at the table but I tend to be a little more confident in my play when I have premium cards.

That is to say, my psych game gets better when I have the math on my side, but not necessarily the other way around.

Well, to start with, before any other skill- you need to know the odds of the various hands. Drawing to an inside straight is a pretty bad idea- generally.

Yes, but I’m not talking about what basic skills a professional poker player needs. I’m wondering what skill distinguishes the best poker player in the world from, say, the tenth best poker player in the world. Both must be incredibly skilled but one of them has something which gives him a slight edge.

Put another way, I wondering if there comes a point where every player above a certain level has mastered the mathematics and every player at the table knows that the other player see the same probabilities they see. In which case, the difference between the players is who has the psychological edge. Or the reverse, where all the players are equal in reading each other and the edge goes to which of them is slightly better at doing the math.

I think it is hard to rank poker players so accurately. (It’s not like chess where you have much more information.)
You can say that X has won more money than Y - but that could easily be that X plays more or has better sponsors and enters events with higher prize money.
The main event of the World Series of Poker features a large field and a completely unpredicatable winner!

Another reason why it is hard to rank poker players accurately is the level of luck. Put the best chess player in the world in a tournament with 50 players ranked around 1000 and the best player will win the tournament nearly every time. Put the best poker player in the world in a tournament with 50 players ranked around 1000 and while the best player is more likely to win than anyone else the result is far less certain.

Based on my cursory knowledge of the field, it seems as though professional poker has been taken over by asocial nerds in recent years, which tends to support the theory that math skills take precedence over social skills.

An important skill is keeping mental track of what’s happened at the table, and putting yourself in another player’s shoes to predict how they’ll react to a given development.

In other words, situatiional awareness and theory of mind. One’s not very useful without the other.

Great poker players must master the odds in any given situation. Secondly, a player should know how to read other players., including picking up tells, understanding their betting patterns, and sizing their emotional state. Unreadability is equally important: making sure what you do and express will not give the hand away. Mixing it up between conservative and bold play can keep opponents guessing, so they aren’t reading your moves. Good strategic mixing separates great ones from just good players.

It depends on what level you’re playing at. Knowing the probabilities of the cards is essential, and if you’re at a table of friends hanging out after work, the player who knows the math is going to beat the players who don’t.

But the math of the cards is fairly simple. By the time you get to the point of serious competitors, everyone has that down perfect. And if everyone’s perfect at it, then it can’t make the difference between the good players and the bad players.

Meanwhile, “tells” and “poker face” are overrated. Sure, when a tell is present, you can exploit it, but good poker players don’t have any exploitable tells, either. You can play poker over a text chatroom just fine, and the game is still the same.

So what is it that makes the difference? It’s a combination of the mathematics and the bluffing, that becomes its own thing. Sure, you know what you’re holding, and what the communal cards (if any) are. And you can calculate, say, that if you’re holding a pair of jacks, then you’re probably going to win. But now take those prior probabilities, and combine them with what the other players are doing. The person two seats down from you keeps on raising, which means that they probably have a pretty good hand, too (unless they’re bluffing, which is rarer than most folks think, but still a possibility you need to consider). Now you need to do a Baysian calculation: Given your prior, and also given the fact that that other guy keeps on raising, what’s your new probability of winning the hand? Maybe they’re confident because they have a pair of tens, and you’ll win anyway. Maybe they’re confident because they have a pair of aces. Maybe they’re not confident, and are just bluffing in hopes that you’ll fold (note: The bluff is in the hard, objective fact of the amount they’re betting, not in anything abstract like their facial expression). And keep in mind that the other player is doing the same calculations as you, and they know that you’re betting like you have a good hand, and they’re wondering how justified your confidence is, too, and so you have to do multi-level calculations to account for that.

This is a great point. I totally agree that the best players don’t have a “poker face”, and the best players will generally win the online games.

If you watch enough televised poker, you’ll realize that the best players have much of the same skills, and the ‘luck of the draw’ is usually a key factor in winning a tournament.

Interesting point. Being sociable is generally a good trait but it could be a handicap in poker. A sociable person might be too “open” and be vulnerable to the other players reading him. Being asocial might be a handicap in life but it could be a useful trait in poker; asocial players would be unreadable.

Granted these asocial players probably also lack the ability to read other players. But at the highest levels of poker, they’re only encountering other asocial players so this lack becomes unimportant.

This is not true. While top poker players strive to play game theory optimal poker, the mathematics are too complicated for anyone but a computer to play it perfectly.

See this article (How GTO made poker a game for nerds - Vox), which states it pretty clearly “However, no human can actually play perfect GTO strategy. Performing the necessary calculations without the help of a computer is just too complicated. That’s because there is an astronomical number of game states in poker: depending on the betting rules and the number of their chips, a player can make a bet of any size and so can their opponents, and there are 2,598,960 possible hands. In practice, players are only approximating GTO; at best, that’s what their opponents are doing as well.”

Then there are players like Daniel Negreanu or Antonio Esfandiari, who are both about as sociable at the table as you can imagine. Both are considered among the best tournament and cash game players in the world.

While luck is important, nobody maintains a winning poker career over decades on just luck. My observation is that (using a general term) “stack management” is what the elites excel at. This is the strategy of betting, bluffing, folding based not only on the mathematical probabilities but also on the stack sizes, betting patterns, and observed tactics of opponents. I found this quote from Negreanu on the linked Wiki page:

“I had a strategy designed for each individual player and pretty much followed it at the final table. The key to winning for me is that I stayed out of marginal situations. I don’t want to get into a race with 6-6 against A-K and hope to stay alive. I think what I am best at is playing after the flop, and I wanted to get as many situations as I could where I was up against (an opponent) and could take them on after the flop. My goal is to see the most flops I can. I like to set traps. I let (opponents) get involved, and then trap them. If I get them drawing dead (which happened twice at the final table in big pots) - that’s always the plan.”

Other than the part about not counting your money at the table, does the gambler ever actually give any useful advice? Sure, you have to know when to hold them and so on, but how do you know?

Isn’t that bad advice? A big part of the math isn’t just how likely a given hand is to beat another hand. It’s comparing those probabilities to how much money you have, how much money your opponent has, how much money is in the pot, and so on. That means counting your money is an important part of the process.

I said that the math of the cards is simple. What you’re referring to is the math of the cards and of the bets, which adds considerable extra complication, and is what I was talking about in my last paragraph.