We all know that poker is highly complex. With the advent of software tools like solvers, it is becoming even more evident that poker takes five minutes to learn but a lifetime to master (to quote the late, great Mike Sexton). 

A fantastic way to simplify the mass of information available to poker players is to use mental models. But what is a mental model? 

  • A mental model is simply an overarching explanation of how something works. 
  • A mental model can be a concept, a framework or even a worldview that helps make sense of the world (or, in this case, poker). 

Mental models are effective because they are simplified conceptions that can help you better understand what is happening around you. The ultimate goal of a mental model is utility. Using it can help maximise the probability of having a good outcome. 

Examples of Mental Models

There are mental models across all major disciplines. 

For example, in the business world, a standard mental model is that profit = revenue - cost

Say you are a small business owner struggling to improve your profitability. Using this model, you only need to look at revenue and costs. If you put your efforts into those two areas (by figuring out ways to increase revenue, decrease expenses, or both), you will make progress. 

Look at how this mental model reduces noise and helps you focus on possible solutions!

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a famous mental model in psychology:

Think of all the drivers of human behaviour. By using Maslow’s model, we can simplify it down to the five universal basic needs: 

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Belonging and love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

From Maslow's point of view, to be a successful human being, you need to address needs from the bottom up. If someone doesn't have access to food, water and shelter, that needs addressing before considering higher-order needs.

Working your way up the hierarchy can lead to self-actualization

A mental model can help you make decisions and solve problems by increasing your understanding of what’s happening around you. 

It acts like a roadmap that can guide you through complex and potentially tricky situations. 

Six Mental Models to Power Your Poker Strategy!

So, let’s get back to the power table. There are a several mental models you can use both at the table and with your studies.  

1. The 80/20 Rule: This rule says that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. For example, if you look at your hand histories, you’ll likely find that 80% of your profits come from just 20% of your hands. 

The 80/20 rule can also apply to study. You'll get results much faster when you prioritise and focus your efforts on the right things. When planning your poker study, think about the areas of improvement producing the highest return on your time investment. Generally speaking, you’ll get the most significant return when you dial in your preflop ranges. 

You should also consider improving your big blind defence if you play a lot of tournaments. It's exciting to study esoteric things that rarely happen (e.g., five-bet river bluffs). But paying attention towards things that happen over and over is a better use of your time!

2. Inversion: Ancient Stoic philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius promoted this thinking. The idea is that before you act or make a decision, you consider the worst-case scenario. 

  • What is the exact opposite of what you want to happen? 
  • If I play my hand this way, what is the worst possible outcome

It might seem counterintuitive to use a negative thinking poker strategy. But there are several benefits to thinking in this manner:

  1. Firstly, you will be able to see gaps in your strategy, allowing you to come up with better solutions. You’ll “see” potential issues which might not otherwise come to your attention.
  2. Secondly, you can get desensitised to fears if you imagine them often enough. If you are scared to get caught bluffing, imagine yourself getting caught bluffing! 

Inversion is a powerful tool that you can use to anticipate potential problems. If you want to be a great poker player, you should practice thinking forwards and backwards. Don't think from start to finish. Instead, think from the end (the river) to the beginning (preflop).

This thinking will open your eyes to many possibilities which you might not have thought of before!

3. Occam's Razor: This mental model states that the simplest is most likely to be true when there are multiple explanations. When playing cards, we often come up with complicated reasons why our opponent has taken a particular action. The reality is the simplest explanation is usually the right one! 

Occam’s razor can also apply to learning. Albert Einstein said there are five levels of cognitive prowess: smart, intelligent, brilliant, genius, and simple. Simple is the highest level! He said that if you can’t explain a concept simply, then you don’t truly understand it. 

When studying, see if you can explain the topic to yourself or someone else very simply. You'll often find explaining a topic in the simplest terms harder than it looks.

4. Hock Principle: This model comes to us from Dee Hock, the former founder and CEO of Visa. 

He said the following two things:

  1. Simple, clear purposes and principles give rise to complex behaviours.
  2. In contrast, complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behaviour

In other words, keep it simple. Make sure your study has a clear and straightforward purpose, and you will get further faster. You can also apply this principle to playing and reminding yourself to avoid fancy play syndrome. 

When in doubt, come up with clear, simple, and concise playing guidelines and stick to them. 

5. Via Negativa: If you want to succeed, what can you take away to get better results? We think about what we need to add when we want to achieve something. Instead of taking this line of thought, focus on what you should take away

You look at your database of hands and decide which ones to stop playing from a particular position. This action is a concrete example of Via Negativa

Or perhaps you want to improve your health because you believe (rightly so) that it will enhance your ability to focus at the table. The easiest way to improve is to look at what you will remove to get better health results (like specific foods). 

Instead of thinking of everything you need to do to get a particular result, think about the things you can stop doing.

6. Relativity: It is hard to understand a system that we are a part of inside. It’s hard to see the whole picture when you are in the middle of something. It causes you to have blind spots. You’ve probably had an experience where you were not in a hand but could clearly see what was about to happen. The people in the hand may have been oblivious. 

It is easier to see when we are on the outside looking in on a hand. Remember this, and don’t be too quick to write off different perspectives. Train yourself to look for blind spots - noticing them may help you stop making poor decisions. 

Mental models are frameworks to maximise the probability of your success at the tables. 

Understanding the right models is very powerful. If you run your session strategy through an appropriate mental model, you’ll be far ahead of your competition.

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker, Peak Poker Performance and co-author of Purposeful Practice for Poker. She podcasts at Poker on The Mind with her co-host Gareth James. You can find her at peakpokermindset.com where she teaches poker players the most effective psychological strategies for optimal poker performance.