Poker and Philosophy: Thinking Your Way to Better Poker

Posted by Ellis Shuman, May 1, 2014

how to be a poker player by Haseeb QureshiLet me start by saying that you will not learn how to play poker by reading How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker by Haseeb Qureshi. If you're looking for specific information how to respond to raises, how to play top pair on a textured board, or if you seek strategy for playing the river out of position, this is not the book for you.

Even if you know poker basics and have made the decision to work at improving your game, this book detailing poker philosphy might not be suitable to help you achieve your goal. So, why should you read this book? Simply put, this book will help you think your way to being a better poker player.

"Poker is played by humans," Qureshi writes. "It is experienced and learned by humans. Humans are not rational machines. The operations of their brains are not a chess match."

As humans, players will make many mistakes along their poker journey, and that's just fine. "You will be wrong, always wrong. But you must keep being wrong and keep whittling away at that wrongness," Qureshi assures us.

As starting advice, Qureshi tells his readers, "Experience… is the first step. Gain experience—lots of it." As he points out, "Poker must be learned; you must absorb that learning into your bones. Your brain must get conditioned into the right network, which takes many hundreds of thousands of hands."

experience playing poker

The essential point here is that the "brain must get conditioned". When playing the game, active players develop an interface between their mind and poker. Poker is not simply a game of 52 cards. It is interaction between humans.  The poker "game extends past the table, and continues into our brains. To understand poker, you must understand the way we operate, the way that we think, reason, bargain, and often, fail."

Condition Your Unconscious Mind

poker brainAs we are dealing with brain issues here, an essential part of the equation is the unconscious mind. "Your goal is to condition your unconscious mind through whatever means available, in order to cultivate your abilities as a poker player," Qureshi states.

In what appears at times to be a course in Poker and Philosophy 101, Qureshi helps us rationalize our thinking process with regards to poker. What happens when you're tilting, for example is "that your conscious mind is getting pushed out of the picture, leaving your unconscious mind in control of your behavior."

In the book, poker game play and strategies are examined from a philosophical perspective. "On average, poker players will expect others to think and act the way that they do. This implies that, all things equal, conservative players will expect other people to play more conservative, and loose players will expect other players to play looser." Understanding these concepts, and using them to your advantage, will essentially make you a better player.

For example, many are familiar with the definition of "a player’s comfort zone," which is the circle of plays that players feel good or solid about, and moves that are readily available. "Part of your job as a poker player is to figure out the circle [your opponent] has drawn, and then to step outside of it. After all, if certain plays are outside of your opponent’s comfort zone, what that really means is that he genuinely doesn’t see them as options… Then, when you push him somewhere where he’s not willing to go, he will not follow you."

Some readers will get lost with the many philosophical terms Qureshi uses in his book. Some of them are poker-related, such as reverse-bluffing, but others, like vestigial habits, eustress, and heuristics, will send readers searching for their pocket dictionaries.

Be Prepared for the Long Run

If the poker philosophy material presented tends to go over one's head, the bottom line can be understood as this: in order to evolve into being a good poker player, one must be prepared to be in the game for the long run. Temporary losses should not be considered as failures. After all, Qureshi tells players, if you don't make mistakes, you're not learning.

"The journey of a poker player is long and arduous. At its center, it is about slowly and gradually improving until one reaches the highest level of mastery. The ultimate goal, of course, is to fully scale the mountain of poker."

But the journey must be enjoyed! "If you are not enjoying it, then you should walk away until you can find a way to enjoy it again."

play because you want to

After dispensing advice how proper sleep, food, and exercise will contribute to a better poker state of mind, Qureshi leaves us with an interesting observation: "If you are not a little bit crazy, you will never reach the level of excellence and dedication required to master poker."

So, should you read this book? If you're a little bit crazy, but serious about improving your poker game, and if you accept the fact that understanding how the conscious and unconscious minds interact will result in better poker, this is the book for you.

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scaling the mountain of poker

haseeb qureshi

Information about the author:

Haseeb Qureshi started playing poker professionally when he was 16 years old. He soon became a world-class high-stakes professional online poker player known around the world by his nickname “DogIsHead.” At age 21, he became entangled in the Girah Scandal, in which his protégé, Jose "Girah" Macedo, was caught cheating. Soon after the scandal, Haseeb retired from poker.

In December 2013, Haseeb gave away his poker earnings and started over from scratch. He donated $75,000 to charity and gave the remainder of his assets to his family. At the same time, he published How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. Haseeb resides in Austin, Texas, where he writes and continues to work with poker players as a mental coach.

Other recent book reviews to look for include Fading Hearts on the River by Brooks Haxton, Alligator Blood by James Leighton, and Poker Tilt by Dutch Boyd.


Further Reading:  

Titan Poker Benefits
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Texas Hold'em Poker Guide

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Why Poker Is Better than Sex


Previous articles by Ellis Shuman:

Isaac Haxton - Poker Success of Brooks Haxton the Poet's Son

The Wolf of Online Processing

The Greatest Poker Songs of All Time

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