When to Trust Your Gut Instinct at the Poker Table

Posted by Barry Carter, August 14, 2014

We have a term in poker: feel players. It refers to a breed of players who seemingly rely on intuition and instinct, rather than deep analysis. Rather than thinking things through to a logical conclusion, they almost seem to know what the correct decision is without being able to explain why. Iconic live players like Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu are often labeled as feel players, and their poker instincts almost seem like a mystical sixth sense.

David with the Head of Goliath, painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Other players don’t trust their instincts at all. They find themselves second guessing themselves at every turn, and feeling a great sense of anguish during big decisions. These players often find themselves making the wrong decision, and instantly knowing it was the wrong decision after, before the cards are turned, but when it is too late to change their decision.

trust your gut

It would seem that analytical players and feel players are chalk and cheese, but really they are two sides of the same coin. In fact many people you think are feel players are actually deeply analytical. The only difference between them is one has chosen to listen to their gut instinct, and the other hasn't. There is a great deal of mystery around the concept of instinct, but it is actually quite straightforward. Once you know what instinct is, and when you should trust it, the mystery is lifted, as is a great deal of stress over decision making.


What is instinct?

Quite simply, instinct is whatever you know to the level that it is automatic. There are some things you know so well that you can do them without thinking. Brushing your teeth first thing in the morning is a good example. You didn't have to plan that in advance this morning or put it on a ‘to do’ list, you just did it. You have brushed your teeth so often in life that it has become automated whenever you step into the bathroom. 

It is not just simple processes like brushing teeth, complex tasks also get learned to the level of instinct. If you can play a musical instrument for example, unless it is a very tricky new song, you can usually blast out a tune without having to think hard about it. It may not seem it, but even remembering a series of passwords for your email and Facebook are arguably complex tasks which, once you have done them enough, you can do without thinking (And if you did think about it, you might actually punch them in wrong).

In poker when you have a feeling in your gut about a certain hand, this is everything you have learned so far about poker manifesting itself into an intuitive feeling. Let’s say you have top pair top kicker on a dry flop and a very tight player has just re-raised all-in against you. Logically you might think your hand is good here because you beat so many hand combinations, but your gut is telling you otherwise. You can’t explain why but you know he has a set.

You could chalk these poker instincts down to soul reading, but in reality there is something else at play here. In an instant your entire playbook of poker knowledge has come together to tell you he has a set. Your understanding of board reading and position, your observances about this player and his tendencies over the last two hours, your ability to discount certain hands from his range based on his actions and combinatorics, your own estimations about your own image, and what he thinks his image would look like to you. And much more. At their best, your poker instincts are a curation of everything you have learned at the poker table, and they have come together faster than the quickest supercomputer in the world to bring you to this decision.




Why you should always trust your instincts

So your gut is telling you one thing, but your mind is telling you another. This can sometimes lead you to go against your gut, then curse yourself afterwards, because you ‘knew it’ and still made the wrong decision. 

There is actually a sound logical reason why you should always go with your gut instinct. When you go with your gut, you will either be right, or you will learn something.

So let’s say you are facing a river shove and you have a very strong gut feeling that you have the best hand. Of course this is potentially costing you your buy-in, but looking at it long term, there is no downside. If you call and win, you've won! If you call and lose, you were wrong, but now you have something you can improve on away from the table. It has potentially highlighted a betting instinct flaw that needs to be worked on. 

Of course, to adopt this approach, you have to be willing to accept a little bit of variance coming your way. However, it is a great way to either learn to have faith in your instincts, or to highlight some major flaws in them that need working on. 


When not to trust your gut

If all that sounds quite flippant, don’t worry, I am dialing it back a little. If you went around just acting on impulse with every betting instinct you face, what difference do you have from the wild eyed gamblers at the roulette table?

The key to trusting you poker guts is to do so when you have built a sufficient amount of skill for the decision you face. I’m assuming you are experienced enough at poker to trust your instincts, because those instincts will be based on a foundation of education and experiences over thousands of hands played. 

when you go with your gut


Your gut instincts represent what you know best. Making decisions this quickly is what is known as Rapid Cognition, a concept which was highlighted in the brilliant Malcolm Gladwell book Blink. The book documented stories of art experts who could spot a forgery in a second and marriage councilors who could predict with 95% accuracy whether a couple would divorce after seeing just one conversationbetween them. These people were able to do this because they were experts to such a high degree that they could rely on snap judgments. 

However, the one time not to trust your gut impulse is when you have no previous knowledge with which to ground your decision. Also in the book Blink, Gladwell highlights the story of a first-time deep sea diver who panicked and inconceivably tried to grab his instructors' oxygen instead of his own. There was no malice in this, and he wasn't in huge danger, but his lack of skill combined with the high pressure situation caused him to panic. The key word is panic, which is almost the antithesis of knowing how to execute a skill under pressure. That feeling of desperation and indecision is what you need to look for when choosing to ignore your instincts.

So at the poker table, when you find yourself in familiar situations, trust your gut. When you find yourself in unusual spots you have never faced before, very high pressure spots or against opponents with styles you are unfamiliar with, this is the time to stop and think your decision out a little first.


Cognitive misers

Another reason to put your faith in your poker guts is because humans are Cognitive Misers. We have a limited amount of mental energy, and the more deep thinking we do expends our cognitive resources. Do you remember how mentally draining it felt whenever you crammed for a test at school? Not only could you not think straight, you were probably physically tired too.

We adapt to this mental drain by automating a lot of our thought processes, and taking mental short cuts where possible. If you are driving home, you usually don’t think about the route you are going to take, you just naturally default to the familiar one without thinking about it. You might not even remember how you got home later. This is an important evolutionary process, by sparing yourself mentally on mundane decisions, you keep plenty in reserve to make important decisions. 

This is another reason to hone those instincts and put your faith in them. Whenever you trust your gut, you are preserving more mentally for the truly hard poker decisions that will arise that day. 

This is why it is so valuable to master skills, as my good friend, mental game coach Jared Tendler advocates, to the level of instinct. He believes you do not truly master a skill until it is automatic, so you don’t even have to think about it regardless of the pressure involved. Not only will this spare you vital mental resources, it will also free up your mind to learn new things.

If you are not sure that this sounds right, think of some of the seemingly trivial decisions you face today. Let’s say you get dealt Q9 off suit under the gun at a nine-handed table. With the exception of a few funky game dynamics, this is usually an automatic fold. However, there was a time when you first started playing that this wasnt an automatic fold. There was a time that seeing a picture card and another card that could possibly make a straight that made this very playable to an amateur. However, you learned the hand rankings and the importance of position, and you now know otherwise. 

Could you imagine if you had to actually think about that decision today? If you had to run a little equity calculation in your head every time you got dealt rags you would never normally play? It would be very mentally draining. The fact that you can now rely on your instincts and fold it without decision ensures that your energy levels are high where they are needed. 


Instinct and multi-tabling

This is precisely why skilled online poker players are able to play multiple tables at once. Early detractors of online poker claimed such a practice was mindless, but the very opposite is true. It is actually an example of very high level thinking.

Because you are able to rely on your instincts, you are able to make a lot of trivial decisions without expending mental energy. Most of the time this in the form of folding bad hands in bad table positions, so that you can really concentrate on the handful of big decisions you will face every hour. Anecdotally, I always perform better playing 4+ tables online than just one, because it forces me to focus on the important decisions, and it stops me getting stuck in ‘fancy play syndrome’. 

It would be almost impossible to multi-table if you did not rely on your instincts. The indecision you would constantly find yourself in would see you regularly timing out on the other tables. Not to mention causing you so much stress and mental anguish that you would be totally burnt out within the first hour of play. Your gut instinct might not always be the perfect decision you would make at a single table, but overall across many tables it would prove more profitable by virtue of all the additional important decisions you could make as a result.




Experiment with going with, and against, your instincts

If you are the sort of player who doesn't trust his instincts all that much, rather than going full throttle and trying to act on impulse from now, treat it like an experiment. Mark hands where you had a conflict of going with your gut, and come back to them later to try and work out why your gut said one thing, and why you tried to talk yourself out of it.

Also make a note of the benefits you experience when trusting your gut. Were you right? If not, did it give you a clear area to improve? Were you less stressed or tilted? Did you have more energy? One of the reasons why instincts are hard to trust is because they seem so mysterious, but if you can adopt a scientific approach where you try to learn more about it, the mystery will soon disappear. 

Finally don’t beat yourself up if your instincts prove to be wrong. There are so many unknowns in poker that even the most qualified of instincts are going to be wrong a fair amount of the time. You should expect your gut to be wrong some of the time, and maybe even though it was wrong, the way you came to the conclusion was actually right. Only when your instincts consistently start to let you down should you take a step back and start to think things through more instead.


Barry CarterBarry Carter is the editor of and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2. He has been working in the poker industry for almost ten years as a writer but is still primarily a poker player at heart. Barry has spent the last five years working alongside renowned mental game coach Jared Tendler, which is why is why you will often see a lot of unique perspectives from the world of psychology in his writing.


Further Reading:  

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Previous article by Barry Carter:

The Pareto Principle in Poker


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