“I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know”. We as poker educators struggle to prove this oft quoted statement of superiority is not necessarily true in our field. However, I recently read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that not only is this quotation accurate, it is an inescapable truth of any skillful activity. In Blink an example of a renowned baseball hitter is used, in which the hitter offers his perspective on what makes him so successful. There’s only one problem: upon analyzing this hitter’s swing, his proffered explanation is not only insufficient, its flat out wrong! The truth is, he is an expert at hitting a baseball, but his subconscious mind shoulders the workload, leaving his conscious mind to try to come up with an explanation for how the whole operation works, and it cannot be done. Indeed, Gladwell argues that any expert in a field that requires some “artistic” ability performs the activity largely subconsciously. This leaves us with an interesting and perhaps disturbing question: if this is true for poker players, how can we ever really teach the game?
Before attempting to offer a solution, I think the problem Blink highlights is clearly already known within the poker education world, but perhaps not explicitly realized. Coming from the perspective of an experienced player, I know I am often frustrated or disappointed when watching a well-regarded poker player’s attempt to impart his wisdom through the video medium. After reading Blink I now realize it may not be a lack of communication skills, nor is it likely the coach is just not as talented as expected; the reality is he may simply be incapable of offering a valid explanation for correct plays his mind subconsciously makes. This is not a problem when teaching basic poker concepts, deeply rooted in theory that can be “proven” to be correct. It manifests itself only when an instructor attempts to delve into the subjective art that is higher stakes poker strategy. Not only will you frequently hear “it depends” but now we know it may depend on factors our expert player cannot put into words but intuitively understands.
If we accept that we may not be able to consciously defend our brain’s actions when making unorthodox plays or ones that fall into the gray area between clearly correct and clearly awful, we as poker coaches must attempt to orient the student to all the factors we process at the conscious and subconscious level. It is therefore imperative that the student hones his own “feel” for the game through repeated experience, which can never be hastened or replaced with poker coaching. We should strive to teach the fundamentals of the game that are rooted in mathematics and poker theory, and then once ready to attack the artistic side of complex strategy, have a clear plan for analyzing the environment in which we make those plays. As an example, I no longer use a statistical HUD when playing, preferring to allow my subconscious to pay attention to the playing styles, current mood, and recent relevant history between myself and the other players in the game. When making lower stakes poker videos, I will continue to use the HUD as a way to analyze and evaluate plays that are “clear”, but when I delve into higher stakes videos, I will attempt to play the session under the same conditions I ideally work in, and discuss what factors I am paying explicit attention to, with the hope that the viewer can subconsciously process the same information I am privy to but cannot necessarily vocalize. Finally, I believe it will be better to add audio commentary after the session ends, even if it results in a struggle to honestly explain the reasoning behind certain plays, or an inclination to attempt to defend plays that may appear or may just be incorrect in retrospection. I think this will allow us as teachers to make the plays that we intuitively believe to be correct without the burden of having to justify them in the spur-of-the-moment. The beauty of recording videos as a poker education medium is that we can capture the brilliance of our coaches’ subconscious even if we cannot always explain its method.