The Myth of the Feel Player

There is a vague and shadowy mythology surrounding the Feel Player. He is a genius of mysterious origins. No one can explain how or why he is good at poker—not even the Feel Player himself. He is like a mathematical prodigy hailing from a tiny, illiterate village in India, or a low-born squire who pulls a mythical sword from its pedestal. He is a fluke, an exception. He is not supposed to be great, yet somehow he is.

Perhaps it is his impossibility that so excites us. Or perhaps it is the dream that he offers—that we, too, could be great like him. By telling ourselves the story of the Feel Player, we drop our business cards into an imaginary lottery. What, in the end, could be more democratic, more reassuring, more feel-good than the possibility of the Feel Player?

I am here to assure you, gentle reader, that the notion of a Feel Player is a myth.

In this article, we will examine the concept of a Feel Player, what it can tell us about cognition and unconscious competence, how Feel Players evolve (or don’t), and why the concept of the Feel Player can be so detrimental to students of poker.

First, let’s try to begin, unlike the Feel Player, unsensationally—what, properly defined, is this mysterious player?


What is a Feel Player?

The hallmark of the Feel Player is in the way he justifies his plays. When you ask a Feel Player why he made a bluff, he’ll answer, “it felt right.” When you ask him why he folded the second-nuts, he’ll say, “I felt like he had it.” The origins of his answers are a mystery. Where the rest of us invoke combinatorials, betting logics and notes we’ve taken, the Feel Player invokes the god in his head.

But somehow—awesomely—the god in his head is usually right.

There are many poker players who have, for me, embodied the myth of the Feel Player. Personally, I have always seen Ilari Sahamies (Ziigmund) as the foremost exemplar of this phenomenon. Of course, there are many others. And while I have seen many Feel Players come and go, few have lasted the test of time.

There is a common belief is that Feel Players have a different and unique style of thinking. I.e., some players are analytical and theory-heavy, whereas others are intuitive and feel-heavy. “Feel” is seen as merely a thinking style, like the difference between auditory and visual learning.

“Feel”, then, is shorthand for intuition—pure unconscious competence. We’ve talked about this concept before in previous chapters, but let’s look at it in a little more detail.

Feel and Consciousness

As previously stated, there are four phases of learning in the process of mastering any skill:

  1. unconscious incompetence (inattentively being bad)
  2. conscious incompetence (attentively being bad)
  3. conscious competence (attentively being good)
  4. unconscious competence (inattentively being good)

In a simple task, you can progress uniformly from one stage to the next. But poker is an extremely complex game. Instead of thinking of poker as a single skill to be optimized from stages one to four, we should think of ability in poker as comprising many different skills—innumerably many—each of which is at a different stage in these phases of learning. Because poker is so intricate and incorporates so many different situations and types of reasoning, even the best players in the world will have some parts of their game that have not passed on to the stage of unconscious competence.

Consider “autopilot”. In poker, what we call autopilot is another way of referring to the entirety of your unconscious competence—your poker “muscle memory,” so to speak. When you are autopiloting, you are essentially restricted to only your poker skills that are unconsciously mastered—skills in the fourth stage of mastery. Everything that is not mastered to that level (that is, skills in which you are only consciously competent) will be suddenly missing from your game. So if, when you autopilot, your flop checkraising game vanishes, this tells you that your flop checkraising game is still not yet mastered to the level of unconscious competence. Although autopiloting is often seen as a bad thing, it is invaluable for elucidating which parts of your game are completely automatic—and, by implication, which parts are not. So when we are not autopiloting—when we are playing our A-game—there is a thread of conscious chatter that’s running through our heads. This conscious thread is what gives us access to all of our consciously competent poker skills. The goal, then, is not to remove all of the chatter from your mind. This is somewhat unlike other activities, such as juggling or dancing, in which the goal is to “get out of your head” and “just be in the moment.” The chatter we experience when playing good poker is essential for invoking the skills in which we have only conscious competence.

The neurological difference between conscious and unconscious processes is not well understood, but experiments have demonstrated that the difference is real and crucial to managing performance. Consider, for example, driving your car to work in the morning, compared to driving your car on the motorway in a thunderstorm. On a normal day you drive very inattentively, perhaps listening to music, or talking to a passenger. But during a thunderstorm you probably turn the music down, lean forward in your seat, and are fully focused on the task. By fully attending to your driving, you recruit all of the subtlety and attention you can to your handling of the car. Things like fine handling, reactionary decision-making, and adjusting your speed to weather and visibility conditions are skills that most drivers don’t have unconsciously mastered. We intuitively recognize this, and adjust our concentration levels according to the needs (and dangers) of the task at hand.

But perhaps you might argue that poker is a very mental game—it’s not a physical activity like playing tennis or driving a car. How is it that such a mental game can be automated into our mental muscle memory, such that we don’t even have to think about it? One process that explains this is chunking. Chunking is the process by which larger and larger patterns of information are condensed or “chunked” into single mental units. A good example of this is in the assessment of starting hands. The first time you ever played no-limit Hold’em, perhaps you looked at a hand like A7o, and processed it as “I have an ace and a seven.” Perhaps you considered how each of those cards could facilitate hitting a pair—a pair of 7s, or a pair of aces, and maybe you figured this to be pretty good. But now, as an experienced poker player who’s been dealt thousands of A7’s, you treat A7o as not two separate cards, but one distinct “chunk” of a hand. You think very fluidly and quickly about how A7o does against other chunked hole cards—A5, AJ, 78, etc.

The more we play poker, the more we are able to chunk bigger and more complex patterns of information into single units. As you continue to gain experience, you will start to chunk flops—such that Js8s7c will become a flop that you will play so many times, you will no longer analyze it card-by-card, but will see it as one discrete thing. And when the turn comes down 2d, a blank, you will not have to analyze that card separately either, because you know exactly how you’re supposed to play with your JTo on Js8s7c+low blank. Once something is chunked, it no longer needs to be consciously analyzed, and hand processing speed increases exponentially. You’re not thinking anymore “what do I beat and what don’t I beat on this board? How many hand combos are ahead of me?” but instead, you just unconsciously “sense” the relative strength of your hand on this board, and play it accordingly. Once a skill becomes unconsciously competent, it is almost always chunked to a high degree. And because chunking requires a great depth of experience, the only way to reach this level of unconscious competence is by putting in thousands of hours and consciously analyzing them so many times that the analysis becomes crystallized in your chunking. Thus, that spot can eventually be dealt with as a single unconscious unit.

So when I ask you, “why do you think A83r is a bad board to checkraise?” you might not have an immediate answer—perhaps, for you, you just know this intuitively. It’s part of your chunked sense of A83r; you “feel” it. But if you take a minute to think about it, you can probably retrospectively explain—“well, if I checkraise that board I’m repping very few hands, most Axs I have will just check/call, and he has more big aces if he’s raised preflop,” and so on.

We all have some of our decisions relegated to “feel,” but most of us can still reproduce the theory needed to derive them again if needed. Yet according to the popular mythology, the Feel Player cannot do this.

The Evolution of the Feel Player

So how could such a thing as a Feel Player ever arise? How could someone who doesn’t theoretically analyze their hands ever become good at poker?

It’s not as unlikely as you might think.

First, let us remember that poker is a stochastic game—that is to say, it’s non-deterministic. Poker is stochastic in that it gives partially random feedback to your plays. E.g., if you make a good checkraise, your feedback might still be negative (the checkraise fails and you get punished) 30% of the time. Not only that, but there’s second-level stochasticity—the checkraise might be good against 80% of players who’ve given off the same reads your opponent has, and bad against 20%, so even if you’ve made a bad checkraise against this player, one of the 20%, it might be good on average. Add stuff like getting sucked out and coolers, and you can see how poker gives chaotic and unreliable feedback.

But the idea we have is that the Feel Player is purely responding**to feedback. He is simply listening to what poker is telling him—little yes’s and no’s—and like someone learning to balance on one foot, he gradually gets better and better, with his body continually nudging him in the right direction. Perhaps this seems a little farfetched to you. Isn’t poker too messy for a player like that to ever get good?

Let me provide you with a hypothetical Monte Carlo simulation. Imagine a group of 1,000,000 “theory” players, and one of 1,000,000 Feel Players. The theory players are, obviously, those who use poker theory to negotiate the game, whereas the Feel Players are learning purely from poker’s stochastic feedback. Of course, a lot of those theory players are going to fail; maybe they’re not smart enough, or they’re too tilty, or just unlucky—but let’s say that only 30% of them succeed as poker players. That gives us 300,000 surviving theory players. For Feel Players, on the other hand, tons of them are going to fail—poker is so random and their learning is so undirected, the vast majority of them will drop off like flies. But given the sheer numbers and the fact that poker might, in its random feedback, nudge some of those players into really good habits, let’s say that 0.5% of them succeed. That gives us 5,000 successful Feel Players.

That’s a ratio of 1:60 for Feel Players to theory players. That’s a pretty lopsided ratio. But it’s enough for most people to have run into many of them, and for a couple Feel Players to be prominent among the top 300 players in the world. But the “Feel Player” seems like a prominent phenomenon; surely there are more than 1:60, you might say.

In fact, Feel Players are overwhelmingly rare at the highest levels—we just tend to notice them a lot more. It’s a sort of availability bias; they’re mentally overrepresented. Theory players are everywhere. They’re boring and mechanical. But Feel Players are sensational, rare, and fascinating, so we pay more attention to them. We hang on their every word, we watch them in games, and we root for them. Why? Perhaps because they are like us. Feel Players take crazy risks. They tilt. They make plays no one would ordinarily make. Just the idea of being a Feel Player, of thumbing your nose at the meticulous and boring process of poker theorizing—this is an exciting attitude in and of itself. The Feel Player appears to show us that anyone can win at poker. It doesn’t take a genius, or having spent thousands of hours studying the game, or the ability to do GTO simulations or combinatorial calculations. So we follow him. We tell his story. We, in a sense, create the myth of the Feel Player.

The Luck of the Draw

Now think, how many Feel Players do you really know of? Make a mental list. And of those, how many are you really sure are Feel Players, and not just players whose poker theory you don’t really know much about? I’d be surprised if you knew of more than five who are still successful.

A Monte Carlo simulation can account for the existence of Feel Players. But this doesn’t mean that one should take them seriously. As with any tall tale, the point isn’t whether or not it actually happened. The fact is, being a Feel Player is not a reliable way to become good at poker. It’s not a learning style, or a way of being. We are better off thinking of Feel Players, rather than as geniuses or heroes, as simply really, really lucky.

It’s strange, I know, to call someone who is highly skilled “lucky.” We reserve that word generally for people who are ostensibly bad. But in fact, if you are looking at the top 0.1% of Feel Players—the ones who are successful—their getting conditioned by poker in the exact right way to produce good habits was purely a matter of luck. It was out of their hands. Even though they may now be good, solid, consistent cash game players, they still may have been just as lucky as a first-time fish who binks a bracelet, depending on the EV and unlikelihood of those events. Feel Players have no control over their development. They don’t “choose” to get good. They may happen to become good, but if you took 100 simulations of their life, with all of the decisions that they made held constant, they would succeed in only one, whereas a theory player might succeed in 20 of them.

And that is also why Feel Players as a race are going extinct. You don’t hear as much about them now as you used to. This is because Feel Players in general have very short lifespans. After all, if your conditioning and learning was mostly random, what makes you think it’s going to continue to keep up with evolving games? In that sense, Feel Players are much like comets. They may burn brightly for a time, and that draws our eye to them, but they go out just as fast and foolishly as they arrived. This is not to mention that the chance of a Feel Player reaching the highest levels is becoming more and more unlikely, as poker continues to get harder and more players are employing complex strategies guided by game theory and exploitation. Strategies that you could’ve stumbled into three years ago and taken a run at high stakes with are now not enough to break even in $2/$4 games.

Poker is changing. The fact that you’re reading this article probably means that you’re on the right side of that change. It was merely 10 years ago that basic poker conversations we have nowadays would’ve been scoffed at as reductionistic, nonsensical, or “not what the game is about.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that intuition is not important, or that “feel” doesn’t play a role in most of our decisions. It absolutely does. There are many things that our unconscious minds are better at processing than our conscious minds will ever be. Theory can only do so much; it is slow, lumbering, and we often have no time to work through the full calculations in a hand before we must make a decision. Further, there are games like PLO, which can become so complex that it’s impossible to do EV simulations in many flop scenarios. We are always navigating poker unconsciously, and often “feeling” out the terrain with our guts before our brains. But we must also remember that, as poker players, we are tasked with the responsibility of doing everything we possibly can to become good. Poker, rake, and randomness are all working against us. Nothing is in our favor. So we must enlist every tool at our disposal—theory being perhaps the strongest. All theory players use feel; without it, they would be uselessly slow. But properly oriented, theory is like the charioteer, directing the raw and wild power of feel.

One of the greatest benefits of theory, after all, is its ability to reduce the stochasticity of poker feedback. Without theory, you might be conditioned not to make that checkraise again—but with a solid understanding of theory, you may realize that even though this hand gave you a no, solid theory will reassure you that it was really a wider yes in the long run. Thus, you don’t swallow the randomness and noise that poker is feeding you, and instead you shape your game closer to the real mechanics of poker. Feel is like a wild horse, dragging you every which way, and it is up to theory to tame it and keep yourself on course. Thus without theory, your learning is at the mercy of far more chaos (not to mention cognitive biases).

In reality, there are probably no true Feel Players at high stakes anymore. The binary I initially presented is a bit of a fantasy—rather than theory versus feel, it’s really “theory and feel,” in constant orbit of one another. In reality, every serious, modern-day poker player has some idea of theory that’s guiding his play. Some, like Ilari perhaps, just have relatively less compared to their peers. Inevitably, these things are hard to quantify, and in truth, a lot of it is probably just perception. Perhaps Ilari is a theory player, and just doesn’t seem that way—or hides it. I would never know. But whoever is or isn’t a feel player is beside the point. The point is. feel is not a learning style. Feel is ubiquitous, and necessary for every poker player, and always has been. But it’s a cop-out. It’s the luck of the draw. It is not a reliable way to become good.

Note: this is adapted from the rough draft of my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. If you like what you read, consider buying the completed book—it's tightly edited and contains new material! Hope you enjoyed. :)
April 15 2013
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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