Why Poker Game Theory Fails

Game theory fails, because poker is just too complicated. There are too many things to consider in a real game, and calculating a tactic for a given situation is seldom possible with any degree of precision. Even if you could calculate the exact answers for every situation, you wouldn't have the time to do this while you were at the poker  table, so you'd need to memorize all the answers. Good luck.

Another problem is that the poker game theory solution is apt to be aimed at opponents who respond perfectly. That's the main challenge behind game theory. Play poker perfectly and let your opponent destroy himself, if he chooses. Although it may seem strange to you, if you have a perfect game-theory solution, you don't need to adjust. No matter what your opponent does, he cannot win. The more he strays from the perfect strategy that you're playing, the more you'll profit from his exceptions.

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But wait! What if your opponent bluffs all the time? Are you just going to let him do it? Again, you don't need to adjust. If you stubbornly stick to your predetermined game plan (which means calling most of the time in a limit poker game), you win more when your opponent bluffs too much. However, you won't win as much as you would if you simply said, “To hell with this game-theory stuff. I'm going to call all the time.”

Yes, you could adjust game theory to the circumstances, but that would mean going to the poker table armed with many sets of incredibly complex strategies, and I've already said that I don't think anyone could handle even the basic one.

Another problem with game theory is that, although it can more readily be applied to two-player competition, poker games among three or more players add a complicated twist, due to the possible benefits of implied cooperation among opponents. This does not need to be cheating. The complication arises, even in honest multi-way confrontations. I'm not saying this cannot be resolved through game theory. I'm just saying, show me.

Having said all that, you still should realize that game-theory investigations are going on right now in poker, and that they will yield some valuable information. We will tune strategies accordingly. But it is unlikely that you will ever personally need to understand anything other than the basic concepts of game theory, because you certainly are unlikely to use such a complex strategy in a real poker game.

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