You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know (Oscar Wilde)
Thinking about poker is often very confusing, often it seems like I don’t know anything at all. I sit there up in my room and try to explain ‘my edge’ to myself and I can’t come up with anything. It seems like I know nothing at all. But then when I talk to somebody about poker it is all blurring out and even a lot of nice arguments I didn’t even know I had! So when I am thinking it feels blank but when I am talking it seems obvious I know a hell of a lot about poker. I have it the same way with chess – I just see moves when I am playing and thinking about it but when I am talking about – like I was 10 days ago as coach for the Danish delegation at the Nordic scholastic chess championship in Oslo – it just blurs out with theory and rules of thumbs etc. For example I said to one of the kids that one of the reasons bishops are slightly stronger than knights is because they usually can decide to exchange themselves against knights while knights seldom have that privilege. This is something I never even knew I knew but when I was talking it was all completely obvious. Strange.
Or maybe not, because when you are playing (we are back to poker) you don’t explicitly say to yourself: I am isolating the bad player, I am squeezing because his range is weak and my image is good, I can 4-bet here because he is 3-betting light, folds a lot to 4-bet and the dynamic is in my favor etc. These thoughts all seem to happen unconsciously and I am not aware of it while playing or while thinking about playing. But when I explain a hand to a colleague it all comes out. The reason is very simple: These thoughts are all automatic. The more you play and the more you study poker the more knowledge is at the so called unconscious competence level. That is things that you ‘own’ so bad that you don’t even think about how you do it. We have a lot of things at this level like walking, talking, masturbating etc. If you had to think through each step when talking a stroll it would take an hour to walk a 100 meters!
Next question: Is it good? All these things that go on – seemingly without you knowing it - at the unconscious competence level? Yes it is – it frees up a lot of space and energy for those 5 percent of decisions in poker that are difficult and that you DON’T OWN. All players have something stored in the unconscious competence level. If you are a beginner it would probably be something like don’t play 72o. As you progress you can add tables and player faster because you know more and a lot more has become ‘standard’. One problem with all this automatic knowledge is that you might end up thinking you don’t have to think! So when you get one of those 5 percent tough spots you don’t recognize it and you just let your autopilot do the job – and probably not taking the right decision with an inadequate toolbox at hand. So be aware not to ‘auto-pilot’ the whole session (no one knows that much)!
Now comes the point of all this gibberish: It can be very smart to make some of your knowledge at the unconscious competence level known to your conscious self! It can be an excellent leakbuster (if, god forbid, you automated a ‘rotten apple’). But also it makes it easier to acquire new knowledge or expand your current knowledge. So how to do this? Simple: Explain hands to friends, post hands here at coinflip, coach somebody etc. Every time I have really felt my improvement as a player it has been due to having to verbalize what I do. It seems silly to do it out loud while playing – others at the office probably wouldn’t like it either – so doing it with a sparring partner is probably the best idea. So in answer to the headline: No, you don’t know what you know, but maybe you should know a little more?