I’ve been playing poker professionally since 2008. Over the last decade, no-limit hold ’em has transformed from a game of feel, moves, and tricks to one of scientific precision and robotic execution. Some players miss the “good ‘ol days,” but I believe the game of poker is more beautiful than ever. I’m writing this to shed a little light on some of the areas I feel the viewer and recreational poker-player are misinformed.

Most poker fans remember the glory days of turning on our televisions and watching epic final tables from the World Series of Poker or seeing the players of High Stakes Poker sitting behind their walls of cash. In every spot, no matter how significant, the viewer never had to agonize through a person using two minutes before folding. All of these episodes were, of course, edited before being aired.

In the modern era, most poker content is streamed live. Poker in real-time has its perks, but a six-hour poker stream will never be able to stand beside an edited non-stop highlight real when it comes to entertainment. It’s apples and oranges.

So am I saying players today play on average the same speed as the players from ten years ago? No.

At the tables, we all appreciate people making quick decisions when possible. Some players are painfully slow in unnecessary situations, and this is frustrating for both players and viewers. Most high-roller events now have shot clocks to combat this type of behavior. Players now have between 20 to 30 seconds per decision before they have to use a time-extension, and if they run through all of their time-extensions, their hand will be declared dead.

Time controls aren’t unique to poker. Players spend, on average, over three minutes contemplating each move at the highest levels in chess, even in positions that appear simple to most observers.

A Typical Thought Process

Players competing at the highest levels in poker are faced with similarly complex situations that are difficult to solve, and often it’s challenging to understand what these players are thinking about without a fundamental understanding of game theory. Now, a brief look into my thought process during one of these 10-30-second decision points:

  • What range of hands do I continue here?
  • What is my opponent(s) range(s)?
  • How does this board interact with all of the ranges?
  • Who is the board best for?
  • Who has the most significant proportion of big hands here?
  • What is my mix ( Game Theory Optimal play involves the implementation of mixed strategies. i.e., sometimes you 3-bet this hand, and other times you call it. Occasionally you check and call a bet with this hand, but sometimes you check-raise it).
  • What are stack sizes?
  • What is the size of the pot?
  • What is the stack-to-pot ratio?
  • What is my betting strategy here?
  • How many bet sizes do I need to play optimally?
  • “I’m going to play two sizes, betting 30% pot and 90% pot.”
  • What preferences does my hand have, is it more aggressive than my global range average or more passive?
  • “Ok, my Jack of diamonds makes me play more aggressive, so I’m going to be 20% more aggressive than the global average. I think my hand favors the big size here but sometimes will fall into the small size. I’m going to check it 20% of the time bet it for 30% pot 30% of the time and bet the big size 50% of the time.”
  • I now shuffle my chips and look down at my randomizer ( a pre-selected marker on the chip).
  • “My marker on the chip is at 9’oclock, which is 75%, that falls within the frequency of me using my 90% pot bet-size, so that’s the option I choose.”
  • What is my opponent’s strategy facing my bet here?
  • How do they look physically?
  • Who is my opponent, what history and reads do I have on them?
  • What level do I think they are operating on, and what exploits do I need to consider?

This isn’t including additional factors like pay jumps at a final table, which will make you play substantially different based on random variables in stack distribution and payouts. This also doesn’t take into account for fatigue and stress; oftentimes, you’re seeing us on hour ten of a poker session or at a final table where a ton of our year’s earn comes down to a few giant situations that are sometimes completely out of our hands.

Decisions Are Now More Complex

I can tell you from personal experience that the Jason Koon of six years ago played, on average, much faster per street than the Jason Koon of today. I played more quickly because the decision points felt simpler to me — the reason why is because I wasn’t playing the same game that I’m playing today.

Most viewers, and perhaps some of the players, don’t understand how much is going on inside a top player’s head at each real decision point, and I don’t expect them to. It’s more engaging for a viewer to watch the fast-action poker of the previous decade, and by comparison, modern streams may seem slow. I’m not asking you to be entertained. What I am trying to convey is that the game we are playing today is much different than the game we were playing years ago. The best players in the world are deliberate because the best plays require deliberation. This is what poker at the highest levels looks like, and that isn’t going to change.

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