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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Of feels and sharps

by Philip Martin | February 9, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

It is a cliché to protest that you are bad at math. Some of us are, but more often it just seems to be one of those self-deprecating things people say because they haven’t had to work with fractions or reconcile a checkbook for a while. If you don’t practice a skill, it recedes. As it turns out, most of us don’t have to use algebra very often.

I got through calculus in high school. Numbers weren’t magic for me in the way they are for some—not in the way that words are—but I like the precision and predictability and the way a problem can seem to neatly unlock once the proper pick and jiggler are found.

I remember being fascinated with a Texas Instruments scientific calculator (a TI-30 with the LED display) received as a high school graduation gift. I even appreciated how solving for X could be a creative endeavor; how it could be fun for someone more gifted.

Math is nothing to be afraid of, but it should be respected.

I used to play poker in the days before poker became a televised event and—compared to the guys I played with—was good at it. I played a little more conservatively, folding on most hands. Even though our games were low stakes, I rarely made aggressive bets or pushed all the chips into the pot, content to nibble around the edges and take advantage of their mistakes.

If you play this way, with casual players, poker is not in the long run a gamble. It’s a math-based game, and given enough time, it favors players who know and follow the probabilities, rewarding those who pay attention and penalizing those who don’t.

I haven’t played any real poker in years, and don’t miss the game. It wasn’t so much the poker that was enjoyable; it was the late nights and the whiskey and the stories told. My friends were lousy players who bet emotionally and randomly and regarded poker as a game of luck, but they were fun to be around in those days before adult obligations.

I could have kept playing, but would have had to graduate to serious games.

And serious poker players are not playing for the camaraderie or an evening off from their routine. They are much better at detaching the process from the result than casual players.

Most of us regret decisions that don’t turn out well. But poker teaches that you can make the right decision and still lose the hand to someone who draws lucky. You can make the wrong decision and win. But if you make the right decision often enough, individual hands don’t matter; they all get rolled over by statistical probability. You can play close to perfect poker and you’ll still lose most hands, but you can make a living at it.

The thought of playing with serious players doesn’t sound like much fun. About the best a player who respects the numbers and understands that his opponents are probably better schooled in and have a deeper understanding of the game than he does can do is play defensively. It’s best to conceal weaknesses, which might be difficult because it’s not easy to know what those weaknesses are.

In the short run, it mightn’t make much difference. Over time casual players like me make mistakes. Given enough time I will lose.

And I would deserve to, because I haven’t put in the work to be a really good poker player. I can’t hold in my head all the information needed and am unwilling to make the psychological adjustments that truly good poker players make.

I want it to be like it is in the movies, where you can read someone’s face and know they’re bluffing because of the way an eyebrow hikes. Because I am at heart a feel player who knows it’s a stupid way to play.

You play poker that way, you buy a lottery ticket. You might win. But do it every day and you’ll lose.

The sharps know things you don’t. That doesn’t mean the game is (always) rigged in an overtly crooked way. It just means that people will work hard to get an edge, and you ought to consider who you’re sitting down at the table with. Some people are really good at math. They don’t over-react to random events, like most of us will. They are able to accept losses. They have the cosmos on their side. Over the long run, they’ve got it all over feel players.

When numbers get serious, the nerds will have their revenge.

We’ve seen it happen with some of our sports; baseball and basketball are played differently than they were when we were kids, and while a lot of us might have aesthetic objections, sacrifice bunts and mid-range jumpers simply don’t make a lot of empirical sense. Earl Weaver was a genius for waiting on those three-run homers.

The lesson here is don’t be bad at math, or if you can’t help that, at least learn to respect expertise and knowledge. People who spend time studying something are likely to know the subject a little better than those who spend a few minutes reading a Wikipedia article.

There are sharps everywhere, and one of the ways they prosper is by building up the confidence of feel players by letting them think it’s not all that hard to make a fortune on Wall Street or flipping real estate, that anyone can get lucky.

Ask yourself why they want you at their table. Look around.

If you don’t see a mark, guess what?

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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