Some players are born with it—a raw talent for poker. They just seem to know in some extrasensory way what cards are coming next, when to hold, fold or raise, and where to be at exactly the right moment in time. If you’ve got, use it. But if you were not born with it, can any amount of practice make up for a lack of natural ability? As with most controversies, there are two very different points of view on the matter.
Nature Not Nurture
Nobody would deny that some people are simply better with numbers than others. Perhaps it is the way their brains are wired or a genetic trait that will someday be revealed through DNA research. Such “geeks” often have “an innate, organic ability to understand games of skill and chance that involve a 52-deck of playing cards”—the very definition of “card sense.”
But a natural ability for poker isn’t just about being mathematically gifted. It also has a lot to do with temperament—a “poker face” that never reveals what one is thinking, a calm Zen-like mind that never goes on tilt or a flair for bluffing that borders on magical. Perhaps these are skills that can be learned, but those who come by such innate abilities at birth are certainly at an advantage—not unlike having a big head start in a race.
In one online poker forum, a self-confessed “losing poker player” recently described eight qualities he believed set “naturally gifted” players apart from the rest. They included an analytical mind and no “chemical imbalances” like raging hormones or ADHD conditions. Others he cited were inborn confidence, decisiveness, competitiveness, discipline and focus. He also believed a natural-born poker player has little regard for “money or anything that has value.”
It can be argued that many of those psychological characteristics can be learned and developed, but the inherent ability to objectify a game that’s often played for huge amounts of money truly does set top pros apart from the masses. Any player who has gone from “play money” games or “penny ante” home sessions to real money cash games knows exactly what’s at stake. All the poker knowledge and experience in the world can’t replace that one critical talent—an eager willingness to take risks.
Training Trumps Talent
Others argue that natural risk takers are quite likely to fling themselves off cliffs if they don’t get the proper grounding in poker fundamentals. It might be possible to get to a final table without ever calculating pot odds, but just like Thoroughbred racehorses need training to become champions, so do bracelet-bearing poker pros.
Most will agree that when a natural gift is carefully cultivated it blossoms so much brighter than if left all alone. But what about those who have little natural talent at all? Is it possible for anyone to succeed at poker just one basis of hard work, study and hours of grinding at the tables?
One of the world’s greatest poker pros, Doyle Brunson, will readily admit that he had to learn the game from the bottom up. He probably wouldn’t have played at all if an injury hadn’t robbed him of his true natural ability as an athlete. Similarly, at age 21 Scotty Nguyen was a poker dealer who earned about $150 a night and lost most of it playing $3–$6 stud—a self-described “fish,” who enjoyed gambling and had to learn to win through hard-earned experience.
There are so many facets to the sport of poker; it takes “five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.” Thankfully, there are now online tutorials, hundreds of books and videos, “schools” of poker and games suited to every level of play, making it easier than every to acquire skills. That “head start” granted by natural ability is only a small part of the journey toward the finish line of poker success. Practice still makes perfect.