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“Grokking With Your Mark” by Alan25main

September 23, 2020

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You may know your opponents, but do you KNOW your opponents? Alan25main writes about the importance of identifying with other players in order to better understand their game.

In a novel called Stranger in a Strange Land, science fiction author Robert Heinlein coined the verb “to grok.” He called it a Martian concept and said it was taught to all young Martians. (The novel’s protagonist is a human infant who was marooned on Mars and raised by Martian Old Ones, sort of like Romulus and Remus being reared by wolves.) Though never really defined in the novel’s text, a good working definition would be:

“To identify so closely with another being as to truly be able to anticipate their/its thoughts and likely actions.”

An example given in the story is the protagonist joins a circus as a mind reader and fails miserably, even though he actually can read minds. Eventually, he figures out the reason for his failure is that he doesn’t understand why people do what they do.

Once he begins to evaluate each person as an individual instead of just as a random member of a group, he finds success. He refers to this as “grokking with his marks.” “Mark,” in this case, being a carnival term meaning a potentially not over-bright customer for the rigged games and displays in the side shows. It’s a great novel and well worth reading. There are lots of interesting concepts to think about.

As poker players, we need to try to grok with our opponents. The more closely we can identify with that opponent, the better we can react to his/her actions at the table. If you can read the opponent’s mind, you don’t need to see his cards, do you? You can simply bet strength into weakness and fold weakness against strength. It isn’t a universal answer for all questions, but it comes closer than anything else I can think of.

The proper study of poker players is the other poker players. The better you understand why they’re doing what they do, the safer your own actions will become. Your bluffs will be better timed to take advantage of their insecurities. Your raises will be better sized to induce calls when you’re strong enough to want the opponent to put in more chips.

When that magic moment of holding the absolute nuts arrives, that’s when this skill becomes the most useful one in your toolbox–to get your victims to pay you off. The flip side of this is the less you understand your opponents’ actions, the more you’re just gambling–making wagers at unfavorable odds.

The finest poker player I’ve ever known personally was Footie Valerie (I told his story in an early blog post). He told me to stop playing the cards and start playing the players. We saw the same faces every game. I tried to take his advice and use it. It wasn’t easy, but I got to the point where I was a lot more comfortable. I even began winning on a regular basis instead of being a “break even” player.

What success I’ve had at the game is almost entirely due to his simple advice: to really know my opponents. Heinlein would’ve said “to grok with my marks.” You might want to give it a try.