Which is the Better Skill? Reading Players vs. Calculating Odds

Dave Roemer | 8 months ago in Poker Theory and Concepts

In this poker strategy article we chat with some members of PokerStars School about what they think is a better poker skill, the ability to calculate poker outs, or the ability to read their poker opponents? Let’s find out what they said…

There were some good arguments made on both sides, with many players acknowledging these are both important skills necessary for a poker player’s success.

Player ‘Rider$Fan100‘ made some nice points in favor of calculating odds relating not only to the speed with which one can learn this skill, but also the frequency with which it’s put to use, and the margin of error in applying it:

‘The ability to calculate odds is the better poker skill. It’s a fairly easy skill to learn and to apply which makes it a valuable skill to new players as well as more experienced players. Making the correct mathematical decision is much easier and comes up in just about every pot you play. Being able read players is a skill that takes time to develop and is subject to many variables which makes the margin of error far greater than calculating odds. In conclusion, being that calculating odds is faster to learn, easier to apply, is used more often and has a smaller margin for error makes is the more important poker skill.’

Scottiedoo0‘, on the other side of the coin, argued the point that being able to read players will help you win more with your winners, lose less with your losers, and win pots without a hand or to wit, even needing to look at your cards:

‘Being able to read people is the better skill. It will allow you to extract the maximum value when you ahead, bluff opponents off of weaker hands, and save you money when you think there is no chance of them folding a hand they feel is a winner…. If you can effectively read players all the time, you can win pots without even looking at your cards.’

I also found the response by ‘joy7108‘ to be on point, short and sweet:

‘I think the ability to read players is most important. Just considering you own cards and the board isn’t enough in the modern game. There are a lot of very good players out there, you need to develop all your weapons in order to be successful.’

And this article would be remiss to not acknowledge ‘DrIbbo‘ contribution to the thread, which was an extensive comparison of the two skills and how they relate to different settings and formats, like an online zoom tournament (calculating odds) vs. a live deep stacked slow structure tournament (reading opponents). While his prose and comparison chart are a bit much to reproduce in this article, you can read the entire assessment here.

All in all, there was lot of good discussion and points made. Everyone across the board agreed these are both important skills to master. The proponents of each made solid, valuable points to state their case.

As for this author’s opinion, while I certainly agree that both are valuable skills, I believe the better skill (better being the word used in the question), is the ability to read players. I hold this opinion for a few reasons. One, the ability to calculate odds is relatively easy to develop. It doesn’t require any advanced math skills and in fact common scenarios, like odds to complete a flush draw, can be memorized. There are also simple tools like the rule of 2 and 4 that can be used to further simplify the process. I believe the ability to calculate odds is something that can be learned by all players in a relatively short time frame. Thus, against all but the weakest of fun players, most are on a somewhat level playing field when it comes to this skill. Being good at it doesn’t really set you apart from the field at large, at least not much (and not at all vs. other decent players).

The ability to read players, however, is much more challenging to get good at, and is a skill that very few master. Take PokerStars own Daniel Negreanu for example. His mastery of this skill is one of the primary things that has set him apart from other professionals over his career. Every player from the best of the best down to mediocre micro stakes players, can get a handle on calculating odds and this handle won’t set them apart from each other. While the ability to read players with expertise will in fact set you apart from your fellow players, and provide you a tangible edge in whatever game you find yourself in.

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