I've never met a poker player that didn't want to be better.
Poker players are (among other things) driven competitors. They'll use any available edge. And why shouldn't they? When you're placing real-money poker bets, any shift in the odds makes a difference to your bottom line.
How do poker players improve their game? They use software, like trainers and trackers. They gain experience by playing a ton of hands, either in low-stakes games or in "free play" mode.
When poker players attempt to improve their game, they're looking to improve a few specific skills. Poker players use mathematics when they work out their odds of winning relative to their bet. They need to have a deep understanding of the psychology behind the game. Don't forget the mechanics of betting and bluffing – that's also critical to long-term success. And who doesn't want to generally improve their ability to use game strategy?
Below you'll find four games that I think would help any poker player improve their poker skills. I go into detail about how the game might affects a player's ability at the poker table.
Why should you turn to dominoes and abstract Chinese board games if what you want is to learn how to play a better hand of Texas hold'em? It's like my dad always says: "If you do what everyone else does, you'll get what everyone else gets." Anyone can point their browser to a poker trainer. By expanding your training beyond the scope of what most other beginners are learning, you're getting a leg up on your future competition.
Backgammon is the oldest board game that's still played. I've researched many board games and the history and mythology surrounding them – backgammon is one of the most difficult to pin down. Historians tell us that pharaohs in ancient Egypt played a version called Senet. We know that ancient Romans played a version of backgammon (called Tabula) that modern players would recognize immediately.
Why are we talking about backgammon on a poker blog? In both games, an understanding of probability can have a positive influence on your in-game decisions. That's the main thing that connects the two. There's not much difference between learning to calculate the probability of winning the game when choosing to accept a double, and calculating the probability of successfully drawing to a flush. In other words, by playing backgammon, you're training the part of your brain that uses math to make better poker decisions.
The thing that got me thinking about backgammon as a poker training tool was an article I read about poker pros playing tournament backgammon. The names I can recall were Erik Seidel and Gus Hansen, both of whom were serious tournament backgammon players in the 90s. Here's how I relate backgammon skills to the poker table:
Uno is a party game using a trademarked set of cards. It's a matching game in which the point is to clear your hand of cards before the opponents. Special cards in the game force other players to draw, or allow you to change the active suit, etc.
If you've ever played a round of Uno, you don't need me to describe the benefits of thinking from a psychological perspective. Between obvious card tells (rearranging cards frantically indicates a lack of matching cards to play, for example) and the sudden shift in behavior that indicates a new tactic, it's pretty easy to predict upcoming plays by just taking a step back and looking at the players.
Uno gives you a chance to practice recognizing and responding to tells without wagering any money. I'm not saying cutthroat games of Uno for cash don't exist – they definitely do – but for the most part, Uno's played as a party game.
Uno offers other benefits, too. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that Uno rewards players who pay close attention to things like card distribution and pace. For example, if you know the players to your right and left are low on yellow cards, you should try to switch the color to yellow as often as possible.
Texas 42 is a four-player domino game that uses a stereotype system of bidding and trump suits, similar to card games like Spades, Whist, and Bridge.
The game comes from Texas, of course – the backstory is pretty interesting. At the time the game was invented, the prevailing religious practice in Texas was a sort of fundamentalist Protestantism that looked down on gambling in general and playing cards in particular. The creators of Texas 42 invented a gambling game that doesn't need cards, but is still recognizable to any fan of bidding games.
How does this game apply to poker? Let's ignore the fact that both games involve bidding and suits. Texas 42 rewards logic and reasoning more than any other game on this list, and more than most games I've played. The best 42 players have an uncanny ability to read other player's hands. Using a combination of tell-recognition, bidding analysis, and plain-old experience, expert-level Texas 42 players can pinpoint what you're holding in your hand. All the skills involved in this are directly applicable to poker strategy. By understanding what range your opponent is working inside, you can tailor your strategy to combat all possibilities.
Go is an abstract board game. The objective is to surround more territory than your opponent. It's considered an adversarial game – that's part of what makes it a perfect fit for players looking to improve their poker game.
The reason I point poker players towards Go is the combination of simple rules and complex strategy. The sheer number of possible game situations in Go is difficult to wrap my head around – millions of possibilities. That makes it seven times more complex than chess. But, like poker, you can learn the basic rules of Go in a couple of minutes.
Clearly, this game rewards strategy. It includes multiple phases, during each of which the concept of ideal strategy changes. It also rewards forward-thinking – the ability to recognize "alive" and "dead" shapes on the board ahead of time can turn a certain-loss to a certain-win. The concept of making a sacrifice in the present in order to gain a foothold for success in the future is a big deal in both poker and Go.
All that aside, Go is a meditative pursuit that could do wonders for poker-induced frustration or high blood pressure. Poker players looking for new concepts in game strategy AND a relaxing new hobby would do well to investigate this ancient Chinese masterpiece.
These aren't by any means the only four games that teach skills useful to people learning how to play poker. I chose to write about the four games above because they teach skills that I think are essential to success in poker. These aren't the only four important skills. They're also really broad, bearing in mind that newcomers to the game are probably looking for answers to big-picture questions.
Think of it this way – an hour spent learning and playing Go or Texas 42 is the same as an hour spent training your poker skills. They're the same skills. By mixing up your training, you'll not only become a better mathematician and in-game psychologist, you'll also avoid burn-out and enjoy a break from poker every now and then.