How You Practice Dictates How You Will Perform at the Poker Table


Establishing A Deliberate Poker Practice

A frequent area of concern for most poker beginners is how to manage the process of learning the game. After all, poker is a unique pursuit that requires a learning process very different to almost any other discipline. It’s very hard to construct a focused, structured learning program because every concept is related to every other concept, so there’s no obvious starting or ending point.

However, it is indeed possible to construct a more deliberate, step-by-step learning process for yourself if you’re the kind of person who learns best via the repetition of specific tasks. This kind of ‘learning by doing’ approach can be described as kinesthetic learning, although in most contexts it refers to physically doing something rather than rehearsing a set of mental exercises.

The process is the same regardless, though – you’re learning to program your brain the same way you would learn to program your muscles if you were learning golf, tennis, ballet, or anything else requiring deliberate practice. Here’s how to get started in this vein.

Figure out your learning goals

In order to begin a deliberate practice and start on a new learning path, you first need to know where you’re going. We’re all at different stages of our poker journey, and setting learning goals at each stage is particularly useful to us. Some of us will be working on a better understanding of pot odds, while some will be working on building Game-Theory Optimal river ranges – it’s all the same process.

Evaluating your own process requires a self-awareness that can be difficult to acquire. A lot of players, for example, might actually be in denial about their own ROI or winrate – they might be convincing themselves that their poor stats in these departments are due to variance, and ignoring potential improvements as a result.

For this reason it’s crucial to be very honest with yourself about your current performances and level of understanding of the game – if you have a lot of poker experience but your recent results aren’t up to scratch, ask yourself whether there might be one or two blind spots you haven’t yet discovered.

Create tasks and exercises to get you there

Once you know the areas you’re looking to work on and the point you’re looking to get to, you can start to formulate tasks for yourself and exercises that will help you get used to the processes you’ll need once you’re there. The most useful way to do this is by way of software tools that can help you figure out the ‘right answer’ in a specific situation.

If you don’t currently use any pieces of software to help you study the game (e.g. Holdem Manager 2, PokerTracker 4, ICMIZER, HoldemResources Calculator, CardRunnersEV, Flopzilla, Simple Postflop, PioSolver…the list goes on) then you simply don’t have much chance of thriving in today’s game. We’re past the point where poker can be easily beaten without consistent analytical study. If you do use these tools, they’re invaluable in developing tests for yourself.

Let’s say for example you’re looking to work on your push-fold game. You can bring up HRC or ICMIZER, plug in a hand without looking at the results, and write down an estimation of what you think your all-in range should be in a certain spot.

Measure it against the actual range that the software advises you to shove, and if you got close, give yourself half a point. If you got it spot on, give yourself a full point. Do this ten, twenty or a hundred times, and see how many points you score. Repeat the exercise the next week and try to beat your personal best.

It works with simpler concepts too. One exercise I developed early on is to write down a list of 100 random hole card combinations, and then the numbers 1-100 next to them. For each combination of hole cards, estimate the equity that that hand has against the corresponding percentage of hands expressed as a range – if the top hand on the list is Jack-Seven suited, estimate the equity it has against the top 1% of hands.

If the bottom card is Seven-Three offsuit, estimate its equity against a 100% range. Use a simple equity calculator like HoldEq or EquiLab to test your results, and once again, grade yourself on a points system. You can randomize the numbers if it makes it more interesting.

Follow through with repetition and progression

The number one thing about deliberate practice is that it doesn’t work it you only do it once or twice. You need to do it regularly, to the point where you’re able to hone your instincts in a very specific way. This isn’t often fun or interesting, but it will get you to the point where some of the most simplistic aspects of poker become second nature, which frees up mental space for more advanced concepts.

It’s also crucial to add an element of progression, as you would in the gym. You can demand a greater level of specificity from yourself when it comes to ranges, or you can progress to complex postflop spots and start trying to estimate the number of combinations of different hands in your opponents’ ranges.

If you want to get really advanced with it, you can plug a situation into a GTO calculator like Simple Postflop or PioSolver and try to estimate in advance what a perfect GTO range would look like in a specific spot. There’s really no end to the number of things you can do as a form of deliberate practice, as long as you have some software available to tell you whether you’re getting it right or wrong.

Let that be the most important thing you take away from this article. It’s almost impossible to become a winning poker player these days without using software to help you. I’m not shilling for any one software company or another, it’s just a fact. If you can embrace the technological advances that have made deliberate poker practice into a very feasible goal over the past five-to-ten years, then you’ll be on the right track to mastering the game on a deeper level.