“A minute to learn, a lifetime to master” – that’s the old cliché about poker (along with a variety of other games, but we’ll forget about them), and it’s a well-founded statement to a degree. Of course the game is easy to pick up and learn, and of course, it takes time and effort to become a good player.
However, one of the main reasons it takes so long is because the nature of the game’s learning path is so obscured – in learning an individual sport like golf or tennis, for example, some degree of physical technique is necessary before you can even compete at any level, while that’s obviously not necessary in poker. The pathway to poker success can be obscure as a result, and it’s common for players to make incorrect assumptions about its route.
In order to make the process easier to understand and give our learning more structure, we can divide our study into three specific domains. Each of these is crucial to our long-term future in poker, and while you can actually achieve some degree of success with a fully-formed strategy for only two or even one-and-a-half of these domains, mastering all three is necessary in order to master the game. On top of that, we need to maintain an awareness of our current strengths and weaknesses in each area – without self-awareness and an understanding of our environment, nothing has context.
Fairly obviously, this refers to our understanding of the way the game actually works on a fundamental level. This is the most important of the three domains, since having a perfect mental game and always playing your best won’t do you much good if you have no idea how to make profitable plays in the first place.
It almost goes without saying that the route to mastery in this domain is hours upon hours of theoretical and practical study. Reading books, running calculations and simulations, discussing hands with friends or coaches, and seeking out every resource you can find are all a part of this aspect of your learning.
Whether it’s painstakingly running through GTO simulations designed to teach you the essential mathematical realities of the game, or figuring out appropriate exploitative strategies for your opponents’ most common playing styles, extensive hard work is necessary in order to turn this area into a strong point.
This domain encompasses most of what is commonly referred to as the ‘mental game’. For many players, it is primarily a question of overcoming tilt issues, but since most tilt issues are grounded in inaccurate perspectives or false expectations from the game, correcting those perspectives is the fastest route to overcoming those issues.
For example, a perspective on the game that causes a player to resent every bad beat is necessarily going to create tilt problems because it ignores the fundamental reality that these events are going to happen regularly in the game, no matter what. Likewise, a results-oriented perspective is going to lead a player’s focus away from the factors that they themselves control, and make it harder for them to embrace their inability to force themselves to win in the short term.
In fact, a huge proportion of perspective issues come down to results orientation, particularly because players look to results to reassure them that they’re making the right decisions. If their results are negative, it knocks their confidence, and they feel like every bad beat or 9th place finish is an affront to their ability as a player. Eliminating concern for short-term results is probably the biggest obstacle most players have to overcome in the early stages of their career.
The third domain is high-quality performance. You can have a highly-developed strategic understanding of the game and a very balanced perspective, but if you never play your best game, you’re always going to make less money than you could (or should). Developing strategies for allowing yourself to be in tip-top condition for every session is crucial to long-term success, and this aspect of the game is often undervalued.
Most people are content with playing at 50-70% of their best the majority of the time because they recognise that playing their absolute best every session is impossible (if you always played the exact same way, there would be no such thing as your ‘best’ or ‘worst’ game), but they also ignore the reality that learning to get ‘in the zone’ or achieve ‘flow state’ more frequently can put them in a position to optimise their performance to a much greater degree than before. Even if you can’t crush it 100% of the time, doing so 80-90% of the time is better than 50-70%.
Focusing on establishing specific, individualized processes for getting themselves ready to play their best is one of the best ways players can increase their EV in the short term. Within the space of a month or even a week, a player could see a huge improvement in performance just by getting more sleep, improving their diet or exercising before each session.
Where many players go wrong
Most players spend almost all of their learning and development energy on strategy – they figure that improving their understanding of the fundamentals and learning to make better decisions is the only way to really get better, and studying other aspects of the game in an effort to improve performance or perspective is somehow not ‘true improvement’.
The reality, though, is that anything that generates a higher EV for the player can be termed ‘true improvement’, and this can come in many forms. For example, you can increase your EV and make more money through better game selection without improving your strategic approach at all, and you can make further gains on top of that by ensuring you play your A-game more frequently.
By defining our conceptualisation of poker learning entirely in terms of on-the-table strategy, we unnecessarily restrict our own focus and make it more difficult to take advantage of some of the simplest and most straightforward sources of EV growth available to us. It’s not always that easy to create a perfectly balanced 3-betting range for a certain spot, but it’s very straightforward to simply stop playing that one higher-stakes tournament that keeps burning a hole in your bankroll, or make sure you get enough sleep before a poker session.