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  1. Consider the following scenario: You're a new poker player who is invested in a strategy coach to get you on the track to making steady income at the tables. You end up in a hand with Kh2h on a board of AsTh9h4c and your opponent accidentally flashes you his hand of Ac6d. You want to know what your chances were of winning, so you review the hand with your coach during your next session. Your coach tells you there was a 20% chance that you'd catch a flush on the river and moves on to the next hand you want to review. Technically, your coach is correct, but has he improved your game? Not really. From my perspective, coaches who give these kind of answers are not coaches at all. Luckily, no decent strategy coach would gloss over this obvious opportunity to teach you how to calculate probability. Unfortunately, in equivalent mental coaching scenarios, you may be settling for the right answer and not even realize you're missing out on game-changing information. In the example above, it's easy to spot the problem with handing you the answer instead of teaching you how to get the answer yourself. The former only helps with one situations that's unlikely to come again anytime soon; the latter helps you handle a wide variety of situations that you'll encounter every time you play. Consider a similar scenario with a mental coach: You've found a soft game and you've tripled up. Then your pocket aces get cracked by a recreational player who gloats about it for the next 15 minutes. You end up spewing off half your stack over the next five orbits before you leave the table. The next week, you schedule a session with a reputable mental coach, tell him you're struggling with tilt, and he tells you to do the Fibonacci sequence in your head to calm down next time you take a bad beat. The problem with this answer is much more subtle than the strategy example, especially if you're new to mental coaching, but it's just as significant. The problem with this coaching style is two-fold. First, it creates dependency. By spoon-feeding you answers, you have to come back to your coach for every subsequent question. Second, it teaches you nothing about the underlying causes of your problem. Even if your coach's advice works for you, you'll never be able to address the root cause or extrapolate on that advice to develop your own mental techniques. In short, you're unlikely to ever reach your optimal mental game. So what should you be asking to ensure you do reach your optimal mental game? When in a mental coaching session, you should be looking for the why. If you can figure out why something is or is not happening, you can begin to understand it and begin to effect change. Do not just settle for an answer and accept it as true before moving on to the next question. If your problem is tilt, it's possible that the Fibonacci sequence may actually help you most. However, your coach shouldn't recommend that solution unless he or she is basing that suggestion on knowledge of how you personally think and react to situations at the table. By taking the time to understand you personally, your coach can help you better understand yourself and teach you how to change your own mental game. Here is another way to think about it: imagine you are taking a taxi somewhere you have never been before. You say, "Driver take me here please" and you end up where you asked to go. However, you were staring out the window lost in thought or looking at your phone along the way and have no idea how you ended up at that destination. You will need to call another cab when you are ready to leave. Mental coaching should be more like driving yourself with a friend in the passenger seat. Your co-pilot tells you where to turn and what landmarks to look out for along the way. When you end up at your destination, you not only remember how you got there, but you learned what signposts were along the way so you can explore on your own next time without getting lost. Over time, clients should be able to map out processes that work for them so that they can solve their own issues. What I want for my clients is for them to no longer need my help. This should be the ultimate goal for any mental coach. If you have any doubt that your mental coach has another goal in mind, you may be settling for the right answer instead of pursuing your optimal game. John Wood is the on-staff mental coach at Alex Fitzgerald's Pokerheadrush.com. For a discount on his mental coaching services, please visit this link.
  2. It's something most of us do hundreds, even thousands of times a day: decide how we want to continue with a hand. The information in a given hand is massively clarified from where it stood pre-flop. It's a huge turning point and one of the most important decision points in tournament poker. Do we c-bet or not? If so, what size? What's the board like and what can the turn and river hold for us? This article is not meant to be an exhaustive guide on things to consider, but it will list a lot of the factors in play. Most of you already know these things, but I think it helps to clarify, even if just to refresh it in our mind. We need to start thinking about how the flop came to be! Pre-flop is the baseline for how we are going to proceed. We need to note our and our opponent's action pre-flop and their associated sizing. One of the most overlooked pieces of information on later streets is what position our opponent raised from pre-flop. I used to always screw that up, putting my opponent on enough straight draws only to realize later that they just don't have 6-5 suited after raising from under the gun (most don't.) Once we get to the flop, we gather the information we need. We automatically think about our actual hand in relation to all of the other hands in its absolute value. How can our hand improve? How can the board get worse for our hand? What is the pot and what position are we in at the table? How many chips do we have? What was the action pre-flop? Level 1 gathering of our hand info. Next, we have to think about our opponent's information. This is Level 2 and where poker begins to be fun. What is their stack and what is their range of hands considering their play before the flop? What is their position and what are they like as a player? After we have the necessary information about our decision, we have to compute that information into a decision. This is where the "feel" player's expertise ends. Let's say we are deciding whether to continuation bet. If we decide to bet, is our opponent likely to raise? With what parts of their range of hands are they going to call and fold with? How does this benefit us as a player? Does sizing it differently affect our opponent's potential decisions? If we check, how often do they bluff later on in the hand? Do we have a hand strong enough to slow play? Are they likely to improve on a lot of turn cards or is the board such that they won't? It's important to note that these ways of thinking about flop decisions are all based around an exploitative strategy. That is, a strategy that tries to maximize our profit against our opponent's leaks. If we are facing someone really good, we may want to take a non-exploitative style. Continuation bet 45% with all of our hands all of the time (given a certain board texture). Check 20% of hands randomly and bet 80% of hands two-thirds of the pot size. This would be so that our opponent can't catch on to what we are doing, but this style should only be saved for strong-thinking opponents. Even a lot of pros won't adjust to your exploitative style on the fly. If necessary, we can go deeper and think about what they think about us, maybe even what they think we think about them and how that affects their game plan. We can consider range versus range instead of hand versus range (a whole different article I'm not qualified to write). It's a never-ending rabbit hole and it goes as deep as your opponent wants it to go. Hopefully you don't come away from this article more confused about flop decisions. Most of the time, it really is just Level 1 and Level 2 thinking: "They probably don't hit this flop very often, so I'm going to put out a small c-bet and over the long-run profit at a good rate here." This should be common thinking. That said, maybe I opened some doors to intricacies you can use next time a spot is close or tricky. Thanks for reading and if you don't mind, comment below with some of the things you think about on the flop that I missed.
  3. The more one begins to understand the nuances of the game of poker, the easier it is to start believing that the concepts central to comprehending the game on a deep level are inapplicable in any other field. After all, in what other areas of our lives do we find ourselves regularly attributing mathematical denominations to other people's actions and trying to figure out how to best exploit their weaknesses? Hopefully none, otherwise we would be exhibiting some decidedly sociopathic tendencies. However, when we flip this dynamic around and start applying 'real-world' concepts to poker, there are a number of things we can learn. In particular, poker has a lot in common with academic disciplines such as economics, sociology, behavioral psychology, and even philosophy, and many concepts from these fields can be used to help us better understand the game of poker. One of these such concepts is the Pareto Principle. What is the Pareto Principle? In 1896, Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto published a paper showing that roughly 80% of the wealth and land in Italy at the time was controlled by the richest 20% of the population, and suggested that this '80/20 principle' would hold true in many other environments as well. He investigated other countries' wealth distributions and found this to be true. In fact, Pareto took this principle far enough that he experimented with peas in his garden, recognizing that 20% of the peapods in his garden contained up to 80% of the peas. Management consultant Joseph M. Juran later proposed that the idea be named the Pareto Principle and extended its application into many business contexts. Juran believed that in many companies, 80% of the profits came from 20% of the customers, and this has since become somewhat of a rule of thumb for many business managers. It can also be said that 80% of sales come from 20% of products, or that 80% of complaints come from 20% of customers, and so on. How is it relevant to poker? Tim Ferriss' excellent book, 'The Four-Hour Work Week,' shows many different contexts in which the 80/20 principle is applicable. He suggests that it can be extended to a simple input-output metric: 20% of the inputs in any given business or economic system are usually responsible for 80% of the outputs. Since poker is, at its core, an economic system unto itself and since we as poker players should be doing our best to see ourselves as small business owners, it makes sense that we would want to try to apply this concept to poker and see what we might gain from it. As it happens, there is at least one very obvious way in which the 80/20 principle applies directly to poker. Inputs and outputs at the table If we're defining a game of poker as an economic system with a series of inputs and outputs, it makes sense that the inputs would be the decisions we make and the outputs would be our profits. In fact, this delineation actually matches up perfectly with the kind of strategy we would usually be adopting at a nine-handed table: since a tight player may play around 15% of hands on average and a loose player may play around 25% of hands, it can be asserted that many players will usually be playing somewhere in the region of 20% of hands overall. It makes sense to assume from this that all of the profit we make at poker comes from the 20% of the hands we're actually playing, but we can take this concept a little further than that. We can look at the top 20% of this 20% of hands we actually play (4% of total hands) and extrapolate that 80% of our profits come from those hands - this is very likely accurate. If you look at the average Holdem Manager 2 or PokerTracker 4 database, you'll see that a huge proportion of a winning player's profits come from those top 4% of hands (roughly TT+ AK+). This seems like a reasonable application of the principle - 20% of the hands we play account for 80% of our profits. There are other applications of the principle that hold true at the table. We might be able to assert, for example, that 80% of our profits come from 20% of our opponents; depending on what games we're playing in, this could easily be true. We could also flip it around and say that the biggest 20% of our mistakes account for 80% of our losses. Whichever way you look at it, the input/output metric of the Pareto Principle encourages us to look not only at the thin, marginal edges that are so common in poker, but also to focus on getting the most out of less marginal situations and maximize our edge at times when we know circumstances are in our favor. Off-the-table inputs and their effects Of course, our on-the-table decision-making always has to be supported by healthy off-the-table processes and so we need to consider how the Pareto Principle affects things like game selection, session scheduling, and theoretical study. It's not a stretch to say that for players in certain game types, 80% of their profits could come from 20% of the games they play in, so they may benefit from cutting out many games in which their ROI is thinner and replacing them with other games or simply playing fewer tables. Similarly, it's reasonable to suggest that if we find ourselves putting in a large amount of volume during periods where we're not able to play our best for whatever reason - be it tiredness, distractions, or lack of motivation - then we may find that 80% of our profits are made during 20% of our sessions, the 20% in which we are able to truly play our A-game and maximize our EV. Finally, we may also see that if we're spending long hours away from the table studying the game, we reach a point of diminishing returns. We study because we feel like we should be studying, but we're just looking at hands aimlessly without really digging into the level of detail that would step our game up a notch. This is an example of a situation where 80% of our improvements might come from 20% of our studying time, so consider carefully whether the studying you're doing is really as efficient as it could be. If it's not, do some research on learning styles and figure out which system of learning works best for you, focus on that one, and keep your studying as efficient as possible. A final word The Pareto Principle is just that - it's a principle, not a rule. This means there are plenty of situations where it holds true, but some others where it doesn't. Consider whether your own personal situation might require an adapted version of this rule. If you're operating on a higher level of efficiency, you may find your input-output balance is a lot healthier. Perhaps the top 40% of your inputs are generating 60% of your outputs or perhaps you're even reaching a perfect 50-50 ratio - 1 input to 1 output. For many people, though, the balance will be more extreme. In some circumstances, you may find that even the top 1% of your inputs are generating 99% of your outputs. Try not to see this as a mistake; see it as an opportunity for growth. Trim the fat, cut out that 99% of mostly useless work, and watch your graph trend upwards.
  4. Playing poker for a living or even taking it seriously as a way to make money recreationally puts a lot of strain on your mental processes. It forces you to examine in great detail the way you think and behave and allows you to get to know your own brain better than you ever have before. This can be both a blessing and a curse at times. One of the primary reasons why poker is so taxing on your brain is because of variance. Your brain doesn't always get positive feedback from a good decision, so you have to rewire it not to need the feedback at all. This is completely contrary to how human beings usually operate. In the real world (by which I mean when we're not at a poker table), we're conditioned to expect that when we do something good, good things happen, and when we do something bad, bad things happen. This is how we learn everything from morality to how to avoid pain and suffering on a physical level. When it comes to our perception of ourselves, this can be especially confusing. It's entirely possible – frequent, even – that we'll make a correct decision at the poker table and receive immediate negative feedback in the form of our opponent showing down a hand at the top of his range or a card coming on the river that loses us the hand. These instances chip away at our mental conditioning and lead us to subconsciously reevaluate our definition of "good decisions." Over time, this can lead to an erosion of our confidence at the tables. The last time we check-called the river with top pair and a weak kicker, we ended up losing to a rivered two pair, so the next time it happens, we no longer trust the instinct that says "call." The last time we check-raise bluffed the turn, we got called and busted the tournament, so we shy away the next time. Of course, sometimes this is a good thing because it can occasionally protect us from mistakes, but the longer it goes on, the more gun-shy we become. Confidence is so important in poker that a loss of it can significantly affect our profitability. Not taking those thin bluff spots, folding to 3bets too often, not making big calls on the river, and attempting only to take the most obvious pre-flop shove spots are just four of a large number of common weaknesses caused by loss of confidence and, over time, these weaknesses will manifest into huge leaks. In some instances, paradoxically, the only thing that can reverse this pattern is one of two things: we make a bad decision and get good feedback by winning the hand (which feels good and lifts us from our funk, but can be damaging because it reinforces bad habits) or break the cycle and follow through with a marginal play because we willed ourselves to overcome our doubts and we receive good feedback as a result. In this second instance, the determining factor in our ability to make the right decision wasn't confidence. We actually didn't really have confidence at that moment. What we had was self-belief. In poker terms, I like to think of confidence as the act of following through on one's instincts, the ability to think clearly and rationally on a moment-to-moment basis without the influence of external factors. Self-belief is a little different. Self-belief doesn't come when you're in the middle of playing a hand and your mind is racing to find the best play. That's when confidence is taking over and driving your thoughts. Confidence is visceral and fluctuates over the course of a session, tournament, or even a specific hand. Self-belief is something that happens away from the table and it's the foundation of confidence itself. Self-belief means the acknowledgement of and trust in your own abilities and skills. It means being able to accurately identify that you are a skilled poker player, thus having a reason to continuously prove to yourself that listening to your instincts is a good idea. It gives you the ability to say during a hand, "I'm not sure about this river shove. It didn't work last time, but I'm usually pretty good at these spots. I'm all-in." If you have self-belief, your confidence can never dip below a certain level. One reason why many novice players lack confidence is not simply because they lack the knowledge of what to do; it's because they know they lack the knowledge, so they don't trust their instincts. They have no self-belief, which gives them no foundation on which to build confidence. If you're struggling with confidence at the tables, try to reinforce your self-belief. Work away from the tables at reminding yourself that you are good at poker, that you have the capacity to improve, and that you have achieved success in the past. Build a foundation. When you come to work on things at the tables and difficult decisions come up, building a greater base of self-belief will allow what confidence you do have to show itself more readily. If you do have confidence, but lack self-belief – a common trait among many overly-aggressive recreational players – you'll find that while you're happy to run big bluffs and make big calls when things are going well, your confidence is easily shattered once you lose a big hand. You retreat into your shell and lose that instinct you had earlier. The short version is that confidence is how you feel at the table, while self-belief is your evaluation of yourself away from it. Confidence is knowing when to pull the trigger, but self-belief is knowing how to use the gun in the first place. If you have one without the other, you risk two things: being too slow on the draw or shooting yourself in the foot.
  5. I’ve done roughly 750 hours of one-to-one poker coaching over the last two and a half years, and one trend has become evident to me recently among lower-stakes players who are learning the game and trying to take their performance to the next level. It occurs to me that many people who believe they’re taking the right path to poker success are, in fact, more or less attempting to do things in reverse. Yes, that’s right, they’re pretty much doing it the wrong way around, with the harder, more specific parts first and the more useful, broad-strokes parts last. Let me explain. What do we mean by ‘in reverse’? In order to define what we mean by doing something in reverse or backwards, we have to know what the right way around would be. In poker, the right way around would - perhaps fairly obviously - be to learn the fundamentals of the game first, and then move on to the more nuanced strategic aspects that take their game to the next level. To first focus on how to become ‘hard to beat’, to use a sporting parlance, and then subsequently develop a winning habit. For the sake of being more specific, we need to know what we mean by ‘fundamentals’, and this is where we run into trouble. Most people consider the ‘fundamentals’ of the game to be things like, “how big should I raise preflop?”, or “at what stack size should I be playing push-fold poker?” - both of these, and many other questions, have broad-strokes answers that would be useful to your average beginner (you might say “between 2x and 3x” or “15bb and under” could be the answers), but there’s a key flaw in all those broad-strokes answers. They’re based on interpretations of how other people usually play, and thus are limited in their effectiveness. The flaws in traditional poker learning What this means is that these broad-strokes answers are, in fact, not broad at all - they’re exploitative strategies based on existing conventions of how other players tend to play. Raising between 2x and 3x is only the best strategy if your opponents are playing a certain way - it’s not inconceivable that you might find a table so tight it could be best to raise 4x with any two cards every hand, for example. I’ve played at such tables in home games. Someone learning these strategies might be able to employ them effectively against other players playing a more ‘default’ strategy, but will run into trouble whenever they come up against a more unorthodox player, since they lack the decision-making framework to know why these things are correct. They can’t adapt, and they get crushed as a result. This means we have to change our definition of ‘fundamentals’. The fundamentals of poker are not simply a guide to how to play mediocre poker against your average random casino regular. The fundamentals of poker are the nuts and bolts of how the game works on a theoretical level. Everything from pot odds through to complex game theory questions, from fold equity through to ICM and tournament stack utility - they are the building blocks of the thought processes that will allow a player to construct a strategy for playing against anyone, anywhere, at any time. They’re everything that should go through your mind when making a poker decision, before you even look at your hand or the opponent. A new blueprint for your game So with all of this in mind, how do we go about learning poker the right way around? To learn the real fundamentals of the game, without shortcuts, and without making unnecessary assumptions that will leave us coming up empty against unorthodox players? It’s actually surprisingly simple - forget about making money. Think about it - if you were going to manufacture the perfect poker player in a laboratory, you’d want them to have a detailed understanding of game theory and all the relevant mathematical concepts before they even sat down at a poker table. What stops players from doing this? The desire to sit at the table and have the chance to actually make some money! If you could play just for learning purposes right up until you had learned the fundamentals to a high level, you’d make a ton of money as soon as you sat down. The ‘right way’ to learn poker is to focus not on what to do, but on how to think - if you can do that, learning what to do with pocket nines facing a raise and a call, or what to do with Ace-King on the button, won’t be necessary. You’ll have all the tools you need to make those decisions. Trust the process, learn the real fundamentals, and let your opponents crush themselves. Be patient - the money will come later.
  6. 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.
  7. [caption width="640"] Winning at poker means learning what it really means to be competitive[/caption] Living in Poker’s Competitive Paradigm An often overlooked aspect of the mental game in today's poker environment is the extent to which taking poker seriously and making an effort to improve your game requires a transformation in the way you look at the world. Becoming a professional poker player in particular forces you to re-evaluate the way you approach life. In many cases, it can mean going from a lifestyle where your paycheck is only loosely related to your performance and nobody is attempting to steal it away from you, to a domain where literally every single other person who does the same job as you benefits each time you perform poorly. It's the ultimate competitive environment. Not even in another individual professional sport like golf or tennis do players have to deal with being part of an economic ecosystem that relies upon a predatory attitude towards exploiting one's opponents in order to make a living. So what does that mean for us as players? Even if you're not a professional player, there are things you can do to ease the adjustment into a competitive paradigm. Here are a few tips. Accepting defeat (and victory) It's crucial not to get too caught up in the idea of winning or losing. If you're a tournament player, you're going to lose more often than you win, and even if you're a heads-up cash player you might only win 60% of your sessions. If every defeat feels like confirmation that you suck, and every victory feels like you're the world's greatest, then your life will be a constant rollercoaster. Your self-esteem needs to be attached to things outside of your poker performance, because the competitive nature of poker will pose a constant threat to your equilibrium if it isn't. At the same time, it's important to give yourself credit for your positive habits and reinforce them appropriately, so when you do find things that contribute to improved performances, you have the self-awareness to continue implementing them in a way that gives you a competitive edge in the long term. Learning not to hold grudges We've all been through the process of playing at a live table with someone we don't like on a personal level. Sometimes it's a guy (or girl) who was a jerk an hour earlier when you asked a question, sometimes it's a guy who insists on critiquing everyone else's play, and sometimes it's a guy who just sucked out on you. Whatever the circumstances, live or online, attempting to ‘win’ every time a situation crops up where you feel like you're in a direct confrontation with an opponent is simply going to lead to mistakes, and most likely a lot of results-orientated thinking to go along with it. Ultimately, there's no reward for stacking that one person you don't like - no more than there is for stacking your best friend. Focusing on battling with one specific player through a misguided desire to prove you're better than they are is a mistake, for the simple reason that nobody is paying any attention to whether you're better than that other guy anyway, so not even your own social metrics are actually going to give you the ‘victory’ you're looking for. You'll get more satisfaction from making the right plays and ignoring the behaviours around you that you don't like. Staying one step ahead We all know poker is becoming more competitive as the years go by, and that increases the demands on those of us seeking to remain at a certain level within the game. At the stage we're at now, if you're not improving, you're declining, because everyone else around you is improving at a fast rate. This is the hard part of living in a competitive paradigm - you're forced to keep improving. If you rest on your laurels for just a year or so, you might only be 70% of the player you were before. It might be difficult sometimes to stay one step ahead of other players - they might have more resources than you, a better coach, or a bigger bankroll - but if you're not at least doing whatever you can, you're falling behind. If you're a recreational player seeking to one day turn pro, consider this as part of your decision. The idea that you will be able to get to a certain point and then just print money for the next 40 years is a complete fantasy. If you're not willing to put in hours upon hours of work to stay ahead of your competition for the duration of your poker career, you might be better off doing something else for a living. Success vs happiness Finally, it's important to recognize that many people do not find the process of testing their limits and achieving their full potential to be particularly fulfilling. You may get to the top in poker and find out it's not as much fun as you thought. This should be part of your thinking throughout your poker journey - if poker isn't making you happy, or at least putting you on the path towards ultimately being able to live the life you want, then why expend so much energy on it? If the effort you're putting in to stay competitive isn't bringing with it a reward, why bother? Competition needs to be a means to an end. It can't just be a way to conquer a specific insecurity or prove to everyone how smart you are. If you find that competing for a living means sacrificing your happiness, then you can always follow a different path. Poker will always be there if you change your mind.
  8. [caption width="640"] Dominik Nitsche has a few tips to help you get better at No Limit Hold'em.[/caption] Every poker player starts their poker education somewhere, even someone with over $10 million in combined live and online tournament earnings like Dominik Nitsche. He may be one of the best No Limit tournament players in the world now, but Nitche’s poker beginnings probably look more like yours than you would expect. While many probably think these high rolling Germans just roll off the assembly line at the Willy Wonka Poker Factory, it took years of work for Nitsche to get his game where it is. He started where many people did, watching poker on TV. So much so that he takes a lot of pride in filling his own commentary with the most useful strategy information he can while still keeping things watchable and fun. “It's important to have someone else with you doing commentary asking the right questions. I think one situation that came up in the broadcast was Daniel Negreanu raising 7-4 suited from early position and the big blind folding a hand as strong as K-9. Situations like these are easy to explain when someone like (my co-commentator) Michael Koener is there to ask the right questions,” says Nitsche. From there, he turned to the internet, where he leaned “how to play 10-10+ and A-K+ with a 20-big-blind stack. Back then it was more than good enough to win at the smallest games and run up a bankroll,” Nitsche says. The next step in his poker career is a familiar one—Harrington on Hold’em. “studied these pretty much every day for two or three months,” Nitsche recalls. “Whenever I'd play, I would refer to hands I saw in the book. Back then, it was by far the best resource. Then, of course, came Kill Everyone, which was a fantastic book .” With his studying, Nitsche built his online bankroll in Sit n Gos, then transitioned from $100 and $200 SNGs to multi-table tournaments. The next step, of course, was live tournament action. He thought he was all set to crush live, but his first experiences on the real-life felt were a bit of a wake-up call. Nitsche very candidly recalls his first experiences: “I played my first big tournament at the Aussie Millions in 2009. Of course it was a big change of pace from mainly online to playing live, but the players back then were all very inexperienced and ready to give their chips away at any point. I thought I was probably the best player at any table. Now in hindsight, I was probably the best from a technical poker strategy point of view, but I was giving away a lot of live tells and missing probably even more.” “One thing I very clearly remember doing is looking at my cards as soon as I got them instead of waiting for my turn. It doesn't seem like a big deal and I only learned about it a couple months later when I met Boris Fragin at the Irish Open. He told me about this and a few other live things after we were done playing for the day. I figured he probably has a good point and maybe we young, online players really do screw up live and miss a lot of things. So, from that point on, I started paying a lot more attention to live tells and I have mostly Boris to thank for it.” The very next tournament Nitsche played was a Latin American Poker Tour event in Argentina he won for over $380,000. Goes to show what happens when you are willing to acknowledge your weak areas and make efforts to improve them. This is something Nitsche continues to do today, after $6 million more in live earnings and another $3 million in online winnings, he is still constantly fine-tuning his game. Nowadays, he spends time talking about the game with his peers, grinds day in and day out, and continues to review his play and look at what is working and what is not. His latest training tool is the work of his friend Roman. It is called Simple Postflop and it is a tool designed to help make game-theory optimal GTO postflop decisions. “His program has been my favorite study tool of choice for the past year and they are doing great things,” Nitsche says. We may all dream of being a high rolling German poker stud, but even Nitsche had to start the same place as the rest of us. However, his journey is a reminder that hard work pays off, that the learning curve in poker is steep and never-ending, but that there is hope that all of us can go from watching poker on TV to playing on the ESPN main stage someday.
  9. [caption width="640"] EPT Barcelona winner Sebastian Malec may have understood the truth about variance (PokerStars photo / Neil Stoddart)[/caption] If you spend a lot of time discussing hands on poker forums, with friends and fellow players, or with a poker coach (or, like me, with poker students), there’s a certain type of thought process with which I guarantee you’ve come into contact. It goes a little bit like this: “Well, I could have called villain’s shove here, but I figured the best case scenario is that I’m flipping, and I don’t really want to take a flip at this stage. If I fold I still have 30 big blinds and that’s plenty to work with.” There are a number of flaws in this logic - each one worthy of its own article - but I want to focus purely on the idea that ‘taking a flip’ is a bad thing. Oftentimes, this mentality comes from an unfamiliarity with the true reality of poker - that it is a game with a higher level of variance than most professionals would care to admit - and oftentimes it comes from other mental game issues, but the most common root cause is simply a natural, human fear of the unknown. Whenever we leave things in the hands of variance, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and that makes us uncomfortable. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why it’s important to spend time overcoming this fear of variance if you want to progress further in poker. It’s Built Into Poker’s Infrastructure Everyone’s accustomed to referring to variance as ‘part of the game’, but that’s not really the full picture - variance is the game. Poker is a game of infinite possibilities, where every scenario is different. In every hand, the variables change - the board cards, your hole cards, the stack sizes, etc. Unlike chess, for example, where the starting and ending point of each game is always the same, a poker game is not beholden to any given structure. Indeed, there exist an almost infinite number of poker variants with different rule sets - the chips and cards being the only things in common. When most people think of variance they think of coin flips, bad beats, all-in situations and big suckouts, but in reality the definition is a lot broader. It encompasses everything that ever happens at a poker table - the variations in the cards that get dealt, the changes in the ways people play, the random instances of dealer mistakes or outside influences affecting the game, and anything else you can think of. You can measure variance in any number of ways, but the bottom line is that there’s absolutely no avoiding it unless you avoid poker altogether, and even the world outside poker is full of variance in its own way. Most of the Time, You Can’t Even See it in Action The truth about variance is that most of it falls into one of three different categories, which could be defined as three ‘levels’ of variance. The first and most obvious is the surface-level or ‘level one’ variance - the obvious stuff, the coin flips and coolers and preflop all-ins and flush draws hitting on the river. These instances are, overwhelmingly, the ones people usually complain about, because they’re the most evident and therefore the easiest to remember. This has the side effect of making them the ones that stick in your mind the longest when you lose, if you have some weaknesses in your mental game. The second level of variance is a little less obvious - ‘level two’ variance involves an understanding of both our own and our opponents’ ranges in specific spots, because it mostly comes down to which part of our opponent’s range we run into in each spot. When variance favours us, we might experience a situation where the top of our all-in three-barrel range runs into the bottom of our opponent’s calling range, and we win a huge pot - when it doesn’t favour us, the opposite happens and we lose. The interaction between our ranges and our opponents’ ranges over time, and the edges we create with the decisions we make, are what help us to ensure we profit in the long run. Finally, ‘level three’ variance is the stuff that happens over multiple hands - you won a big pot one hand, and that created a situation where you could double up through a big stack for a massive pot the next hand, for example. Or, conversely, you lost a big flip and that led to you busting the tournament next hand with 99 versus TT. It could also be said that variance in our decisions or our opponents’ decisions falls into this category too - when our opponent makes an uncharacteristically bad play that they usually wouldn’t make, that’s variance working in our favour. It can be used to your advantage It’s crucial to recognize that one of the biggest advantages of making our peace with variance as poker players is simply that so many other players struggle to do so, and this gives us an edge over those players. If our opponents are going to make mistakes as a result of an unwillingness to risk their whole stack on a coin flip, we’re going to benefit massively. By removing our fear of variance and embracing the need for fluctuations in the game situation, we can actually create additional profitable situations that wouldn’t otherwise exist - it’s hard to build a big stack in a tournament without a little help from variance, for example, and winning big cash game pots can give us the opportunity to sometimes play very deep-stacked against weaker players. Ultimately, variance affects all poker players, and there is some variance in the extent to which each individual is affected. Some players run really hot their entire careers, and some run really cold. We might end up in either category. We don’t control that. To assume it’s easily possible to ‘hit the long run’ and outrun variance is naive, but to attempt to avoid variance altogether makes profit impossible. We can never guarantee a positive outcome, but getting over our fear of negative outcomes is a big step towards progress.
  10. As 2016 becomes 2017, we reach the time of year when everyone starts manically trying to plan the next 12 months of their future in the space of a few days. While many poker players are ahead of the curve in understanding where they want to go in life, it's easy to go through a whole year without thinking much about what you'll be doing the year after. In the case of many recreational poker players, evaluating one’s goals for the year ahead requires making decisions about exactly what kind of role poker will play in their lives. Those with families and careers outside of poker to worry about will sometimes find it difficult to balance their goals and commitments, so it's time for a bit of introspection if you're in that group of people. What do you actually want? The most fundamental question to answer with regard to your future is to first figure out exactly what it is you want out of life. This requires a degree of self-awareness that can be hard to achieve - many people aren't really aware of what their most important motivations in life are. Do you prioritize a career that will allow you to make a lot of money, to provide for your family’s future? Are you a younger person looking to decide on a career path, trying to figure out if poker is right for you? Are you an established pro, happy with your current position but tempted by a life outside of poker? We all have different circumstances and life experiences, and we all have different priorities. You may find that when you really look at what you want out of life, poker doesn't fit that mould at all - or you may find it fits you even better than what you're currently doing. But until you look inward, you won't know for sure. Balancing short-term and long-term perspectives We live in an age of instant gratification, and sometimes it can be easy to let a lack of patience get the better of us. There will be times - particularly when you go through a phase of rapid learning or positive results - where you have a strong motivation to play poker as often as possible. This is unavoidable, and it happens even with the most motivated of players. The trick is to harness these occasions to enable efficient short-term planning, while making a note of how often they come along. If we know how frequent these periods are, we can start to figure out whether it's realistic that we'll be able to maintain motivation in future. If you're the kind of person who only really gets motivated to play poker after you've just won a big tournament, that's not going to be a sustainable mentality. Rather than seeking to change your own fundamental motivations - many of us might be so attracted to the independent lifestyle of a poker player that we might convince ourselves we enjoy playing more than we actually do - it's important to be realistic and plan for both the fluctuations in your short-term motivation, and the things that keep you interested in the long term. The reality is that professional poker isn't for everyone. Surveying the poker landscape Before you make any decisions at all about your future, it makes sense to ensure those decisions are informed ones. You can't make an informed decision about your future in poker until you make some judgment calls about the current landscape you're looking at, and the way you expect both your own game and the game itself to change in future. For example, if you're a cash game player, you'll probably want to think long and hard about where to direct your energy in 2017 and beyond - winrates in online cash games are becoming extremely thin, and it's difficult to put in enough live volume in a year to guarantee a decent income unless you live in a big poker city like Vegas or London. If you're already struggling to make the leap to becoming a winning player in the games you play, you'll want to make an estimate of how much time it might take you to get there, and whether your enjoyment of the game and future aspirations will be high enough to offset the low or negative hourly rate you'll be making as you strive to get there. Making and executing a plan The final step, of course, is to act on the decisions you've made regarding your poker future. But action without direction is futile, and thus it is crucial to spend some time in the planning stage. This means not only knowing your general direction and approach, but knowing the steps that will guide you along the way. Setting your goals and expectations, as well as predicting the most likely challenges and pitfalls you might face, will set you up for success. Even if your goal is not to play much poker because you want to focus on family obligations, a plan is necessary for you to determine what the definition of “not much” might actually be. The bottom line is that it can be difficult or even problematic to try to plan out your poker future too far in advance, since the game changes so fast. But if you want to give yourself the best possible chance of securing the poker future that you want for yourself - whatever that may be - then the preparation process starts today. With that in mind, it's time to ask yourself that first tough question - what do I actually want?
  11. In the 3rd part of our series (read Part 1 here, read Part 2 here), we will focus on a very obvious weakness of tournament players in cash games: Overplaying hands on the Turn and River It's not your fault. You rarely, if ever, have to make any real decision like bet-folding the river or calling a turn check-raise just to fold (or call) a river bet. Because of the shallow stacks in tournaments, you are rarely getting into these situations and, as such, you don't have the practice, experience, and perhaps know-how of what the right play should be. There are two main reasons: 1. It is mathematically correct to stack off lighter when on a shorter stack The reason many tournament players overplay hands on the turn is because in tournaments (with shallow stacks) it is actually correct to stack off lighter (for 30 to 70bb) than you should in a cash game for, let's say, 100bb. Often, stacking off with a certain hand strength becomes automatic, even in a different format where it is wrong. 2. Tournaments attract a lot more recreational players than cash games The number of bad/crazy plays you will see is on a completely different level than what you might encounter in cash games. Sure, we have bad and crazy plays everywhere, but the average tournament is crazier for sure. How to fix it? Let me give you some very general rules: 1. Turn raises are super strong. Folding all one-pair hands that have no flush draw or any other decent draw is the correct play. You can even very comfortably bet-fold two pairs such as 76 on a 76JT board. In a tournament, you'd rarely fold this because it typically is an all-in hand and him having only one hand like AJ that you beat is enough to call. In cash games, you're pretty much always toast. 2. River raises are almost always the nuts - even stronger than turn raises. Below NL200, people rarely, if ever, bluff raise the river. Even if their line makes very little sense, you will always end up looking at some slow-played hand. My team of players is very professional about these situations since they are professionals. River raises are a bluff less than 10% of the time. So, unless you beat a value hand or have a super strong read, folding to a raise is a very good, standard play. 3. Because of 1) and 2), you should not go into check-calling too much either. The fact that you should fold to river raises very frequently does not mean you should start checking more. This is a logical fallacy. Actually, you can very comfortably bet because if you only get raised by better hands, you're not losing value. That's it. Now it’s time to go out and practice. Play some cash games at a limit you're comfortable with and see if you agree with what you have learned in this article. Gordon BPC is the founder and head coach of bestpokercoaching.com. BPC became famous through its coaching for profits program, which has transformed mediocre and losing players to making $100,000 in profits in only nine months. What makes BPC different? They publicly document the progress of their students and prove that what they teach brings real provable results. To learn more about BPC and their mission, visit them at bestpokercoaching.com.
  12. “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. Strategy 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. Perspective 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. Performance 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.
  13. One of the most common questions I get asked early on in the coaching process is about putting together a structured, well-thought-out playing schedule for poker. Recreational players and aspiring professionals alike all have to deal with the reality that poker often has to take a back seat to ‘real-life’ issues - family, work, and social commitments often make it difficult to make time for poker, especially if you’re not yet seeing significant financial returns. The issue is doubly complex for tournament players, who don’t usually have full control over how long their playing sessions last - this can make scheduling even more difficult, and can sometimes result in players moving away from MTTs entirely in favor of SNGs or cash games. What can be done to overcome these obstacles? How can we put together a workable playing schedule while still preventing poker from getting in the way of other aspects of our lives? Is it even worth it to do this, instead of simply playing poker at every opportunity when an appropriate window of time comes along? In order to answer these questions, we first need to understand the benefits of a well-organised poker schedule. You don’t even need to get better at poker Many people direct their improvement energies in entirely the wrong places, particularly when they first start out in the game. They focus heavily on gaining a better understanding of the strategy involved in the game, without recognising that improvements in actual performance - i.e. allowing themselves to access the full extent of their poker knowledge while playing - will immediately improve their bottom line. In this respect, you can make more money without actually getting any better at the game. Once you’ve gotten to the point of actually being a winning player, managing your schedule effectively can help you put in more volume and make more money as a result. Struggling to get volume is one of the biggest issues among players who have work or family commitments to work around, and setting yourself a specific schedule that allows for those commitments to interfere with poker as little as possible will also help you make more money before you even see any improvements in your game. Understand your lifestyle and circumstances Becoming more conscious of the factors most likely to affect you is the first step to taking appropriate measures to face challenges effectively. If you’re not cognizant of the extent to which your life circumstances affect your chances of poker success, you’ll likely have a constant blind spot as to the effect your lifestyle has on your poker. For example, if you’re the kind of person who has never even thought seriously about developing a consistent habit of exercise, then you’ll ignore the potential benefits of adopting such a habit with a view to positively influencing your poker - the same goes for the effects of a healthy diet. Similarly, if you’re preoccupied with professional success outside of poker to the extent that your job heavily dominates your time away from the poker table, you may find that poker is simply not high enough on your list of priorities for extensive long-term success to be a likely possibility. The same goes for having a family - it’s unreasonable to expect that there will ever be a time where you can sacrifice family commitments in favour of poker without negatively affecting your family life, so you need to ask yourself if being able to spend less time with your spouse or children is really worth it for the sake of whatever extra income or enjoyment 5-10 extra hours of poker per week might bring you. Don’t be overly ambitious Players who first start out in poker talk a lot about ‘catching the poker bug’, and the extent to which this can make them want to spend every available minute studying and learning about the game, for the simple reason of enjoying the learning process. They’ll also start wanting to sacrifice other things in their lives for the sake of playing more or studying more, and this is where things get tricky. When you don’t have a clearly-defined schedule, it’s easy to allow your enthusiasm for poker to get ahead of itself, and start setting unrealistic targets regarding how much you’re going to play or study - indeed, even when you do start sitting down to choose your playing hours and structure your learning, it’s easy to think that you’ll always be motivated enough to play a four-hour session after work every day, or to watch ten hours of training videos a week, without recognising the likely changes and potential fluctuations in your motivations as time goes by. A month, a year or five years from now, you might feel totally different about the game than you do right now, and your life circumstances might be radically altered. You might get married, have kids, lose your job or gain a new one, and your attitude to poker will change as a result. To aspire to play or study more poker than is realistic will end up getting in the way of other things - causing you to resent poker and lose motivation - as well as contributing to burnout and making it harder for you to play your A-game when you do play. If you’re playing the right amount of poker to where you’re always motivated to play but never in a state of over-excitement, that’s where you’ve reached a balanced schedule. Quality over quantity Finally, if we’re trying to optimise our schedule, it’s worth recognising that grinding the maximum possible number of hands of poker might not always be the best option. In many cases, our life circumstances might dictate we’re not in the best position to play at any given moment - for example, we might frequently be very mentally or physically tired after a long day at work, and thus attempting to play a long poker session right afterwards might be unfeasible. In this respect, it is much more important to play poker when we’re able to play our best, rather than simply playing as much as possible - indeed, playing when we’re not 100% might reduce our EV in certain games below zero, which makes it a bad idea to play at all. When these instances occur, we might consider how we could use that portion of time more effectively without necessarily needing to put in volume at the tables and risk a high-variance or low-EV session. One of the most useful ways we can do this is to convert playing time into studying time - we may not have enough energy for four hours of decision-making, but we might very easily have the energy to watch two training videos or read a few articles, or even schedule a session with our coach. This can help us to make the most of the time we have available to us, and avoid focusing on quantity of volume over quality to the point where it negatively impacts our results. With this mind, you’ll be able to pick a schedule that works to improve your results and give you a platform for improvement, rather than a scattergun approach that might have a greater than 50% chance of failure in the long run.
  14. [caption width="640"] Poker's learning curve is steep - but the payoff can be huge[/caption] Making Economical Learning Decisions One of the most difficult aspects of attempting to make the leap from losing poker player to long-term winner is knowing what to learn, and when. Without a coach to guide you, it can be easy to get lost and develop a learning pattern that is somewhat scattered or haphazard. But even with the aid of a coach or a training site, it’s easy to spin your wheels for a long time learning things that just aren’t that useful. The reality of poker is that certain situations are going to have a bigger effect on your long-term bottom line than others. If you’re a tournament player, your performance at final tables will have a huge impact, as will your overall game selection. If you’re a cash game player, your ability to identify and exploit weak players as quickly as possible will probably be more useful than your knowledge of GTO ranges for playing against regulars, at least at low stakes. So how can we structure our learning to avoid wasted time? What most people get wrong A lot of people begin their poker learning process by looking at their own game and trying to figure out where their biggest weaknesses are. This is obviously a pretty sound process in theory, but the problem is that in any domain, our biggest weaknesses are the ones we can’t spot ourselves - the ones that lie in the ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ area of the Adult Learning Model, as identified by Jared Tendler in The Mental Game of Poker. What we need to do, therefore, is build our learning from the ground up, in a comprehensive style that doesn’t just focus on plugging leaks in the short term, but on furthering our overall understanding of the game so that we don’t have to focus on each leak individually. We can then use this understanding to develop detailed, specific knowledge of the concepts that are most useful to us in the games that we play - this not only corrects previous leaks, but unearths new strategies and opportunities that we would never have noticed by only focusing on mistakes. Resisting the temptation The hardest thing about structured learning is to embrace the idea that you’re never going to be able to close up all your leaks overnight, and that your ideas of what you should be studying are not necessarily correct. Just because you feel like you made a big 3-betting mistake the previous day doesn’t mean your 3-betting is the most important area for you to study - it’s results-oriented to think like that. We have to resist the temptation, therefore, to simply dive into trying to fix whatever issues and study whatever areas are currently gnawing away at our confidence, and start focusing on what’s most important in our games. The simplest example here is that if we play, let’s say, 1,000 hands in a session, we’re going to have a bare minimum of 1,000 pre-flop decisions to make, and that’s if we fold every hand. Most likely it’s going to be closer to 1,300 or 1,500. Following on from there, we might have 250-300 flop decisions, maybe 75-100 turn decisions, and perhaps 25-50 river decisions. These 25-50 river decisions are certainly important given the fact that pot sizes will be bigger, but our decisions in these spots are going to be even more difficult on average if we consistently make mistakes on earlier streets - we might make more pre-flop mistakes in a session than the number of total rivers we actually see. It makes no sense, therefore, to study river play when we’re still making frequent pre-flop, flop or turn mistakes. Don’t be fooled by the movies! The image of poker in the mainstream media has been largely cultivated by movies and television over the years. Films like Rounders, Casino Royale (the movie that got me into poker), Lucky You, and Runner, Runner have - with varying degrees of accuracy - attempted to depict poker in a way that glamorizes and dramatizes the game, where every hand is a huge cooler, a massive bluff or a big suck-out. You didn’t see James Bond taking down any six-big-blind pots with a carefully-timed flop continuation bet, that’s for sure. This leads many novice poker players to believe that what they have to do in order to win at poker is learn how to make the big bluffs and hero-calls, to be the most aggressive player at the table, and run everyone over. They figure since it’s easy to win pots when you make a big hand, all they need to do is to learn how to win pots when they don’t have a big hand, and the game will be easy. The reality, though, is that the game is much more mundane than the big screen would have you believe. You might play half a million hands of poker without coming across a decision that requires you to identify the right spot to fold a full house on the river, and if you’re a low-stakes live player, you could easily play an entire eight-hour session without even having to know how to respond appropriately to a normal-sized 3-bet. The commonplace decisions, therefore, are a much bigger priority for beginners. Progressive complexity The answer to developing a well-balanced learning process is to be constantly revising and adapting your focus. Begin with simple spots, and progress to more complex ones, but without leaving yourself with any huge gaps in your knowledge. A tournament player might begin by studying short-stacked play, then move on to basic deeper-stacked pre-flop play, basic flop play, basic turn play, and basic river play. They might then revisit short-stacked play in more detail, and follow up with detailed looks at the other categories. A cash game player might skip the short-stack section, but continue with the same model. It’s unreasonable to expect yourself to understand a very complex river decision that requires a detailed understanding of your opponent’s pre-flop range choices, before you’ve actually studied the decision-making processes that generate those pre-flop choices in the first place. It’s unreasonable to expect a high win-rate at short stacks before you’ve studied push-fold ranges. Many people expect these things of themselves at times when it’s just not feasible, and their learning process is skewed as a result. They’re learning inefficiently, and in a way that results in hours upon hours of essentially wasted time, that might have little to no impact on their EV. If you can identify the most important skill sets for you in the games that you play, you might find your leaks quickly fix themselves.
  15. [caption width="640"] Poker players need to follow these tips to avoid losing focus easily over longer sessions.[/caption] Staying Focused During Long Live Sessions With the 2016 World Series of Poker currently in full flow, many poker players are spending a lot of time at the poker table this summer. With the average day’s play in a WSOP event lasting anywhere between eight and 12 hours, this can be a gruelling schedule, especially for professionals grinding five to seven days a week throughout most of June and July. A lot of recreational players might be unaccustomed to playing sessions of that length, and as a result they will find themselves flagging during the last two to three hours of each day. It’s not uncommon to see certain tables get a lot tighter as the day goes on, and players start looking to lock up their spot for Day 2, rather than put themselves in difficult spots when they’re feeling tired. Here’s how to avoid becoming one of those players, and keep your edge as high as possible throughout the day. Eat right and drink lots of water It’s most likely fairly obvious to you, no matter which country you live in, that modern society is displaying an increasing tendency towards producing people who have simply adapted to being extremely unhealthy on a physical level. Most people’s default state is to be lacking the right kinds of nutrients in their diet, and to be dehydrated on a daily basis. This almost constant state of poor health leads many people to believe that the way their brain operates most of the time, is the way it has to operate all the time. This is simply factually incorrect, and if you were to compare a sample of poker sessions played after eating McDonald’s and drinking four Starbucks coffees with a sample played after eating chicken salad and drinking four bottles of water, the results would shock you. Your brain is significantly more efficient when it gets what it needs. If you want to make those last 2-3 hours of your session more profitable, take multiple bottles of water with you to the casino (don’t just rely on the tiny ones they’ll give you for free), and either pack your lunch in advance, or have somewhere healthy in mind to eat from. Consider lowering your caffeine intake and switching to green tea instead of coffee - this has the added benefit of making you more relaxed, instead of more anxious. Keep yourself in good physical condition This is another one that almost goes without saying - if you looked at a sample of the 100 best poker players in the world right now, I would imagine that only a handful would have a higher-than-average body fat percentage, and none of them would be significantly overweight. That’s not really about weight, and it’s definitely not about body image (since poker is very accepting of all kinds of people, no matter what they look like) - it’s about conditioning, and the simple fact that people who are in extremely good physical shape are significantly more likely to be in extremely good mental shape, and people who are in extremely good mental shape are significantly more likely to be able to play better poker, for longer. If you’re a professional poker player who doesn’t have a personal trainer, you’re probably making a mistake. If you’re a recreational player who doesn’t believe that becoming a healthier person physically would make you a better poker player, you’re incorrect. There’s an old saying that “success leaves a trail”, and the trail left by almost everyone succeeding in poker these days suggests that physical fitness is becoming increasingly essential for long-term poker success. It is certainly essential if you want to still be mentally sharp after eight hours sitting at a poker table. Sleep, sleep, and sleep some more This one might seem less obvious to some people, given that the ‘grinder’ mentality seems to be fairly common these days - after all, who wants to think about sleep when you could be playing more poker? The reality, though, is that if you’re so focused on putting in volume that you’re always doing it at 70% effectiveness because you’re always one or two hours short on sleep, then you’d be doing equally well putting in 70% of that volume at 100% effectiveness, since the increase in your ROI would most likely greatly offset the decrease in volume. With that in mind, if you’re going to be playing long sessions at the WSOP or elsewhere, you need to be getting enough sleep beforehand. What that amount is varies for each person, but there’s almost nobody for whom it’s less than seven hours. You’ll find that when you’re well-rested going into a day’s play, you’re less prone to tilt, less prone to passive play, and less prone to missing out on information given away by your opponents. You’re also more apt to notice the moments late on in a day’s play where your opponents are slacking off, and that means more EV for you. Relax, be sociable and disconnect between hands Finally, I think your attitude at the table needs to be part of your approach, but I’m going to suggest the opposite to what many people do. Some players throw on the headphones, disappear into their own little bubble and try to maintain 100% focus on the action at all times. Personally, I’m not a fan of this approach - you might think you’re giving away less information this way, but in reality you’re probably missing out on a lot of info from your opponents, and you’re draining your focus a lot more quickly. Your brain can’t concentrate for 10 hours straight. The guys with the headphones on will be finding things a lot more difficult towards the end of the day, when they simply can’t maintain 100% focus for long enough - it’s important to give yourself the opportunity to disconnect in between hands, whether by conversing with other players or just simply thinking about other things while the dealer is shuffling the deck. Being conversational will allow you to pick up more information by knowing your opponents on a personal level, keep you alert and awake, and most likely keep you relaxed - and above all, poker is a lot more fun this way! With this approach, you’ll increase both your EV, and your enjoyment of the game.
  16. How to Improve Your Poker EQ It doesn’t take much reading to find someone equating poker success with intelligence, or the other way around. It seems relatively obvious that successful poker players are, at least as a population, of above average intelligence. What doesn’t get discussed, though, is the other side of the equation, and the extent to which being a successful poker player requires not only a high IQ, but a high EQ as well. What is EQ? EQ stands for Emotional Quotient (in contrast to IQ, Intelligence Quotient). EQ isn’t discussed as often as IQ outside of poker either, so don’t feel bad if you’re unfamiliar with the term. In many ways, the reason it isn’t as highly-valued in society is because it’s harder to brag about - while there does exist an established system of EQ measurement, paradoxically, the people with the highest EQs tend to veer away from wanting to measure themselves in comparison with others. Your Emotional Quotient is your ‘emotional intelligence’ level. It’s your ability to recognize different emotions in yourself and others, to label them, identify them, and deal with them. People with low EQ tend to be very ‘caught in the moment’ - they might struggle with anger management issues, or depression, or anxiety. People with high EQ, on the other hand, tend to be more at ease with themselves, without the same kind of neurotic ‘inner struggle’ that plagues so many of us in today’s society. It should be mentioned at this point that the concept of EQ is one that has come in for criticism within psychological research communities over the past 10-20 years. Without delving too far into the reasons for these criticisms, suffice it to say that while the concept may be flawed as a tool for analyzing the deeper reaches of the human mind, it is nevertheless a simple, useful concept that can help most of us understand ourselves a little better. Developing Your Awareness of Others You can probably already see the ways in which high-EQ individuals have a higher aptitude towards poker - they’re less prone to tilt, they’re more balanced in how they approach the game, and they’re more in tune with their opponents. Much has been written of how to reduce and combat tilt at the poker table (to the point where any discussion of the concept here would be moot), and work-life balance is a concept that would require an article of its own, so let’s focus on being more ‘in tune’ with our opponents. How can we go from being completely ignorant of our opponents and their emotional state - which is how we are before we sit down at the table - to being as ‘in tune’ as we can be? It starts with what one might call, ‘active awareness’, and this in turn, starts away from the table. It begins with addressing the fact that most of us are so wrapped up in ourselves and our emotions on a daily basis that we forget to consider the emotional states of the people around us. It’s hard to think about the idea of selflessness as a concept that applies to poker, but it does - if we want to learn to understand our opponents and how they play, we have to understand other people and how they think and feel, and if we want to do that, we have to turn our focus outward. If you, like many people, spend most of your time trapped in your own head without taking the time to consider other people’s feelings, you’ll find it harder and harder to understand their points of view, and almost impossible to figure out why they do the things they do at the poker table. At-the-Table Applications So how can we apply this concept in a practical way? How can we start behaving like high-EQ poker players at the table? Well, active awareness involves paying as much attention as possible to what’s going on around you. Look at your opponents’ mannerisms, the way they carry themselves, the way they talk - are they friendly? Do they look like they’re happy to be there, or are they frustrated that they’re now on their third tournament of the day with no cashes? If you’re playing online, consider the background of the people you’re playing against. Are these recreational players? If so, how are they likely to feel about this low-stakes tournament? Could they be ‘scared money’ when you get deep? On the other hand, if they’re professionals, how big are their egos? Are they all the kind of players who hate giving up a pot to another pro, and can’t find the fold button? Those players certainly exist. You might think all of this falls into the category of ‘getting a read’ on your opponent - that’s only half-true. In reality, ‘getting a read’ is all about making a judgment of an opponent’s emotional state and thought process, and figuring out how all of that might affect the way they actually play. If you don’t think you have the EQ to understand how the ebb and flow of a poker game is going to affect your opponents’ feelings and the way they play as a result, good news! You’re a human being, which means you have the capacity to think and feel in a way which adapts to the emotional landscape of the world around you. Trust in that, and as your understanding of your own emotions and the emotions of others improves, your poker EQ will skyrocket.
  17. [caption width="640"] Creating new habits could be they key to becoming a winning poker player.[/caption] We all have habits, both inside and outside of poker. Some are good, some are bad, but if you’ve ever tried to break a bad one, you’ll know how difficult it can be. But developing positive habits is crucial to success in any area of life, and poker players struggle against bad habits more than most. Let’s take a closer look at how your poker habits might be costing you money. How do we develop poker habits? In poker, many of our habits are a product of deep-seated, subconscious perceptions about the game or about ourselves as people. For example, someone with a significant tilt problem might believe, deep down, that they’re an unlucky person, and thus that belief manifests itself in a tilt reaction every time they take a bad beat. Their beliefs condition them to respond in a certain way to a stimulus that appears to confirm a negative reality, and every further confirmation produces a stronger response, until tilt becomes a habit. Sometimes, habits are formed simply through a lack of conscious direction. The best example of this is players who go straight into a poker session without any kind of mental warm-up or meditation beforehand - it’s not so much the case that they don’t have a habit of preparing adequately for their sessions, as much as it is that they do have a habit of not preparing. Not doing something is an action in itself, and thus habits have to be consciously built if they are to become second nature. Many of us spend so much time focusing on at-the-table decision-making that we neglect to observe how many negative habits might be seeping into our preparation. Consciously challenging an unconscious habit In order to approach correcting a habit we have identified as damaging to our game (e.g. a tilt problem, lack of preparation, always bluffing on the river, always quitting a session after the first bad beat, etc.), we first need to recognise whether there are any subconscious assumptions creating the habit. In the last two examples above, the assumptions might be ‘giving up on winning the pot is a sign of weakness’, or ‘if I run bad early in my session, I will run bad all session, so quitting is better’. In each of these cases, it’s important that we first challenge the underlying assumption, and then actively replace it with something more beneficial. If your bad habit is that you always bluff the river after you miss a draw, no matter what the board is, you might want to do some in-depth, mathematical analysis of these hands and figure out whether bluffing is even remotely profitable in those spots, and then consciously trying to find spots to give up on the river in-game. If your habit is quitting too early, you might try revisiting some of your assumptions about variance, and perhaps reminding yourself of previous sessions where you lost a few pots early on and then came back to have a winning day, and then practicing playing for an extra 30 minutes or 1 hour after you’ve already decided to quit. Forcing your brain to confront the times where it’s ignoring reality is important, which brings us to our final point. Embrace the discomfort! Challenging your bad habits and developing better ones is uncomfortable. It will require re-examining your perceptions and behaviours, and being honest about the extent to which you are consciously adapting those perceptions and behaviours to produce the right results. There will be times where you feel like adopting a new, positive habit is actually having a negative impact - this is where it’s important not to be results-oriented, and stay patient. Just because you did a mental warm-up and had a losing session doesn’t mean going back to never warming up is a better idea. They say it takes 30 days for a habit to be implemented to the point where it won’t automatically disappear without conscious effort. In poker, it’s arguably longer than that, since you’re not playing poker every single day. It might take 30, 50, 70, or 100 sessions before you’re able to fix a bad habit that’s costing you money, but taking the time to irreversibly fix a small leak in your game can have a massive impact - imagine that impact being spread out over all the hands you’ll play for the rest of your life. That’s how important your habits are, so don’t neglect them. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle
  18. [caption width="640"] With practice, poker players can learn to use their emotions to their advantage.[/caption] As poker players, we’re frequently encouraged to believe that regular everyday human emotions are the enemy, and that they’re something we should strive to eliminate in order to play better poker. While this is grounded in some logic to the extent that it is true that our brains are better at logical calculation when they are unencumbered by emotional stimuli, it’s absurd to think that we can completely eliminate the attachment of any emotion whatsoever to our poker endeavours. Emotions exist, and they’re not going away We all experience emotions every day, in a variety of ways, and they can be triggered by anything that falls within the bounds of the human experience. On an evolutionary level, our emotions exist to protect us - they’re a survival mechanism. We’re conditioned to feel good about the things that help us to continue existing as living beings, and we feel bad about the things that threaten us. This is why it makes sense that good results generate good emotions and bad results generate bad ones, especially in poker - capitalist society dictates that making money is the way we guarantee our survival, and thus the process of trying to make money by playing poker taps into our evolutionary instincts in a way we can’t always predict. When we gamble and lose, we’re conditioned to believe that our survival is being threatened because we have less money than we did before, and money is crucial to our survival. It’s unreasonable to think that we can overcome this instinct just by being aware of it - you can’t fight thousands of years of human evolution. Instead, what’s important is to generate an environment for ourselves where we’re not trying to fight our instincts - we’re simply putting ourselves in a position where busting a poker tournament doesn’t threaten our survival, so that instinct is never triggered. This obviously means that our emotions are likely to be set off more significantly when we’re playing with a short bankroll, since every tournament bust-out or big cash game hand we lose is a bigger threat to the survival of our bankroll if we’re almost broke. Thus, the good news is that we control the bankroll we play with, the games we play in, and the types of players we choose to tackle (to an extent), so we have a certain degree of control over our circumstances. We can use this control to put ourselves in the situations most conducive to playing without strong emotional stimuli attached to them, and make better decisions at the table as a result. They affect the way you play, even if you tell yourself otherwise I’ve heard many players say that they do tilt from time to time, but that it doesn’t affect the way they play. This is absolutely false in every single instance, bar none. All this statement means is that they lack the awareness to identify the ways in which tilt or strong emotions affect the way they play, or that up until now they haven’t been able to pinpoint specific instances of it happening. The reason this statement can never be true is, once again, a question of science - since your brain is configured in a way that makes rational decision-making more difficult when strong emotions are present and your brain’s chemistry is different, it’s simply not possible to make decisions in the same way. When you’re experiencing strong emotions, the reason why you act irrationally is because those emotions are literally obstructing the mechanisms that allow you to act rationally in the first place. You may be a good enough player to have learned certain things to the level of unconscious competence and be able to survive in the games you play even while on tilt - perhaps you only play short-stacked turbo tournaments, for example, and you know your push-fold ranges by heart. But the problem is that as soon as you step into a game that requires using that part of your brain that needs to think a little harder about things, strong emotions will get in the way, so all you’re really doing is avoiding the issue and hoping you don’t get into a situation that requires higher-level thinking. Using emotions to predict your future So how can we actually use these emotions to our advantage? It requires thinking about each hand as a sequence of decisions, and recognising that one decision follows another in leading us deeper down the ‘rabbit-hole’ that begins preflop and ends at the river. If you’re making a decision preflop about which you’re unsure or lacking confidence, then there’s a significantly greater chance of your making a mistake later on in the hand, simply because the hand began with a small emotional stimulus which is likely to grow. If you’re lacking confidence or not sure if a certain play is correct, that’s fear showing itself. When fear shows itself, your next decision will be more difficult, as your brain has begun experiencing emotion that will cloud your judgment. The decision after that will be even more difficult, and so on, and of course each decision is more significant than the last since the pot is getting bigger and bigger. Theoretically, therefore, our goal in using our emotions to guide us is to recognise that the more uncertain or fearful we are earlier in a hand (or, conversely, the more aggressive and perhaps even angry we are - think about a hand where you’re so intent on beating an opponent you don’t like that you decide to 3-bet them with a trashy hand for no reason), the more likely we are to make bad decisions later on in that same hand. Since such a big portion of our EV as poker players comes from the quality of the decisions we make on the turn and river in particular, simply being aware that our emotions are likely to be more intense when we get to those streets if we make a preflop or flop decision we’re not sure about can help us minimise the mistakes we make later in hands. As we get better as players, the uncertainty, fear, aggression or anger we might feel in every situation will decrease, since we’re more confident in our ability. With this development, we free up mental space to make better turn and river decisions, and reduce the impact of emotions on our EV. Over time, this impact compounds itself, and we’re eventually able to play fearlessly on every street. Take note of the times you experience emotions in the earlier stages of a hand, respond accordingly by studying these situations and minimising their occurrence, and you’ll be able to harness this emotion for future gain.
  19. When players first start out in poker, one thing they tend to struggle with is the idea of Expected Value (EV). Getting used to the idea that there is a kind of 'theoretical money' that takes the place of actual dollars is a big step. Many people struggle with it and they end up thinking in very results-oriented terms throughout the early parts of their poker career. Conventional poker logic would tell you that EV is the only thing that matters because in the long run, if you maximize your EV, you'll maximize your profit. Obviously this is true, but I want to buck the trend a little bit and talk about a few reasons why you might want to keep your eye on the money in your pocket just as often as your EV. The Importance of EV Of course, I don't intend to undersell the concept of EV or its usefulness. It's pivotal to understanding any hand of poker, any concept, and any decision we make at the tables. We couldn't analyze poker hands in the way we do without using EV to help us. The poker training industry would collapse and we'd all be a hell of a lot worse at the game than we are. As poker players, we should bear in mind the EV of every decision we make – the amount of money it will theoretically make us if we continue to make that decision ad infinitum. The concept can even be used outside of poker – many players find it extremely useful to consider the 'life EV' of certain decisions. For example, you might be weighing up two different job offers and decide that while the first might be marginally more enjoyable, the second one gives you more time off to spend with your family, which is a more '+ life EV' decision if the goal in life is to be happy and fulfilled. The Pitfalls of EV There are a few things that EV as a concept doesn't consider. It takes into account the long-run, but it doesn't tell us how much variance is involved or how long it might take us to reach the 'long run.' If we think a decision is +EV, but there's so much variance involved that we have to make that decision many thousands of times before we can prove that it actually is +EV, then the question becomes, "How likely are we to ever get to the point where we can even be sure we were correct in our assumption?" In many cases, such as the decision to enter a tournament where we believe ourselves to be marginally +EV, we might have to play that tournament 1,000 times before we even have a vague idea of our true ROI or perhaps 10,000 before we have an accurate idea. This is absurd in most cases, particularly with live tournaments. It would take a marginally winning player decades of live poker to figure out his true ROI. Does he really want to spend his time that way? Probably not. There are better ways he could make money. Tournament ICM as an Example Tournament ICM is the best example of a mathematical poker concept that proves to us that real dollars are what matters. It takes the chip value of a player's stack in a tournament and converts it to an actual dollar-value metric that can be used to aid the player in decisions. It recognizes that our priority in a tournament is to come away with the most money in our pocket, not to win the most theoretical chips. There's no prize for the guy who makes a +EV call but commits ICM suicide. Similarly, in cash games we might even be able to come up with metrics by which we actually benefit by focusing on real dollars rather than EV. An example of this might be the player who sacrifices a steady, regular income at lower stakes for a marginally higher income at higher stakes with much more variance. What is he or she really going to do with those extra theoretical $100 per month? Wouldn't they rather play at a level where they have a much greater level of confidence in their actual income level and a lesser degree of variance? It's a bit like taking a less enjoyable job because it requires you to work 30 minutes less per week. Are those 30 minutes really going to make you that much happier? There's a threshold for where the more enjoyable job becomes a better idea, just as there's a threshold where lower variance, greater security, and a greater likelihood of actual money in your pocket become more important than a little extra EV. Money, Bankroll Management, and Game Selection Of course, the factor we're ignoring is that maybe the above cash game player is already financially well-off and doesn't need to worry about a little extra variance. That might be the case in many instances. Well, this is just another example of where the amount of real money in our possession starts to dictate our game selection decisions and bankroll management in a very obvious way. Hypothetically, our goal as poker players is always to make the most money possible. But what if you already have more money than any poker player could reasonably make? There are always 'businessman' players in the Million-Dollar One Drop and the high-stakes cash games – do they believe they're +EV? Probably not, but they simply don't care. They're willing to pay real money for the experience of playing with the best players in the world. Conversely, what if you find yourself on the bubble of the WSOP Main Event and you're a satellite winner who came to Vegas with $2,000 in their pocket? Cashing for upwards of $10,000 would be a huge victory for you. It would be absurd for someone to think about winning the tournament in that situation, and playing simply for the reward of cashing the tournament is comfortably enough for many people. The guy who can't pay his bills at home but bubbles the Main Event because he couldn't fold a pocket pair pre-flop? He's not a smart man. The Bottom Line Of course, in less extreme situations, bearing in mind the EV of your decisions is always going to be a useful habit to get into. But many players lose sight of why we're all in this game. We're not in it to win the respect of our peers for making the most +EV decisions in a vacuum; we're in it to make the most money possible. We might also be in it for enjoyment, competition, or any number of other reasons, all of which are valid considerations in every decision we make, but money is why poker exists. The game isn't played in a vacuum.
  20. Poker is, for the most part, a game of exploitation. The profitability – or lack thereof – of any given poker player is directly related to his ability to ascertain the strategies of opponents and identify the most profitable responses to those strategies. This is part and parcel of being a poker player and most players who reach a certain level are able to comfortably shift their mindset toward analyzing their opponents almost without thinking, at least to some degree. Sometimes, however, this unconscious and almost instinctive analysis can actually reflect back onto our own game. On occasion, we slip so far into the mentality of focusing on our opponents' strengths and weaknesses that we forget to consider our own. We think so hard during a hand about how to play optimally versus our opponent's range that we fail to incorporate into our analysis the possibility that our opponent may already be adapting to a weakness in our own game and changing his strategy accordingly. What's happening here is that we're being too shortsighted – we're not giving our opponent enough credit and we're neglecting to anticipate how our attempts to exploit them might leave holes in our defenses. What can we do about this? Well, there are two options. One is very difficult and takes a lot of practice and the other is a lot simpler. The first option is to work towards playing a more un-exploitable or "game theory optimal" strategy. This kind of strategy is hard to actually identify since any estimation of GTO post-flop play relies upon accurate estimations of our opponents' ranges in the first place and it's even harder to execute correctly in-game. It takes a very, very long time and a lot of experience to even come close to playing GTO post-flop poker and even then no human will probably ever be able to achieve it on a unilateral basis simply because of the unbelievably complex nature of No Limit Hold'em at the highest level of detail. The second option, therefore, is preferable in almost all circumstances. It relies upon the practice from which this article draws its title – if you want to improve your ability to anticipate your opponents' responses to your play and learn more about the strengths and weaknesses in your game overall, it's time to start playing devil's advocate. We must put ourselves in our opponents' shoes and consider how a thinking opponent might approach the process of trying to beat us. This sounds like a difficult thing to do, but it's actually a lot easier than you might think. Let's assume for the purposes of this discussion that you're actively and regularly engaged in reviewing and analyzing your own poker performance and you frequently look back at hands you've played in order to correct flaws in your game (hint: if you're not doing this, you should be). All it requires to learn to exploit yourself is to simply shift your perspective when you conduct these analyses. Ordinarily, you might analyses your game by opening up your favorite piece of poker analysis software, running through a hand, considering your opponent's range, and evaluating whether you made the right play. However, if you want to go one step further, you need to start looking from your opponent's point of view and considering your entire range in each spot. This is a pretty simple process – if you're using HoldemResources Calculator or CardRunnersEV, these two programs both have built-in facilities for calculating maximum exploitative play solutions, which will tell you how you can exploit your opponents in a given spot and, in turn, how your opponent could exploit your exploitation of them. If you're using a simpler program, however, or if you're merely hoping to improve your theoretical understanding of your own game and where your leaks might be located, the process is as simple as hiding your hole cards during a review and asking the right questions. Hiding your own hole cards forces you to consider your entire range in a specific spot rather than thinking purely about what hand you have at a given moment. It puts the plays you make and the bet sizes you choose into a new context and allows you to identify spots where you might be telegraphing your hand to a great extent. It's almost guaranteed that the first time you review a tournament with your hole cards hidden, you'll find at least a few spots where you think to yourself, "Well, damn, I guess it looks like I have the nuts here!" This is the point where you can start to really think about how you would play against yourself if you were in your opponent's shoes. What tendencies do you exhibit? Would you be floating more flops against you? Would you check-raise the turn more often? How would you approach defending the big blind? How often should your opponent be folding in that previous spot where your bet looked like the nuts? All of these issues and many others will come into play once you start to get a feel for what your game looks like from your opponents' perspectives. If you feel inclined to do so, you can end the process by looking at what hand you actually had and evaluating the play you made. However, it's generally more useful to continue looking at things from a self-exploitation perspective and think less about how good or bad your play was and more about what the hand you ended up having says about your range. If you had a weak hand that you originally thought you would have folded pre-flop, then perhaps your range was wider than you expected – you can then evaluate the potential adjustments you would expect your opponent to make versus that wider range, for example. The process of adaptation and counter-adaptation, exploitation and counter-exploitation, and adjustment and counter-adjustment never ends in poker. The second you make an adjustment to a play your opponent makes, it becomes a possibility that they'll start adapting in a different way that will completely invalidate your attempt to exploit them. Their attempts to exploit you will dictate what your options are when it comes to exploiting them in return. In effect, what we're doing by learning to practice theoretical self-exploitation is to jump to the next level of poker thinking – people often talk about the "levelling game" and spend time trying to figure out "What level is my opponent on," but until you've learned to self-exploit and identify the appropriate strategy for a player playing one level above you and tried to exploit your own strategy, you can't really do anything with the knowledge of what level your opponent is on in the first place. There are many areas of life where playing devil's advocate can be a useful tool. The phrase itself is a simple colloquialism, but the practice is actually a much more complex process that requires a well-developed ability to examine one's own opinion or one's own behaviors in a new light. If you're never playing devil's advocate, you're not testing yourself as hard as you could be, and if you're not testing yourself, you're probably not learning.
  21. A large part of what makes poker such a difficult skill to learn is the sheer breadth and depth of the game. Not only are there a lot of theoretical and practical concepts with which a skilled poker player must be familiar in order to succeed, but in order to improve beyond a certain level, he or she must go further than a mere surface-level understanding of these ideas and delve into the game's mechanics to discover how each concept relates to all the others. This can be a daunting task. It can also, however, be extremely rewarding and enjoyable for a poker player to actively acknowledge their own development, and sometimes the revelation of a new concept can lead to an immediate desire to uncover the next pivotal idea that will change their game forever. But this rush of motivation can sometimes do more harm than good and more than a few novice players have lost their way in the catacombs of poker learning as they scramble to catch up with their opponents and gain a new edge. If you're in the process of trying to push your game forward, here are a few ways you can make sure your learning is as effective as possible. Beware of 'information overload' Everyone wants to improve as quickly as they can. Nobody likes the idea of having to wait a bit longer for their performance to improve. It's tempting to believe that with poker being a mental pastime rather than a physical activity, improving your game is simply a case of accumulating knowledge, but this ignores the reality that there's a big difference between knowing what to do in a certain spot when you look back on it afterwards and possessing the appropriate mental acuity to act on your knowledge in the moment of playing a hand. It's why it's so easy to spot all of the missed scoring opportunities when you watch your favorite sports team play – it's very different when you're on the field, and if scoring were that easy, they'd be doing it. Thus, it's important to recognize that simply going hell-for-leather to dig up all of the poker information you can is not necessarily the smartest way to approach learning. If in the space of an average week you find yourself watching five different training videos by three different coaches, posting eight hands on two different training forums, reading three articles by three different authors, completing two chapters of that book you've been meaning to finish for ages, reviewing three sessions of your own play, and watching a Twitch stream while you play, then you're probably wasting about 70% of that time. There's no way you could possibly digest that much information effectively, and whatever you did take in would most likely conflict in some way with some other nugget of knowledge you managed to retain. Ever had your mind flash back to a specific hand you saw in a training video and ended up simply replicating whatever the coach did in the video without thinking about why you were doing it? That usually happens because you picked up the memory of what you saw, but you didn't pick up the logic in the explanation well enough to apply it. You remembered that you studied something, but you didn't learn it. Everything you study should be learned before you move on to the next thing. Learn the fundamentals first What I'm referring to above is the idea of not going too wide with your scope at any given time – not trying to learn six new concepts at once, for example. What's also important is not to go too deep into any one concept before you understand the fundamentals. It's no good to be teaching yourself what it means to play game theory optimal poker if you're still struggling to get your head around the concept of 3-bet bluffing or trying to optimize your river bluffing frequencies before you truly understand pot odds. There are some concepts that you will need to get your head around before you even think about others, and getting ahead of yourself will make the initial concept harder to understand in the first place. A good example of this might come when you look at the different stages of a poker hand. If you find yourself making poor calls on the river frequently or getting into difficult spots on the turn when you face a second barrel, then it's tempting to look immediately at those streets as a source of a potential leak to be fixed. However, in many instances, such leaks can actually be caused by an error occurring well before the actual point of discussion such as a turn spot that was made difficult by an overly loose flop calling range or a flop spot that becomes tricky because we 3-bet pre-flop instead of calling. What this means, of course, is that the pre-flop stage of the game is in many ways the most important part of the game to study. If you still struggle to identify correct pre-flop open-raising ranges, but you're moving on to trying to identify spots to check-raise bluff the turn, you're getting ahead of yourself. Additionally, it's worth considering that the pre-flop stage of the game is the one aspect of it that is guaranteed to be relevant every hand. We make a pre-flop decision in every hand of poker we ever play and thus any knowledge we gain that relates to pre-flop play is immediately more relevant than any other. We might play dozens of pre-flop spots for every flop, turn, or river we play, so every pre-flop leak will cost us more in the long-run. The Adult Learning Model Jared Tendler's first book, "The Mental Game of Poker," has become an essential text for aspiring poker players and it contains perhaps one of the most useful concepts in poker learning. It outlines the importance in poker of what Tendler calls the Adult Learning Model. It suggests four stages of learning development, beginning with Unconscious Incompetence – the point where you start out, having no idea how much there is left to learn. From that point, you move to the next stage, Conscious Incompetence – you start to recognize your weaknesses. These two stages are where most beginners will find themselves in the initial weeks, months, and perhaps even years of their poker career before they begin an intensive learning process. Most people who have spent some time in poker are somewhere between this stage and the next stage: Conscious Competence. In this stage, you know some of the areas in which you're making mistakes and you're becoming conscious of how to correct those mistakes, but you have to work at it in order to get it right. Once you get to the point where you can get it right without thinking too much about it, you're at the final stage – Unconscious Competence, the holy grail of poker. If you can learn enough skills to that level, you'll be a very good poker player. The key, though, is to get an idea of where you stand with each concept you're in the process of learning. Following on from my earlier suggestion of not learning too many concepts at once, it should be fairly easy for you to track your progress with each ongoing focus area in your learning. You start by pinpointing a topic or concept that might lie in your area of Conscious Incompetence and figure out how your thought processes need to change in order to bring it into the Conscious Competence zone. Once you implement those changes successfully, you can then begin to work on bringing this concept and others into your sphere of Unconscious Competence to make yourself a more well-rounded poker player. Keep track of which concepts are in which zone as your learning progresses and you'll find you'll gain a greater sense of control over your development. A final thought Ultimately, as long as you're doing your best to improve your game, you're on the right track. But in the same way that many people wrongly assume that poker is simply a volume game, learning is all about supplementing a strong work ethic with structured, effective learning processes. In short, it's about quantity and quality and neither one is a substitute for the other. Watching one training video a month is not going to be enough to improve no matter how hard you focus on it, but watching five per day is going to melt your poker brain. Just like anything else in poker, and in life for that matter, balance is crucial.
  22. Many cash game players think tournament players suck at cash games. They are right and MTT guys probably suck at cash games even more than cash guys suck at MTTs. Yes, I just said it and I'm not sorry. Sometimes the truth is tough, but I'm actually not here to offend you. Telling the truth might not make me everybody's friend, but my mission is to help poker players improve their game first. So, let's focus on that! "If you don't know who the sucker at the table is, it's probably you". I've heard this phrase many years ago and never forgot it. Everybody knows that phrase, but nobody acts on it. One big reason for my own success as a player and the big success of all of my students is that we always know where we're at in the food chain. People who don't know this will inevitably lose their winnings or won't become winners in the first place. Very successful tournament players will go to a cash game table and often dismiss bad results as "variance" and other reasons. It might not always be variance, though, so in this article series I will point out three typical leaks and how to fix them. Okay, now that we got this out of our way, let's get to part one of this three-part series. As the title says, you're going to learn the three biggest mistakes you make at a cash game table. You will also learn how you can fix them. Part 1: There is no CHIP EV in cash games, aka Tournament Players Have a Terrible Understanding of Pot Odds and Equity In tournaments, it is very important and often crucial to consider villains' and your own stack size when making a decision. How many Ms or big blinds you have is not only a consideration for the current hand, but also for future decisions. Situation #1 In a tournament, a player may not decide to call a min-raise out of the big blind with a hand (let's say 8s-5s) because the likely check-fold on the flop could result in a lower stack size. Problem #1 Why is this so important in a tournament? Lower stack means less fold equity for re-steals or open-raising / open-shoving. The ability to have fold equity is crucial in tournaments. Tournament players are very good at being conscious about all of those little details. Small gains in EV such as calling a min-raise with 8s-5s can be a bad bargain if it consequently means losing a bigger EV spot by not being able to open-shove / re-steal. This probably matters less when you have a 70bb stack, but it can matter a lot when you're below 30bb. Many tournament players understand this on an intuitive level even if they can't use phrases such as "sacrificing short-term EV in order to gain long-term EV." How to fix situation #1 in cash games: There is no such thing as long-term EV in cash games. In about 99.9% of cases, you should make the instant "mathematical" correct play and totally disregard stack sizes. Stack sizes in Hold'em are an imaginary construct because you can always rebuy. There are very few situations in which stack sizes play a role on a rational level. In other words, if you get the right price with 8s-5s in a cash game and there is nothing else to consider, you should be calling this hand in the big blind against a min-raise. Situation #2 This principle is very simple to understand, easier than in situation #1. You're playing an MTT, 20 players are left, and 19 get paid. Most players these days understand that you should avoid battles with other big stacks since it's a lose-lose situation. Let's complicate the situation even further. There are nine people left, all of you get paid, but there is a big pay jump from seventh to sixth place. In spots like these, the most optimal Chip EV play is often very different than the "real" EV that can be calculated with models like ICM. Some plays can be very counter-intuitive. How to fix situation #2 in cash games: There's nothing to fix. It's knowledge you won't be able to use. Those two spots are rather easy to understand and most tournament players will be able to fix them. If you're somewhat of an advanced player, you know this stuff. So why am I stating the obvious in situations #1 and #2? The main reason - and this is your biggest value from this article - is that your straightforward math gets messed up when your main goal is stack preservation and not maximum chip EV. Here is a hand that could have been played by a tournament player. I'm not saying all of you, but many of you would have done a terrible move without even understanding how bad it is. Keep in mind I'm simplifying and exaggerating a lot of things to make a point, so don't nit-pick the details. Understand the thought and idea. Situation #3 We're playing NL200, 6max cash game. Hero is in the big blind with Th-7h BTN ($200) SB ($160) HERO ($200) BTN raises to $4, SB folds, Hero raises to $10 and wonders why the button never folds. Problem #3: In tournaments, you can often get away with using a very small sizing when re-stealing. Why? Because both you and your opponent know that despite him getting great odds, he has to be concerned about his stack size. Another reason might be that he simply doesn't know better and thinks along the lines of, "I don't call 3bets with X or Y" instead of understanding that it's not about the hand, but instead about the price you have to pay to play the hand. Either way, small 3bets and small 4bets work very well in many tournament situations. They do not work very well in cash games. A smart opponent will simply call because he understands that he's getting a good price. That's it. Solution #3: Don't offer your opponents too good odds when you're re-raising. Make sure you're (re)raising big enough. He's not making a mistake by calling you super light. He'd actually make a mistake by folding too much. The typical recommended sizes these days for a re-raise is about 4x vs a min-raise and 3.5x vs a 2.5x to 3x open-raise. That's it for today. I've kept it simple for the start, but here is a little quiz where you can check if you have understood today's lesson. Leave your opinion/answer in the comments below. The solution will be presented to you in the second part of this series. Quiz 1 Here is another typical example, let's see if you can guess what the mistake of the hero is in this hand. NL 200, 6max cash game. Villain ($200) opens to $5 with XX in the CO, Hero ($200) calls on the BTN with Jh-Th. Both blinds fold. Flop ($13): 7s-8s-2h Villain cbets $7, Hero calls Turn ($27): 9c Villain bets $13, Hero raises to $30 What went wrong in this hand? Quiz 2 NL 200, 6max cash game. Villain ($200) opens to $5 with XX in MP, CO ($200) calls and Hero ($200) calls in the SB with 6h-6s. The Big Blind folds. Flop ($17): 6c-7s-2h Hero check, MP bets $12 , CO calls $12, Hero raises to $30 What went wrong in this hand? Gordon BPC is the founder and head coach of bestpokercoaching.com. BPC became famous through its coaching for profits program, which has transformed mediocre and losing players to making $100,000 in profits in only nine months. What makes BPC different? They publicly document the progress of their students and prove that what they teach brings real provable results. To learn more about BPC and their mission, visit them at bestpokercoaching.com.
  23. [CAPTION=100%]The way you talk about poker Watch Your Language: Why Words Matter in Poker There are many different ways in which we conceptualize poker in order to make it easier to talk about. We talk about it as a mathematical construct, we talk about it as a psychological battle between opponents, we increasingly talk about it as a sport, we talk about it as a gambling pastime. One way in which we almost never talk about it, however, is in meta-discussion - in other words, talking about the ways in which we talk about poker. This article contends that the language we use in order to talk about poker, both to one another and to ourselves, is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, period. Indeed, the argument could reasonably be made that language is the most important aspect of any field, since it’s the only way we’re able to even acknowledge said field’s existence. Here’s an introduction to why this is the case. Poker is a man-made creation First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that just like most other aspects of modern culture, poker is entirely a man-made game that doesn’t exist in any kind of objective way. It only exists to the extent that we say it does, which means all the concepts associated with it also only exist if we say they do. Once you understand and embrace that fact, it becomes a little easier to recognize some of the biggest potential stumbling blocks in your poker learning. In linguistics and semiotics, there exist concepts called the ‘signifier and signified’. Each word we use is defined as a ‘signifier’ for a thing that exists, while the thing itself is the ‘signified’. Changing the signifier, such as using the British word ‘pavement’ instead of the American word ‘sidewalk’, or using the French word for ‘chair’ (‘chaise’) instead of the English word, doesn’t physically change the landscape of our roads or render a chair invisible. In poker, these concepts as true as well. There was a time back in the days of Wild Bill Hickok when re-raising someone in a hand of poker (presumably five-card draw poker) wasn’t called 3-betting - it wasn’t really called anything. But nowadays, when we say ‘3-bet’, we’re using a new signifier to describe a signified concept that has existed for centuries. Translating the math The modern era of poker, and the advent of Texas Hold’em as the most popular form of the game, has taught us the reality that poker is really just one giant, infinite, unsolvable math problem. A solution exists theoretically, if not in practicality. What we’re doing, therefore, is trying to figure out that solution in a way that we can understand - since complex math isn’t an appropriate form of human communication, we need to take what we can from it and turn it into language. All we’re doing, in reality, is translating numbers into words. When we say “I think my opponent’s range is X, Y and Z”, we’re using language to express numerical denotations about our opponents’ ranges, and when we raise to 2.5 big blinds preflop we’re communicating something to our opponents about our range using a mathematical metric. The only way to really bridge the gap between these two paradigms - the mathematical and the linguistic - is to take our interpretations of a situation and plug them into a GTO solver or a calculator, and then re-evaluate our original interpretations based on the results we get. Essentially we’re translating from English (or whatever other language we speak) into math, and then back to English again. This process is the process by which we learn - over time, the mathematical reality of poker becomes more and more evident to us once our ability to ‘speak the language of poker’ improves, and we get a little bit closer to playing a mathematically perfect game. Directing your mental game With all of this in mind, we need to divert our attention towards how our language drives our own mental game. It could be said that our self-talk, or the language we use when we’re talking to ourselves internally, is the primary driver of almost all of our behaviours - the words we use to describe ourselves are highly determinant of what we believe about ourselves (and vice versa), and what we believe about ourselves shapes our reality. It follows, therefore, that we must master our own internal language before we can hope to achieve a high-level mental game. We must recognize that the questions we ask ourselves will always be answered with something that makes sense to us according to the way we see the rest of the world - if we ask, “why I can’t I just win tournaments more often?”, the answer we get from ourselves won’t be, “because that’s not how variance works”, it’ll be “because I’m not good enough”, or “because I’m the unluckiest person in the world”. When trying to achieve the ‘holy grail’ of poker performance and become entirely process-focused (as opposed to results-focused), this means that we must avoid discussing our results with ourselves internally if we want to avoid being focused on them. We shouldn’t dwell on them, or wonder why they’re different, or ruminate on what we can do to improve them. We should only strive to improve our processes, one step at a time, by directing our mental energy towards them. Communicating inwardly and outwardly Finally, our outward communication can be just as important as the things we say to ourselves. If we’re constantly telling bad beat stories, complaining to friends about our opponents, berating weaker players for mistakes, or otherwise talking or behaving in ways we never would outside of poker, we’re leading ourselves in entirely the wrong direction. If we’re preoccupied with celebrating our victories and commiserating our defeats, we can’t also celebrate when we make a great decision but take a bad beat afterwards. If we’re preoccupied with receiving our friends’ sympathy for how unlucky we are, we can’t teach ourselves to embrace the reality of variance within the game. It’s crucial for all of us to look closely at the way we talk and communicate, and do whatever we can to use language that is helpful to both ourselves and those around us. It’s what’s best for us, and what’s best for poker.
  24. [caption width="640"] Poker players need to learn to trust their instincts, even if they're underdeveloped[/caption] Learning to Trust Your Instincts In a variety of walks of life, we often hear the phrase “trust your instincts”. Whether it’s in sports, relationships, business, the arts or anything else, there seems to be an innate recognition of the role of ‘instinct’ in success at almost any level of almost any discipline. But what of poker? In a domain so clearly founded on the idea of mental competition, where physical skill, timing and technique don’t exist, but where decisions are made in real-time on a far more direct basis than in most other fields, can we still look at instinct in the same way? After all, we know it’s not about muscle memory in poker. What is ‘instinct’? Instinct is often quite poorly or vaguely defined. Someone might use a term like ‘gut reaction’ to mean something similar, but on a base level when we refer to instinct we’re really talking about a psychological mechanism that goes all the way back to the fight-or-flight response that humans have possessed for millennia. If you’ve ever read any books by Jared Tendler, one of the most prominent names in the field of poker psychology (if you haven’t, I suggest you do), then you’ll have come into contact with the four types of competence that he outlines as a fundamental part of the learning process, the Adult Learning Model. One can be either Competent or Incompetent in something, and one can be either Conscious or Unconscious about it. When we talk about instinct, we’re mostly talking about the things that are done (either correctly or incorrectly) on an unconscious level, so we’re either talking about Unconscious Competence or Unconscious Incompetence. Which one of those we’re talking about depends on how reliable one’s instincts are in the context. The role of instinct in poker decision-making In making decisions in poker, we often have a variety of impulses to sort through before we actually act in a hand. For some players, their first instinct often guides them to a significant degree - they don’t take a long time to act, and they often make mistakes as a result of a failure to consider all the relevant variables. However, other players fall into the opposite category - they suffer from a mild kind of ‘decision paralysis’, where they are so out of touch with their instincts or lacking confidence in them that they attempt to subvert them completely, and simply ‘think their way out’ of every situation. What we can learn from these two polar opposite types of players is that while our instincts are an important guide that we can use to aid us in difficult situations, we must avoid becoming over-dependent on them, while working hard to identify the situations that require conscious thought in order for the right decision to be made. In short, we must figure out the areas in which our instincts can be relied upon, and the areas in which they can’t - or, in other words, separate the areas in which we are Unconsciously Competent from those in which we are Consciously Incompetent. This distinction represents the difference between making decisions based on instinct and making decisions based on conscious thought and logic. If you’re wondering why we can’t look at the areas in which we’re Unconsciously Incompetent, it’s because we’re not conscious of them! It’s much easier to be confident in our competence at something which comes as second nature to us (Unconscious Competence) than it is to guess how much there is left that we don’t know. You know more than you think you do… One thing to remember about trusting your instincts is that experience counts for a lot. You may have an entire skill set below the surface that hasn’t shown itself at the level of conscious awareness yet. Those players you see making huge hero-calls or big bluffs seemingly without a lot of rhyme or reason? A lot of the time they wouldn’t even necessarily be able to explain why they did it, it just ‘felt’ like the right spot, and they trusted that instinct. That instinct comes from practice and experience, and while it might be hard to explain using logic and rationality, it can often be quite reliable. Of course, it’s important to recognise that these well-developed instincts are much like muscle memory for an athlete, in that they only show up after hours and hours of practice. But they’re there for almost anyone with the right level of experience, so even if you don’t consider yourself to be a poker expert, there might be times when your unconscious mind is trying to tell you something that your brain can’t quite decipher. These instances will often be the times when you just get a ‘bad feeling’ about a certain situation - you’re playing live poker and your opponent just somehow looks very strong, or you’re playing online and a player’s timing tells just seem unusual somehow. You might not be able to confidently say, “players who do this are usually doing it for reasons X, Y and Z, and therefore I should do A, B or C”, but if you have the requisite level of experience, your gut might be correct anyway. ...But you don’t know everything Despite all this, it’s crucial to recognize that if you’re still in the learning stages of your career, your instincts simply won’t have developed up to the appropriate point at which you should begin trusting them. Adopting a ‘beginner’s mind’ approach where you assume you don’t know something until proven otherwise would be wise to start out with. A great number of inexperienced poker players have gotten themselves into trouble trusting their instincts when those instincts weren’t well-founded enough to justify it. Even high-level players might find that an unwillingness to take a moment or two before making an important decision could cost them a tournament or a huge cash game pot. The key is to strike a balance between working hard enough on your game to develop the confidence of knowing that your instincts are based on experience, while also working on the habit of acknowledging your instincts in the moment of playing a hand, but pushing past it to allow for conscious thought on top of that. You might sometimes see a hand on TV where a player will be on the verge of making a certain play, then think for a moment longer, change their mind, and end up at the right decision. The players who can do this are the ones who have mastered their instincts - they trust them enough to know that they are valuable, but not so much that they ignore conscious thoughts and logic. This is where you can get to in time, but like anything else, it starts with self-awareness and a willingness to change.
  25. [caption width="640"] Poker players need to learn how to eliminate cognitive dissonance from their thinking[/caption] If you’ve ever argued about anything on the Internet, you’ve probably encountered pretty much every kind of flawed logic and fallacy imaginable. You’re probably deeply versed in cognitive dissonance even if you’re not the type to post online about politics or your favourite movies, since most of us are victims of this thought pattern at one point or another in our lives, and it’s very common to encounter this phenomenon in everyday life, even if we’re not able to specifically put a name to it when it occurs. Let’s examine what it is, and the role it plays in poker. What is Cognitive Dissonance? Very simply, cognitive dissonance is a state of holding two conflicting beliefs or opinions at the same time. It usually occurs because we have arrived at each belief independently as a result of completely separate desires or tendencies, and failed to realise that two of our ‘end point’ beliefs conflict with one another because they have different origins. In most cases, the situation will usually be resolved either by changing one of the beliefs to fit the other, resolving the root causes of one or both beliefs so that they no longer exist anymore, or developing an entirely new, third belief that reconciles the two. A great example of this on an everyday, personal level might be someone who is stuck in a behaviour pattern that they consciously know to be harmful to them in some way - let’s say they’re overweight and have an unhealthy diet, and they’re unhappy about it - but when challenged, they’re able to come up with multiple reasons why their behaviour is entirely justified and right for them, because admitting to bad habits in front of other people is too painful. This also occurs on a level more relevant to society as a whole - take politics, for example. It’s not uncommon for Republicans in the United States to espouse the belief that government shouldn’t interfere with the lives of individuals while simultaneously promising to restrict the marriage rights of LGBT couples, or for Democratic politicians to campaign for economic equality while accepting massive campaign donations from wealthy individuals or corporations. How are these broad-spectrum beliefs eventually reconciled? In most cases, by invoking religion and/or nationalism, two domains of thought with a higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance than most, or by simply refusing to acknowledge anyone who calls them out on it. The overweight person, on the other hand, might blame their genetics or other external factors, and thus refuse to acknowledge any connection at all between their habits and their health. When two things can’t be true at the same time in poker Of course, unlike these examples, most of the time in poker our cognitive dissonance is reasonably unlikely to be called out or even noticed by someone else. It usually manifests itself in insidious ways, creeping into our performances and attitudes without our being able to identify it. As a coach, I can honestly say I’ve seen evidence of cognitive dissonance in 95-100% of my students - it’s the reason why a lot of poker mistakes happen. It’s very easy to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time as a poker player - probably the most obvious is when players say, “I hate variance”, despite the fact that they’re voluntarily choosing to play a variance-based gambling game for fun. If these people truly hated variance, they’d play chess in their spare time. What they really mean is “I hate when variance costs me money”, because of course, they love it when variance means they win. Another common trend is when tournament players make tight laydowns out of uncertainty, and then proclaim with absolute confidence that they can afford to fold away a potentially profitable spot because their edge is so big they’ll gain it back later by staying in the tournament. Who are these players who became so good at tournaments by voluntarily giving up profitable situations? The only way to even have an edge in a tournament is by identifying and taking profitable spots, especially at short stacks. Either a play is profitable and we should be happy to make it because it increases our edge in the tournament, or it’s unprofitable and our future edge doesn’t matter. There are exceptions to this rule where the spot truly is close to breakeven, but nowhere near as many as most players seem to think, and if you’re good enough to make decisions based on how big your future edge is, you better be good enough to know a truly marginal decision when you see one. Finally, on this front, we have the instances where fear takes over - the times where someone chooses not to make a bet because they’re afraid of getting raised, without realising that if your opponent is so overwhelmingly likely to raise you, you don’t have to fold when they do! It’s very difficult for an opponent to simultaneously be very likely to raise a bet, but also be doing it with a range of hands so strong that folding becomes compulsory. Your opponent can’t simultaneously be raising your bet extremely frequently, but never with a weak hand. If you think they are, the bet was probably bad in the first place! In this case, fear of making a tough decision is usually what takes over. Fear of unknown consequences, or fear of negative results leading to shaken confidence, fear of losing, fear of variance...there are all kinds of fear that can cause cognitive dissonance in poker. In my experience, when a player holds two conflicting beliefs about the game or about a situation at the same time, there’s usually some truth in there somewhere, but the rest is mostly fiction based on fear. Moving towards the fear and eliminating it The only real way out of cognitive dissonance is to directly confront the fear that’s driving it in the first place - either the fear of admitting you were wrong about one of your two conflicting beliefs, or the fear of some future consequence which is driving one of those beliefs to exist in the first place. In most cases, the route to escaping from these fears is a paradoxical one - we have to seek out and attack their root causes and move closer towards the fears themselves. If, as a poker player, we’re prone to cognitive dissonance about our opponents’ play or our own (for example, believing simultaneously that our opponents are too good and we lack the skills to win, while also blaming variance for our losses), then we must force ourselves to challenge one or both of the beliefs involved. In specific instances where we might hold conflicting beliefs about a certain hand or be torn between two options, we must resolve the fear of difficult decisions that is often the root cause of this feeling of ‘being pulled in two directions’. If there is no hypothetical impossible future decision or situation to worry about, the current decision becomes a lot easier. Cognitive dissonance is a tricky and nebulous thing to get to grips with. You won’t always be able to notice when you’re guilty of it. But now that you’ve read this article, you’ll certainly start to notice when other people are guilty of it, and that’s a good first step. The next step? Contribute to poker discussions on forums, talk to friends, talk to your coach - see if you can catch yourself out. If you do, don’t beat yourself up - you just took a positive step forward.

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