Long-time readers of this blog know that I (strongly, obsessively?) believe there are three key categories of skills that separate the professional Hold’em players from the rest of the herd. These are the big important edges that differentiates the Phil Ivey’s, Phil Galfond’s, Phil Laak’s of the game from the Phil Nobodies: 1) Technical Skills; 2) Emotional Control, and , 3) Off-Table Preparation/Self Improvement.
The first category, Technical Skills, encompasses all the specific tactics, techniques, and strategies of Hold’em poker. These include things like correctly utilizing position, exercising solid preflop hand selection, knowing proper bet sizing, mastering opponent hand reading, knowing the odds and probabilities, correctly c-betting, playing deceptively, and similar Hold’em talents and proficiencies that fall into this big central yellow category in my so-called Skills Pyramid. There are countless books and videos and forum threads that cover each of these various topics in gory detail…. but the vast majority of amateur players never really take the time to learn the majority of these skills. I guarantee you, however, that Mr. Ivey took the time at some point back in his distant pasts to learn them.
The second big category of skills, Emotional Control, encompasses all the psychological and discipline stuff that separates the proverbial men from the boys. Recognizing—and eliminating—tilt from our game, for instance, as well as remaining patient, focused, and Zen like at the table, playing on that fine line between egoless and confident poker, playing with heart, and so on… these are the “psychological” things that fill out the right-side of my Skill Pyramid. Again, I can promise you that Phil Galfond has these things understood and mastered better than the average player does. Bad beats don’t affect Galfond the way it does most of the rest of us, and this is because he’s taken the time to master tilt control and the like.
Which brings us to the third—and highly underappreciated—category of poker skills: Off-Table Prep and Self Improvement. These are the away-from-the-table preparation, self-improvement, and homework/study things that may seem boring, but are so vital to complete mastery of the game. Again, Phil Laak clearly spends as much time on this part of his game as he does playing. You should too, and it’s why this category is what I want to talk about today. And I want to start that discussion by talking about how people learn.
There are a variety of different theories of education of how people learn and master new skills, but one of the most commonly accepted is something called the Kolb Experiential Model that school educators and sports coaches alike use to help their students learn and master new subjects and skills. The model is based on four discrete phases of learning. Here’s a graphic that illustrates the basic cycle of how this works:
In a nutshell, the student first has to have a Concrete Experience doing something that they want to improve upon; for example, imagine a basketball player shooting free throws and missing, or a student writing an essay and getting a bad grade, or another doing a math problem and getting the wrong result. The athlete shoots a few dozen basketballs in the gym, or the student writes a full essay and turns it in for a grade. There is feedback that lets the athletes/students know how they performed at the task. They missed most of the free throws for example, with the ball banging off the front of the rim. Or they received a D on the essay, with comments written in disheartening red ink about how they didn’t support their thesis with properly footnoted references. They did something that required a skill, and then they got feedback on how well or poorly they did.
The second step that follows this is a period of Observation and Reflection. The student has to think about what went wrong. They might write these thoughts down in a journal. The teacher said I didn’t support my thesis statement with footnoted references. What does this mean, exactly? What kind of references? Do I agree with her? What can I do to improve this in the next essay I write? Or the basketball player may reflect on why they missed most of their shots. I’m banging the ball off the front of the rim over 75% of the time. Does this mean my aim is off? Or am I just not putting enough power into the shot to clear the rim? Or is it something else? The athlete might keep a notebook with how many shots he took, how many he made, and how he missed. The point of this Observe and Reflect step is to write down what the facts and results were, along with some reflective thoughts on what probably went wrong.
The third step in the Kolb process is something called Conceptualization. This is where the student actually identifies a fundamental thing they can improve upon—and then goes off and works on that weakness. The basketball player might conclude that a faulty follow-through is the cause of the missed shots, so they go off and work on that aspect of the game with specific drills and techniques to improve the ball release. The budding essayist might study other writers’ works, or create outlines of future essays, or perhaps rewrite their own original paper. They could then meet the teacher during office hours and discuss the rewritten essay. Similarly, the athlete could have a coach work with them on shooting drills.
The fourth step of the Kolb learning model is called Active Preparation. Before starting the next homework essay, or heading out on the court for the next game, the student actively—and purposely—decides what and how they’re going to do differently this time. They visualize it before starting. They essentially take what they learned in the preceding Kolb steps, and they prepare a “game plan,” with specific things that they’re going to focus on during this next Concrete exercise.
And then the student goes back to the top of the cycle with another Concrete Experience (e.g., another free throw session, or the writing of another homework assignment essay). Results are again realized and the student or athlete succeeds or doesn’t. Then it’s back to Observation and Reflection, Conceptualizing, and Preparation. With active focus, the student gets better over time, finding mistakes and weaknesses and correcting them, and also finding strengths and reinforcing them….
…. Uh, okay Bug. Why am you spending so many precious words on this (and boring us readers to death)?
Good question. The answer is: I think this approach can directly be applied to learning and mastering poker. Learning Hold’em is no different than mastering basketball. You have to spend time in the Kolb cycle, working on specific aspects of your game. Concrete Experience (Playing), followed by Observation and Reflection (Record Keeping), followed by Conceptualizing (Off-Table Studying), followed by Preparation (Game Selection, Warm-ups, Pre-Game Checklists), and so on. In other words, the left side of my Skills Pyramid is populated with theses core ingredients of the Kolb Learning Model for a reason: it works.
In a future post, I’m going to show you why and how Mr. Phil Ivey, et al, have probably met and embraced Mr. Kolb—whether they realized it or not. Stay tuned for this and more exciting exposition...
All-in for now…