There are three equally important keys to mastering poker
[Note: Yes, I've written on this topic before before, but a series of email exchanges with a struggling poker player who contacted me through the blog has brought this whole idea back to the front burner. Even if you remember my past posts on this subject, it still bears a second look...]
There are three major categories of skills, or “edges,” you have to master to win at poker. Of course each of these are comprised of dozens or more sub-lessons, specific skills, and individual tactics to learn, but when viewed from 30,000 feet, poker mastery really does boil down to three, equally important categories of edge. Get these three things down, and you will crush the game. Don’t, and you won’t.
Let’s look briefly at each of the three edge categories:
- Off-Table Work. First is the idea that learning poker requires significant off-table preparation and work. It takes discipline. It takes effort—active effort. You cannot just sit back and passively watch a weekly World Poker Tour (WPT) television broadcast on Sunday night and then expect to win at the casino on Monday. It doesn’t work that way. Winning takes commitment and effort. If you truly want to get better—and make long-term, consistent money at the game—then you have to treat poker like you would if you were trying to get better at any other skill-based endeavor, like golf or chess. In other words: study, preparation, practice, and post-game review. No, let me re-phrase that: active study, committed preparation, disciplined practice, and focused post-game review. You won’t get better at golf by cracking a beer and watching the Masters on television; you have to go to the range, work on our swing, hit thousands of balls on the putting green, practice bunker shots, and so on. Simply watching Bubba Watson hit magically bending shots over and around trees isn’t going to somehow turn you into the next Bubba. Same for poker. Watching Phil Laak, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Gordon, or Phil Galfond on TV isn’t going to turn you into the next Phil. The majority of winning poker professionals queried say they had to put in roughly an hour of off-table work for every hour they actually played the game when they were first starting out. Many of these same pros continue that one-to-one ratio even today. They understand that their competition is doing the same, so to keep up with—and surpass—those other players requires the pros to put in the off-table work, including note and record taking, pre-game warm-ups, post-game reviews, leak-finding and plugging, adhering to proper bankroll management, targeted game selection, mental and physical preparation, and discussing and dissecting poker strategy with like-minded serious students of the game. To get better, you have to actually work at it away from the tables. ‘Nuff said.
- On-Table Technical Skills. The second major edge category is the ability to recognize the skill level of your opponents, and then systematically mastering all the specific tactics, techniques, and strategies of poker necessary to best those opponents at that level. In a sense, these are the on-table technical skills of the game, and they’re highly dependent on the type of opponents you play against. If for example you play small stakes live poker against relatively talentless amateurs, you still have to actually learn and employ the tactics necessary to beat those folks. If you don’t, you’re by definition just as talentless. This means understanding—and using—position. It means selecting strong starting hands— and folding all the rest. It means understanding—and utilizing—basic pot- and implied-odds, both in your calling and betting. It means focusing on extracting value at showdowns, not bluffing bad players. It means reading board texture— and then c-betting accordingly. And so on. As you progress upward in stakes and face tougher opponents, there will be a new set of skills you have to master to best those tougher opponents. Skills like hand and line reading, estimating equities and commitment, and deciding and implementing optimal EV lines becomes your secret weapons. And so on again. None of these individual skills and tactics are really rocket science to learn, and the skills themselves are readily identifiable, but you have to identify and master them, or you won’t ever master the game. ‘Nuff said on this one, too.
- Emotional Control. Finally, the third category of skills you have to master is related to controlling your emotions. All the off-table prep and on-table skill won’t mean a damn if you piss your profits away by going on tilt when you suffer a bad beat. Recognizing—and eliminating—tilt from your game, as well as remaining patient, focused, and Zen-like at the table, playing on those fine lines between ego-less and confident poker, playing with heart and without fear… well, these are the emotional control skills that separate the winning wheat from the chagrined chaff. I can promise you that the Phils of the world have their emotions under control better than the average player does. Bad beats don’t affect a professional player the way it does the rest of us, and this is because the pro has taken the time to understand his or her own psychological make-up, and then employ targeted strategies to keep their specific tilt monsters at bay.
The bottom line is this: winning poker requires mastery of these three very different, but highly interrelated abilities. Get all three things under control, and you will win a lot of money at this game. Don’t, and you really, truly, seriously won’t. Ever.
All-in for now...