This is the first article in a series of eight poker lessons, the purpose of which is to give an idea of what kind of mindset and which commitments I deem to be the most efficient to reach real poker proficiency. The reader doesn’t have to be a player aspiring to become a professional; just wanting to become good enough to beat the game at any meaningful level is enough of an ambition, but I would like to think that even future pros will get something out of these texts.
Who is This Guy?
Why should you take my word on anything? You shouldn’t, necessarily. You should know that I’m not a professional, and I (almost certainly) never will be. I have no ambition to become one, is the problem. I have a job that I like, and I’m not enough in love with the game of poker to pursue it full time. This has likely influenced my point of view, in the direction of being less enthusiastic and less optimistic about what is needed to become a very successful poker player. However, if I have to err on any side, I’d prefer it to be on the side of caution – so perhaps my pessimism is useful.
I have never played limits higher than $10/$20 (limit hold ’em), and I’m fairly young (29). Obviously, I lack a lot of the experiences needed to teach an up-and-coming professional everything there is to know, and I’d be surprised if no one tries to throw that in my face. Being a mentor to future world champions, teaching them what poker games are all about, is not my intention or ambition and I don’t presume to be the right person to do that. I do, however, have a short list of things going for me as being someone you may want to listen to when it comes to learning about poker and working your way up:
- I know a thing or two about the game. I first started playing at the age of 17, and I’ve played quite a lot since those days. I don’t claim to be an authority on poker strategy, but I am confident about the fundamentals and I have sufficient theoretical understanding to realize that I’m no master. Having what it takes and knowing what it takes are two different things, and I know I don’t have it.
- I’ve worked myself up from the $.10/$.20 tables. I’ve gone through the ranks the slow way and I’ve picked up lessons along the way. I’m not precisely what you would call a high-roller, but I’ve learned valuable poker lessons in getting to where I am today.
- Planning and executing virtually-impossible-to-meet schedules is what I do for a living. I’ve learned a thing or two about being a realistic planner from this experience – so I’d like to think I should have at least some authority regarding making plans for success
But Enough About me – Let’s Talk About You.
Anyone can read this, of course, but my target audience is a decently experienced beginner who has started to “get” the game of poker and is now considering taking it more seriously. I use “seriously” in the sense of “being willing to spend as much time as I can to get better at it,” here, not necessarily in the sense of wanting to turn it into his or her primary source of income, as I’ve stated above. The reason I’m repeating this is because I really want to drive home the point that devoting yourself to poker the way I’m suggesting in this series is not something that most people will (or even should) want to do. Perhaps casual players will still get something out of reading this, though, specifically that they’re making the right call staying casual. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Also, none of these articles will actually give strategy tips or pointers. You won’t learn how to play AQ-off suit from middle position, and you won’t find out how to extract the most money when you flop a set, there are loads of poker books for that. I will, however, encourage you to read those books, and then re-read them. And perhaps read them again.
What will it Take?
And this brings us to the first lesson in this series: Learning how to beat poker takes time – a lot of time. In fact, likely more time than you can imagine. Being a fast learner is imperative, but even if you are you still will need plenty of time to soak up all the information you can in order to move forward. There are natural talents (Stu Ungar comes to mind), but they are very few and far between, and the likelihood of you being one of them is diminishingly small. The rest of us – myself included – have to work hard to reach a real understanding of how to play.
Now, the exact numbers here aren’t important, but I want to give you an idea about the scale of what I’m talking about in terms of experience and understanding:
- Playing a hundred thousand hands.
- Reading ~3000 pages of poker books, some of them several times and a few of them many times.
- Spending about an hour for every three hours played analyzing the way you played certain hands.
Almost certainly, there will be someone reading this article who will think, “100k hands is nowhere near enough!” This person is probably correct. My point is that if you think 100k hands sounds like a lot, you have to brace yourself for the fact that it will likely take even more – and probably a lot more.
Do you really need to read all those books? Yes, and no. You don’t really need to read all of them, since there will likely be a few books from which you won’t really learn anything you didn’t already know, or couldn’t have picked up from some other book. However, you still need to read all of them because you have no way of knowing beforehand which books you could have been able to skip. It’s a bit of a catch 22, you could say. The willingness to study is absolutely key to becoming better and you should feel excited about devouring a new book on the market, scouring it for things that can help you become better. If you think reading books is boring, then your only way to greatness may be natural talent – see above for how likely I believe this to be.
Spending 25% of your poker time on analyzing hands already played (yours and others’) is also something you should take into account and plan for. The best way of plugging holes in your game is to put them under intense scrutiny, and preferably the scrutiny of others. You would do well to spend a lot of time on internet forums, discussing your own and others’ hands. This number – 25% – may be a bit off, but I believe it is reasonable.
If you can work through the three-part list above in less than a year, I’m impressed. Even more so if you have other commitments (a job, school, parenting, etc.) that take up time. I read stories all the time about new poker millionaires, like some kid from my home town who won $1 million last year, and similar things. It’s not surprising that many people think that poker is easy money. However, they should stop and wonder how come, if it’s so easy, not everyone is doing it. The answer, naturally, is that poker – for most of us – isn’t such easy money after all. I hope to convey that message clearly in these eight articles, but I also hope that you, despite my inherently negative attitude, will be excited about my suggestions and that you’ll make good use of them.
You’ve likely got a long way to go, and although not everything I suggest will sound fun and exciting, I do believe that it may shorten the time it will take you to get there.