It seems presumptuous and condescending to tell people how to live their lives. One of the single greatest enemies of poker in our time is the “We know better than you for you” mentality the current US government has decided to perpetrate on its people in regards to gambling, so turning around and writing an article about how to live seems highly hypocritical. So I’m going to try and be specific here, and give advice that I only believe pertinent to improving as a poker player, despite it sometimes branching into other topics.
First and foremost, if you ever want to get truly good at poker, and especially tournament poker, you need to make your peace with variance. I use the term ‘make your peace’ instead of ‘understand’ because understanding tournament variance is very difficult. In fact, I’m not sure I really understand it myself. To my knowledge, nobody on this forum has come forward with numbers that prove how long the long term is in tournaments. I feel pretty confident when I say that it’s very probable that you can’t reach the long term playing live tournaments, that is, you’ll never really be able to ascertain your true ROI in live poker. Even online it’s very difficult to tell how much of results are driven by variance, and how much by skill.
A great example of how far variance can go is in the number 1 ranked player on www.officialpokerrankings.com, ‘vietcong01’ is a player many have written about for his leak ridden play. He may or may not be a bad player (I haven’t seen enough hand histories to pass any judgment) but many seem in agreement, yet he’s won just about every tournament imaginable on Stars five times over. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ansky (a player many consider one of the best online) has admitted to have been losing through the year 2007 up until April. While skill is of course the most important factor in determining whether you’re a winner or a loser in the end, the amount variance can skew the road to that end is enormous.
I wise man once explained that there is no deserve in poker. That’s really just about the best way you can put it. If you follow tournament results you’ll be forced to sit back and watch as awful players rack up tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands in wins. I personally can barely watch poker on TV, the players are playing for millions and 95% or more of the players on it are so awful I end up sitting there ranting and screaming “Holy fucking hell how the fuck can every single person in this hand play their hand maximum awful on every street and they’re all about to win more than I’m worth I’m going to fucking kill somebody…” etc etc you get the idea. It’s all in good fun, but thinking about things like this too much will make your head explode. In the end, what everyone else does and wins, no matter how deserving or undeserving, is irrelevant. The only weapon you have against variance is constant self analysis and improvement. You have control over nothing else in the grand scheme of things, so worrying about them ends up being pointless when you could be spending your time learning how to squeeze every cent of equity out of your opponents. So when it comes to variance, I guess the best advice I can give is to be self obsessed and ignore the madness around you.
Finding a balance in life with poker can be difficult. Many players end up having the game take over their lives, with other responsibilities and concerns falling to the wayside. Everyone has different things they consider important in their life, but a few things I recommend all players take seriously outside the game are as follows:
1. Your health. Poker’s a sedentary game, and it’s not hard to see why so many players begin getting out of shape. When playing live poker you’re often pressed for time, and even online if you’re playing tournaments it’s hard to stop and prepare a meal, so many players end up going with fast food. There’s about a million studies proving that an out of shape body begins to pour over into an out of shape mind. I’m not saying you need to go running marathons or start training for a bodybuilding competition, just find exercise wherever you want to take it. Start playing your favorite sport again often, go for runs/walks, join a gym, learn a self defense, or even just do a sit up and push up routine at a home. Just stay active and watch your diet, try to eliminate junk and fried foods, and take it easy on the soft drinks and booze.
2. Get some sleep. Nobody functions optimally on low sleep. Some do better than others, and in my case if I get less than 8 hours I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a table. I know many guys pull all nighters, and because tournaments start at a fixed time you sometimes have to conform your schedule to fit them. Even if you don’t believe sleep is a major factor for you try this experiment, write down how many hours of sleep you got at the start of your sessions. A month later look at your poker tracker results and see how your results differ between the sessions you slept well and the ones you didn’t, you might be surprised.
3. Handling and reducing stress. Everyone has their own method for this. Some tilt uncontrollably and begin spewing, some never seem to get upset. I haven’t had tilt problems in a very long time (unless I haven’t slept well) and I think a lot of this results from volume. The more you play the more ridiculous beats you’ll take in important moments, and eventually you’ll see it all kind of blinds together. This kind of goes back to what we talked about with variance, that in the end it’s out of your control and losing your head over it is pointless. Find your own outlet for stress reduction, for me its writing, for you, it should be whatever relaxes you and lets you vent the stress that builds up over the course of the day. By the way, exercise is a great way to reduce stress.
4. Get a hobby. Unless poker already is your hobby and you play essentially for recreation, you really should get something outside it to occupy your time. There’s a ton to do out there, you just need to find what’s fun for you. The quick answer of course, is Halo 3. Boo yah.
5. Get some. This seems pretty obvious, nobody concentrates well with a distracted mind. If you’re reading this, odds are your pretty young. Don’t spend your life inside in front of the computer feeling awkward around women, and you’d be surprised how many will find poker interesting if you talk confident about it without being a braggart.
6. If you don’t want to play, don’t. When you force yourself to play you end up playing impatient and sloppy poker, so on any day you want to take off and don’t have to play, I recommend doing so. Hopefully if you chose this as a full time occupation, you’ll actually want to play.
7. Make poker friends and connections. This can seem hard sometimes, as people may often appear exclusive in the poker scene. When you first start posting on a place like 2+2 it can be a little intimidating since many of the serious posters seem to have rules and standards in place, and figuring out what’s considered obvious can be frustrating. As recently as 15 months ago I was a complete unknown in the MTT scene on 2+2 and the internet in general. What I found works is asking a lot of questions, posting any hands your confused about, PMing the players you respect for thoughts on your posts, and getting to know other posters whenever the opportunity arises. Most of the guys around do end up being pretty easy going and approachable, and if you show a willingness to learn and understand many will be helpful.
8. Have a social life outside poker. This seems pretty obvious too. Spending your life only talking about the game will make you boring. Nobody likes boring people. See how this could be a downward cycle here?
Lastly, I want to talk about what it takes to get better at poker. A lot of guys ask what it takes to be a great player. I wouldn’t really consider myself a great poker player in honesty, that is if you rated players on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being a total beginner, and 100 being Patrick Antonious, I guess I’m somewhere around ~80. It’s hard for me to say what it takes to get from 80 to 100, and part of me imagines that you have to be really naturally smart and talented to attain that kind of mastery.
The people who hang out in the strategy portions of 2+2 are mostly naturally smart guys. Often whenever I ask them what they studied at school, it’s often math oriented or in a field that has real application to poker, at an excellent school that takes enormous talent and intelligence to get into. Me, I’m a theatre major who in the math department is a borderline imbecile. It doesn’t take a background in this area to do very well. What it mostly requires is perseverance and a level head. Here’s the basic process by which I improved:
1. I started off reading books. This is good if you want a foundation in the basics, but I feel like a lot of the information in books these days is outdated. However, Harrington on Holdem is still pretty good for getting some ground work.
2. Then I started reading and posting on 2+2. For quite some time I posted an enormous amount of hands, because I really needed to be guided through most hands step by step. I’m kind of a slow learner, so I needed things drilled into my head over and over to form it as more of a habit before I could understand it.
3. I got a pokerxfactor subscription. I watched a lot of videos to see what the most successful pros did differently to me, what made them successful. I think cardrunners also has an excellent (at this point, probably superior) line up of pros, but both sites have a pretty good line up. The hard part is that even many of these guys have serious leaks and there might be nobody there to tell you what they are. I have a ton of leaks myself, and if there’s nobody better to tell you what they are it gets hard to recognize them. If there’s an interest in that sort of thing, I guess I could Skype with Luckychewy for some of the more popular hand histories in Cardrunners/PXF and identify what we think the mistakes are there to give people an idea of what mistakes other pros make.
4. I got coaching. This part can be hard because there’s not a list of coaches available for MTT’s and many coaches would charge quite a lot of money since their time is so valuable. If you start becoming a successful player and make good money, but still feel like you have serious leaks, seeking out a top player who you respect and know does coaching is a good option. At this point, I’ve done coaching with three HSMTT players and have done hand history review swaps with several more. Finding players you feel are roughly on your own level and doing HH review swaps with them either by taking notes or over the phone/Skype can be a huge benefit.
5. I played an absolute ton. Like they say, there’s no substitute for experience, and the more you play the more you’ll recognize patterns and things will get more obvious to you as you go. Combine this with the other four, over an extended period of time, and you’ll be able to feel the improvement.
6. If there’s one thing I wished I’d done: It’d be learn cash much sooner. I think cash players improve at poker much quicker, and applying concepts you learn in cash to tournaments is much easier than vice versa.
Most of what I do today is play, occasional coaching sessions, and spending a lot of time on Skype with the players I respect swapping ideas back and forth. At any point in my career I can look back at how I played four months ago and think “Wow, I had no idea what I was doing then. I’ve learned a ton.” I imagine it will keep going like that if I keep improving and I hope that pattern keeps up. Well, that’s all the condescending advice I have for today, after this it’s back to more black and white strategy.