How to Study Poker and Master the Game
The moment you realize that poker is a subject that can be studied and mastered is the moment you begin the transition from “fish” to “reg”. In the old days, all we had were poker books, but with the rise of online poker came the strategy forums like 2+2 and pocket fives. Next came the video training sites like Deuces Cracked, Red Chip Poker, and Run It Once. And nowadays there is such a dizzying array of poker apps, tools, simulators and GTO solvers that it’s no wonder that aspiring players struggle to navigate the maze of poker information.
Yet, navigate you must. Those that don’t advance their game quickly fall behind. And those that reach the top are the ones that are able to learn and apply their strategy most efficiently and effectively.
I’ve spent over a decade not only studying the game but perfecting my learning process. I’m going to share with you the most important parts of that process, then if you’d like to go deeper you can check out my 2 hour video on how to study poker.
I’ll start with some recent revelations around what distinguishes the greatest performers in our society from everyone else. There are two ways you might benefit from this. One: you may wish to achieve greatness yourself. Two: you may simply wish to improve, in which case you can still gain significant results by even partially approximating these practices.
Most people attribute greatness to natural talent, but modern academics now accept that this is not the case. World class performers, such as Tiger Woods and Jerry Rice, reached that level by not just practicing harder than everyone else, but practicing better. A number of books have been published now that describe the difference between how they practice and how everyone else does. It’s called “deliberate practice”.
These are 4 essential components of deliberate practice:
- You must be motivated to perform the necessary tasks and exert great effort.
- The course design must incrementally build upon your existing knowledge
- You must gain immediate feedback (instructor or self reference source)
- You must repeat the tasks frequently to reinforce the learnings
In short, you are “continually practising a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it” (from the wiki on practice).
I’ve built my own poker study routine upon this idea of deliberate practice. Here is some advice on how you can too.
Application to poker
Consider this important distinction. In football or concert piano, the deliberate practice occurs during drills, scrimmages, and rehearsals, prior to the main performance. However, for poker players, our practice must take place during the performance. There is plenty of work we can and must do in advance, but the repetitive effort takes place at the poker table.
Start with your ranges
The best place to start is preflop. It’s a great way to develop your routine, and you can do it on your own. All you need are some trustworthy charts of optimal poker hands to play. Take the ranges position by position, memorize them, and practice them in game. Any hand you’re unsure about, make your best guess, then either check the chart while you play, or mark the hand and check it later.
This is deliberate practice in action! You are challenging yourself with isolated, incremental advances in knowledge. You have feedback and repetition. Once you master your charts, you can further develop the course design to include various table situations. For example: a loose aggressive player has opened in front of you for 5 big blinds, and there is a fish behind you. How do you adjust?
Determine your Leaks
The next step is to analyze your game and find where you are “leaking” money. What are your most costly mistakes? What are the highest priority elements you should address?
If you are more advanced, you may be able to do this analysis on your own, but most of you should seek outside help. Find a coach or mentor to help you.
Design a Curriculum
Have your coach design a curriculum comprised of specific concepts you will practice and explore at the table. Each new concept should incrementally build on the previous one and always pose a substantial challenge. If it’s too easy, you won’t advance as quickly.
Acquire Feedback and Repeat
You must mark and save hands you play that meet the criteria. Then you gain feedback on whether you performed well from your coach or your study group. Repeat this process until you learn the concept, and move on to the next topic.
I suggest giving your coach feedback on how well each iteration worked. Was it too hard or too easy? Did the situations not come up very frequently? This helps improve the process as you go.
Keys to Success
Having coached hundreds of players over the years, allow me to share with you the qualities I’ve observed in my most successful students.
Willingness to Struggle
Again, the more you challenge yourself, the further you will advance. Yet, so many students will opt for easier tasks. I encourage them to move on to postflop study after they’ve gained a given level of preflop knowledge. However, I often see them shy away from postflop challenges and instead dwell on their preflop game because it is simpler and more “solvable”.
You know you’re really pushing yourself when you’re almost on the verge of giving up! That’s fine. Try. Give it time. Let it go for a while, and come back to it. Eventually you will get it and become a much stronger player.
This is arguably the most important quality.
Poker is obviously an emotional game and improving your skills is a difficult process. It is easy to get frustrated. Fostering a positive attitude will do wonders. Hopefully this pursuit is not simply for money but also for enjoyment of the game. Hold to the latter, and you will succeed.
Patience and Perseverance
You will not become a poker expert overnight. It will probably take years. My youngest students don’t like to hear this.
Yes, you can triple the number of tables you play and increase your hands per hour, but you reduce your available mental capacity. This could actually stunt your progression.
It will take time: a long time. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Taking Care of your Health
You can have all the poker knowledge in the world, but if you don’t have enough self discipline to properly act on that knowledge, it is worthless. You gain control by caring for yourself.
Also, your growth rate as a poker player will directly correlate to your level of mental and physical fitness. Optimal health involves careful attention to: diet, sleep (at least 7 hours and at regular times), aerobic exercise, relationships with family and friends, spirituality (finding meaning and fulfillment), creativity and fun.
Just as you do with poker, make a plan for how to improve these things. Then create and follow a schedule.
If you have questions about any of this or some further ideas, please share via the comments below.