PIO vs. Population

Have you ever wanted to learn how to use a poker solver properly to crush the regulars in your games? Now you can…

PIO vs. Population takes an in depth look at common poker situations. By first learning how PIO solver approaches the spot, we become acquainted with the GTO solution and why it is what it is. We then look at the regular population and see how their strategy commonly differs from what the solver recommends. We use these differences to formulate a highly effectvie exploitative gameplan. Learn the real way to use poker solvers to maximize your win-rate and blow away the regulars in your games.

Here is a preview of the first page of episode 1:

Understanding Mistakes in Poker

The aspiring player’s mental game starts off as very fragile. It takes little to rattle confidence, instill doubt and spread fear or anger. One of the most common forms of tilt I see in my students is unquestionably Mistake Tilt.

Mistake Tilt occurs when a poker player makes a play that they interpret with hindsight to be a certain error, likely error, or even just a possible error. Anger and self-resentment arise from the conception of failure fuelled by the burn of very recent monetary loss. Needless to say, Mistake Tilt very rarely occurs after a winning hand and is therefore extremely subject to results orientation and biased analysis. The kind of analysis that follows a mistake after winning a huge pot is usually nothing more than a relaxed pondering and indeed mistakes made in winning hands often lead to more fixing being done with the distraction of negative emotion firmly suppressed by the ecstasy of monetary success.

Like almost every kind of tilt the roots of mistake tilt dwell in the severe disconnect between the world of poker and the world we evolved in. In the former, terrible monetary short-term outcomes occur from good decisions on a regular basis. In the latter, good choices produce positive outcomes with a much higher degree of reliability. When you get your exam results back and score an F, it’s reasonable to assume that you performed badly. When you get your poker session results back and find that you’ve lost 4 buy-ins, such an assumption is completely unjustified.

Mistake tilt leads to a very unhealthy conception of mistakes. It causes anger and confusion and trains us that mistakes are something to be avoided at all costs and treated with distain. An unconfident poker player is an unsuccessful poker player. We need to transform the way we view mistakes.

This article is not actually about Mistake Tilt. It’s about the different kinds of mistakes that exist in poker – which of these are desirable to make and which are harmful and avoidable. Hopefully by understanding the five different types of poker mistake we can rewire our unhelpful human instinct to react in a negative way when we suspect an error has been made. As a result Mistake Tilt can be massively reduced, but as of now I’ll say no more about it.

The following chart shows five different types of poker mistake. Have a glance at it and see if you can form a guess at to what each might entail.

Mistakes Chart.png

  1. Unknown MistakesAn unknown mistake is one that the player is not yet aware of. It may be that he justifies a certain bad play that he makes habitually as fine, or that these mistakes simply slip under the radar of his introspective poker analysis. We should not worry about unknown unknowns in poker any more than we should in life, but just as in life, we should slowly try to reduce the quantity of them. These are not the kind of mistakes that hurt poker development as long as we make regular efforts to discover some of them and set to work on fixing them. These mistakes are by far the most common type of error we make every day.

 

  1. Confused Mistakes

    A confused mistake is a much more worrying plague than an unknown mistake. The confused mistake is one that would not ordinarily have happened had the student not bitten off more theory than he could chew. There exists a very definite and profound gap between the in-game and out-of-game abilities of aspiring poker players. If the student overloads his vat of freshly discovered concepts, the result is a spillage of confusion that not only affects the freshly discovered material, but spills over onto parts of his game he once considered solid or fully learned. Every newly assimilated concept makes perfect sense during the first digestion, but take too many of these new ideas to the tables before reinforcing them and the result is a mess. Confused mistakes are cloudy, frustrating errors that might not even be errors. You simply don’t know any more. Reduce the amount of these errors by learning at a pace your in-game thought process can keep up with.

 

  1. Tilting Mistakes

    Tilting, not tilted. Mistakes that are actually a result of and not just a cause of tilt will be ignored for our purposes. The reason for this is that mistakes caused by emotional interference cannot be rectified simply by understanding the different kinds of errors we are likely to make. Instead, fixing tilted mistakes requires work on the mental game and this is a subject that we do not have the space to touch on here.Tilting mistakes cause tilt; they are not a result of tilt. They are in fact usually completely fine and naturally occurring. Why is a tilting mistake so infuriating to make? Because the student thinks he ought to know better than to make it. This is the culprit belief that leads to unnecessary anger and self-loathing.Professional sports people make mistakes all the time. How often do you witness world class tennis players hit double faults or golfers land in the water? It’s not that they haven’t learned how to avoid hitting a ball into the lake. It’s just that every skill comes with a certain degree of failure. As poker is such a complex game, mastering the right thoughts that lead to the right actions in the small amount of time available is a lot more cognitively similar to golfing than to learning a simple mental skill like multiplying small numbers together.You might know how to play a balanced floating game vs. a c-bet but still end up making the odd suspect float. You might know that you should first work out your required equity to call a river bet before pressing any button but still finding yourself hitting the call button immediately. These mistakes are just natural building blocks in the learning model. As long as they gradually decrease as you learn something then you’re doing just fine.Anger arises from the fact that the concept in question is obviously not learned as well as the student would like to believe. It takes time to apply things perfectly in-game. Let the anger go. You are supposed to mess up, even when you know something.

 

  1. Investigated Mistakes

    Now we come to the type of error that is very beneficial. An investigated mistake is one that is well known, unconfused and not reacted to angrily. This cocktail of goodness leads to an inquisitive reflective reaction. The student files the mistake away until he has the adequate time to address it properly, tossing it away from the forefront of his decision-making. He is still engaged in a poker session and that demands full focus to maximise EV. When the student comes to review this mistake he may reason:“I know this is bad, but I need to find out why it occurred”I call this ‘culprit thought analysis’ and I practice it every day with my students. X is bad and X is known to be bad and you try to make good choices, therefore X was caused by some other thought that you are not aware of in hindsight.Instead of angrily ranting about how stupid X is and that you have no idea why you keep doing it, try to determine X’s causal thought. Perhaps your ill-timed river bluff against the fish was caused by a thought like “I need to take a stand” Look for thoughts that seem detached from EV and you can investigate why this kind of mistake occurs and eliminate it massively in future.The more of these mistakes we make the better. They are the ones that make us great players in the long run.

 

  1. Quick Fix Mistakes

    These are the end result of making lots of investigated mistakes. Even after we’ve fully and calmly examined why we make mistakes and understand the various culprit thoughts in play, we still mess up! Only now we can spot the culprit thought immediately and defuse it. We might even catch ourselves while the mistake is still internal to our thoughts and hasn’t yet resulted in a click of the wrong button. If you’re making lots of these mistakes you’re doing a very good job of learning, but note if you hadn’t understood the nature of the different poker mistakes, you could easily have turned a quick fix mistake into a tilting mistake.That’s all I’ve got to say on poker mistakes. Mistake Tilt should now appear an absurd reaction to a very normal phenomenon. I’ll refer once more to my favourite analogy of getting enraged by it raining in Scotland. Tilt caused by errors is very avoidable even if the errors themselves are not.

Session Types: Focus vs Volume

Have you ever been in that kind of poker rut where you’re doing things you’ve been doing for a while and no longer know why? Some bead of wisdom that once made sense has long been turned into an automated thoughtless process and has crept malignantly into other areas of your game where it’s not welcome. Decisions have become a blur of half thoughts all scrambling over one another to reach the forefront of your mind and influence the finger to hit the right button.

What I’m referring to is the long term breed of autopilot that infects the volume crazed non-reflective grinder. It’s like a rot that grows over your once dynamic and thoughtful game. Succumbing to this ‘game rot’ is so easily done, but with a little planning on how we’re going to approach our grinding time, it can be avoided.

Volume sessions are our bread and butter money churners. They’re what put the dollar signs on the scoreboard at the end of the month. In a volume session we play as many tables as we’ve deemed appropriate to maximise our hourly even if our win rate per 100 hands is lower.  They are essential as making the maximum amount of money is after all our long term goal.

Focus session are a little different. In a focus session we play less tables than usual in order to give our minds more time to contemplate decisions and reach a greater depth in poker thinking. We accept a short term dip in hourly in exchange for improving our game in the long run. They too are essential as they generate time for what I’m going to call in-game thinking and this helps us in the following two ways as shown by the poker learning model below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 15.58.43

Out of game study is simply the work we do off the tables: either session reviews, theory lessons, watching videos and taking notes or whatever suits best.

Correct application is making sure that these newly learnt or newly enforced concepts are being translated into the right corresponding button pushes and bet inputs in game.

A good foundation is the upshot of applying the well learned concepts correctly and in a long lasting deeply ingrained way.

A strong fluid game is what we’re ultimately aiming for and is one that is both stable due to the good foundations and able to make small changes and adjustments wherever necessarily; to roam off the beaten track and find new temporary ways to play that haven’t been taught in out of game study.

In-game thinking is the ability to think to a sufficient depth during your session and to do this we need time.

So what does this model teach us? In-game thinking and, therefore, in game thinking time, are essential in not just one but two roles. Firstly, the ability to focus on the action in more detail allows us to ensure we are correctly applying the knowledge gained from out of game study and that we’re not creating bad habits through misapplication of new information. Moreover, in game thinking time oils the cogs of our poker game, making sure it’s always warmed up and versatile enough to adapt to new situations we have’t yet covered out of game. Henceforth, we avoid the stagnation explained at the start of this article.

So to briefly sum up, we really can’t do without in-game thinking time. This doesn’t mean that all of our sessions need to be focus sessions. After all, making money is our primary goal at the end of the day. However, if we fill our play schedule with entirely volume geared sessions, we see a gradual decay in the fluidity and solidity of our game and this is a higher price to pay than missing a few bucks in the short term.

Make sure for every few volume sessions you embark on that there’s one focus session thrown into the mix, where your mind gets the time to apply what it’s learned in a stable and accurate way. it’ll also get into the habit of thinking outside of the box and you’ll witness and increase in thought quality during volume sessions and with it an increase in your win rate. Get this balance right and you’re much closer to where you want to be in poker.

So let me get this straight… you’re a gambler then?

Imagine you were a librarian and whenever you told anyone you were a librarian, they looked at you bemused and distrusting  and asked you if that meant your house was made of books.

Anyone who’s ever played professional poker, or even had poker as a serious hobby knows of the confusion and worry a serious dedication to this game elicits from the uninformed. I’m pretty lucky at the moment. Everyone around me understands or at least accepts that what I do is a legitimate and a reliable way of making an income. This is partially to do with the fact that much of my time is spent teaching others how to play poker and not just playing poker myself these days. In any case, it hasn’t always been this way and I, like all poker players, have experienced many a bewildered look when telling people what I do. What follows this look can vary from scorn to fascination to awe.

At a house party around 4 or 5 years ago, a friend of a friend asked me how I was spending the summer in between years of university. I replied that instead of finding a summer job in a cafe, supermarket, or bar, I was playing online poker full-time just as I’d done part time to generate extra income during term-time. The response I got was an acute spearing of outraged laughter followed closely by a patronising apologetic wave as she tried half heartedly to undo the damaged portrayed by my blatant look of dismay. When she’d composed herself enough to speak, the first words out of her mouth were something to the effect of ‘I’m sorry it’s just that….but what if you lose!’

Lots of you reading this will no doubt not know the first thing about poker. This is pretty normal. There are lots of sports, activities and professions I know nothing about. I know absolutely nothing about prototyping bionic legs. I have a fresh slate of ignorance about such a profession and this is largely because there are (at least to my knowledge) no films about bionic leg developers, in which they’re badly or shallowly portrayed. This is the problem when it comes to poker: there’s an army of terrible poker movies or poker scenes where 8 gangsters sit in a smoky room each with one of the 8 most difficult hands to get dealt, all at the same time. Bond-like character has the royal flush while bad russian cigar smoking guy has four nines. Some blonde haired student kid wins the lottery and loses all of the money in one unlucky hand of poker. As offended as I was at that house party, upon later reflection I realised that it wasn’t this girl’s fault that she’d exploded with uncontrolled laughter at me. What else was she to think? After all, I was planning to enter a room full of gangsters and place all my money down on the table hoping to get dealt that Bondian royal flush.

What follows is a FAQ guide for those of you whose perceptions of the poker profession are limited, confused and/or based on almost nothing of factual value. The following questions should resonate well with other poker players – we’ve answered them year in year out for the last however many years and will be answering them for the rest of our poker careers no doubt – or for as long as they continue to make James Bond movies.

There are countless people who approach poker as a bit of fun or as something to do after a few beers on a Friday night. There are people who have ruined their financial status through poker or treated the game like it’s no different from the spin of a roulette wheel. These people are not poker players, they’re just people who have played poker at some point. I’ve bandaged my finger before, that doesn’t make me a nurse. A poker player plays poker as a serious hobby or profession and seeks to make money in the long run from doing so. The following answers refer to how poker players approach the game.

1. But what if you lose all your money?
We don’t ever risk all of our money at the same time or even close to that. We use the term ‘bankroll’ to refer to the chunk of money we have kept independent from our day to day finances solely for the purpose of poker. This money is our investment in the game of poker. A winning professional will withdraw money from this float into real life funds, but never the opposite. Although there is an element of luck in poker, we never risk enough of our bankroll at the same time for this luck to ruin us in the short term. If we have a reasonable skill edge in the games we play, and play stakes that only constitute a tiny amount of our bankroll, our risk of losing this whole bankroll even in the long term is insignificantly small.

2. But surely it’s just the luck of the cards?
It’s not just the luck of the cards. Poker is a game that has an element of luck and an element of skill. The luck comes from the fact that you can’t control what cards will fall where. The skill comes from the fact that you can control what actions you take in any given poker situation. Better players make more logically correct choices that lead to a higher expectation of money. This expectation will be positive in a good situation and negative in a bad one, but the trick is to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives. If you roll a dice infinity times, you’ll roll as many 6s as you do 5s, 4s, 3s, 2s, and 1s. This is called the law of large numbers. When you play poker you’ll encounter as many good situations as bad ones in the long term (or pretty close to that since we can’t play infinity hands) We can’t win every hand, but we can win overall by having a significant skill advantage over our opposition.

3. Poker is gambling though right?
There’s no black and white answer here and I think the best response is ‘yes and ‘no’.Gambling’ is a taboo word in many societies and to many people. If you type gambling into google in search of a definition you’ll find: ‘1. playing games of chance for money; bet.’ and ‘2. taking risky action in the hope of a desired result’ Neither of these two definitions fit very well with the game of poker and here’s why. Although we do play a game of chance for money, we know that this chance only affects our results on a short term basis and that’s why we use the large bankroll described in answer 1. Poker is also a game of skill, so if a game of gambling is one of purely chance, then no, poker is not gambling. We certainly don’t take risky action in the hope of a desired result. Although we may take micro-actions in the game of poker that are ‘risky’ in a sense, we do these based on logical calculations that they are the most profitable thing to do in the long term, not on hope that it will all work out. Our decision to play poker for income in itself is not risky provided our skill and bankroll management are sufficient.

4. How can you possibly play poker online? You can’t see the players to read what they’ve got!
Inferring information from body language and physical demeanour is the most prominent part of poker decision making portrayed in the movies. They like to pretend that poker is just an art of psychology and person reading, and that anyone that’s good at these things makes a poker hero. In reality these aspects account for about 5% or less of the skill in live poker and someone who was well versed in this alone would get massacred in a game full of professional poker players. The other 95% of live poker prowess comes from a deep logical, mathematical and strategic understanding of the mechanics of poker. I won’t go into detail here, but a quick search on poker strategy online will begin to unearth the monstrously deep complexity to this game. We can make a living online because we are better than our opponents at making decisions in this complex technical realm using information about betting patterns, what cards are out, opponent tendencies and much more.

5. So are you a good bluffer?
To bluff in poker is to bet with a hand you take to be the worst hand in an attempt to make your opponents fold a better one so that you can win the pot. Knowing when and how to do this is a result of being well versed in understanding poker situations and your opponent well enough to recognise good opportunities. Bluffing is just another technical part of the game and is nowhere near as massive a part of it as the movies make out.

6. So do you know what everyone’s got?
Most of the time we don’t, but what we do is draw upon all our poker knowledge and the information present in the situation to deduce what range of hands we expect our opponents to play in this way. We can then make a decision based on what we should do against the types of hands our opponents are mostly likely to have when they take X, Y or Z action and play accordingly. This is called hand reading and is a far cry from the soul reading you’ll see in the movies when Bond’s psychic intuition allows him to fold a straight flush.

7. What’s the most money you’ve ever won in a hand?
Far less than is glamorous or mind-blowing because in the real world we manage our bankrolls to make sure that we’re only playing the stakes, and therefore, sizes of pots that we can handle losing many of in quick succession. The upshot is that people who have won a $10,000 pot, are either extremely successful high stakes poker players, or degenerate gamblers.

8. You lost money today? I thought you were supposed to be good at poker?
Poker has something called variance. Variance is the normal fluctuation that occurs on a short term basis due to the luck element in the game. Variance causes even great players to lose over a small sample size like 5000 hands (that’s much smaller than it sounds!) Another thing variance does is it causes bad poker players to win over small samples. This is what keeps the games profitable for us. We have to lose a lot of the time, this is par for the course and it keeps weaker players interested. Why would the average person play chess for money against a grandmaster? They wouldn’t because chess is a game of skill and their expectation of winning a single time would be less than one in a few hundred. Casinos lose lots of the time. It’s the fact they have a long term edge over their punters that keeps them in business. Life is no different for the poker player, short term luck is what makes poker profitable in the first place and is unavoidable. Me losing today is normal.

9. So it’s all maths and odds and stuff isn’t it?
No. While mathematical calculation and knowledge of the chances of certain things happening are an integral part of being a solid poker player, having a strong faculty of reasoning, problem solving and being able to make logical deduction using the correct variables are more important. Becoming a decent poker player requires lots of practical experience and is more of a skill than something you could just cram knowledge for. The mathematics of the game is just one of the basic tools in the hands of a skilled player.

10. Do you not want to get a real job?
I’ve heard this one a fair bit. It comes from the fact that poker has an unstable and dangerous reputation. Poker players have no boss, no structured working hours outside of those they set for themselves and no restrictions as to how they live their lives. They can take holidays whenever they like as long as they can afford it and decide what time to wake up in the morning. Nevertheless, being a professional poker player can be one of the most challenging and stressful professions in the world. If you work in a supermarket, you can turn up hungover, disinterested and still make the same amount of money at the end of the day, as long as you can avoid being fired for your lack of enthusiasm. In poker these things equate to financial suicide. A poker player has to constantly work on his game to stay ahead of competition, structure his working day so that he doesn’t slack, have the correct balance of study to play, manage his bankroll and select the best games to play in and loads more. This is a profession that has a lot of pros and cons. I could write seven articles about them. The point is that those of us who play full time for a living and succeed generally work very hard, learn a real skill to a high level of competency and deserve the benefits of freedom we get from that. There are definitely moral objections to choosing the life of the poker player and I can understand why some people who work hard in more widely accepted fields feel like poker players are in some way cheating the system. More about all of that in another article though.

Girl at party: I forgive you. Non poker playing audience: I hope this has helped you to better understand what we do and why we do it. Next time you meet a poker player you can start at question 11 whatever you want that to be. We love it when people take a genuine interest in what we do and most of us love to talk about it as we’re a little obsessive by nature! People are usually really curious about my line of work and like to ask more. I love this, and take pride in the fact that it’s a little unique and mysterious. If you meet one of us and want to know more please ask away! Just try not to assume you already know what we do based on a film you once saw. Librarians don’t live in book houses, but we only know that because it’s common knowledge and Bond never dated such a librarian.

Poker Pitfalls – Part 3: Learntertainment

In my experience as a coach, 80% of the average player’s poker study time before I get my hands on them is spent chilling out on the laptop infront of an instructional video. Hell I’ve been there myself, guitar on my lap, typing in Facebook while some instructor drones on about a spot I can’t even see in the background because it’s behind my group conversation about Friday night’s plans. This pitfall is all about how aspiring players need to recognise and avoid this tendency and put in real active engaged study time to get better at this game. Let’s start with a definition.

What is Learntertainment?

Learntertainment in poker is a disease where the majority of a player’s study time is spent only partially and passively engaged, using only receptive learning skills and where that study is also used as a means of relaxation or lesuire.

A receptive learning skill is one such as reading or listening. The material goes in one eye or ear then out the other and is learned to some minimal extent depending on the level of alertness of the learner and their ability to learn in this way. The problem with receptive skills is that they are only good as the first step in the learning model, they are not a complete recipe to learning.

In order to fully understand a poker concept, the learner must be able to recgonise the relevant in-game situation then reproduce and apply that concept with good accuracy in a high pressure, low time environment.

This just doesn’t happen where learning stops at the receptive stage. Productive learning is needed to complete the process and we’ll come to this later.


Causes

Learntertainment in poker is caused by the ease of access to receptive training materials, many of which also come with catchy tunes, nice graphics and lighter content from the instrcutorr to keep things fresh. In the 188 traning videos I’ve made in my career I’ve always tried to throw in anecdotes and humor to spice things up. People want to learn poker in this way because it’s by far the easeist and funnest way to study. Moreover, the learntertainment route is signposted from episode to episode and no research is required into how to study properly as is the case for more productive forms of study like hand history review and database analysis.

Unfortunately, these more productive forms of learning are completely essential. I’m not saying cut out watching videos entirely, but look to watch them in a more engaged way. It’s a bit like with diet: protein is an essential part of the human diet, but to eat only eggs, meat and beans would not be a sensible choice and how those proteins are cooked is hugely important to the effects they’ll have on the body. Learntertainment is not inherently bad, but when it’s deep fried with a slice of facebook or falling asleep, it’s not very nutritional.

Symptoms

You may already be reading this thinking: “Yes this is definitely me. I’m a learntertainment feind!” but you’ll know your poker study habits suffer from this ailment if you:

1. Barely use any forms of study to work on your game off the table other than videos and podcasts.
2. Find yourself drifitng during videos or doing other things at the same time.
3. Never take notes on videos or try to produce what you’ve just absorbed in your own words and thoughts.
4. Have a big confused mess of poker concepts in your head all learned to a weak and unusable extent.
5. Have no idea how to work on your game other than through watching the videos that appeal to what you want to learn that day.
6. Have trouble articulating the things you apparently know from watching videos.
7. Find more active poker study intimidating, boring or both.

Treatment

Let’s address the seven symptoms above one by one and in the process take look at some alternative methods for getting more out of your poker study time. After all, we’re all in this game because we want to succeed at it and make a bit of money in the process so it’s time to break the mold.

1. There are many other receptive and productive poker study methods out there. I recomend that all of my students learn at a bare minimum the following methods of study.

A: Receptive digestion of new materials with productvive rearticulation. When you watch a video, take notes, summarise what you’ve learned, and then, if you’re one of my students, write an essay about it with some of your own example hands for the rest of the student community. In the process you’ve created more receptive materials for others to use and reproduce on their own. It’s a cycle, receive information and produce it to solidify understanding. The cycle is strengthened when you involve fellow learners in your pursuit.

B: Proper hand history review. This requires that the student’s own thoughts are first explained to the community street by street, point by point. Only then will the student be given direct feedback, or better yet, be given some direction to help him work out the answer independantly. Student focussed learning is key to success in poker.

C: Live lessons and subsequent homework. This one costs but in more cases than not it’s a very proftable short-term investment. Getting coached teaches you the concepts in a way that your coach knows works for you, at the right pace for you and in a stduent centred way where we avoid spoonfeeding like the plague that it is. My packages offer direction, constant goals and ensure that you’re never lost with what to study next and how.

D: Use of focus areas. I urge my students to create database tags for the 4-7 focus areas that they’re currently working on with me and in the study group. Students tag example hands from their session under these headings and build a library of real poker examples to compound the theory they’re learning. Focus areas are replaced by new ones once mastered.

The list goes on. Search the web and find other ways to improve your game that break the learntertainment mold. Many of them can be fun, especially when you work within a poker community.

2. Like I say, I want my students to watch videos, but they need to do so in a comitted active way. When you sit down for receptive study such as watching videos or podcasts, make sure that all other windows are closed and that your mind is clear, engergised and inspired about poker.

3. Click play on the video with pen and paper with the videos heading on it in hand. Ensure that you’re motivated to learn and then reproduce what you’ve just learnt.

4. Be thorough with your study time. Do not leave an area until you can reproduce it effectviely in your own words. Come back and revise areas regularly and make sure that you have focus tags for them. Above all else, do not embark on 15 concepts at once. You will not learn any of them to a beneficial degree.

5. Create a study plan with the next 5 areas you want to address. Outline how you’re going to tackle them by noting your intended resources, method, and means of reproducing the material.

6. Practice. This one is tough, but being part of a helpful friendly community like the one I run is a great way of getting feedback on what you’ve learned and seeking advice on how correct your understanding of the material is.

7. Humans are social learners; work with others who are walking the same path as you. Quiz yourself, take pride in learning things fully and keep a poker journal as a record of your new invigorated appraoch to studying the game. Being able to look back in 6 months time and see a concrete mass of all the stuff you now know very well is much more satisfying than staggering blindly through a mess of half learned echos of past learntertainment.

Conclusion

Avoiding this pitfall is to make a big change in your poker lifestyle. It’ll be one you never regret. It’s crucial to separate chilling out time from study time as much as possible as this hobby deserves more than a tired disinterested version of yourself. It takes a lot more than that to succeed at this game today.

Poker Pitfalls – Part 2: Mathaphobia

One of the first questions an outsider to the poker world tends to ask me when I tell them what I do is: “So is it all maths and odds and stuff?”

The answer to this question is of course an overwhelming no, and thank god it’s a no. I’m not a massive fan of mathematics. I’ve always preferred language and words to sums and equations. That said, one of the biggest mistakes my students make when they come to me for coaching is that they’ve made absolutely no effort to study any poker maths at all, ever.

This is a problem for the following reason: while there is a massive breadth of mathematics in poker ranging from the mind-numbingly simple to the mind-bogglingly complex; it’s the simple stuff that takes a few minutes to learn and a few hours to practice and develop true competency with. it’s also this same simple stuff that’s utterly essential and will make you a good several big blinds per hour just for nailing it down in the early stages of your poker learning.

This isn’t the fault of my students. Poker maths is the kind of thing you either embrace with thirst or shy away from completely and noone has helped to bridge this divide. The culprit, I think, is that most math orientated poker players and instructors have an all or nothing kind of approach to the maths of the game. In their GTO based “let’s actually delve so deep into poker math that we leave the consequentially bound world behind and drift into some other plane of  abstract existence” math seres, they fail to broadcast one very crucial point that simply must be understood before you have any hope of getting anywhere in online poker.

There are many mathematical things you really don’t need to know at all at this stage of your poker career, but there are two mathematical tricks you absolutely do need to know.

Please now take a few minutes to read what these are below and then spend a few hours over the next week or so practising them over and over when you review hand histories until they’re automatic.

Trick 1 – Action Closing Decisions – How to Calculate Required Equity out of Game 

We never have the luxury of being able to perform our off the table calculations in game, there’s just no time. However, the more you do this off the tables the better the feel you’ll have on them, and as we’ll see with the second trick, there’s always a shortcut for when that time bank is flashing in your face.

An action closing decision is one where there can be no more decisions to be made that hand after hero has made his choice regardless of what that choice is. Common examples include: facing river bets where we’re either going to call or fold; facing all in raises or bets post-flop, and someone shoving for their whole stack vs us pre-flop. The following calculation makes the assumption that all equity we have will be realised and that the pot will remain what it is after we call. Therefore, it can never be used in instances where there can be future action of any kind.

So time for an example. We’re on the river and the pot is 45bb. Villain has shoved his remaining 36bb into the pot having bet the flop and turn. There are two buttons lit up on our screen: [call 36bb] and [fold]. These two numbers alone are all we need to calculate how much equity we need vs villain’s range to call here. The second part will be working out if we have this amount of equity and that’s a whole different story, but for now let’s see how the maths works.

There are only three values here that matter and they are:

(A) Amount to call – this amount is simply the number that villain has bet or our full stack depending which is largest and is the amount that pops up on our call button like above. We’ll call this amount AC.

(B) Total pot after bet – this is the sum of what was in the pot before villain bet and his bet. It’s the new pot including money from previous streets and the river bet. We’ll call this TP

© Required Equity is the amount of the time we need to have the best hand in order for calling to be as good as folding. If we have any more equity than this then it becomes better (or +EV) We’ll call this RE. It’s what we need to know in order to determine what to do.

The sum: RE = AC / (AC + TP)

And there we have it. A simple sum using nothing but good old fashioned division and addition. As always in math, we perform sums in the brackets first followed by multiplication and division and only then may we add and subtract.

Let’s go back to our example.

AC = 36 (the bet we’re facing)
TP = 45 + 36 = 81 (be careful here we need the total pot AFTER villain bets not before)

So RE = 36 / (36 + 81) = 30.8%

We need to be good at least 30.8% of the time in order to call. This is the very first thing you do when you assess this spot out of game. Now you have this number, you can estimate if your equity is sufficient or whether your cards should hit the muck.

WARNING: People often make a mistake with this calculation. They sometimes take total pot to be what’s in there before villain bet and simply add villains bet to it to get the number on the right hand side of the /. This is wrong. You need to add villain’s bet to the pot as it was and then add on AC again to get this side of the sum. I like my students, but I will hit a point where I start killing them for this  error. It’s only a matter of time…

Trick 2 – Action Closing Decisions. How to Estimate Required Equity In Game

There is no time amidst the heat of battle for TPs, Acs or REs. There is barely enough time to remember your own name while also making a decision as to how to decrease your chances of losing lots of money. This is why we always need shortcuts; ways of simplifying poker maths into a format digestible by the frantic rushed mind. This method involves something I’m going to call the waypoint scale of RE.

Here are your 4 mantras. You shall repeat and memorise these mantras until they are so deeply ingrained in your unconscious competence that you say them in your sleep to the cat perched on the end of your bed.

1. If the pot before villain bet was empty then I need 50% equity to call
2. I need 33% equity to call a pot sized bet.
3. I need 25% equity to call a half pot sized bet.
4. I need 17% equity to call a quarter pot sized bet.

Memorise those, seriously!

So these mantras are the waypoints on our scale of required equity. Some villain’s make it nice and easy for us by mashing the pot button like bet-sizing zombies. Others bet more random amounts that we need to stick in roughly the right place of the scale. The waypoints allow us to do this.

EG. If villain bets 7 into a pot of 30, we know that’s just less than a quarter (4×7=28) so we need just less than 17% equity to call by mantra 4.

If we do the first calculation one more time for good measure, we see that..

RE = AC / (AC + TP)
RE = 7/ (37 + 7) Again it’s not (30 + 7) because TP means after he’s bet.
RE = 15.9%

Like I said, just less than our way point of 17%.

How painless was that mathaphobes?

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So there we have it. By reading this you’ve just learned 100% of the poker math that it’s essential to learn in the early stags of your poker career. Next time you analyse a hand where you’re faced with one of those pesky action closing decisions, you’ll know what to do. Both in game and out of game. Now go apply it!

Poker Pitfalls – Part 1: The Dollar on the Hook

There’s a reason so many of us are drawn to this fascinating game. It’s the lure of earning a meaningful amount of money doing something thrilling and fun, while getting to outsmart and conquer your opponents in the process. If you mix the ingredients of fighting, conquering and prospering you satisfy the human model of how to thrive. Cave man fights other cave man with club, bashes skull in and reaps the rewards of dead cave man’s bigger cave. Poker players do the mental equivalent. Who could resist a game that so well fits our evolutionary model of success, but in modern world terms? Maybe you’ll be able to buy that mansion in Vegas you always wanted or be able to one day quit your mind numbing job in the office in return for more lucrative and enjoyable poker pastures.

The above explains the dollar in poker; the shiny glowing bait that promises you a rise to stardom, a life of freedom and fulfilment or maybe just an immersive and profitable hobby depending on the scope of your poker dreams. But what’s the hook? The hook is all the things combined into one that cause the overwhelming majority of aspiring poker players to fail to make any money in the long term at this game. The hook is the reason the few players who are profitable winners long term can sustain themselves and more through this game, and the hook is the thing stopping you from succeeding at poker right now. It’s the jagged reality behind the candy floss dreaminess we fall in love with.

Poker pitfalls is a series of posts where I set out to break the hook apart into it’s constituent parts. Through my years in the poker teaching industry, and through my own journey as a poker player, I’ve compiled an extensive list of all the things that commonly can and do go wrong in the quest of the aspiring grinder. It’s like a bottomless pit of failure waiting to happen. Success takes a lot of dodge work.

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If you’re a new player, then this series of posts is for you. I’m going to try to prepare you for the sharp plummets back to reality that threaten to flatten your poker progress and crush your poker dreams whatever they may be. Fear not though, the pits are avoidable, we just need to have the right approach to the game. The reason so many fail on what you’re embarking on is that so few actually have the right approach to avoid them.

If you’re a more experienced player, the chances are you aren’t all that successful at poker. No offence, it’s just a statistic. You’ve been caught by the various pit traps over and over again, reaping little bits of dollars just to run into a new and improved set of obstacles around the next bend. This series is for you too. You’ll be able to build on all those good habits and ideas you’ve been able to learn so far while eradicating those that are so detrimental to your progress. There’s a very good reason you aren’t getting anywhere and that’s not that you suck or that you’re stupid; it’s that you’re human. Humans fall victim to the poker hook just as fish do to the metal jagged variety with worms on them. I’m going to try to show you how so you can stop biting the metal.

I’ll make this series as regular as I can and will introduce the first pitfall in the next instalment. I’ll finish off for today with a recent quote from someone who came to me for coaching. His frustrations about his progress thus far completely epitomise the nature of the struggle the majority of us go through in this fiendish game. Stay tuned for more soon and please subscribe if you’d like to get automatic updates as I reveal a new pitfall and how to avoid it.

“Poker is seriously one of the most difficult games I’ve ever come across. Usually if you put a fuckload of effort into something over the course of years, you get somewhere.”

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 5: Success

Throughout this series I’ve been using the games of poker and chess to help shed some light on some of the most key concepts we deal with in every day life. Success is the fifth, final and probably most important one to understand correctly. The basic definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Success in taking an exam is to pass that exam. Success in placing a bet is to win that bet. Success in life is much less clear. Whatever it is, it must be comprised by the accomplishment of the aims and purposes that lead to the life we want to live.

It’s very hard to quantify success objectively. If you ask any person whether they’d like their life to be successful they’ll undoubtedly answer ‘yes’. If you ask any person whether they want to earn as much money as possible or raise a beautiful family, they might answer ‘no’. It follows from this that getting rich and having a big loving family are just two possible routes to success for certain people and are not rigidly tied to the concept for humans per se. Nevertheless, these kind of conceptions are commonly taken as definitions of the word these days in many societies. My aim is to quantify success by something different; something that’s universally desirable to everyone and then figure out how to achieve that. I’ll start by looking at how success in games like chess and poker differs from success in the real world and go from there. Ultimately I want to drive at the idea that we have developed a pretty distorted inappropriate idea of success, at least in modern western society.

1. On Success in Games

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Games are great because they’re simplified realms where the objective is very simple. In chess the objective is to win and that entails that your opponent loses. Chess is somewhat detached from real world repercussions. Success and failure at the amateur level reside in a kind of bubble. Some players are obsessive and can’t separate life from the bubble; but for the most part chess is an escape into a different world where slaughtering your opponent through mental superiority is the only concern. In poker things are a little different. The monetary repercussions of success and failure render poker a less isolated environment. Success directly impacts utility in life by defining the amount of resources available to the player. For professionals and semi-professionals the conceptions of success in poker and life may even fuse somewhat.

Nevertheless, both of those games are vastly different environments to the real world, and due to this, success in them should be regarded differently. It feels great to conquer your opponent over the board after hours of heated mental strife. It feels sweet to destroy your opponent in poker while also taking all of his money, or to put it more crudely, the resources that he could have used to obtain a better life. When you put it that way, it seems rather brutish, but winning at the expense of an adversary is highly satisfying. It appeals to some deeply rooted human instinct that we’ve evolved in order to compete effectively. Evolution has trained us to enjoy conquering others. This is the very reason there have been so many wars featuring dictators intent on world domination. Power and gross accumulation of others’ assets feel great in some way we struggle to control. This is why we love poker and chess. They provided us with a chance in the cushioned safe modern world to revert back into a mindset where success really does entail nothing other than brutalising our fellow man.

2. The State of Nature – What Success is Not

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Thomas Hobbes argued that if man were to be placed back into in a natural environment void of any state intervention or protection, he would soon revert to his primal instincts to batter his neighbours to death with his club in order to attain their resources and achieve a better life. I have no doubt that we’d go this way, if that is, we had no memory of a more civilised life of cooperation under the blanket of a state.

This concept of success as triumphant domination does not fit well with the modern civilised world. In a context where our needs are comfortably met without conflict and where survival does not hinge upon winning the next spear fight, this mentality no longer leads to real success. Yet, many of us are still programmed this way: to take and take, hoarding bigger and better things and more prestigious assets than our neighbours. We have changed, and while we can still derive pleasure from the simple attainment of a prize over others in synthetic arenas like games, this instinct no longer leads to maximum utility in the real world. We need to redefine success in an era where the maximisation of material conquest no longer satisfies our yearnings.

Recently I travelled to the east coast of America to stay with a student and teach him while exploring the area. The culture in New York  and the surrounding area seemed to me a distorted version of UK culture in one aspect. Worth as a person and self satisfaction seemed to depend primarily upon two things: money and status.

Let me paint a character to serve as our example. Jim is a 30 year old business man living in New York. He has two children and a wife and works 12 hours a day 6 days a week. He drives a Ferrari and lives in a giant beautiful house. Jim is stressed, anxious and miserable. He derives comfort and satisfaction from his material acquisitions, not that he actually enjoys them, but he’s at least reassured of his self worth by their existence, as per his culture’s doctrine. He has no time or energy for his family and doesn’t manage to step back and appreciate what he’s got. Jim looks down upon those with less than him and considers them bested. He only respects the authority and the status of those richer and more successful than him. The woman behind the counter in MacDonalds is the lowest of the low and shouldn’t even be tipped like the more ‘successful’ restaurant waitress should. Jim is afraid of not being admired and respected and so he has an alpha, overly confident exterior. He’s troubled by countless emotional issues caused by deprivation of the things that would truly make him happy if he were to stop and realise what they were. So as a result, he lifts men up into the air upon meeting them in a bar (this actually happened to me) as a display of masculinity and becomes aggressive when someone inadvertently touches upon one of his inner demons.

Jim is sad, angry, arrogant and cruel. Jim is internally conflicted and doesn’t understand himself. In New York, Jim is very ‘successful’ and envied by all of those ‘lesser’ people. Should Jim be considered successful? Has he achieved the aims and purposes of life? If he is this unhappy, then instinctively it would seem not.

Here in lies my point. This rat race conception of success is misleading us and is causing us to be no happier than people who lived to be 28 and made spoons out of rocks. Jim’s tragic case is proof that no life void of happiness can truly be called ‘successful’. Sure Jim is successful within his work and how much money he’s made, but he surely cannot be called ‘successful’ in life unless, that is, happiness was entirely detached from success. This seems very wrong.

Nowadays we can survive and accumulate possessions very easily compared to our distant ancestors. Do we in general, lead any more successful lives than they did? I think not. If our sky scrapers, sushi, fast cars and executive jobs don’t make our lives anymore successful than those of cavemen, then maybe we need to stop focussing so narrowly on material gain as our sole conception of success. It’s not that resource acquisition is independent to success. Among poorer people the two are intrinsically linked as fulfilment of the survival instinct is the first port of call for a successful life. It’s just that when our standard of living reaches a certain level of safety from death, the maximisation of happiness is no longer best achieved through a blinkered resource grabbing approach.

As shown by Jim, money is only relevant to success where it translates efficiently into happiness and there will come a point where this levels off. Happiness then is the true currency of success and we have developed our materialistic conception through evolving as creatures that once needed to fit Hobbes’ model of the successful human. It’s now time to explore what other than material gain is essential for happiness and therefore success in modern civilised societies.

3. Human Yearnings – What Success Is

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Unlike in games, and sadly for Jim, the defeating of competitors to achieve one single goal is not what constitutes success in life, it’s merely one ingredient and only up to a point. If success in life is simply happiness, then what are the other ingredients to happiness? What follows is a non-exhaustive list of what I take to be the most important constituents of a happy life. We’ve already covered the attainment of basic human necessity in terms of resources so I won’t deal with it again in this list.


A) Self Worth 

Self worth may be caused, like in Jim’s case, by material achievement or attainment of admiration in others. This is just one possible route to self worth however. The humble Buddhist gathers none of the wealth or luxury achieved by Jim, instead deriving his self worth from the pure unfaltering devotion to a cause he deems far more important – his religious code. A grafting housewife of a large family gets hers from ensuring her husband and six children are fed, watered and equipped to lead a good life. The scientist bent on ground breaking discovery gains hers through the acquisition of knowledge and the opportunity to personally contribute to the changing of our world for the better.

Self worth is whatever makes us feel like we have done as we should in life. it could have ethical, material or emotional roots, but it is impossible to imagine happiness without it. The murdering Buddhist monk and the ruined New York business workaholic will feel equally dejected. They have failed at whatever they’ve deemed important to succeed at. They can forget about happiness and success as long as self worth rests in a state of ruin.

In order to maximise this part of happiness it’s crucial to first be honest with oneself as to what exactly constitutes self worth. Jim might be miserable because his sense of self worth rests on his culture’s depiction of the notion and not what he really desires from life at the deepest level.

B) Companionship

Humans are pack creatures. No matter how much other humans may irritate us on occasion, when left to our own devices for any significant amount of time, we quickly realise how much we’d rather have them around. Being part of a group that treats its members well and shares a certain bond or closeness is essential for happiness. Simply interacting with others satisfies a huge part of our vat of human needs.

One of my favourite films is ‘Into The Wild’, which features a young 20-something man desperate to escape modern civilisation and culture which he cares for not at all. He thus embarks on an expedition into the wilderness ending up in the most remote icy plains of Alaska. In his travels he thrives during human interaction and through the mix of weird and wonderful characters he meets, but ultimately comes to the sad realisation during his final lonely starving minutes that: while he got exactly what he wanted by living alone in the wilderness and self sustaining in the most remote undeveloped lands, none of the would-be happiness was truly obtained as there was no one there for him to experience it with. The final words he scrawls down before his death have stayed with me ever since i saw that film: “happiness only real when shared.”

Loneliness causes insanity. We evolved to depend on each other as those who enjoyed loneliness perished. As a result, we need companions to realise the happiness we gleam from the other sources on this list.

C) Connection 

Connection is linked with, but a little different to companionship. While the former involves sharing your interactions and experience with others, connection is about actually being understood and understanding other humans. The crudest and strongest example of connection, I suppose, is falling in love. There is love in every hollywood movie ever, even ones that could have been good, had they not been poisoned by the cringy, default, inappropriate, sexist love story in which the helpless woman falls for the strapping man who just obliterated a 90 foot tall 50 tonne alien with his fists.

The reason for this is that many people are deprived of real connection and so lap it up like nectar from the wide screen, in the dark, in a room surrounded by lots of other love deprived people all sitting a socially acceptable distance from one another who will never speak to each other in their lives; possibly holding the hand of someone they used to be truly connected to.

Love in this crude form that hollywood likes to butcher and devalue originates from a special kind of understanding. It’s a result of the person you’re in love with actually understanding you for exactly the person you are and wanting to be with that person. It’s like a special bubble that rises out of the ground and encapsulates two people rendering the rest of the world less important. If we don’t fall in love, we don’t feel the churning buzz in the pit of our stomachs that makes us feel a truly connected piece of the world. If no one understands the real you, then you can never completely connect with anything, only parts of yourself can achieve this at different times and you’ll be less happy and therefore successful than you could have been had you found real connection.

True connection isn’t always possible, or if it is then it often fades away after some period of time. Nevertheless, getting as much as you can of this is achievable and essential. I believe that one reason we’re so unhappy as a society is that we hide parts of ourselves from our partners, marry people that we don’t fully connect with out of comfort and social pressure, and maintain a fearful distance from others as some kind of defensive mechanism. This lifeless forced monogamy kills the quest for real connection and we feed instead from pitiful drips of distorted simulations of connection through our entertainment.

Connection is not limited to romantic connection. You can connect with strangers, friends, dogs, books, songs and audiences. Keeping an open mind and being fully yourself around everybody you meet is the surest way to forming true connections so that you don’t need the methadone handed to you by TV shows in which people make connections you only wish you could.

D) Pleasure and Immersion

This one is my personal favourite. If you don’t enjoy life, it’s hard to see how life could ever be successful for you. Entailed by the realisation of pleasure is the avoidance of pain; at least of the fruitless kind. It’s essential to seek out the things in life which make you happy. Sex, good food, drugs, philosophy, terrible hollywood love stories, music etc. whatever thrills and excites you, this is what you have to pursue.

There are three categories of moments in time: past, present and future. Nothing in the past can generate very much pleasure, maybe just a fraction of it’s former pleasure in the condensed dulled form of memory. Things in the future can cause you pleasure, but only because and when the future becomes the present. While it’s possible to look forward to your wedding and derive pleasure in the present from knowing that this great future event is going to happen, that pleasure is microscopic compared with what you’ll experience on the day, when it becomes the present.

Therefore, the present is thee part of time where pleasure should be maximised. Toiling in the present to set up future pleasures is wise only if you’re going to be able to relish them when they become the present. Dwelling on the past instead of living in the moment is probably never ever wise. I suppose what I’m getting at is that forgetting all about the past and the future and fully immersing yourself in the moment is of huge value, to happiness and to success. There are of course limits concerning consideration to other persons and all out egoistic hedonism is a truly condemnable moral practice, but knowing when to just fully savour the present moment and get yourself into the kind of situations you can savour is key.

We all live relatively tiny blips of lives in which it really didn’t matter how much money we made. If you grab the pleasure that comes your way and engineer as much of it as possible for the future then you’ve nailed a key ingredient to success in life.


Conclusion

Like I said previously, games are really fun because they provide alternative realties in which the principles of success become streamlined and instinctively fun to achieve. However, we must avoid being Jim, the guy from ‘Into The Wild’ or anyone else who fails to realise what gives humans real happiness. I’m sure you can add to my rather limited list of human success principles. Feel free to comment and suggest additional ideas. I’d be interested to hear what other things you the reader thinks are essential to success in life. After all, it’s what we’re all striving for.

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 4: Progress

Introduction

Progress is a journey in an upward direction. It’s the getting from one starting place to another place you desire to be at more. Wherever you’re at right now is your starting place, and for most of us, we can conceive of a being at a better place that’s realistically attainable and beneficial for our lives. It’s really an infinite ladder of improvement. Given actual perfection is something out with the realms of human possibility there will always be some way in which you can improve your life and your satisfaction with it. Whether you’re recovering from drug addiction and trying to stabilise, or prospering in every area of life and figuring how you can prosper even more, there’ll always be something to aim at. So let’s start aiming and build something amazing for ourselves so that we may wake up every morning and be thrilled to be alive and living the life we’ve created.

What you just read was somewhat of an idealistic and unrealistic view of progress. It’s so much easier said than done to just set a goal, go out and conquer it, then set the next one. People toil and strive their entire poker careers for years on end and never become winning players. There’s always that guy in your local chess club who eats, sleeps and breathes the game and can’t get his grade out of the class E zone (1000-1200). There are and always will be a massive amount of depressed, angry and bitter people wandering the surface of this planet in some eternal rut, where things never seem to get any better. Progress is not easily made in anything of real worth, so I’m going to introduce a few concepts through the ever trusty spectacles of chess, poker and life and see what we can learn about this enticingly slippery beast.

This is part of a series of articles, and if you haven’t already read it, you can find part 3 here.

1. Fluidity vs Stagnation

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Let fluidity be defined as the potential to be ever changing and able to react to the demands of progress. Let stagnation be the denial of progress’ desires and the self induced blockade of the mind and soul that traps people in the same unwanted state of being.

Let’s start out in chess with a personal example from an aspiring 1600 chess player (me). I’ve only recently experienced a much deeper and clearer understanding of the game and this is because I finally decided to change something in my approach to learning it. In chess we talk about our ‘best win’ or ‘best draw’ meaning the highest rated player we’ve ever beaten or drawn with. I’ve had both of these conquests in the last two months and I’ve played and studied the game less in this period of time than for a long time prior to that. So what did I change?

I decided that I’d stop devoting 100% of my chess study time to opening theory, which is something experienced players maintain requires relatively little of an amateur’s time, and studied endgames in depth for the first time in my life. This was a necessary change for me to make and not because endgames are more important than openings. There’s a deeper lesson to be learned here.

I’m maybe a little more comfortable in endgames having done this new study, but in truth, I haven’t gotten into a single one during this period of playing better. Killing people in the endgame is not what’s caused me to start scoring more wins. Rather, what this new type of study achieved was an opening up of new neural connections in my brain, and with them, multiple branches of unexplored thought territory, just dangling there waiting to lead me in some great direction that was previously cut off. As a result, my middle-game play is more creative and logical, and I’m thinking about a few more of the right things and a few less of the wrong ones at every stage of the game.

You gain incite and access to new ways of functioning by mixing things up and making sure your mind is exposed to enough different stimuli. It’s through variety that we maintain fluidity. This is one of the key demands of progress and we stagnate whenever we ignore it.

This same trend occurs in poker all the time. So many of my students, when I first get my hands on them, have a completely rigid and binary approach to learning the game. They’ve adopted what I call the lazy model of poker learning which is in part the fault of most learning materials out there on the market. This model is one where the student absorbs all of their new information passively through the incredibly accessible format of videos and podcasts. When you learn via spoon-fed passivity alone, you learn only a fraction of the material you’re bombarding yourself with and learn it to a pathetic degree where it depletes the entire brain’s power just to wrap your head around it each time it’s needed. Actually applying the new material is another story entirely and most passive learners fail miserably at this when they suddenly switch from listening to clicking buttons.

Immersion and student centred learning break this mould, not just improving the learning model, but also ripping open tons of new brain paths where the student is jolted into action. RIP stagnating video munching poker zombie; the fluid mind is now in town and with it the gears of progress begin to slowly churn into motion.

There are countless examples of stagnation vs fluidity in life. I went through a rut where I wrote absolutely nothing in the way of poetry or music for about a year and a half which is very unlike me. My creative and expressive faculties were about as stagnated as you could get. Then I moved out to Italy for 6 months and began teaching English over there. The simple increase in interaction with different types of people ignited a new source of inspiration and caused me to write 12 poems and probably the best song on guitar I’ve ever come up with.

Keep things fluid by constantly leaving the door open for diversity. Seek new experiences and challenges, however minor, and you keep the wheel of progress rolling along, learning more about yourself along the way.

2. Dreams vs Reality

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I’m a real fan of finding necessary balances. It seems so often that you need both a dose of one thing and an equally important dose of its opposite. Dreams vs reality is just another example of the harmonic push and pull pattern we commonly witness in the world.

Let me cast my thoughts back to 2007 for a second and introduce a younger and less balanced version of myself, blindly roaming the poker world in search of glory.

We had no internet connection in the grubby little apartment I’d begun renting with two friends. My daily routine was to wake up around 1pm, go down to the internet cafe across the road for 4 or 5 hours and play 6-max cash games online until it was time to go to work and deal gambling games for other people by night. My bankroll management was absurd as I played 100NL (big blind is $1, full starting stack is $100) under-rolled and under-skilled with just $1400 to my online poker name. Even then, when the variance involved in the game was greatly underestimated, this was still considered a foolish amount of buy-ins to wield. By nowadays’ standards it’s just laughable.

I didn’t care though. One evening I wrote out my ‘plan to become a successful pro poker player.’ This plan involved a series of steep under-rolled jumps up to the next limit. Over a period of just a couple of months I’d scheduled myself to be playing 2000NL (or 10/20 as it’s commonly called) with just a $20k bankroll. I was naive and unrealistic and my first few attempts to breakthrough and make a meaningful amount of money from the game failed miserably. I would grind up a bankroll of around $1500-$2000 playing sit ands gos, a game I found boring, but was undoubtedly better at than cash games at the time. Eventually, I’d have my inevitable break down at 100NL cash and blow the entire roll. Much to my continued frustration, this became a pattern.

I spent many an eventless hour between 4am and 5am on a Wednesday morning standing at a deserted roulette wheel in an empty casino, spinning a ball for non existent players. Each time marking out the winning number to the one man audience of my inspector. During this down time, my ravenous appetite for poker grew ever stronger. All I wanted out of life was to make a living from the game I loved so as to escape this nocturnal drudgery. I had so much ambition that it deluded me and overwhelmed my brain with emotion on a daily basis. The dreams to be that guy who could go around saying “I make a living from poker” were so powerful that they decimated any grasp I had on reality. I had no idea what I was doing and no hope of finding out this was the case.

Over the next few years I went through a very humbling and satisfying transformation. In 2009 I finally decided that I wasn’t as good at poker as I used to think. I joined a community of experienced, improving and beginning players and quickly got told how horrible some of my play was. For the first time in my poker career, I accepted criticism, sought objective truth and took no offence from the stern words of more experienced players.

And so, I absorbed my first dose of reality, levelled the scales of dreamy ambition and began a successful charge through the micro and low stakes. I made a meaningful amount of money that more than funded me through university for the 4 years to come and paid for an 8 week excursion to California and Vegas. For the first time, I felt good about my results and my game and was able to look back with humorous pity at the flailing version of myself in that internet cafe. I think if that guy could see now that I make a comfortable living from playing and coaching poker full time and was about to write a book on the game, he’d be pretty satisfied.

Raw ambition is amazing. It’s the spark on the fuse that gets you started and ensures you’ll dedicate your energy to something as fully as possible. It’s like the battery powering the machine. However, if the machine is powered to lash out in all the wrong directions, that power goes to waste. This is where reality comes in. You need to make sure you’ve found the objective truth about what you’re trying to achieve and can be honest with yourself before this ambition can take you anywhere meaningful. Dreams are totally essential too though. No uninspired drone can intentionally succeed at something they love. Dream infinitely and let your ambition propel you, but make sure you don’t neglect how things are attainable in the real world. Balance is everything for progress – so be a realistic dreamer.

3. The Track vs The Forest.

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Time for one last balance of opposites and a little analogy to get it across. I read a quote day that went something like:

“The purpose of school is to bring new humans up to speed on the progress of humanity so far.”

There are two types of progress we can make in the world. One is absorbing pre-discovered material as taught to us by those more experienced in whatever we’re trying to get better at. Making progress in this way is to advance down the track already laid out for you. The other is to think about things independently, come up with your own ideas and direction, or in metaphorical terms, to go roaming through the woods, forging your own path as you go. Here’s why I think real progress demands a mixture of the two.

In chess we talk about blunders, in poker we talk about huge mistakes, and in life we tend to use the word ‘regrets’. Whether you lost your king’s bishop to a simple tactic, made a horrific call on the river or married the wrong person; it would have been good to have prevented that from happening. The blunder I’ve always feared the most in life is going down a professional road that doesn’t make me happy. From the tender age of 17, we’re pressured to make a life determining choice right off the bat. Choose which university course you’ll do! What do you want to be when you leave school? Where can you earn the most money and secure that nice house and car every person of worth must own?

Pressures come not just from our education system, but from the media, where we idolise the celebrities who have ‘succeeded’ even if they’re ‘success’ has made them miserable, propped up only by the cocktails of drugs that will ultimate end their lives prematurely. I’m going to refer to this whole system of pressure and rushed decision making as the human processing plant. As far as the plant is concerned, people are merely firewood for the world, each one finding a tolerable slot in the cogs of the machine to serve out their days and get all the stuff they think they’re supposed to get. To quote a song my girlfriend wrote: “Whose ambition are you making your mission?”

So the upshot of the human processing plant is that people end up lost and confused or confined to some job, and therefore, some life that ultimately just isn’t the one for them. It’s not that everyone should find thee number one absolute destiny for themselves, this is pretty impossible, but let’s at least try to get somewhere near.

This is where the woods come in. That initial direction we’re pushed down might luckily be the right one, but in most cases it turns out to be largely incompatible with who we are. If we never explore away from that and discover the truth about what we want in life, we’ll never know which track to try to make progress on.

My suggestion therefore, is that we need to first confront the woods and discover who we are before blindly following any one path as the processing plant would have us do. After we’ve figured this out, we can jump onto that track and start to seek advice from those further along it. Poker, for example, is a very community based learning zone. We learn by working with a coach, fellow aspiring players or by watching videos by players who have already achieved what we’re aiming at. You need this hierarchy of knowledge. The school model of progress makes a hell of a lot of sense, but only if we’re on the right track to begin with. Progress is utterly meaningless if made in the wrong area. We need the woods to know what’s right for us. We need to be lost before we can find anything great.

Finally, the role of the woods is not confined to some initial search for direction. Paths weave in and out of them forever and it’s our job to try to find the best ones. However, being on a good path shouldn’t deny us the chance to roam off and dig a new one in the earth to a place no one’s ever been before. Many of the best discoveries I’ve made as a poker instructor have been from independently coining new concepts and ideas then putting them together into a form I can successfully teach. If we’re all just regurgitating the same information, no path truly goes anywhere new. We end up just trudging in unison learning the very same things the person in front of us learned however long ago. Many of these things my be great or even essential to know, but surely they aren’t exhaustive. You make progress both by following the progress of others and by creating your very own progress.

To summarise this section, we first need to discover the correct direction, so that we don’t make that fatal blunder of following the wrong path for our whole lives. Only then can we make progress that is truly worthwhile and happily join a some beaten tracks. Even then, when we’re contently traversing those tracks, there’s nothing to stop us veering away into the world of creativity and exploring unchartered territory. We can always make additional progress independently, and by feeding it back into our chosen path, we enhance the progress of those around us, who have made the same initial choice in what the hell to do with life. This is the model of progress. It’s a trade of between listening to others and going solo.

Conclusion

It seems progress is all about balance. We need equal doses of inspiration and practical know how. We must find some compromise between listening to the advice of others and finding our own way in the world. To avoid stagnation we need to take plunges into unfamiliar territory and always be experiencing different parts of our chosen field. Finding what that field should be is only half the battle. Progress is elusive and slippery, but the very thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 3: Skill

Skill in anything is an attractive thing to strive for. It’s something we can develop and hone to achieve the things we want. To put it simply: skill grants access to success. But what exactly composes skill in poker and chess, and can the same thing be applied to life? Can we simply develop our skills in the same structured way and guarantee ourselves the same level of prosperity as we can in the realms of strategy games?

This is part of a series of articles, and if you haven’t already read it, you can find part 2 here.

1. Skill As Decision Making (poker and chess)

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As always we set off by looking at our concept in question through the lens of the chess player. You win a game of chess by being more skilled than your opponent. Being more skilled than your opponent is represented by the fact that you make superior moves to the ones he makes. Therefore, being skilled at chess is simply to possess some faculty that consistently enables you to make good decisions. Good decisions lead to better outcomes than bad ones do with a firm degree of reliability in the purity of the chess world and so skill translates directly and instantly to success.

In poker there’s no real fundamental difference here. Skill is still the underlying currency of success and it can be reduced here also to brute force decision making; it’s just that now there exists a delay in the translation of this skill to success as we saw last time when we examined luck and learned that this game contains a great deal of it. A common misconception about poker held by the uninformed outsider is that since poker is a game of luck, it can’t also be a game of skill. This is completely false and to quickly explain why I’ll use the following analogy that I so often find myself falling back on at social events.

Imagine we each have a coin and decide to play a coin tossing game where the idea is to toss your own coin and flip heads more than your opponent does with theirs. When someone flips heads, he/she scores a point but scores nothing for tails. Our coins are perfectly normal apart from one small but crucial detail: mine is weighted in such a way that it lands on heads 51% of the time. Your coin, on the other hand, is just a regular two pence piece from your pocket and lands on each side 50% of the time.

What would happen if we played a match of ten tosses each? Well, I’d flip heads 5.1 times out of 10 on average to your 5 times out of 10, but on one occasion in isolation, anything could happen. There will be many times where you toss more heads than me and over this small sample it would be impossible for an onlooker to determine that any one coin was favourable to the other. However, if we toss 100,000 times instead of 10, we’ll find the 0.1 extra heads I toss per 10 to be decisive. I will flip more heads than you than you due to the law of large numbers which says that statistical likely hoods hold true over large numbers of trials. I am crowned champion over a 100,000 toss match thanks to my ever so slightly better coin.

Now let’s imagine this small edge of being able to toss more heads was not in fact due to me holding a bogus weighted coin, but was a result of my superior skill in coin tossing. Now we can see how skill can generate a positive long term expectation in a hybrid game of skill and chance, but that the more skilled party can easily still lose over the short term. Here in lies the unreliable nature of success in poker over the short term but near certainty of long term profit for the more skilled party in the long run. In poker, this skill equates to choosing what action to take with a certain hand in some distinct situation. The player who makes the better decisions wins the money in the long term so again skill is just this ability to choose good options.

2. Skill As Decision Making (life)

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Jerry (50) dropped out of university at the age of 19 as it wasn’t for him so he’s chosen instead to travel and pursue his passion for music for the last 25 years. He’s now making his way through Australia with his wife teaching the guitar while she teaches piano. He says couldn’t be happier.

Sally (50) has worked as a solicitor for the last 25 years and grown to loathe it. She feels like her life has passed her by without her even realising, each day a meaningless blur in a procession of routine drudgery. She’s thought about changing her life at various points, but never found the moment to join the police force like she’d always fancied.

So what do Sally and Jerry have in common? They’ve both made choices for the last 25 years that have resulted in different levels of satisfaction with how life has gone. It seems pretty obvious that Jerry has chosen better than Sally and thus lived a far more positive life over the years. Just as in poker and chess, there’s a sense in which skill is simply a person’s ability to make good decisions. Of course Sally’s knowledge of the legal system and Jerry’s knack with the guitar are sub-skills, but if we want to generalise away form sections of life to the bigger picture of life itself then skill is at least partly decision making.

There are two issues rearing their heads here so I’m calling for a short time-out to deal with them.

The first is the subjectivity of success. ‘Success’ as intended from now on is subjective to the agent in question and not comparable to how others perform on an objective scale. Mike might not be as intelligent or brilliant as Fiona, but he could be more successful in life if he achieves more good stuff (whatever that turns out to be) than she does relative to their respective natural abilities and opportunities. Fiona might be a natural born world class pianist who received world class lessons from infancy. Mike didn’t have this chance so this needs to be taken into account. Of course there will be external factors governing overall achievement in life, but success should be measured in an equal manner so we’ll be overlooking any of these natural strokes of luck from now on.

The second issue and the one I’m going to need to leave on the sidelines until part 5 is what exactly constitutes success in life. Could Sally not be considered more successful than Jerry if she’s saved a lot of money, bought a house and raised a family in the last 25 years where as Jerry has not? Maybe her sacrifice in doing something she hates was worth it should we zoom out and see the bigger picture. Sure, maybe! it depends on what we think the currency of the good actually is in this baffling realm. Maybe that currency is different from person to person. This question is worthy of more space than can be allowed for in this section so stay tuned for fuller exploration soon.

That aside, I want to investigate why some of us are more skilled in life than others. Why do some of us repeatedly make bad decisions and end up in bad spots while others seem to chose prudently and reap the rewards? I have three explanations for this that might lead us down a path to improving our skills in life. They are: desire invasion, decision discipline and decision automation.

By desire invasion I refer to something more than just a lack of willpower or lapse in judgement. Many types of people, for example, addicts, criminals and mentally ill people suffer from an inner programming so profound that it overrides any hope of decision making carrying out it’s normal duty of pursuing the best outcome. The poker equivalent is the enraged recreational player who has a gambling problem and chases his losses without rationality or sense of limiting the damage. The chess equivalent is extremely rare and even more bizarre than the rest of the chess community, but i suppose he’d be the board trashing, abusive type of player who gets so mad at the game he starts to make moves in a shortsighted emotional manner and hence gives up decision making in any rational sense. These people are not necessarily unskilled at life, they simply suffer from something debilitating that prevents that skill from being exercised. Even the most gifted poker player in the world will be a loser if he can’t keep it together for long enough to think clearly and implement his ability.

For the rest of us, success in life I believe is very much a case of skill in decision making. We understand this on some level yet many of us constantly make decisions we know deep down to be mistakes.

The first culprit here is decision discipline or lack thereof. Just about every poker player suffers from this deficiency at some time or another. We know that we should fold the river because analysis shows calling to be unprofitable, yet we chose to call anyway and convince ourselves somehow that it’s okay. We know playing h5 and opening up the kingside is probably theoretically bad, but we can’t resist the chance of winning via a brilliant (or lucky) mating attack. We resolved to run 3 times a week this year and give up Papa Johns pizza as this was much better for our well being, but hey, it’s two for tuesdays today and it’s really cold outside.

Those who succeed find ways to keep discipline levels high more frequently and enforce strict codes of decision making upon themselves. Those who fail succumb to bad decisions they could have avoided with a stronger faculty of discipline. Success in life requires discipline, otherwise the brain will just make the bad decisions it seeks for whatever irrational or emotional purpose. Discipline here usually involves the overriding of emotional interference of any type. It takes Sally discipline to quit her job as a lawyer and pursue actual happiness just as it takes me discipline to stop ordering pizza. Her job is controlling her fear enough to make the change where as the rouge desire I’m trying to reign in is temptation or perhaps gluttony.

If we separate emotional urges from our rational analysis, we’re better placed to make the right decision. Sometimes, however emotions can lead us to the correct choice. The saying “follow you heart” has a hell of a lot of truth to it in my opinion. However, other times we’re best placed ignoring emotional impulse and reasoning out the problem. The real skill in life then is using our cold calculating abilities to decipher which emotions are worthy of listening to and which are striving for unwanted ends. This isn’t going to be easy, but as a friend of mine likes to maintain, large problems need to be broken up into steps and now at least we have a starting point.

Finally we come to decision automation. I came up with this concept thanks to a poker illness many poker players are afraid of developing – the dreaded autopilot! This is a frame of mind that can exist in almost any mental activity where the brain, due to distraction or fatigue, stops thinking authentically and begins to rely on habitual patterns to make decisions. We suddenly find ourselves on the turn without any idea of how we got there. We have to trace the hand backwards to reason that we must have open raised KJs from an early position and been called by the big blind. Then we must have continuation-bet the flop and been called again. Our minds switch off when they lack the focus or energy to create new thoughts to deal with a situation and shift into this autopilot mode so damaging to our win rate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, I’m now going to say that the same thing happens in life all the time. How many decisions do we make, completely unaware of the fact we’re making a decision at all. And how good of a decision can we possibly make where this is the case? I didn’t go for a run today because I didn’t even think about it until I was in bed, yet at every point of the day where this was a possibility, my subconscious was choosing not to bring it to my attention. If we can develop a system of flagging up important decisions as and when they occur, we can minimise decision automation. We may also need a system of bookmarking certain things so we remember to consider them and consciously make a decision about if and when to do them. The more you automate your life, the firmer the grasp routine will have on your mind and the quicker the mould will grow over that beautifully dynamic creative and inspired part that’s always seeking to make great choices and better your life.

So to recap, in order to not end up like Sally, we need to build decision discipline to quell the destructive randomising effect of emotion while still using it as a guiding beacon the times we find we agree with its impulse. We also need to banish autopilot decision making and keep fresh our inspired originality and creative pallet so that we may paint things into our lives that aren’t staring us right in the face. Be aware and be disciplined; in chess, in poker, and in life!

3. Skill Beyond Decision Making – Immersion

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If skill in life leads to success, and decision making isn’t always sufficient for success, then skill must be more than just decision making. Why would I say decision making isn’t always enough? Well, when we make a good decision we gain useful things that can be enjoyed or transferred into happiness. In order to experience happiness or pleasure from the things we’ve gained though, there’s one ingredient missing, and this ingredient I’m going to call ‘immersion.’

Let’s imagine Julia read this article, but stopped before this section. She became obsessed with making decisions every moment of her conscious waking day and making the right ones. She built an amazing career, made a beautiful family with her successful husband and became very rich (all thanks to me). Unfortunately, her days are now nothing but a massive fest of stress and worry as she battles with decision after decision, adamant that she’ll make lots of right choices about important things.

So Julia isn’t very happy and that’s because she never allows herself to blend in with the world and enjoy the fruits of her labour. If we’re doing nothing but choosing what to do next, we can’t savour the present. We enter some bizarre self contradictory loop where we spend the present always setting up the future so that it will be better but then we chose not to cash in that betterness and instead set up the next future so it will be better so on and so on. I think we’ve all encountered neurotic stress-heads like Julia. She has a great decision making faculty but lacks the other half of skill in life – immersion.

Immersion is the ability to switch off the decision making brain and allow yourself to profit through endorphins and positive inner well being. I find that some of the most enjoyable times in life are those where you get completely lost in the moment. The times you remember forever are those which felt the most special at the time. The very things we try to manage and even suppress in order to make good decisions are the things we need to let loose in order to gain from those decisions….emotions! We are supposed to thrive by becoming one with our environment and simply being sometimes.

As someone with very hedonistic views, I may be biased here, but I’m going to go ahead and state the weak claim that no achievement is really anything if life is void of pleasure and happiness. The happiest people seem to me to be those who can successfully flick the switch of decision making on and off at the appropriate times. Switching it on to create the circumstances conducive to happiness and turning it off again in time to enjoy them.

In poker and in chess we have no need for such a balance. Skill is not measured by how much we enjoy the trip but by the destination that is the winners’ circle. In life though, I;d say you’re pretty bad at life though if you create an empire of resources that noone ever enjoys. The poker equivalent would be building a massive stack in a tournament to then leave the computer and let your stack disappear along with any hopes of winning money. To be like Julia is to create a winning endgame in chess then blunder it all away in horrific fashion.

Conclusion

Skill is vital to success in chess, in poker, and in life. Decision making is vital to skill in all three realms. We need to control our emotions in order to proposer at this and make sure we stay vigilant enough to have the right factors up for decision in the first place. The more we avoid the natural inclination to autopilot our way through the world, the more beneficial the topics of our decision making become. The more we conquer our irrationality and channel emotion in the right way, the better the choices we make on these matters. At the end of it all though, it’s totally irrelevant how much we achieve if we neglect immersing ourselves in the world and enjoying what we’ve created. Life is a finite blip in the grand scheme of things. Don’t blunder it all away in the end game.

Skill in life is just the ability to achieve what is good for us to achieve. More about that in part 5.