Category Archives: Poker

My journey as a poker player, technical poker concepts, progress, results, strategy articles etc.

Understanding Mistakes in Poker

“I don’t mind bad variance. I don’t mind getting sucked out on or coolered. What really gets me is when I play badly. I can’t stand making mistakes.”

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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.

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  1. Unknown Mistakes

    An 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.


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Poker Pitfalls 3: Learntertainment

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In my experiecne 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 instrcutor 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.

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.

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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.

Poker Pitfalls 2 – Mathaphobia

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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 – 1. Introduction – The Dollar on the Hook

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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.”

 

 

 

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.