“But this teacher says I should do this play in that situation.”
“Why did he say that?” I ask.
The above exchange is worrying to me. When I am talking to aspiring poker players, I am struck with an impression: They want firm answers. They want a poker trainer who they can trust 100%. They want to take his words as gospel, but if his strategies do not work, they want to assail him for their lack of success. Blaming any poker coach for your own failings is misguided, unless you can prove the error of his ways. Remember, no poker coach can control conception to execution. You’re the one who has to go onto the field and play ball. You cannot execute correctly either if you’re relying on simple maxims. There are no panaceas in poker.
The Love Of The Game
No-Limit Hold’em is a remarkably nuanced game, that is what is so lovely about it. I started playing the game 16 years ago, in the halls of my high school. I still love the game today, precisely because its mysteries take so long to unravel. It’s also just a blast to play No-Limit Hold’em. The game is so beautiful precisely because it takes so long to understand. Much like chess, No-Limit Hold’em is a game that can absorb a man for his entire life. While a gentleman might not be able to play pick-up basketball in his 80’s, he will be able to sit down at the felt. There’s something gorgeous about that.
With this in mind, I want you to read this exchange again:
“But this teacher says I should do this play in that situation.”
“Why did he say that?”
“No, tell me,” I say, leaning into the lesson. “You don’t have to use the Solvers or anything. Just give me the remedial algebra. Or even the basic reasoning. Give me the bullet points. Break it down for me.”
I always feel like an ass when I have to do this, but it’s for the student’s good. If I don’t demonstrate they don’t understand the structure of the play, they’ll kid themselves that they do understand it. I have to put them on the spot to expose this is not true, this is a huge, huge problem, because in No-Limit Hold’em there is a large difference between remembering and knowing. In 2007 there was a famous poker book written by a high stakes poker player revealing basic combinatorics, which is a big word for combination counting. It sent shockwaves throughout the poker world. I was taught a variation of the combinatoric math in that book by multiple players in my circle at the time. It was fairly simple. In the book, the author demonstrated how if a player opened more than 15% of hands from a certain position, flatted with most of those combinations when three-bet, and then saw a normal flop…the player was screwed. Unless he was check-raising high cards or donk leading, then he was check/folding high cards too often. He was being exploited.
It has been 12 years since that book came out. I was 19 when the Euros taught me that math. I’m in my 30’s now, and I still get paid to teach that math. Why? Because people want shortcuts. If you really want to learn about three-betting wide ranges and exploiting players post-flop, you should run drills in your free time. We used to have to do all of this by pen-and-paper in 2007. Now, you can buy a $30.00 copy of Flopzilla and have the program do everything for you.
Finding The Fun In Fundamentals
I feel comfortable in most poker situations because I’ve spent countless nights plugging in different opening ranges and then seeing how different flops effect the situation. With repeated exposure, I’ve become better and better at identifying good flops and bad flops. By thinking through the same situations with different players, I’ve been able to create play changes that fit the situations. It’s all been remarkably fun, learning all of this. I genuinely enjoy coaching because it’s entertaining to share this process with other players. Yet, sadly, when you try to share the joy of discovery with many players, you get a statement like this:
“So if a guy opens lojack or later, three-bet him always? Then continuation-bet 2/3rds pot?”
Well, okay, sure, often that will work. Lojack players open too much, 2/3rds pot is a good c-bet. I’ve recommended that play before, but you need to know WHY I recommend that play. During my training videos, when I bust out the calculators that show how to do remedial combination counting, I’m not doing that for my health. I’m not doing that to prove one play. I want YOU to learn how to work on your own game on your own! I want you to know why a certain play in a certain situation will work. This is a far superior way of playing then desperately trying to remember inflexible rules at every turn. To actually know something in poker you need to get in there and get dirty.
Becoming Tilt Proof
My true belief is most “tilt” actually comes from insecurity. I used to tilt a great deal when I was playing aggressive poker but not knowing why I did my plays. Once I began breaking down each play with at least Flopzilla and a calculator, I began feeling much better about how I played. My tilt withered away. Truthfully, the real salary in poker is working on your game, gradually getting better.
When I was a kid, nothing held my interest. I loved poker when I found it, because there was always something new to learn, there was always another way to get better. If you had a $100, you could satellite into a $1,000 tournament. If you were in a $1,000 tournament, you could win hundreds of thousands of dollars. You always had a shot. As long as you held a job and gambled responsibly, the game never ended. You never reached your athletic peak. You could get better every single day. There’s something remarkable about that.
When aspiring players say, “what’s the system that will help me make a ton of money so I can retire on a beach somewhere?” I always roll my eyes. Poker doesn’t work that way. Even if you win a big tournament, the money will most likely not last you the rest of your life, especially if you live in a first-world country. The game is a discipline. It’s no different than a martial art or any other sport. It requires constant training, constant passion.
The real question should be, “how do I attain mastery in this discipline?” If you do that, the money will follow, one way or another. The way to attain mastery is to stop counting the hours, dollars, and cents and get dirty with the problems. Loving the study for its own sake is what makes champions. If you fall in love with getting into a situation at the table and going, “this is so cool! I studied this on Thursday!” you will have a long career.
It took me ten years before I could play No-Limit Hold’em in a way that made me feel masterful. I easily logged 15,000+ hours to get there, if not much more. I grumbled during much of that time, angry that I wasn’t getting the results one player or another was getting. Once I began playing poker in my own style, where I knew what I was doing as opposed to remembering what another player said, that’s when I realized: This is what I wanted the entire time. To feel like I owned any poker table I was at. I wanted to walk into a poker room and know I was going to practice my craft. I wanted to love the game on that level. My hope is that you recognize earlier than I did that this game is not about the money. Don’t get me wrong, I love the money too, but it’s also great to have a strategy game you can study that pays you something. Many chess professionals do not get that. Many professional athletes do not get that. We are truly blessed.