Team Talk #1

Can't seem to get your game out of neutral? It's just a matter of time…

The speed of transition from incompetent to comfortable to proficient is variable

Poker is like driving a car. (I was initially going to say it’s like juggling, but I didn’t want to sound like a complete c). When you first get behind the wheel you’re going to be shit-scared. And the older you are when you start, the more scared you’re going to be.

Take me as a case example. I started learning to drive when I was 26, and approached it with the knowledge that there was a fair chance I might kill myself. My partner at the time was trying to teach me, which didn’t help, because she thought I was going to kill both of us: ‘You didn’t look! You just pulled out! Stop the car and get out!’ (I did and she drove off and left me in the middle of nowhere, but that’s a different story.)

Whenever I drove anywhere, and irrespective of whether there were any other cars on the road driving straight at me, I was rigid in my seat. I could barely do the basics – I was stalling (the equivalent of fumbling your cards); driving slowly with my nose just an inch away from the windscreen (a huge tell of my novice status); and panicking whenever I had to do anything that was slightly more advanced than moving forward in a straight line (‘Shit! I’ve just been re-raised!). And because of all this I couldn’t enjoy the experience. I couldn’t relax and I was a danger to just about everyone else on the road.

Changing gears

But then gradually, and without realising it, I became a proficient driver. I even got to the stage where I could wind down the window, lean my elbow out, put my head back on the rest and whistle, while changing gears, looking in my rear mirror, checking whether I had enough petrol to make the next service station, changing a CD, unwrapping a sweet and engaging in a conversation with someone in the back seat. (I should point out that I’m not putting this forward as de rigeur behaviour behind the wheel, I’m just illustrating a point.) My car didn’t veer across lanes every time I turned to check my blind spot on the motorway and (to date) I’m still alive and haven’t had a crash. I now consider myself a decent driver.

Quick to learn

The same is true of poker, especially live play, but the analogy applies online as well. When you first start playing you’re so preoccupied with the absolute basics, that you’ve got absolutely no chance of picking up on the subtle nuances of the game that will eventually see you move up to the next level. Shuffling, dealing, betting, deciding which starting hands to play, and what to do when someone plays back at you – these are all things that consume your every waking hour when you first start playing. But these are all things that will soon fade away into your blind spot.

When is this going to happen? Unfortunately, the speed of transition from incompetent to comfortable to proficient to expert is entirely variable. Some of you will get into your comfort zone within a couple of weeks where – like Neo in The Matrix – you slip into a sort of slow motion, and are able to simultaneously play your top game and pick up on the tells that nine other players around the table are doing the best to hide from you. You’ll catch the twitch of an eyebrow, the tightening of a mouth, and you’ll do it all without trying, because the nuts and bolts of poker are now as familiar as putting on your underpants in the morning. For others it might take months or, gulp, years.

So, if you’ve just started playing, or you’ve been playing for months and you’re worried that everyone around you seems more comfortable, adept at picking up tells and consistently more profitable than you, stick with it. It might take time – some longer than others – but it will come. Of course, there is the slight chance that it won’t, that you’re just not cut out to be a poker player, that you are, in fact, the Maureen Rees of the poker world. But the fact that you’ve bought this magazine and read this far, makes that almost entirely unfeasible.

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