Darwin’s theory of how to become a great poker player

Becoming a great poker player never happens overnight – it is a game of continual learning…

While there’s no magic formula for success in this game, one universal truth is that the best players all share an insatiable appetite for learning. Successful players are driven by a desire to improve, and will use whatever learning tools and techniques they can lay their hands on to achieve this.

So, if you want to be more than just a casual player, the first thing you need is a desire to improve. But taking that as a given (you’re reading this after all), what comes next? How do you know what stage of evolution you’re at, and what steps you should be taking to climb the ladder?

These are the questions we’re going to examine here, starting from an understanding that poker players evolve in clearly defined stages. While everyone learns differently, there is a general pattern that emerges, as players slowly build their knowledge base and introduce new plays into their game. The first step is to identify honestly the level you are at right now – so let’s look at a few broad player types…


Beginner poker players are the most widespread and common in the poker population. After all, at each stage of the evolutionary cycle there are some players who will not progress, either because they lack the desire or the capacity to improve. Beginners mainly come into the game through watching poker on TV or playing a relaxed jovial game down the pub. As such, it’s completely understandable that they think playing 90% of their hands and raising with 9-3 suited is fine, because after all Gus Hansen did it in a WPT final a few years back and he is a poker legend.

Beginning players are characterised by playing too many hands, showing complete disregard for position, playing the streets with no idea about bet-sizing and having complete disregard for pot odds. I know myself that I used to play every hand when I first started playing – literally every one, regardless of what it looked like. I found a useful way to ensure I always had something worth playing was to use the ‘blackjack rule’. Assign all your hands a blackjack number value and don’t play a hand worth less than 20. It’s a simple way of making sure you generally make a lot more top-pair and solid hands that can withstand heat and win the pot at showdown.

The superb part of meeting beginners who have genuinely caught the bug is their enthusiasm and willingness to learn. Intelligent players who recognise their own failings can gobble up information and progress out of the beginner stage at a rate of knots. It’s poker not rocket science after all.

The best way to get out of the beginner stage is to get a solid grounding in Texas hold’em. Get an idea of hand rankings and how position affects your starting-hand requirements. I found reading simple books on hold’em really helped me start to think about poker and get an idea of what was happening.

Getting a solid foundation in pot odds is a really good idea too and should hopefully show you just how bad it is to draw in no-limit hold’em, as you are rarely if ever getting the right price.

Above all, this is the stage where you need to focus on the basics. It’s in these formative days that you establish a poker mindset and your experiences can have huge knock-on effects down the years. As such, stick to low-limit sit&gos and small-field MTTs. Nurture your confidence and play a lot of hands against bad opposition.

One of my close friends played his first live multi-table tournament eight years ago and won, beating a very tough field and netting a large lump of money. However, the sad part was that he thought he could play poker but really didn’t have a clue. He played for about another two years convinced of his poker prowess, never bothering to learn or read up on the game and thinking himself superior whenever his play was criticised, till one day the penny dropped. He says that in hindsight winning his first ever MTT was the single worst thing that could have happened to him at that time in his poker career.


  • You will play any cards from any position and you have no idea what pot odds are
  • You think position is a football term, hand rankings are decided on how pretty your cards look and that bankroll is something to do with your payslip


  • Download a hand-rankings chart and read a few books on the basics of no-limit hold’em
  • Get out there and play as much as you can. Small live competitions will really help you get enjoyment out of poker
  • Talk about poker as much as you can with players who are at a more advanced stage than you. It should speed up your learning immensely
  • Online, you should be playing small stakes. It’s probably best to play no higher than $5 SNGs/MTTs and $0.10/$0.25 no-limit cash games



As an intermediate player you know all about pot odds and position. You have studied starting-hand requirements charts and have a rough idea about what cards to play in what position. You have caught the bug and are now at that tricky stage where you are stuck in a rut. You know what a value bet is, but you don’t really understand the situations in which you can use one. You know when you are beaten, but for some reason you tend to call regardless.

This is the hardest stage to get past for many poker players. To surpass this stage takes effort and a willingness to learn – it is the first stage where passive learning will no longer cut it. Your subconscious can pretty much tell you how to play the endgame of a sit&go, but to play tricky hands in marginal spots requires you to actually engage the grey matter upstairs and think about poker.

The biggest single difficulty I had at this stage was ingraining the most obvious thing in poker. That is, you make money in poker by other people making mistakes and save money by not making them yourself. You don’t make money by being a god of poker and outplaying everyone (at least most of the time). This idea is apparently so simple, but it is a lot more complicated than it appears. In almost every hand, someone, somewhere, will have made a mistake. Sometimes there are a number of mistakes by a number of parties.

At this stage you should be thinking about getting involved in online poker forums. The big American sites are generally good for overall improvements your game – 2+2 if you have a penchant for cash games, pocketfives if you’re a tournament junkie. In the UK, blondepoker.com is an excellent resource.

You should be starting to get an interest in all forms of poker analysis and this is definitely the stage where you should be investing and playing with simple (but oh-so-valuable) equity calculators like PokerStove and possibly purchasing something like PokerTracker – good for both tournament and cash-game players. By posting hands and taking in feedback you can start to think more deeply about poker, working out how to find the most optimal line. Learning how to widen your opponent’s range and make more money out of marginal hands is a huge skill at the poker table and reading good books and articles will help you improve your game.


  • You can understand concepts such as betting to protect your hand, semi-bluffing and value-betting, yet you routinely misjudge hands and make glaringly obvious mistakes
  • You are unable to keep a level head when you lose a big pot and suffer from tilt a lot


  • You need to involve poker heavily in your lifestyle. Participate in hand debates and discuss hands with players whose opinions you trust
  • Continual learning and building up a poker library should be high on the agenda. Books like the Harrington on Hold’em series are especially useful
  • Invest in some decent analysis software. Carry out analysis after you play sessions, reviewing big hands and marginal spots and looking for leaks
  • You should be playing $10-$40 tourneys and up to $0.50/$1 no-limit cash games. These games are where your edge lies, beating players who have a far lower understanding of the game and a lot more leaks



You know the score. You’ve been around the block, played enough hands, been in enough marginal situations and come out still alive. You know how to kill the mid-stakes games, value-betting thinner than your opponents and getting away with more moves, squeezing your expected ROI up in tournaments and your hourly rate in cash games.

You probably still make mistakes, but they will be of a different order. You might not have a great grasp of metagame principles (such as table image), you might play for too long or when you are not 100% focused on winning and you may have developed some nasty tilt habits. I found tilt to be a huge problem when playing long cash sessions, but there are ways to suppress it. Advanced techniques are available to manage your emotions and stay level- headed. Have a look on the internet at mind and body tapping (MBTT) and a variety of other techniques. These work surprisingly well for some people.

One way to keep your game fresh is to introduce a little variety into your schedule. Play cash games one week, have the next week off to go and play some live tournaments, then go back to playing cash with a few bigger MTTs thrown in. Watch some videos from some of the better training sites – PokerXFactor for tournaments and CardRunners or DeucesCracked for cash.

Also if you are a cash player I would seriously consider getting hold of Hold’em Manager, as it is far and away the most advanced and powerful tracking tool out there, albeit not quite as accessible as PokerTracker or PokerOffice. Try also to find yourself a poker buddy, someone who truly understands what you are doing, how you think and the ways to solve various problems. It can be invaluable to ask someone you truly rate about a hand that you feel was really tough.


  • You know nearly all the moves in the game, from floating out of position to when to fire three-barrel bluffs
  • You have the ability to remain unpredictable by changing gears and mixing up your play, and know when to lay down a hand. The last one is often the hardest to learn


  • Moving beyond this stage means joining the top 5% of poker players, and as such is an incredibly tough proposition
  • Try to identify your mistakes; perhaps make a video of yourself over a couple of sessions (Camtasia offers good software for this) and get a more advanced player to review it for you
  • Alternatively, invite a buddy round to sweat you in a session and analyse your play. This can be really helpful for identifying any latent leaks in your game
  • Your learning now should be non- stop. You should spend a lot of time on hand-analysis forums and watching high-quality videos from top players



This is the pinnacle of poker evolution and although in the confines of this article we are considering it as one group, in reality there are probably another four or five rungs of player within it. Very few are qualified to write extensively about what it takes to be the best, but this is where we should all aim to reach. After all, who wouldn’t want to be the next Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend or Allen Cunningham of the poker world?

At this stage of development you should know an awful lot about poker – virtually everything in fact – and have racked up thousands of hours experience across a variety of poker disciplines. Most importantly you should be incredibly adaptable. Situations and table dynamics are forever changing and the players that walk away with the loot are often the ones that recognise the correct approach on the day, taking into account all the limiting factors such as image, history and mood to ascertain the winning formula. This is really tough to do on a day-to-day basis and is the reason there are so few online and live pros that consistently beat the highest stakes tournaments and cash games.

The leaks that these players possess are often quite clear, just not to the player in question. They might try too many fancy plays (a condition called Fancy Play Syndrome, or FPS for short). I often suffer from this and it really is a tough habit to kick. The trick is not just to balance your crazy high- variance moves with your ABC lines, but to change gear more frequently and be aware of how your image is changing in your opponents eyes.

Another glaring mistake lies in underrating your opponents. At low to mid stakes it is fair to assume that your opponents are relatively bad, but at higher stakes your opponents will for the most part be good, thinking players, which means you have to push your game to new frontiers if you want to beat them consistently.

Really analysing yourself and your own game and leaving your ego at the door is crucial. For some players, taking on a high-stakes coach can reap rewards and provide the missing link in the chain.


  • You make a substantial chunk or all of your income from poker
  • You have excellent bankroll management skills and know how to deal with downswings and variance
  • You exude a serene calm at the tables and rarely suffer from tilt
  • You may have permanent bags under your eyes from the stresses and late nights poker brings
  • You are on first-name terms with the girls at the lap-dancing club


  • Learn to accept your poker self, with all the failings and trappings a poker ego entails. Most winning players have big egos, but the pros are more than happy to listen to criticism without resentment, and are continually takingin all new information available to them
  • Gain a keen understanding of the best times of day to play, train yourself to eat well and exercise properly to help keep blood flow to the brain high
  • Set aside time in your schedule to relax and unwind from poker


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