If you really want to succeed at the very highest level you need to think like a pro as well play like a pro. Nick Wealthall can show you how…
Poker is something that creates irrational passion in those who play it. Most of us, if we had our choice of things to do and we could pick anything, would usually choose to play poker. If we could really pick absolutely anything, money no object, it would probably be to play poker… in a sunny location. Or as Nick the Greek put it, ‘The next best thing to playing poker and winning is playing poker and losing.’
Unfortunately there is a price for our love of the game, and that is massive frustration. It can be a totally infuriating game. I consider myself a rational, logical person, and yet I have at various times in my poker career slammed down my mouse, screamed obscenities at an inanimate computer screen and jumped up from a poker table so violently that my chair has flown backwards across the room.
I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences of being incredibly frustrated with poker, feeling unlucky, that you can’t win or are somehow jinxed. That’s not how you want to feel about your favourite leisure activity. The good news is you can feel great about the game and enjoy it more, and also really help your results, with a few simple changes.
In this article I’ll explain why poker is a game that presents some unique challenges and is perfectly set up to frustrate you. I’ll look at how the pros overcome these issues and the mindset they adopt to help them do so. With any luck we’ll soon have you playing without anger or obscenities, and we might even save a few mice in the process.
How poker is set up to frustrate
First, let’s go back to basics and look at how the game of poker is set up and how you should approach it. Poker is based on very small margins. The margins are far smaller than you may appreciate when playing, because we’re used to thinking about things in absolute terms.
If we’re good at poker, or at least better than our opponents, we expect to win. That’s how games work, right? Well, not always. If you’re a winning cash game player you might be looking to win as few as four big blinds per 100 hands. If you’re playing tournaments, a return on investment of 120% is a great result (for every $10 you buy in for you expect to get $12 back). These are small edges and that means, critically, that you are going to be losing a lot.
To put it another way, if you only have a small margin as a winning player it means you’re winning only a small amount more than you’re losing, which is a lot of losing. The key point is that it’s way more losing than you’re used to in life and in probably any other activity you’re involved in. From a young age we’re taught (or maybe just know) that losing is bad and failing is embarrassing, so we run away from them.
How many things do you do a lot that you really enjoy but totally suck at? It’s probably true that when you started poker you got lucky at some point early on, because when we succeed at something we get positive feedback, are encouraged and so do it more. Lesson one then, teach yourself that losing is okay.
Big pot luck
Not only do we seem to lose a lot in poker when we’re winning overall, but the effect is magnified due to a phenomenon called big-pot luck. Most players spend their time playing no-limit hold’em. This is a very challenging game emotionally because so much of the focus is on the rare big pots when they come along. You can sit for an hour making ‘automatic’ folds and decisions in small pots, then suddenly you’re playing for your whole stack.
It’s very easy to ‘run badly’ in these big pots, especially as so many of them are coinflips. If we lose a few in a row not only will our results be bad, but we will feel exceptionally unlucky because of the emotional and financial impact of these big pots. In fact, it’s something of a mirage because these hands are not really where our profit comes from, as they tend to balance out and the hands usually play themselves.
Situational luck is much more important. This includes things like how often you get coolered or suck out on other people, the times raises in front stop you from entering a pot you would have won or lost and so on. When you’re playing, however, the big pots don’t feel like a mirage and losing a few in a row makes poker very frustrating.
Fail to succeed
Getting unlucky in poker can feel like being cheated, and once again this jars with our other experiences in life. Putting your money in good and losing is like running a race, getting to the finish line first then being told you have to stop and wait for the fat kid to catch up and run by you. It’s an unnatural thing to accept.
Pro players solve this problem by becoming indifferent to results and focusing all their energy on playing decisions. They are human too and of course terrible runs get to them too, but far, far less than recreational players.
What top players realise is that they simply have to lose a lot in order to win in poker; or to put it another way they have to fail in order to succeed. They don’t measure their success in a session by profit and loss, but by how well they’ve played.
The epitome of this is when Phil Ivey won a million-dollar invitational tournament in Monte Carlo and was visibly downcast in the victory ceremony. When asked why, he said, ‘All I could think about was how badly I played.’ Ivey has conditioned himself to think about decisions not results to such an extent that it’s all he can think about.
How to focus on decisions not results
I’m not suggesting you should be unhappy at winning a million dollars, but I do believe absolutely anyone can learn the winning mindset that professionals use to deal with the variance and ‘luck’ in poker.
The first thing is to embrace the small margins in poker and the amount of losing. It’s vital to realise that without small margins between winning and losing, between good players and bad players, there would be no poker. If poker was like chess, where the better player could crush the amateur every time, no one would play for money. If you want to be a winning player, you need to understand that worse players must beat you a lot for you to win. It’s hard because your brain hates losing, but from that small margin huge bankrolls can be built.
If you doubt this look at the huge buildings and bright lights of Vegas, all of which were built on games with tiny margins. After embracing the fact that you’ll win only slightly more than you lose even if you become a top player, you need to take some steps to build that habit and world view. As losing is so unique in life, our brains will focus on it and make it bigger than it appears. You should take steps to counteract this.
I’d recommend recording the times you get lucky in a session, either by outdrawing your opponent or coolering them when you have the best of it but the money would have gone in the same way if the hands were swapped around. You are almost certainly not noticing these ‘lucky beats’ at the moment. Also, review your decisions after each session, not your results. Force yourself to spot three occasions, as a minimum, where you could have made a better play to make more chips. This will help you spot errors in your play, but more importantly it will shift your focus from outcomes you can’t control (such as how the board runs out after the money goes in) to things you can. This is the stuff the best players in the world focus on every day and you should do likewise.
Play without fear
Good players view the game not in terms of wins and losses or hot and cold runs, but as a series of problems to which they must find the best answer. As a result it can appear that they are ‘fearless’, when in fact they’re just making the right decisions, whether that’s folding a marginal hand or shoving with air.
You can create this mindset too by training yourself to focus on every decision you make. One of the biggest problems amateur players have in poker is not backing their judgment. We all have a fear of going broke, which is perfectly natural. However, this is a bad way to approach poker.
Next time you play a tournament, watch how loose the play is in the early levels when there’s not much at stake, and contrast that with how tight the play becomes when the blinds get big. This reaction is understandable but completely wrong for winning poker, as we should be looser and more aggressive the more there is to win in the middle.
The idea of looking at poker as a series of decisions can help overcome your fears and conservative impulses. A good way to make this happen is to start noticing when you’re acting out of fear or not backing your judgement. During sessions, try to identify hands in which you do this. After the session or before the next time you play review these hands either on your own or with the help of better players and decide what the best play was.
Resolve that next time you will make ‘the best play’ regardless of what it is. If you should bluff for your whole stack with no hand because it’s the best play, it isn’t courageous or having big balls. It’s just making the right decision. Another good tip if you’re struggling with this is to play at a really low limit, or even for play money, and practise making big moves or playing more aggressively.
That way you will condition yourself to put your chips at risk when the moment is right. I believe anyone can train themselves to view poker the way a top player does. It might take some time and a little practice, because you’re working against some powerful natural instincts like fear of losing, fear of failure and so on. However, it can be done regardless of your poker ability or knowledge. If you make the changes in attitude and mindset I’ve described here, you will see a dramatic improvement in your results and also your enjoyment of the game.
The winning poker blueprint
Want more? Then you’re in luck, because Nick Wealthall has written a whole training programme that tackles the common problems and frustrations encountered in poker. It’s called ‘The Winning Poker Blueprint’, and it has all the advice you need to start thinking like the pros and playing your best every time.
The training in it will not only transform your results, but allow you to really enjoy the game. A lot of poker training material is just theoretical, but this programme is written as a ‘how to’ which takes you step by step through topics like dealing with losing runs, thinking clearly in bad pots, playing with focus, money management and lots more.