Rant: You Have to Work Really Hard to be a Great Poker Player

Day 2C
Don't kid yourself. Winning at poker isn't easy.

Poker is constantly evolving and conventional wisdom says it's getting harder. Why then do so many pros get complacent, stop working hard and let the game pass them by?

After hundreds of interviews and thousands of questions with poker pros I'm often shocked by the lack of time and effort pros put into their games.

The pattern is all too familiar: They work extremely hard in the beginning, experience early success and then take their foot off the gas.

Once the pedal is no longer touching the metal, players either crash and burn or they keep getting lucky.

At least that's the stereotype that's taken hold inside my skull after laboring over the dicta-phone with some of the best poker players in the world.

But it's a stereotype with which not everyone agrees.

Only Truly Gifted Players Can Skip the Hard Work

Alan Jackson is a cash-game grinder and highly sought-after coach at Bluefire Poker. He's also the type of poker player who works just as hard off the felt as he does on it.

“I think the stereotype of the poker player not working hard enough is a bit of a myth,” said Jackson.

Viktor Blom
Unless your name is Viktor Blom, chances are you should be working harder.

“Almost all the players I know work really hard. Those that don’t are either sick talented or will soon be out of poker.”

The most common form of training I hear players talk about is strategy discussion with other top pros. It's the training exercise Jackson says has had the single biggest influence on his career.

But when pushed further I find this is both the ceiling and the floor. I’m not sure that pros, tournament grinders especially, are really working as hard on their games as they should be.

During the World Series of Poker I sat down with Jared Tendler, author of The Mental Game of Poker I and II, to see if focusing on peer-to-peer strategy discussion is an effective way to develop your game.

Tendler said it can work but focusing too much on one area of your training is a mistake.

“One thing that a lot of poker players don’t grasp is the importance of understanding how to learn,” said Tendler.

“Poker players who just want to talk about hands will also benefit from individual study. It all depends on the person. I think in general you need to have a balance.”

That quote from Tendler got me thinking about one of the most often overlooked area of poker training: self-review.

“There needs to be a daily session review,” emphasized Alan Jackson.

“Replay all your big hands and try to look at them with fresh eyes. Don’t take anything for granted and consider all alternative lines and bet-sizing.”

Early Success a Trap for Poker Pros

A lot of players do take things for granted. They achieve success too quickly and don’t know any other way of life.

This leads to an overvaluation of fame, and they quickly fall into the category of ‘hot shot’ that is expressed by the media, and anyone else willing to put them on a pedestal.

"I think the problem is players aren’t working smart enough," said Alan Jackson.

They start to see themselves as being superior to recreational players, and when you decide to buck the trend of Public Enemy and start to believe the hype, why would you work hard at your game?

“I don’t think it’s a case of players not working hard enough. Instead I think the problem is players aren’t working smart enough," said Jackson.

"They don’t have the right balanced approach to learning. I regularly coach players whose primary goal is to improve their game rather than winning money. They are variance adverse, so instead of firing up tables they work hard on their game.

"I believe players should adopt a 2 to 1 playing to study ratio when trying to move up and 3 to 1 for established players.”

The problem, as I see it, stems from the fact that poker players are self-employed. They don't have a leader creating a training plan, no list of courses that you have to attend and the only rungs on the ladder you have to climb are the stakes.

This means the onus is on you to extend your working day by an hour to go through a diligent review of your game, to discover a balanced way of learning. Or, as Jared Tendler so aptly puts it, “To learn how to learn.”

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