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16 Reasons Why You'll Never Win at Poker
The whorls on my feet and toes look grotesque.
The whorls on my feet and toes look grotesque.
“Are you getting out or not?” asks my wife as she wipes the bathroom mirror with a towel, hairbrush in hand.
I can’t seem to shift. I have that feeling in my gut. The one where you're about to tell the truth and the devil keeps sticking his pitchfork in between your ribs and twanging them.
I open my mouth several times. Nothing comes out. I pour more hot water in the bath.
“I have something to tell you,” I whisper.
I blurt it out. There is no going back. I feel like I'm staring down the barrel of the end of my marriage and my bathroom is about to become an art gallery where the theme is blood.
“I have something to tell you.”
My tone is stern enough for her to stop what she is doing and pay attention. She sits down on the shower step. Silence. There is a look of horror on her face. I think she thinks I am about to confess to an affair.
“I have lost a lot of money gambling. And I don’t know what to do.”
The Vastness of the White Space
I quit gambling at the same time I quit alcohol. You can't comprehend how much it consumes your life until you stop and feel the vastness of the white space.
It's a dangerous time for alcoholics. If they don't fill the white space with something, the mind fools you into believing life is boring, and alcohol is the only solution.
I filled my white space with poker.
I know how absurd that sounds. A man with a gambling problem fills his life with a gambling game when he quits alcohol, but I never viewed poker as a form of gambling.
I always saw it as a game of skill. There were times when I lost control -- always in cash games -- but it wasn't the same as sports betting or the wheel.
Poker filled a hole in my life at the right time. I was playing online poker for money and competing in a local home game on a Tuesday night. It also helped my recovery because nobody drank that much during the game. It was perfect for me.
The Success Principles
It wasn’t enough. Suddenly, I was like a man possessed. I had a never ending compulsion to grow. It was as if the alcohol had prevented me from thinking for the past 20 years.
The Portcullis raised, the drawbridge lowered, and ideas came galloping through. I read a book called The Success Principles by Jack Canfield.
He told me that I could be or do anything that I wanted to be or do. It was an overwhelming moment.
The sadness of realizing that I had wasted the past 20 years of my life hit me like an Ivan Drago jab.
I was bitter, angry and full of self-loathing. And then I decided to do something about it. There was a number in The Success Principles to ring to enquire about personal one-to-one coaching.
I dialled. It was expensive. I had £30k in credit card debt. I had that feeling in my stomach again, the one from the bathtub. I went with my gut. I joined the course and added to my debt.
The $45k Goal
My coach was called Michelle. My first task was to figure out what my life purpose was. I couldn't do it. To help me Michelle suggested writing a list of all the things in life that had brought me enjoyment.
It was a short list. Poker was on it, as was football and sex. I felt like a failure. I cried, and I cried.
"Think about your job," she said. "I know you hate it, but what are the things you enjoy?"
My list grew exponentially.
“Now figure out how you can earn a living doing those things,” she said.
I decided that I wanted to help people quit alcohol. I also realized that my job (I had worked in the rail industry for the past 20 years) was making me sad.
The answer was staring me in the face. I could quit my job on the railway and help people quit alcohol.
Easier said than done. I had a wife and a child. How would I support them financially?
And that's when I had the brainwave to become a professional poker player and use that freedom to help people quit alcohol. Working with Michelle, I created a goal to earn $45,000 through poker in a year.
If I could do that, I would feel comfortable that I could pay the bills and wouldn't have to return to the 9 to 5.
At first, life was great. I built up the courage to quit. I had a year's salary. I had a plan to join another firm if it all went tits up.
There was a lightness about me. The stress of the railway was never evident to me until I quit. The freedom of waking up on my terms is something I am grateful for every day.
And then it all started to fall apart. My wife couldn’t wrap her head around it. I was spending 12 hours a day playing a game. There were times when I would lose a lot of money.
The swings scared her. In a desperate bid to reassure her I tried to buy her confidence in me by giving her half of everything I won. It wasn’t the soundest bankroll strategy.
We started to fight. We drifted apart. Eleven months after my goal had begun, I quit. I felt like a failure.
Then the strangest thing happened. As part of that goal to earn $45,000 through poker I sent an email to five editors of poker magazines.
I asked them if they wanted me to write about my story of quitting my job and earning $45,000 though poker. One of them said yes.
There was only one problem. I didn’t know how to write.
The editor was John Wenzel from Poker Pro Europe magazine and the Valleys to Vegas column was born. As I was busy losing money at the tables, more John Wenzel-types read my stories and offered me more work.
Twenty-four months after quitting my job and setting a goal to earn $45,000 through poker, I made £45,000 writing about poker. I got to keep my freedom after all.
But why didn’t I make it as a professional poker player? What went wrong? I asked dozens of professional poker players, who have succeeded where I failed, why?
Here are their answers.
1. Lack of Self-Reflection
I was going through the most intense period of self-reflection in my life but wasn't adapting my process into my poker game. And even if I did, I was learning my craft in solitude.
There were very few people I spoke about poker with and nobody at an expert level. So even at times when I did review my game I wasn't sure what I was doing.
Fedor Holz is the hottest poker player on the planet right now and this is what he had to say about self-reflection.
"I think the reason why most people will never win at poker is the same reason why people fail in everything else in life. It's because they don't reflect - especially self-reflect.
"There are so many areas in poker that you can work on to be a more successful player that a lot of players don't even realize exist because they stick to an existing thought pattern that they internalized as a strong habit while growing up.
“Like in everything else I think getting the most value out of the experiences you make is key. If you make a mistake, realize that you made one and make sure you improve in that area.
"I see a lot of people making the same mistake in different variations over and over again and then in a lot of cases that results in frustration and I think that's often the reason why they are stuck in a rut.
“Be happy about making mistakes because it means that you are improving.”
Evan Jarvis, the founder of Gripsed Poker, agreed with Holz:
“One of the biggest reasons people don’t win at poker is a lack of self-awareness.”
2. Self Delusion
One of the reasons I struggled to self-reflect was because I was delusional. As a beginner I had zero comprehension of the variance of poker.
I was the guy who won a $10 tournament on PokerStars for $10,000 and thought I was the greatest player in the world.
When I played in my local game I figured I was hands down the best poker player. This delusion worsened when I started to work in the poker industry.
I felt like it was my right to be the best because I mixed with some of the best.
Only Daniel Negreanu has won more live tournament dollars than Erik Seidel. Seidel believes this area is one of the key reasons people don’t win at poker.
"I think the biggest danger is self-delusion. Assessing our strengths & weaknesses realistically is paramount."
3. A Lack of Honesty
So why was I so delusional? It was a lack of honesty.
It would take me years to understand the power of vulnerability. I learned everything I know in this area of life from Brene Brown, and you should check out her Ted Talk called The Power of Vulnerability.
I was at dinner in San Marino recently with the Italian pro Andrea Dato when he told me how he used to recite hands with his peers but change some of the details so he didn’t appear to be so stupid.
At that moment Dato touched on the heart of vulnerability, and that's the shame. He felt ashamed to be honest about his game. And this is how I felt when I eventually had the opportunity to discuss hands with professionals.
As a writer, I already had insecurities and pegged myself as being somewhat below them in the order of the universe. I didn't want to manifest that any deeper by showing them how much of a fish I was at the table.
I was also failing, to be honest with myself. I knew that things weren't right. I knew I wasn't coping. I knew that I would have to invest so much into this dream and yet I wasn't willing to do the hard work.
I knew it. I buried it. I should have spoken to former Poker Million winner Joe Beevers. He would have put me straight.
“When you asked me ‘Why Most People Will Never Win at Poker,” it got me thinking. If you asked 100 players in your local card room 'Do you win at poker?' what would they say?
"And if you asked them 'What percentage of players do you think win?' How do you think they would answer that?
"The first answer would likely be, 'I do OK' or 'I win a bit' and the second answer would be, ' 5% - 10% perhaps'. The answers don't fit; most people kid themselves.
“Why is it? This is the reason why most people will never win at poker. They can't be honest with themselves!”
4. Close Mindedness
There were so many signs that I was not going to make it as a pro poker player. I didn't let any of them in because I was close minded. I always knew best.
I wasn't willing to learn. I was inflexible. I had won $10k in an online tournament. I had this thing licked. What was there to learn?
“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn,” said Benjamin Franklin.
“Staying open minded and flexible is a real challenge,” said Erik Seidel.
Where did that stubbornness come from? Ego, of course.
Sonia Aurora Madan used to sing at the top of her voice that Everyone has Got One only mine was bigger than most. I wanted to be perfect. I had this drive to succeed, fuelled by ego, and not from love.
I think about Philipp Gruissem and his decision to change the reasons he played poker and to use it as a vehicle to help improve the lives of others. I wanted to play poker as a way to help people quit alcohol, but I didn't focus on that.
Instead, I made it all about me. My ego was a suicide bomber doing his thing inside my chest. I should have checked it in at the door.
That way they would have found the bomb. Says Adam "Roothlus" Levy:
"The biggest thing that keeps people from winning at poker is having too big of an ego. You need to check your ego at the door if you want to win.
"No one cares if you're a celeb, billionaire, etc., once you take your seat at the poker table, so don't let that get in the way of your learning process."
6. Lack of Discipline
Lack of discipline was a HUGE one for me. If I was winning, I would tell myself that I had to keep playing. If I was losing I would tell myself the same thing. I would chase. I would make decisions I knew were -EV.
For the longest time I had a note in my wallet that I wrote to myself reminding me to be patient, to fold, and to choose my spots wisely. I would always ignore it. I was all over the place.
Says Dan O’Callaghan:
“I think too many people have ‘fuck it’ moments, or they use a loose excuse like 'I can play well post flop' to justify things they know they shouldn't be doing.
"I once read a quote that said: 'It's not enough to be the best player, you must also play well.' Genius advice that we all want to follow, but only the best players do.”
7. The Luck Paradox
Do you think you're the unluckiest poker player on the planet? Well, you’re not. I am.
Throughout my experiment I focused on my bad luck all of the time. I hated it when I read about someone getting lucky straight off the bat. I was envious and painted like the Hulk. And I’m not alone.
During my recent trip to the World Series of Poker (WSOP), Twitch star Dylan Hortin told me that he had started to feel bitter watching Fedor Holz winning flip after flip during the final table of the ONE DROP.
Evan Jarvis told me that his biggest leak used to be thinking all of his victories were pure luck. If you want to win at poker, you need to embrace the luck paradox.
"Most people think they are infinitely 'unluckier' than everyone else," said European Poker Tour (EPT) Champion Niall Farrell, "and don't address their logical flaws in their approach so don't improve in any way."
"I think the human brain just isn't made to deal with a game like poker because it's hard to differentiate good play from just plain luck," said multiple WSOP bracelet winner and World Poker Tour (WPT) Champions Club member Dominik Nitsche.
"That's why you will see a lot of people who run well for a while lose it all back eventually. The population looks up to people that ran good in a few tournaments as the best players yet those two things are pretty much unrelated."
8. Lack of Accountability
If you don't learn about the luck paradox you end up losing your sense of accountability. You blame everyone but you.
I didn't take 100% responsibility for my actions during this period. I blamed everything -- the deck, my environment and the idiotic plays my opponents would make.
"One of the main reasons people don't win at poker is the lack of accountability, blaming negative results on bad luck yet feeling entirely responsible for good results."
9. Lack of Learning
I wasn’t a winning poker player when I decided to try and become a pro poker player. I just loved the game. It was a clear sign that education should have been my number one priority - but it wasn’t.
That love for the game ensured I spent all of my time playing. I was unbalanced.
In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell expands upon research carried out by K. Anders Ericsson and came up with the idea of spending 10,000 hours to master something. And this doesn't mean spending 10,000 hours just playing but incorporating deliberate practice.
It's one of the reasons that online poker players have caught up with the greats like Doyle Brunson. They get to play more hands in a shorter time frame. But to be the best, you need to incorporate the deliberate practice into your routine.
Former EPT Champion Rupert Elder:
“I suppose most players won't win at poker because they don't have an interest in studying the game, they simply want to enjoy the game.”
"I think that people who don't win in poker are not willing or capable of learning everything there is to learn about all the aspects of poker."
10. Learning Incorrectly
Even if you do incorporate learning into your game, it’s important that you learn the right things. I got the bulk of my education through online poker sites.
I would watch Phil Galfond four-tabling high-stakes cash games and then go into my local home game and try to play like him. The very foundation of my poker game was learned from top tier pros teaching high-level pros.
I was a fish. I needed a training regime directed towards a fish.
Eventually I developed so many terrible habits, and barely had a foundation to my game, because the likes of Galfond were assuming you already had one before watching his video.
"A lot of those that do study don't necessarily form strong fundamentals from what they do study," says Elder. "They learn the wrong stuff, and there is a lot of misinformation about."
“Focusing energy in the wrong places," says Evan Jarvis, "and getting too caught up in the highs of the game end up in misunderstanding the fundamentals of the game and unrealistic expectations lead to emotional dissatisfaction.”
“Most coaching videos these days still don't teach people how to play correctly,” says Nitsche.
I never made a play based on a mathematical decision I drummed up in my head. I knew roughly what to do in certain spots, but my lack of mathematical knowledge was always going to affect me long term.
I hated it in school and it was a part of poker where my mind was closed on the subject. Not a good starts, says the Flying Dutchman Marcel Luske.
"Poker is math. Without math, there would be no poker game and certainly, no skill involved."
12. One Size Fits All Game
Over time I would also incorporate stack sizes into my play, but for the longest time I never adapted to playing styles and emotions.
People will always tell you in poker that there is no one size fits all answer. I had a one-size-fits-all game.
"I think for me the biggest point is that there are so many players who don't change their game to adapt to different opponents every time they sit at a different table.
"A lot of these players just look down at the cards they are dealt and play them the same every time no matter if it's an aggro player or even an absolute rock of all rocks.
"Adapting to every player at the table is so important for me."
13. Loss of Emotional Control
I was a total fish in this area. Most of my money was lost through tilt and, from a straw poll of poker players on whether they lost most of their money through losses of emotional control or technical capability, 100% of players chose the emotional control option.
It’s a big one. It’s something I never worked on. Says 888poker Ambassador Sofia Lovgren.
"You need patience and tilt control. You could be very unlucky in poker now and then and you mustn't go on a big tilt and donk away all your money when this happens. Without a big amount of patience, you will never win at poker long term."
"One of the primary reasons people don't win at poker is a lack of self-discipline," says Evan Jarvis.
My biggest mistake was not having a bankroll big enough for the games I was playing in.
I played in a £1/£1 Dealers Choice cash game on a Tuesday night. You could win or lose £1,000 per week. I had £45,000 to my name. I had to pay bills and support my family. I could easily lose £4,000 in a single month in the game.
It affected my mood, which in turn affected my relationships and my enjoyment of life.
I was sitting down each time scared to lose money and this affected every single decision I made at the table. Says Andrew “BalugaWhale” Seidman:
“The biggest reason people won't win at poker is probably that they'll lose emotional control with too small of a bankroll and go bust when things go hard.”
“Money is vital as it reduces pressure and you can play well without pressure,” says Luske.
15. Incorrect Metrics
How do you know if you are successful? You cannot manage what you cannot measure.
I was using money earned as my metric for success. Meaning when I played terribly but got lucky then I was doing well.
You need all of the advice that has gone before and then turn that into Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). That's how you judge yourself.
You cannot improve if you measure the wrong things.
“Another important factor," says Dominik Nitsche, "is quite simply that people approach the game incorrectly and put too much weight on recent results.”
16. The Rake
I never paid much attention to this one. I couldn’t tell you if it affected me or not. I think that tells you all you need to know.
"The reason why most people will never win at poker is that of the rake. Modern poker is a negative-sum game, with the huge vig creating an environment where the majority of players have to lose.
"After the casinos and cardroom operators take their money, there isn't a lot left to go around. Perhaps in the future, with more outside sponsorship money coming in, we might see poker transformed into a positive-sum game where the majority of players can be winners."
"The nature of the game," adds Nitsche, "simply dictates that most people need to lose for someone to win. It's just how the game works. Add rake to that and now suddenly being better than average doesn't cut it anymore. You also need to make up for the rake."
So there you are. 16 reasons why you'll fail to win at poker. All of them certainly played a role in my demise.
But the most important point I want to emphasize is the need to learn from your mistakes.
I don't play a lot of poker today. However, when I do, I make fewer of these errors.
I have also learned to adopt many of these principles into my life. I have grown tremendously as a human being.
And looking back at my decision to quit my job to become a pro poker player, I see nothing but a rip-roaring success.
Now, it’s over to you. What have we missed? What are the reasons you think people don’t win at poker?
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