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Pick a Game & Master It: How Deliberate Practice Works in Poker
My son is a math wizard.
My son is a math wizard.
I hated math. I guess that gene got lost somewhere along the slippery slope.
I was talking to him about his math GCSE and he was so confident about getting an ‘A.' Was he innately talented at Math or did he have to put in the hard graft?
This is what he told me:
"I revise the things that I don't understand. I don't bother with everything else."
At that moment I understood why I never made it as a professional poker player.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-Hour Rule in his book Outliers.
The man who hits the New York Times Bestseller list with a greater accuracy than Apollo Creed hits Rocky sold an idea that to master 'something' you had to squeeze in 10,000 hours on that 'something.'
When I interview professional poker players I always end with the question, “If I gave you 10,000 hours to master anything what would you choose and why?”
During an interview with Anton Wigg, the former European Poker Tour (EPT) Champion told me that the research that led to Gladwell's now iconic assertion came from a Swedish psychologist called Anders Ericsson.
So, I looked the guy up. I learned more about him and started to understand why I had failed to become a professional poker player.
The key lay in something known as Deliberate Practice.
It Can't Be Any Old Practice
According to my son, the only thing that's stopping him from getting top marks in his math exam is his teacher.
There was a time that he loved math. And now?
"I don't love it as much." I asked him what had changed.
“We have a new teacher,” came his reply. My son loved his first teacher because he explained things clearly, took his time, and allowed his pupils to ask ample questions.
His latest teacher rushes through the work, doesn't explain things clearly and makes the children feel stupid when they ask questions. My son has stumbled across one of the many roadblocks that prevent people from benefiting from Deliberate Practice.
There used to be a belief that talent was immutable and predetermined by your genes.
In a 1993 research paper titled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Ericsson and his smart alec chums determined that this was a load of old codswallop.
Sure, if you wanted to be an NBA star or win the Grand National, then genetics are going to have an effect. But other than being born a giant or a midget everything else, even cognitive abilities, can be improved upon by practice.
But it can't be any old practice. It needs to be deliberate practice, and the problem with my son's math teacher is key.
When my son told me about his problems with his Math teacher I offered to hire him a tutor. He refused. I think he made the wrong call.
His current math teacher is trying to teach a way of math to an entire classroom. It's one way of teaching and yet all of his classmates will react differently to various coaching methods and will have different strengths and weaknesses.
When I first started to play poker, I fell in love with the game. I wanted to excel because winning always felt better than losing.
I joined the very best online poker training sites but the lessons learned only took my game so far. And in some aspects the learning hindered my progress because it was too advanced for me.
Then I hired a mentor. It was the most efficient decision I made. I had tried various coaches before I ended up with Alan Jackson from BlueFire Poker.
His analytical style suited me to the ground. Jackson would monitor my performances, both live and through review of my HUD, and he would create tailor made plans for my development.
All of these methods involved improving upon a weakness that I had that was holding my game back.
In Ericsson's studies he found those that benefited from deliberate practice the most would work on core weaknesses, but it was the mentors who would identify the weaknesses in the early stages of development.
Only when the soon-to-be-expert had reached a certain stage of their development were they able to identify flaws and make adjustments without guidance.
If my son had an excellent math tutor, he or she would create a tailor-made plan for my son to improve upon his weaknesses until they became strengths. And it's this modus operandi that forms the crux of deliberate practice.
Deliberate Practice in Poker
I was crap at math in school because I didn't apply the required grit and determination. I found the subject boring, tedious and too challenging.
Unless I found an activity enjoyable I wouldn't put the hard work in to improve my chances of being a success. I got a 'C' grade in my GCSE results. It was your classic getting by with the IQ I had result.
Poker differs because if you're playing the game then one assumes you enjoy it. We have cleared the first hurdle - turn what you want to master into something enjoyable.
To this effect many people believe that the more poker you play, the better you become. While this approach certainly helps, it's nowhere near as efficient as deliberate practice.
Hiring a mentor in poker allows you to fast-track your learning process. The mentor, if chosen wisely, will spot your weaknesses long before you.
They can create a very specific training plan for you to focus on those particular weaknesses until they become strengths. If you choose to play continuously then you are not able to focus deliberately on the areas of your game that the mentor has highlighted.
Time Alone Curling Kicks Into Top Corner
Let's say for example that you have a leak with your blind play. Sure, you can settle down to an eight-hour session, focusing intently on your blind play, but there are too many variables.
You won't concentrate. It is not deliberate practice.
Instead, a great mentor will set up a series of scenarios specifically focusing on your blind play while removing all other parts of the game. Then you work hard on these specific situations until they aren't weaknesses no longer.
One of the reasons people struggle to implement deliberate practice into their regime is because it's boring. Playing poker is fun. Working for hours at a time on blind play can be tedious.
One of my idols is David Beckham. I'm not interested in his pretty boy face, his relationship with his Spice Girl wife or even his performances on the pitch. What made Beckham an idol in my eyes was the time he spent alone on the training pitch curling free kicks into the top corner of the goal.
Playing football is fun. It's not much fun spending hours as a child taking free kicks into an empty net and then running after your ball to rinse and repeat until your mum calls you in for dinner.
Learning to battle through the difficult parts of the skill in a consistent and deliberate way is an essential building block for deliberate practice.
A Long-Haul Game
We live in a world of instant gratification but deliberate practice is a long haul game and this is perfect for poker.
All poker players know that anyone can win in the short term but it's the very best players who prove it's a game of skill by consistently getting results over the long term.
One way of sabotaging your deliberate practice is to push too hard trying to get that instant gratification. Your bullseye lies somewhere between deliberate practice and avoidance of burnout.
Fortunately, if we're working on parts of our game that are less stimulating, it helps to take our foot off the gas. All great mentors understand this.
Instead of making us practice something for hours on end they will create a tailor-made program with specific time parameters to avoid burnout and lack of interest. You have to learn to consistently step out of your comfort zones and work on the alien concepts.
It might feel more familiar and fun to sit down and play. You might feel like you are learning by watching RunItOnce videos until falling asleep but it's not enough to make you a better player than the competition.
IQ will only get you so far. Everyone can learn to catch you up. It's the deliberate practice that makes all the difference.
You Can't Manage What You Can't Measure
Well-defined goals are a critical part of the deliberate practice process. Once again, it’s your mentor who will help define them.
You also need robust methods of measuring success criteria against these goals. You cannot manage what you cannot measure.
I told my son to make his breakfast this morning. It was the first time he had ever made scrambled eggs. As I worked on this article, he came rushing in with egg yolk dripping from his fingertips.
"I've broken one," he said. "Clean it up then," I replied.
“But I can’t do this.”
We will all break a few eggs during our sessions of deliberate practice. We learn from experiencing failure, identifying it (or our mentor will), and then making adjustments.
I asked my son to show me how he broke an egg. He was cracking the shell on the edge of the work surface. I suggested breaking it over the brink of the cup (a thinner edge) and explained how it would reduce the likelihood that he would drop the egg all over the floor.
He learned, and he won't make the same mistake again. Although he may still drop a few eggs trying new methods.
Pick a Game and Master It
His peers often belittle Phil Hellmuth for his lack of experience playing No-Limit Texas Hold'em cash games and mixed-games.
While his peers mocked him, he went along with his business winning 11 bracelets and mastering that format.
Over time the pressure to be the greatest led Hellmuth to delve into mixed games. Two of his last three World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets have come in Razz.
“I feel like the world’s greatest Razz player,” Hellmuth says now.
While that might not be true, I imagine if he practiced the game in the same way he has done with Hold'em over the years, he might be able to pick up that sigil.
There are a lot of games in poker. Pick one. Master it. Move on.
“This is my life,” Hellmuth once blurted out to the ESPN cameras after a hand had gone awry at the WSOP.
Hellmuth is motivated to be the best and this is a critical area of deliberate practice. You must be driven to succeed. Otherwise, the effort to improve your performance will be found wanting.
Some Thinking To Do
I never did become a great poker player. I lacked deliberate practice. I was weak in math.
It meant I was making too many decisions based on nothing but a wet finger waved in the air. And I didn’t have the motivation or courage to create a specific plan to improve my knowledge.
This is why I know that poker will only ever be a hobby for me. If I wanted it to be more, I know what I have to do. Don’t make the same mistake.
Do you apply deliberate practice? Do you have a mentor? Are you in this for the long-term, or do you prefer the little bursts of joy that you get when you fire up four tables and click away with a beer in hand?
I think you have some thinking to do.
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