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Are You a “Good” Poker Player or a “Winning” Poker Player?

Most people assume a "good" poker player is a "winning" poker player and vice versa.

I don't think this is right, but differentiating between them is a bit tricky - maybe more than you think.

A "winning" player is one who, over enough time and a sufficient number of hands for the data to be statistically reliable, takes more money off the table than he puts on it.

"Good" is trickier. You can be a good player without being a winning player. I know, that feels a little weird. It isn't.

How to Be a Good Poker Player

A couple of weeks back I did a little pop psychology riff on Zen. We mused on the affective elements of the game, looking for ways to maintain emotional equilibrium no matter what was happening.

how to win at poker
Good player? Or winning player?

In essence, we were looking at ways to become a "good" player. If this also made you into a "winning" player, that would be cool, but it's not necessary and certainly not guaranteed.

Indeed, figuring out what makes a "good" player isn't straightforward. For starters, good poker players have fun, and they'd better - because they're almost certainly going to lose.

Very few come out ahead over the long haul, due to differing skill levels and/or the house rake, the "vig." Many (most?) players don't quite grasp the role the vig plays in low-stakes games where the vast majority of players are found.

In a $2/$4 limit game, the typical maximum rake is from a reasonable $3 to a crushing $5, and I've seen $6! Add the dealer's tip and the bad beat jackpot takeout that players have a preternatural (and unfortunate) affection for, and up to 2BBs get sliced out of each sizable pot.

This rake is essentially impossible to overcome. So, while it'd be nice to be a winning player, the truth is that most of you won't be. So don't sweat it.

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Good Poker Players Think About the Game

Poker is, at heart, a form of recreation. Recreation costs money. Movies cost, tickets to a hockey game cost, a dinner out costs.

We are all perfectly content to "lose" money in our preferred forms of recreation and "good" poker players view the game in just this way.

Good players also think about the game, how they're playing, how others are playing. They read, talk with friends and contribute to the dozens of Internet chat rooms and discussion groups.

how to be good at poker

If you're not already active in one of these groups, join in. You'll find an astonishing array of smart, engaging people - and, of course, the occasional flame-thrower.

Just ignore them. Good players treat poker like a hobby, where you keep learning and look to improve.

Good players also work to diminish variance. There's a natural fluctuation to the game, and everyone is going to have ups and downs, but the game is far easier to enjoy when the swings are modulated.

Lowering variance also makes it easier to play your best game more of the time. Few things derail the average player more than a huge hit to their bankroll.

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Find the Softest Games at 888poker with $88 Free!

Poker is More Complex Than Chess

One aspect of the game that gets lost in a lot of these discussions is that poker is likely the most complex competitive game routinely played. 

It is more complex, has more interwoven strategic levels and is tougher to master than any of the other supposedly intricate games like bridge and chess.

You chess mavens out there can scream all you want, but if you understand both games at anything close to a deep level, you know what I'm talking about.

Can You Win at Poker Without Being Good?

OK; now you see how you can be a "good" player without being a "winning" player. Can you be a "winning" player but not be a "good" player?

winning poker strategy
Can you win at poker without being good?

Absolutely. There won't be many of this breed, but they are out there.

My guess - since I've got no data here I'm running on my own fumes - is that there are at least three kinds of winning players who are not particularly good players.

First, there are the highly aggressive players with little regard for money, ones who view the game as a deadly competition, or a parade ground for their egos.

These guys (and they are almost always men) can be long-term winners from a strictly cash point of view but not be good players in anything like the descriptions above.

Their visits to tiltville will undercut their game. The stress that comes with approaching each session with such a highly tuned competitiveness will eventually take its toll.

And, most critically, the high variability that a playing style like this carries with it will mean that this type of player will often not be playing his A-game.

Most of these "action junkies" won't be winning players 10 years down the road unless they make serious adjustments.

Then there are the unmovable rocks, the tightest of the tight. Their style will ultimately yield a positive EV so, by definition, they are "winning" players.

But they will not be "good" players. They are often skinflints who play every day looking to grind out a couple of bucks for lunch, the car payment, rent. They're not having fun, and don't enjoy themselves - when they play poker, they are essentially going to work.

They have no A-game, because they are so protective of their bankrolls that they stay at B level. That's OK for them, but I wouldn't want to spend my life this way.

Related Reading:

Lastly, There's Me

Lastly, there are folks like me. I'm a long-term positive EV guy. I know this because I keep records and am brutally honest with myself. But I don't think I am a good player. In fact, I am a better poker writer than a poker player.

I have too many brain farts, moments where I flatline and do something mind-bendingly stupid. When these mental lacunae happen they undo hours and hours of "good" play. Worse, I get really, really ticked at myself and end up howling at the moon like a wolf who's lost his kill.

In these moments I do not have fun and so, by my definition, I am not a "good" player.

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All Poker News
Eduardo Francisco
2016-09-03 14:32:37

I am a “rock” player but have a lot of fun! =D I love when being tight and using long-term strategy works. Feel so good.

Chez Belena
2016-07-11 06:14:37

I want to state my opinion on the fact chess Vs poker coming from a poker pro. I know this is old but I am seeing a lot of stuff way off and not even true. You can make a case for both that chess or poker can be more complex etc.

Chess is tough because you always play Vs a guy who is similar in skill level. Poker is easier because you can pick your opponents and we only have to play guys we know we can beat. Chess is easy because there is not variance like there is in poker.

So now to the truth both are very complex but it is true poker is the more complex game. The reason why poker is tougher still is there is incomplete information to make the best play. There is variance so when you play bad and win you get positive reinforcement. Poker is tougher because no matter how good you get and how much work you put in to your game you will never master this game. Poker is tough because in the short term weak players can beat better players.

The biggest part that makes one game more complex then the other is the fact this is a game of incomplete information which makes the game more complex since we have to deal with multiple personalities at the table. In chess all information is available. In poker you often have to juggle concepts and know which is most important when multiple concepts are in play at the same time and knowing when to throw a concept out the window to exploit something else etc. I can go on forever so I hope I covered enough.

Philippe Boutin
2016-05-31 11:53:20

are you on pokerstars? you’re welcome at my table anytime sir

Matt Richardson
2015-11-14 01:34:22

Yep, and for the LONGEST time(and even at times right now) Ive blamed bad luck for me losing, when 9 times out of 10 I could have played the hand better, and Im coming to grips with this more and more, and I can see myself getting better and better, so Im on the right tracks 🙂

Matt Richardson
2015-11-14 01:29:38

My biggest problem is that I sit at tables that are way too expensive for my bankroll at the time, and it sometimes causes me to become a rock and play scared….if I can master that I think I can officially be considered at least a decent player.

2015-02-14 01:09:14

I consider myself a rock, but have fun doing it. I’m fairly solid player that make few mistakes. I don’t play to pay my bills nor do I really need any extra money (though I wouldn’t refuse any extra cash) And though I consider myself a good player. Can you not be consistent ROCK and be considered good?

2014-07-19 02:30:45

all the so called experts adivce on odds and position blah blah blah. what differenciates poker compared to a strategic games such as chess is in poker you don’t need a lot of thinking. poker is about reading players and tricking players. but god forbid anybody actually teaches something useful to players. otherwise there will be more strong players out there that nobody wants.

2014-07-19 01:34:41

nice post, considering you never gave any useful advice on how to actually win in poker. all you people just talk about how you see things are. can you actually teach anybody to become a master poker player? no

2014-01-16 04:45:20

Everyone arguing over chess vs poker, let me clear something up. If you haven’t already noticed chess and poker are two completely different games, so comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges. Chess is a very complicated game at higher level play, the same is with poker. Anyone can learn basic chess tricks to win games, just like poker. The difference is, at a higher level regardless of the game, different elements of complexity are implemented into the game. There is one thing we can all agree on, it is possible for anyone with decent poker knowledge to win a game against any other opponent based on making the right decisions.. In chess, I’ve never heard of beginners beating grandmaster chess players, it just doesn’t happen. Why? Chess has nothing to do with luck and poker is all about mathematics and probability. It’s that simple.

2013-10-28 13:43:37

Some interesting comments, although why has the Chess vs. Poker argument dominated this discussion? Shouldn’t we be debating live vs. online poker? I switched ‘from’ live to online about 6 years ago, and although I’m a far better player because of it, I’m also a losing player. Online is a completely different game. Money management is almost more important than the skill portion of the game. The variance inherent in the online game combined with the volume of new and bad players makes it very difficult to beat! If your willing to spend the time and are able to manage your money well enough, and oh ya, don’t forget a little bit of luck, you ‘might’ do well. All that being said I chose to and still do, take shots far above my bankroll range and have learned alot! More than I would ever have simply playing micro poker. Perhaps a more interesting chat could have been enjoyed by all comparing online to live poker as I have. The elements of money management and luck just just aren’t present in chess such as they are in poker.

2013-05-23 14:04:21

In chess you have to beat your oppponent. In poker you have to beat your opponent and lady luck, and she’s a bitch. Im a national master in chess and and winning poker player. I can say both of these games will force you to dig very deep into yourself before you can really hope to be successful at it.

The thing that really hurts is denial. Normal people live in denial. They suffer from all types nevrosis… ( for those who know psychoanalysis this will make some sens… ) normal people are sheeps, and their beliefs are based on emotions and then rationalized whenever reality or a wise ass like me shows them to be false.

To be a winning player, at chess OR poker ( or any god damn game for that matter) you have to 1 : know the game and 2: know yourself. Most people are able to learn the game, but very few really know themselves. To win, you have to be willing to accept the truth whenever its right in front of you. from my experience, very few people are able or willing to do this.

2013-05-04 15:11:40

Attack on chess is pretty silly, since it is widely recognized as the most difficult and complex game with only go likely on the same level of complexity (problem with go is that it is not well known in Europe/Americas). I don’t really feel like explaining this to someone who has no clue (as the author of this article), but a good number of titled chess players switched to poker and are doing very well. If any poker pro (not only widely known ones, but ANY poker pro) turns to chess and becomes a titled player (candidate master ) he will likely be exceptionally gifted/intelligent.

2013-04-01 14:31:30

I know this is an old blog, but allow me to leave my input here for those who stumble upon it. Nathan – saying that Poker is way more complex than Chess, because you have not “mastered” it after 2 years of playing, is wrong. Do you determine the complexity of everything by how long YOU took to master it? Who are you? God? There are some things you’ll master in this life and some things you won’t.

Anyway, you guys would never master a game like Poker. Why you may ask? It simply cannot be mastered. No, not because of its complexity. Its simply this – POKER INVOLVES LUCK. There is always a substantial amount of luck involved when playing poker. No one can truly master their chances for good luck else you’re better off playing roulette, blackjack, etc

Lets say you have a “Four of a Kind-Aces”. Your opponent goes all in. By the cards on the board, there is a chance that your opponent has a “Straight Flush”. What do you do? Do you fold with such a strong hand because the possibility exists that your opponent is holding a straight flush. You go all in too and HOPE YOU’RE LUCKY. Chess, the better PLAY always win. I didn’t say “better player” because humans are still prone to error. With error aside in chess, the better player WILL ALWAYS WIN. In poker, the better play will MOST LIKELY win in the LONG RUN or he/she can play his/her best and still end up making a loss in the long run if luck is strongly not in his/her favor.

A good definition of Poker would be – “increasing your chances for luck to work in your favor”

2013-01-03 03:16:56

mate that guy who said his kids beat him in poker not chess so chess is harder think again you can win as many chess games as u like try and win a big tounament in poker hands down poker is way harder u would be good 1 on 1 poker sit n go’s it’s like chess 1on 1 try a high stakes ring game where it u vs 9 others something chess does not have chess is 1 form poker comes in many shaper and dimension’s

2012-08-31 10:35:29

Bottom line, my 13 and 11 kid got lucky and beat me at poker, but they can’t ever beat me in chess.

Sergio Melendez
2012-08-31 10:30:47

Max is right!!! I love both games and chess is way more complex. But their is a huge advantage on being both poker and chess player. I’ve played both games since I was 7/8 and now I’m 38… I do believe I have an edge on most people……even when I get sucked on poker I’m a better loser than most people…..I never go on tilt, even though I got called with 22 and got my bullets cracked…….by the way I went all-in preflop and I had way more chips and this is at wsop event 23. I kept cool and two hours later I took that same player out.

2011-11-29 23:15:01

Chess almost always excludes the human element, i think he is trying to convey the fact that, due to peoples nature and the many different playing styles intermingling in one setting, it ads an unknown quantity where chess is pretty straight forward. But i would say that they are in no way comparable, it’s like comparing phsycology to math, they hardly ever cross paths.

2011-09-09 22:50:08

Max is right.

2011-03-09 00:15:48

you can compare chess and poker, just like you can compare one person to another. However, poker is simply more complicated as its boundaries are infinite. Chess although incredibly deep and perhaps even more difficult on a basic level, is not infinite. Knowledge of openings and your position are more standard in chess. Knowledge in poker openings(lets say preflop ranges)are(even though standard is overused in poker lingo)not so standard.
putting it simply chess is played on a board with 64 squares and no hidden information. Poker is played against an infintely correct strategy involving PSYCHOLOGY.
Although there is psychology and luck in chess, the strategy of a grandmaster is computional preflop.(i.e no technique only memory)
poker involves more innovation-don’t take offence as it does not mean that chess is easier. just less complex.

2011-01-20 01:04:02

You guys totally miss the fact that Poker and Chess are two vastly different games. Poker is largely affected by game theory and the amount of variation is limited to 52 cards, whereas in chess the available variation is larger by far and almost every game is different. It is by far easier to learn poker ranges and variations than it is to master position and variation in chess.

The complexity of poker is game theory. The complexity of chess is chess theory. They’re just different, and it is ignorant to compare.

2011-01-16 05:56:25

I am one of the best chess players I know. I win 95% of my matches. Yet I still have not mastered poker, and I have been playing about 2 years. Poker is by FAR more complex.

2011-01-13 13:50:49

Poker IS more complex than chess. Chess software can beat the world’s best players. I haven’t heard of a NLHE bot that could beat top poker players.

2010-08-26 19:53:20

Great stuff, in fact I love all that you write. EXCEPT. Poker isn’t even close to being as complex as chess. I do understand both at a deep level and chess is more than insanely more complex than poker; it’s barely even comparable! It’s impossible that you’ve played chess at a high level if you’ve dared to write something like that. It was kind of insulting, but anyway good articles!

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