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Grit & the Grind: How Great Poker Players Get Great

Jonah Lehrer is an interesting guy, an Ivy graduate and a respected journalist.

He's got a deep interest in psychology as well as poker, and that makes some of the things he's written about very relevant to this space here.

In a recent piece in the Boston Globe, he extols the virtue of grit and perseverance in the struggle for success.

He notes, correctly, that popular tales about how greats like Newton made scientific breakthroughs are myths.

The Poker World Has Its Myths

The notion that Newton discovered gravity when an apple bonked him on the head is just plain wrong, as is the one about Darwin discovering natural selection when he encountered various finches in the Galapagos.

These scientific urban myths don't just mislead - they distort the very essence of how true, deep, understanding is achieved. Newton and Darwin were both brilliant. But so were many of their contemporaries.

The key is that both were intensely focused on their work. They spent years - in Darwin's case 20 - sifting data, pouring over models, reading, absorbing ideas, pushing the envelope of understanding.

how to get good at poker
Magical talent? Maybe a little.

In the poker world, we too have our myths. We believe that some just have a natural affinity for the game and can pick it up on the fly.

A couple of dozen hours at the felt and, bingo, they become solid, winning players.

If you think that Darwin just took a cruise around the world and got hit in the head with a really cool idea, you might also think that Phil Ivey got where he is because of some magical talent.

Or that the young Internet stars popping out of their bedrooms with million-dollar bankrolls are just cool guys with a flair for playing risky games.

Related Reading:

Ability + Zeal + Hard Work

Lehrer quotes, approvingly, a line from Sir Francis Galton (who, interestingly, was a psychologist before there was a psychology as well as Charles Darwin's first cousin) to the effect that high levels of achievement depend on "ability combined with zeal and the capacity for hard labour."

And herein is the lesson for today.

I'm a recreational player. I put in a couple of hours a week either flipping chips at my local card room or zinging electrons around the world at virtual tables.

I read a lot and I think a good bit about the game and how I play it. But I'm a dilettante and I know it.

how to win at poker
It's more than just a flair for risky games.

But I have friends, good friends, who are serious and successful pros. And I am astonished at the efforts they make, the time they put in, the intensity they bring to the game.

They don't just read books and articles. They play astronomical numbers of hands, keep records, make notes, rehash hands, review sessions, carry out intellectual autopsies on tournaments.

They go back over these data and rethink things. They deliberately try out different strategic moves and clock how those sessions went.

They spend endless hours with friends of like minds and similar skills going over all of this stuff. The best are also brutally honest with themselves. Just like a good scientist, they know the data do not lie.

Lehrer spent a week exploring these issues with many top pros at the WSOP and, as he told me, "It was pretty clear.

These players succeed, not because of any special 'talent,' but because they have found something that they love so much that it doesn't feel like a job.

"They need to do this. They are putting in literally thousands upon thousands of hours of focused, concentrated study."

Related Reading:

Formula for Poker Success is Hard Work

The successful young poker pros, those rising to the top, are getting there for old and honored reasons. Sure, they've got some natural talent; they're smart, not particularly risk-averse and have a natural (or quickly learn) emotional stability.

how to be good at poker
To be great, you need grit.

But these qualities alone won't do it. It'll just make them smart, easy-going players who make a couple of bucks at the game.

As Lehrer put it, "What they've got to have to become among the best is good old-fashioned grit. They've got to be focused, motivated and have a deep desire to get better, to succeed, to become truly great at what they do."

Lehrer also notes that success and IQ are only weakly correlated. IQ isn't the same thing as intelligence and who succeeds at life's games is more tightly linked with factors like perseverance, grit and sweat.

One of the most intelligent people I've known was a professional racehorse handicapper. Not many people can make a living doing this. He did.

We were friends for nearly 25 years. He told me that when he took the Army IQ tests he scored a shade below average. Fascinating.

And, for what it's worth, I suspect that many of the better poker pros might easily have (or may yet) become artists, writers, businessmen.

The formula for making it is pretty much the same for all.

Related Poker Strategy Articles:

Author Bio:

Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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Gus HanDanNegreanuMatusowDukeDoyle
2014-08-13 06:29:22

The key to poker winning is to raise all in, from any position, with any 2… ( i.e. Js2c)… If you are not doing that at least 86% of the time.. you are a loser!!:)… Forget AA and AK and suited connectors… DEUCE X = VICTORY… Rejoice!!

2011-08-03 10:16:52

Edison said genius was 99% perspiration, but Edison also stole most of his big ideas so what do we care what he said?

I think your definition of genius is too narrow. You seem to use “genius” and “prodigy” to mean the same thing. If that were the case, why have two words? It’s ok to call someone a genius who gets to the top with a combination of natural ability and hard work.

Arty Smokes
2011-06-19 00:16:18

In recent years, the term “genius” has become debased by overuse. Mozart was a genius, as he literally had prodigious talent; enough to write minuets and concertos at the age of five. Darwin, Newton and even Einstein weren’t geniuses. They worked exceptionally hard. Peyton Manning isn’t a genius. He has a very high “football IQ”, but he’s working on his game 50 hours a week (mainly watching film).
Phil Ivey isn’t a genius either. He obviously has a lot of natural talent, but he had to grind for years until he could play with the big boys.

As with most things in life, to excel in a particular field, it takes 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. Ironically, poker players tend to be among the laziest people on earth. We became poker players because we didn’t want to work for a living! And boy, it’s a hard way to make an easy living. If my IQ was a bit higher I think I’d realize I’m in the wrong business!

2010-08-21 14:48:00

Mr. Reber:
I am in total agreement of your detailed summation of the statements, some poignant and some ridiculous, that preceded your post.

Daniel R:
Thumbs up to all that you had to say. I don’t see why you couldn’t sing and play poker. You certainly seem to have the character and wherewithal to do so.

I am afraid that you are not far from the truth. Coming from a Microbiologist by education, regardless of what anyone’s spiritual beliefs may be, there is no denying the scientific evidence that Darwinian evolution is something that is occurring at this very moment, and has been occurring since the Big Bang.

2010-07-24 21:09:03

Don – You really shouldn’t be condescending and then not know how to use the words you’re doing it with. “your a loser” makes no sense. I think you meant to say “you’re a loser”.

2010-07-09 16:45:41

Haha Ethan, classic.

2009-12-25 09:49:26

oh my god, Ethan that was the dumbest thing ive heard.

Daniel R.
2009-09-15 12:23:00

Mr. Reber, I have read all of your articles on this here fine site and I am starting to like you. The articles are so little about poker and yet so interesting to read as a psycologically interested poker player. This one hit me hard. I definately don’t believe that Phil Ivey is magical either. Here is why I agree:

I am 25 years old and regard myself as kind of a screwup at life, no “luck” at school etc. At this point I have two passions left: singing and playing poker. Both of which I was absolutely horrible at when I first started seriously practicing them 5-7 years ago. I now do them every day and have reached a level of skill at both that I honestly didn’t realistically think possible.
Though still trying to be honest about my abilities and how to improve them, I pretty much haven’t lost a session online in weeks and on a good day most any song I hear on the radio I follow to pitch.

Today I am torn between seeking out and auditioning at record labels and turning into a temporary poker pro of sorts. The latter seems the “easier” way to go IMO.
From personal experiene I can say I am hopeful, as is the message of this article, that for most people abilities can be found in any field they desire – as long as they do just that.

2009-09-12 06:30:00

I’ve realized that sheer determination is a must to be great. IQ is next to squat if you don’t have some type of skill to know when to make which plays or at least have an idea of when to. And also to know how to read the other players.
That, is learning, and that is when having intelligence comes into play.
But some people are just so “magically” gifted!

2009-09-07 21:30:00

I have played competitive games at a high level my entire life and there is one underlying ability that you have missed. Chess calls it ‘sight of the board’, Bridge calls it ‘table feel, the NFL calls it Payton Manning vs Ryan Leaf. It is the ability to look at a complex game situation, see all the individual parts as a whole and assimilate them into a strategy rather than sequentially put all of the pieces together. It’s almost like the ability to visualize the game at a higher level. I believe that this is the factor that limits the potential maximum ability a player can reach – regardless how much they read and practice – it can’t really be taught.

I believe that the top poker players have that ability as well – for example how some experts can call an opponents hand so accurately.

And I agree, raw IQ is not a good predictor of game ability. I have seen people with very high IQ’s who never were able to reach that same gaming level and people with average IQ’s reach a very high gaming level.

2009-09-04 13:26:00

-EV to play sick or tired i don’t recomend it

2009-09-04 00:14:00

Ethan, is not Christ going to curse you for playing poker? You prove evolution by your statment. Your a Loser and I am a Winner.
Please do some research of your own on subjects you want to bring up.

Second, back to the subject, as in all things one has to learn to persevere no matter what it takes. Play when your sick or tired or just sick and tired of being sick and tired. 🙂

Arthur Reber
2009-08-31 05:46:00

Interesting comments, guys. Thanks for your input.

Edward: You’re right, Malcolm Gladwell’s book makes contact with similar issues. You are also right about the impact of getting insanely lucky at the right time and then riding the wave. But, well, it just doesn’t happen all that often.

Tom: I’m not sure that a high IQ is counterproductive in quite the way you’ve described. It is more employing an inappropriate cognitve style. Folks who have trouble identifying an effective course of action will have trouble in poker. They can be too dense to know what the proper action is or they can be so smart that they are overwhelmed with alternatives. But it’s a pretty safe conclusion that most solid players are “smart” — although they won’t necessarily have a high IQ (measured in the standard way).

Ethan: Well, you are free to reach your own conclusions here but you’re working against the full weight of the modern biological sciences. Darwin’s core principle (natural selection) is the foundation for all of the life sciences. Think about this next time you go to see a doctor. Modern medical advance is based on evolutionary biological principles.

I suggest you read him rather than repeating what others may have told you. You’ll find that he was deeply concerned about the impact of his model on religion. To say he “hated God” is to seriously distort what he wrote and believed.


2009-08-27 12:38:00

well said 2bzururUrlozt.
The bible is the fairytale that gullable people have been brainwashed to believe. they most likely think harry potter is real too cos someone wrote a book about him.
its sad that it affects so many people.

good article tho, i best get more practise in!!

2009-08-26 00:49:00

Very interesting article. Inspiring so to speak. And Ethan, the Bible is the true fairy tale.

2009-08-25 22:39:00

james… so true. hilarious

2009-08-25 20:14:00

i didn’t realise people like ethan were capable of using the internet

2009-08-25 14:31:00

Darwin wasn’t a scientist at all. He rejected Christianity cause he hated God and made up a fairy tale for adults.

2009-08-25 04:35:00

High IQ is counterproductive in the absence of the other traits you describe. When you’re too clever, there are too many options, too many shades of gray. Too much thinking can be as catastrophic as too little.

2009-08-25 02:16:00

Sounds a lot like the main point of ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell: Talent is a direct result of lots of practice, and big achievers are those that had the opportunity to practice more than others.

Anyway I agree with the main point in the article, though I don’t believe that all big players put in this amount of effort; some simply won a big tournament by chance and continue on their sponsorship contract and celebrity status.

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