The Path to Poker Mastery

“He who has a hundred miles to walk should reckon ninety as half the journey.”
–Japanese Proverb
A long time ago, a good friend of mine explained his theory of the development cycle that everyone must go through when learning a new task. I didn’t really buy it at the time, but as I gained life experience, my friend’s stages of development seemed to constantly reappear every time I tried to learn something new.
Looking back on my first 2 years as a poker player, it’s not too difficult to divide my cumulative experiences into the four developmental stages, although it requires a lot of oversimplification. Poker is such a dynamic game that there’s so much to learn from each session– as soon as you think you have a grasp on the technical aspects of the game, you then realize how much there is to learn about yourself and the psychological effect that poker has on you. Dividing experience into four neat categories may be an over-generalization, but it also allows one to foresee the challenges that lay on the road ahead.
A year ago I wrote a post that chronicled my development in my first year as a poker player. While this post concentrated mostly on issues of technical development, it is also interesting to look at the development of a poker player as a purely psychological level.
Stage 1: Novelty
When first learning a new task, all of the senses of the learner are assaulted with new input. Everything is new, and there are so many inputs that the mind is overwhelmed when trying to keep track of what’s going on. In my first live poker session, everything was a challenge– looking at my cards, remembering them, trying to watch my opponents, and even counting out chips to make a bet– all of these things were new, and required a lot of mental effort to accomplish them at even the most basic level. Even the simple things at the poker table take time, and the fledgling poker player enters a new world of knowledge.
The good news is that poker, in all its newness, is so exciting that the player learns effortlessly. Even if the player makes no effort to improve his game, becoming familiar with the patterns and rhythm of the game happens automatically, much like an infant learns to form words simply by listening to their repetition. This stage is the most exciting time in a player’s development– every session brings a tangible improvement, and the learning player acts as a sponge, absorbing all of the inputs and unconsciously storing them away for future use.
Stage 2: Mastery
After a bit of experience, the newness wears off, and the basic tasks become simple. A player no longer needs to put effort into remembering hole cards and counting chips for bets, and begins to focus on learning the technical knowledge required to become a good player. Learning becomes a conscious effort, and the learning player must become a student of the game in order to continue improving. Books, conversations with other players, and careful evaluation of one’s play help to create a deeper understanding of the game for the player in stage 2.
Endeavors that require a large amount of technical skill cannot be learned without a great deal of experience. The guitar player who wishes to reach mediocrity must be able to play notes and chords without thinking about where he needs to place his fingers. This can only be achieved with lots of practice. In addition to the critical thinking required for poker mastery, the student must also gain a “feel” for the game that only comes from experience. The mastery phase requires conscious study and diligent work on the part of those learning the task.
Stage 3: Denial
After technical mastery has been achieved, those learning the task are forced to turn inward in order to improve. The learning that occurs at this stage is focused on the internal psychology of the student, and represents the most difficult stage of development. At this point, learning slows to a crawl, and the “old ways” of learning through study and experience no longer work. The student questions the worth of the endeavor, and feels that he has learned “all that he can learn.”
The denial stage represents the “inflection point” on the curve of development: students will often give up the quest for improvement, content with technical mastery or bored with the entire process. The student realizes that not only does he no longer know how to improve, but even if he does figure out how to go beyond his current knowledge, the perceived gains will most likely be extremely small.
The poker player in the denial stage is content to be a steady winner, and his technical knowledge and experience is rewarded with consistent winning sessions. However, his game remains stagnant and he feels that something is lacking– namely, the sense of improvement he felt when reaching his current plateau.

Stage 4: Acceptance
For the few players who decide to take the final leap of faith into their chosen task, accepting the hard road towards becoming a master of the game, they are rewarded with a new world of experience. Those who rid themselves of the doubts and laziness of the denial stage and turn their gaze inward are able to gain a mastery of the task and themselves that they never imagined possible.
It’s difficult for me to hypothesize about the challenges and characteristics of the true master of a task, as I have never reached this level with any task. However, I would guess that a sense of peace and effortlessness come over the master who is executing his chosen task, and that true experts are very easy to identify in the real world.
If I had to put my poker play into one of these categories, it would probably be nearing stage 3. I don’t have much time to play at the moment, but I’m confident that I’ll get back to serious play in the near future. Poker will always be there, but in the meantime I’m focused on more important things.
Thanks for reading and good journeys on your own path to mastery.

Poker, Zen, and Football

“Ritual is the way you carry the presence of the sacred. Ritual is the spark that must not go out.”
–Christina Baldwin
On the recommendation of the poker player I most respect, I picked up Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a first-hand account of a Westerner’s experience with Zen. Lederer discusses how the book helped him improve as a poker player by changing the way he thinks about the game.
In the book, the author talks about the long journey from beginner to expert archer, and the many transformations that he undergoes in order to achieve mastery (of both himself and archery). The mark of an expert is his lack of purpose: an expert does not try to hit the target, but his mind and body somehow “know” how to hit the target without a goal or purpose.
This idea brought me back to the only thing I feel I ever became an expert in: a single offensive position on the football field (tight end). After 18 years of practice, running around on the football field seemed just as normal to me as driving a car. But it took many years and many repetitions to get to the point where the body seemed to go beyond conscious effort. One savvy coach’s way of explaining the concept of purposelessness described above was by saying “you’re trying too hard.”
At first, his advice didn’t make sense– shouldn’t 100% effort result in playing the best a player possibly could? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what he was saying– a relaxed, controlled player who lets his instincts and “muscle-memory” guide him will outperform one who tries to consciously dictate his play.

But enough about Zen and football. The real purpose of this post is to offer up the best poker advice I’ve ever given in this poker blog. It’s a simple piece of advice, one that I discovered last week in the middle of a session where everything was going right. Before that great session, I’d had a few sessions where I’d gotten off to terrible starts, and then slowly battled my way back to even after a few hours.
I realized that in those “comeback” sessions, I’d started out lacking focus (a long day of work can prevent concentration at the table). The losses at the beginning of the session had woken me up, forcing me to concentrate and play my best poker in order to “catch up.” But in the session where everything went right, I made a conscious effort to quiet my mind and concentrate on poker and poker only.
The advice is so simple that it seems obvious, but it is something I haven’t been making a conscious effort of doing:
Expert play requires expert mental preparation.
Lack of mental preparation does not allow one’s mind to settle into the state of purposelessness concentration required to make expert plays. On the football field, every practice and every game began with the same routine: after putting on the same pads the same way, and performing the same stretches and warm-ups every time, the mind became accustomed to the ritual of preparation, and began to settle into concentration mode.
Herrigel recounts the advice of his master:
“When you come to the lessons in the future, you must collect yourselves on your way here. Focus your minds on what happens in the practice-hall. Walk past everything without noticing it, as if there were only one thing in the world that is important and real, and that is archery!”
The method of preparation doesn’t matter much– it’s the routine that counts. One of the strangest things I encountered in all my years of football was the variety of different routines that players had for their pre-game ceremonies. Personally, I liked to sit quietly and visualize plays that I’d made in the past. But there were some bizarre rituals that my teammates went through before every game, including:

  • Staying up all night
  • Doing a handstand and walking around the room on hands for 15 minutes
  • Dancing
  • Rapping
  • Face Painting
  • Throwing up

The point is that all of these pre-game rituals helped the player to mentally prepare for the state of concentration required to play their best game. The one thing these rituals had in common was that they represented an activity that signalled the mind to shut out all of the surrounding distractions and focus on what was important– the upcoming task.
Barry Greenstein also knows the value of mental preparation in Ace on the River:
“I put myself on a schedule. I would sleep until 5 p.m., go to the cardroom at 6, and play until the club closed at 2 a.m. I won consistently and thought it must be because I was the best player. But that wasn’t the reason. I was playing against people who had worked all day and had a few drinks to relax. Meanwhile, I was resting and training for the event. I didn’t know the difference until I got a job and tried to play after working all day. I was a basket case. On that trip to California, I didn’t win because I was a better player. I won because of my preparation.”
If you take one piece of advice from anything I’ve written here, let it be this simple sentence:
Expert play requires expert mental preparation.
If you’re serious about poker, I suggest you develop a “pre-game ritual” that allows you to focus all of your attention and energy on playing your best poker. Close down the instant messengers, email programs, and web-browsers, and do something that settles your mind into the concentrated state required to make the best poker plays that you can.

HDouble At The Movies: The Poker Wisdom of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

“Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.”
–Sam Ewing
Welcome, faithful readers! For those of you still checking on this blog every so often, I appreciate your loyalty and want you to know that I’m still alive and well, despite the lack of posts recently. Things have been hectic at the fastest growing online poker room, which doesn’t leave much time for playing poker, much less blogging about it. The good news is that all of the poker bloggers hard work at the LA BloggerPlex (FHWRDH, Geek, RDub, and Rini round up the lunch crew) is paying off– the site is starting to get more players, more games, and more tournaments, and we’re hard at work on new features.
In the little free time I’ve had, I’ve been riding the variance at the big limit games at Party, getting killed at the LA Poker Blogger home games, and lately, experimenting with Poker Bot implementation. There’s been a lot of buzz about bots lately, but I think writing a good bot is still a few months away. Poker is so dynamic that it’s very difficult for any non-human to keep track of all the variables required to make good decisions at the table. But as a student of Artificial Intelligence and Poker, the idea of a poker-playing algorithm is about as cool as it gets.
I don’t usually like to bring the non-poker world into this blog, but the recent tragedy in New Orleans hit close to home. My Mom grew up in New Orleans, and had family there when Katrina hit. Both of my parents went to Tulane University, so it’s safe to say there’s a lot of New Orleans in me. The scope of the disaster is a little bit beyond my comprehension, but for my Mom and everybody who was close to the city, it must be pretty tough to deal with. I’m sure all the help that everybody’s giving is much appreciated, and it makes me happy to see all the support for those who have a long road towards recovering their lives.
So, in tribute to the people of New Orleans and the spirit of American toughness, I’m going to offer up a few bits of poker wisdom from one of my favorite movies of all time:

The Man With No Name has all the characteristics of a great poker player: courage, nerves of steel, and a poker face like Chris Ferguson. Most importantly, nothing rattles him– his stoicism under pressure keeps him cool enough to outduel the master gunman Angel Eyes, while his sharp mind outwits the devious Tuco. There is much to be learned about poker from The Man With No Name.
Man With No Name: Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We’re gonna have to earn it.
This simple quote from Clint says more than it would appear — when everyone else thinks that finding the gold is going to be easy, The Man With No Name knows that when that much money’s involved, nothing’s easy. The new world of online poker is full of people thinking they’re going to get rich quick after they’ve had a couple of big winning sessions. When variance is on your side and the cards are going your way, it’s easy to think that being a poker pro is a piece of cake. And although I’ve never played professionally, I believe that success in poker is achieved in the same way as in any other job– discipline, hard work, and concentration. If you want to be successful in poker, you might be one of the lucky ones, like Gus Hansen or Tuan Le, but most likely, you’re gonna have to earn it. As they say, playing poker professionally is a hard way to make an easy living.

Tuco: You never had a rope around your neck. Well, I’m going to tell you something. When that rope starts to pull tight, you can feel the Devil bite your ass.
Those of you that have ever played on a short bankroll or at a limit that’s a little uncomfortable know what Tuco’s talking about. 3 or 4 bad beats at the start of a session and you feel that rope tightening and if the run is bad enough, you wonder if your poker life is at stake. But Tuco’s a gambler, and the only way he knows how to get ahead is to put his neck on the line. And I’m not advising you to play on a short bankroll or above your head, but putting your neck on the line– or at least putting something at risk– is what poker’s all about. T.J. Cloutier says that if you’re serious about poker, you’ve got to play stakes where you can win at least as much per hour as you make working. Anything less and you might as well work instead. The point is, serious poker requires the element of risk. In order to feel the exhiliration of victory, you’re going to have to also feel the Devil biting your ass every so often.
One Armed Man: I’ve been looking for you for 8 months. Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you. Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.
[Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam.]
Tuco: When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.
Tuco’s quote addresses something that is a pet peeve of mine– when you sit down to play poker, play poker. Don’t instant message people, read RGP, watch TV or anything else except play poker. When you’re putting your money on the line and playing a game that requires full concentration, there’s no reason to divert your attention doing anything else but play poker.
The Man With No Name: After a meal there’s nothing like a good cigar.
In a rare moment of relaxation, The Man With No Name enjoys a break from the action by smoking a cigar. You get the feeling that he is preparing himself for future trials, while also celebrating the fact that he’s alive. Poker can be so much of a grind that if we don’t take some time out to celebrate our victories, the game can get a bit too abstract. Izmet offers the following advice as to how to connect the poker world to the real world:
“Build a bankroll. Treat it as a funny money. Have enough to withstand challenges of fate. Do not spend the winnings. After a while, if the game is good to you, buy yourself something out of the bankroll. A shiny gambler’s watch maybe. A little token of pride. A mark of achievement. You will feel good about yourself, that’s never a bad thing.”
Remember to celebrate your victories– poker should be fun when you’re winning.
Tuco: That’s so. Even a tramp like me, no matter what happens, I know there’s always a brother who won’t refuse me a bowl of soup.
Even “The Ugly” Tuco has someone to turn to when everything goes wrong. Of course it’s important to have someone to lean on when things aren’t going well, but it’s even more important to poker players. The swings of variance can be extremely difficult emotionally, even for the most stoic poker player. I’ve met a lot of people that seemed to get sucked in to the poker world, with little else outside their life besides pot odds and hourly win rate. Poker is a great game, but those who are “inside” the game 24 hours a day have no time to reflect on their play and their game cannot improve. There’s more to life than the best hand holding up.

Tuco: [shouting] Hey, Blond! You know what you are? Just the greatest son-of-a-b-!
The last lines of the movie feature Tuco’s exasperated screams addressed to The Man With No Name as Clint rides off into the sunset. The Man With No Name leaves Tuco hanging, literally. The hero breaks his word in order to protect himself and the potential threat of the devious Tuco. This fits with the typical poker advice that “there are no friends at the poker table” and that the only person you should be looking out for is yourself.
But in a final twist, the closing scene shows The Man With No Name return to mercifully shoot Tuco from the noose, freeing him and fulfilling his end of the bargain. The lesson: those who value honesty and compassion will be rewarded more than those who only look out for themselves. One of the reasons The Man With No Name is able to survive all of the movie’s trials is because he adheres to his principles and is able to act with confidence. Many people may disagree, but I think that even at the poker table, a purely selfish approach won’t lead you as far as a more compassionate approach in the long run.