A year in the making: the development of a poker player

“Whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table; if the other players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame. Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards, as in life.”
–Anthony Holden, “Big Deal”
Although the first recorded session I have is May 25th, this week marks the first birthday of my poker career. As I’ve lamented in previous posts, I’ve hit a bit of a plateua– the learning comes in baby steps, rather than the exhilarating leaps and bounds that pushed me up the learning curve in earlier days. As I’ve been thinking about my game and how to improve, I’ve wondered what my game will be like a year from now. This got me thinking of how my game has developed, and coming up with a discrete set of stages that characterized my play during the past 12 months. I speak mainly from my own personal journey, although my generalizations are bolstered by the paths I’ve seen others take in their first year.
Stage 1: Crawling on all fours (months 1 and 2)
The first month or two of serious poker play involves figuring out the mechanics of the game. You learn how to read the board, and find yourself getting blindsided on the river when somebody hits a gutshot straight that you didn’t see. In one of my first sessions, I remember proudly slamming my two red cards on the table when the third heart hit the river, only to discover that one of them was a diamond in an embarassing showdown (baffling the players who pegged me as weak-tight). Stage 1 is characterized by the attempt of the beginning player to connect his hand with the board, accompanied by almost complete ignorance of the dynamic of the table and the meaning of bets and raises. Your opponents are sending signals, but their raises are received only as garbled signals. The beginning player begins to see the importance of odds, but rarely goes beyond the Lee Jones style of ABC poker. This results in winning a lot of small and medium size pots, since reraising without the nuts is a dangerous play without a good read on the other players at the table. This type of play can still get the money in soft low-limit games, but this weak-tight or tight-passive style leaves a lot of money on the table.
The crawler reads voraciously, not fully understanding the advanced strategies presented to him, but storing them away in memory nonetheless. Attempts to apply concepts without full understanding often result in disastrous results (e.g. trying to apply Skanskly’s tactics to loose no fold’em games). The stage 1 player struggles to remember which starting hands can be played from each position, and often calls before being able to calculate the odds of hitting his draw. Uncertainty rules, but he is intrigued by the rhythm and beauty of the game. He struggles in thought, but feels that there is much to learn…
Stage 2: Learning to walk (months 3-6)
A couple of months have gone by, and the beginner starts stretching his legs, teetering on two limbs in an attempt to walk. This stage is often characterized by overaggressiveness and a general loosening up in starting hands, as the learning player becomes a bit too wise for his own good. The stage 2 player can outplay the worst players easily, and begins cold calling bad players with hands like KJ and QJ in early position, only to be punished by a more experienced player in late position. A few rushes turn this medium-tight aggressive player into a loose aggressive player, and he ends up giving back a lot of his profits in fits of hubris while trying to “put moves” on players who will call them down with anything. Fancy play syndrome is common in Stage 2, and ill-timed bluffs and top pair with no kicker are frequent losers in months 3 through 6. I remember thinking that I could make more money by playing 30% of the flops, feeling that QT and JTo were ok to call a raise with, since I felt I could outplay people after the flop. This resulted in high variance– big winning sessions that reinforced this idea, and big losing sessions that I attributed to bad beats rather than my own poor play.
This stage of development is easy psychologically. Since you’re relatively new to the game, you can shake off the bad sessions pretty easily– half of you thinks you’re Mike McDermott, the other half thinks, “well I’m just starting out, I shouldn’t expect to win”. So the bad sessions leave you with only a tinge of pain. It is in this stage when the big question is born, quietly floating through the sounds of the clacking chips in your head: “Am I good enough?” But you’re just learning to walk, so the question never really makes it to the dangerous realm of the conscious mind.
The complete uncertainty of stage 1 begins to disappear. Starting hands have been memorized, and the player can begin to focus on the flow of the game and the actions of his opponents. Pot odds are still troublesome to calculate, but the stage 2 player begins to see that with more experience and study, he can beat this game. The competitive recreational player belongs in this category. Without working on their game through study and analysis, they never gain the confidence and deep understanding required to be a consistent winner, but have enough experience to beat the truly terrible players.
Towards the end of stage 2, the player goes through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He is overconfident in his skills, and will often play in games above his bankroll since he has yet to learn to deal with variance and the importance of protecting his winnings. Full day sessions of losing provoke him to recoup his losses in bigger games, often when he is on tilt. Rushes can end in “parlay attempts,” where the player takes his winnings to a bigger game, often resulting in erasing the session’s hard-earned profit, with an occasional glorious monster session thanks to a little luck. Stage 2 tests the emotional mettle of the developing player.
Stage 3: Walk like a man (months 7-11)
You’ve got some play under your belt. People recognize you in the casino, and are beginning to respect your raises. You know your pot odds cold, and you’ve pored through all the books and internet wisdom until your eyes hurt. You’ve become tight-aggressive, playing solid poker, but throw in the occasional move when the time is right (which separates you from the “rocks”). You develop more complex rules of thumb, and know how to build the pot with your big draws. You learn when you can steal blinds, and how to induce bluffs from overaggressive players. The difficult middle pairs begin to be profitable hands: the stage 3 player develops a gut feeling that tells him when that pair is good and when it isn’t based on the actions of the other players and the “texture” of the board cards.
The player treads in calmer waters– he has felt the agony of tilt and the exhilaration of a rush. He has grown wise to the fickle ways of the poker gods, and uses patience as the oar to guide him through the rocky waters of variance. Bad beats are only a bee sting, and lucky suckouts bring only a chuckle. The player has his legs, and has stopped cold calling with marginal hands like QJ, happily mucking coin flip calls, saving his money for when he knows he’s a favorite. He’s become a grinder, seeing around 23% of flops, and punishing anyone who dares to call with dominated hands. The wisdom of the poker greats has slowly crept into his game, and a healthy diet of ramming, jamming, and semi-bluffs grow his bankroll slowly and steadily.
Struggling over which hands to play from which position is a distant memory. Pot odds are calculated without effort, almost automatically as the stage 3 player absorbs the flow of the game. He begins to play more by instinct, and has become aware of all of the signals sent by his opponents. The game becomes beautiful, a dance between drawing hands and made hands, and he begins to hear the music.
The player has his feet now, and the variance in the loose games no longer clouds his vision. The loose games full of suckouts that cost him lots of big bets are now where he makes the most money. His reads are rarely wrong, and the pots he wins are much bigger than those he loses. He learns to see the schooling fish as a Leviathan, and he lies in wait like a hammerhead, waiting to strike when the moment is right.
The calm waters are soothing to the psyche, and the stage 3 player’s rapid improvement begins to slow. This provokes a bit of boredom, but this is overcome by the steady growth of the bankroll. Frustration begins to set in, as challenge of the game begins to fade– the player has outgrown the low-limit game, and is itching to move up to fry bigger fish.
Stage 4: The slow jog (months 12-?)
After a year, the player puts a little spring in his step and begins to make great bets and calls that don’t make sense when taken out of context of the game. His rules of thumb are well-defined, and he plays mostly by instinct and feel, peppered with the occasional moment of careful thought and deliberation when facing an unusual situation. If the player has not moved up in limits, he begins to yearn for the challenge of playing bigger, and may “take a shot” at the bigger game, confident he can recoup his losses by crushing the usual low-limit game.
Thus begins the psychological struggle. Learning has slowed down considerably and comes in slow, tiny drops, unlike the splashes he’s felt in earlier times. The intellectual aspect of the game is dampened by a detailed knowledge of odds and probability, and the stage 4 player begins to seek further challenges. He may explore other forms of poker in order to recapture the rush of learning again.
It becomes difficult for the stage 4 player to improve his game. Finding leaks is much more difficult when you’re a consistent winner, and spending time analyzing hands seems like a negative EV activity. It is this crucial stage where the player reaches for greatness, and attempts to lengthen his stride and run. I believe that the majority of players who put in the time and effort to improve their game can reach stage 4, but not many get to stage 5. The stage 5 player represents the young expert– on the 5% of hands where a difficult decision is required, the expert player makes the play that most players cannot even understand, but is usually correct. The stage 4 player has developed his vision through diligent study and thought, and can see the top of the mountain. But he lacks the experience to know what the right play is in these delicate situations that are few and far between.
Run HDouble, Run
I am no expert player. But I feel my game has come a long way after a year of hard work at the poker tables and on the pages of the poker books. I know I have a lot to learn, and I’m not even sure what the next stage will hold for me, let alone the succeeding stages. Keep in mind that these stages are only an attempt to categorize development: poker development is not discrete, but there are certain things that characterize players of different experience levels. I’d like to think that all my years as a student helped me to move along the learning curve at a somewhat accelerated pace, although it’s possible I’ve gotten more than my fair share of good cards and I’m nothing more than a break even player. But maybe the most important thing I learned from playing football my whole life is that if you don’t believe in yourself, you won’t succeed in anything you’re trying to accomplish. The perpetual struggle in poker is the attempt to answer the question, “Am I a good player?” Since all we have is chips to keep score, the answer to this question is often clouded by the always doubt-provoking variance.
For me, poker’s biggest appeal is its ability to wipe the condensation from the mirror, forcing you to behold your true image. You struggle with your successes and your failures, and only a cold, hard stare will tell you if you’re a winner, a loser, or a winner who needs to clean up a little bit. I’m looking a lot better than I did on day one, but I know I have a lot of cleaning up to do in the next year.
Good luck and thanks for reading.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply