A recipe for poker success

“While one should always study the method of a great artist, one should never imitate his manner. The manner of an artist is essentially individual, the method of an artist is absolutely universal. The first is personality, which no one should copy; the second is perfection, which all should aim at.”
–Oscar Wilde
Well I haven’t posted for six days– I’m not getting lazy, I just haven’t had much to say. I’ve entered the limit grind, where everything that happens seems to have happened before, and your greatest weapon is patience rather than technical skill. I have to lead off today’s post with a great comic from The Poker Hermit… take note of the subtleties of the drawing, it’s really well done:

He sure plays a mean pinball
I’ve been dabbling in the $15-30s. The blackjack bonus whoring is done, and I have been (over) anxious to test my mettle in the bigger games, and couldn’t resist sitting down a few times, hoping the poker gods wouldn’t cast down too many suckouts.
To make a long story short, I had 5 very nice hit and run sessions, the best of ended in a $400 profit after 31 hands. The worst? Well, the old tilt monster reared its subtle head and I found myself dropping my entire buy in ($750) after ramming and jamming my flush and straight draw in a monster pot. Neither hit, and my play became very fishy before I knew it. The good news is that I threw a rope around the tilt monster and managed to win $500 back playing solid poker at 3 $5-10 tables simultaneously. So my overall win rate at $15-30 over this period ended up being 1.3 BB/100, although I’m still kicking myself over so many wasted big bets playing way below my ability.
The little foray into tilt-world showed me that my bankroll is not quite ready to play with the big boys. I’m confident that my game is ready, but it’s still hard for me to stomach losing $200 on a single hand. To combat this, I’ve opened a poker-only bank account, which should help me attach a definite number to my bankroll (I’ve been keeping track of my sessions, but haven’t felt the need to create a separate account up until now).
The biggest difference between $3-6 and $15-30 is the aggression. Of course the games are somewhat tighter, but the major difference is the amount of 3-betting and capping that goes on at $15-30. I rarely see $3-6 players 3 betting with just top pair, but during my experiment (remember I only played 110 hands) on the $15-30 tables, I saw this several times. The pots you end up winning tend to be larger, but the same goes for the pots you lose. In other words, more variance.
So I’m struggling to build the bankroll through grinding, but I feel strongly that I can beat these games. I guess it’s just a test of discipline until I feel I have enough big bets in the bank to make the leap. I’d like to play 3 $5-10s, but the wait lists are so long and the games are so tight that I feel my win rate at $3-6 is probably in the same ballpark, and of course the variance is much lower in these games.
Poker and Personality
Thanks to Felicia for pointing out this excellent article about the role of personality in poker: Is There an Optimal Poker Personality Profile?. Make sure to check out all the PrimatePoker links, as the site offers a rare combination of humor and wisdom.
I was happy to discover that the author believes that my personality type (INTJ) is the “optimal” personality for poker. The main point is that introverts have more of a natural tendency for self-examination and self-criticism than extroverts, and this tendency makes them better at poker. While I agree with this to some extent, I think that there are factors other than personality that are far more important to the success of a poker player. Clearly there is some overlap– but we’ll discuss that later.
Here is my crack at a recipe of mental ingredients for the successful poker player (in no particular order):

  • Ability to absorb and recognize patterns: My understanding of “talent” or “card sense” in poker is the ability to categorize the current hand based on the tens of thousands of hands stored in memory. When a player has a “feeling” he is beat, where does this feeling come from? I think that all of the inputs– the time it took for another player to call, the texture of the board, the pattern of bets and raises– combine to create a general impression that the player recognizes from a previous hand. The hand isn’t exactly the same as the one we played before, but somewhere in our subconscious we recognize the pattern. Many have argued that all learning takes place by analogy, and our subconscious mind is trying to find something in memory similar to the current activity. Since this happens at a subconscious level, it seems to me that it is in some sense a “natural” ability– our pattern recognition and categorization is something our brain does without us really being aware of it. The conscious element of the hand is also significant (what are my pot odds? what hand did this guy show down last time?), but the “feeling” you get is a subconscious prodding from your brain that says “wait, I’ve seen this before!” This is the only ingredient in the list that cannot be learned.
  • Concentration: This one is kind of obvious, but poker concentration is a little like baseball or golf, in that you have to be able to turn it on at the few moments you need it, and then put it on cruise control for the rest of the time. When you’re in a hand its on, taking in everything from the flaring of an opponents nostrils to the number of bets in the pot. There are so many things to take in that it takes a zen-like calmness and unfocused concentration that absorbs everything at the table. When you’re not in a hand, you’re able to passively follow the developments of a table, seeing that a player just finished his second jack and coke, or taking note of a player who’s lost two pots in a row. There has been a lot written about the Zen and the Tao of poker, and I think the effortless concentration suggested in these indescribable words has been mastered by all successful players.
  • An understanding of probability: You don’t have to be able to compute binomial coefficients on the fly, but understanding probability and odds is necessary to cushion the blows rained down upon the player by the poker gods. One of the most difficult things for me about poker is the idea that a perfectly played hand, from preflop to river, still has a significant chance of losing. Rarely is any hand greater than an 80% favorite, and we jump at the chance to get all our money in the pot in that situation. But one out of five times we will lose this bet, and if we can’t accept this, then we should go play chess. The harshness of variance is what makes the game so great– any two cards really CAN win, and the serious player learns to accept a bad beat with a wry smile. If the favorite always won, I don’t think there would be too many professional players, or poker players at all for that matter.
  • A thirst for improvement: If you don’t get better, you get worse. It’s easy to convince yourself when you’re running bad that it’s the cards’ fault. You know you’re a winning player, so it must be the cards. Without the desire to improve your game, the motivation to analyze your play disappears. It’s no fun thinking about that time when you bet the river, knowing you were going to get check-raised the second your fingers separated from the chips. Yeah, he sucked out on you, but you wasted two big bets on that river bet. The successful poker player is always haunted by her mistakes, win or lose.
  • Discipline: This overlaps with concentration and a thirst for improvement, but it’s so easy to fall into playing marginal hands when something throws you off your game. A disciplined player avoids those subtle-tilt rationalizations like “it’s only one more bet and I think I can get 11:1 if I hit” even though there are only 3 players in the pot. It takes extreme discipline to think carefully about every hand in a long session, adjusting to new players or sudden changes in player behavior.
  • Courage: I’ve written a lot about believing in yourself and your abilities before, and I think that the courage to put your money on the line and “go for it” is underrated in poker. I see a lot of very smart players stuck in a weak-tight shell, playing very conservative and risk-averse poker. While playing over your bankroll is never a good idea, being afraid to cap the betting when you think you’ve got an edge is what it takes to be a great player. There’s plenty of money to be made if you sit and wait for the nuts, but this won’t work at the higher limits, and besides, you’re leaving a ton of chips on the table. Have faith in your instincts– grit your teeth and throw your chips in when you think your hand is best… it’s a lot more fun that way, win or lose.

I’m sure I left out plenty, but the above qualities are the most important to being successful in poker, based on my (limited) experience. Is there a certain personality type that encourages these qualities? It’s possible, but I’m sure if you looked across the spectrum of poker greats, you’d find a lot of different personalities.
Thanks for reading– may variance be kind.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply