Poker Booms and Learning from the Masters

“Life is a school. You have to learn something. Don’t postpone it till tomorrow – tomorrow may never come. Use this moment to learn. And the only thing life wants you to learn is to know yourself, to be yourself. Then whatever comes, you will be joyful. Whatever happens, you will find ecstasy in it. Don’t think in terms of the future; the future is nonexistential. Only the present is.”
Happy New Year! 2004 was an interesting year for yours truly, and I want to thank all of you readers for all of your comments and insight. I met some very interesting people both on and offline, and all of the work I spent on the blog has paid off through the people its led me to and things I’ve learned.
Enough with the nostalgia, let’s get back to poker! I don’t know about anyone else, but I was blown away by the media coverage poker is receiving lately. Just when you thought that the poker boom couldn’t get any louder, every where you turn, there’s poker. Hold ‘Em made the front page of USA today on December 21st when the paper featured an article about kids playing poker. Every time I flip on the TV (and remember I don’t have cable), I see an advertisement for a set of chips or some Hold ‘Em related product. Last night I was amazed to see the great people of the Home Shopping Network blathering on about a 500 chip set as they played some version of poker that looked something like 7 card stud. And then today I’m told that the top search on AOL was “Texas Hold ‘Em”. Has poker jumped the shark? I say no way.
Yes, clearly this popularity can’t last forever, but think about the number of young people that are learning the game. High school kids all over the country are getting into the game, and what do you think will happen as soon as these kids can legally gamble? That means that new players will be coming into the game pretty steadily for at least a couple of years. Poker may be peaking in terms of popularity in the mainstream media, but I won’t be surprise if it remains a media favorite for the next year or two. The 2005 WSOP is going to smash all poker records, with some people predicting over 5000 entrants. The WPT continues to grow, and surely the major networks will hop on the bandwagon and produce their own poker shows in the near future.
All of this means that poker is here to stay, at least for a while. I guess I’ll put off learning Omaha for a while– Hold ‘Em is going to rule the poker world for years to come, and frankly, the psychology of the game is more appealing to me than any other form of poker.
So with all of these people picking up Hold ‘Em, now is the time to sharpen up your game. I’ve been having a lot of success at the middle limits lately, and feel like I’m at the top of my game. But sadly, I feel like I’ve plateaued a bit in terms of improvement. Part of my attraction to poker is centered in the idea that poker is something that you can become an expert in. If you combine reading, study, and years of experience, you can develop a skill that cannot be learned without the combination of these three different methods of learning.
Although I still feel like I’m learning at the tables, the knowledge comes in drips, rather than the huge gulps of the beginning player. So I’ve begun asking myself what I can do to keep developing my poker skills.
I’ve always been more of a self-teacher: although I have a pretty heavy academic background, most of the things I’ve learned I’ve taught myself. One of the reasons I liked computer science so much was because it’s a field where you learn a lot more by “doing” than you do from studying. There is no limit to how much you can teach yourself about computers, which didn’t seem true to me in economics or mathematics.
But lately, my good friend Monk, whose wisdom is strange and usually correct, has been talking to me about the value of the “master”. He’s more of an “old-school” guy than me, and has a lot of respect for the wisdom and ways of the East (his name is Monk after all). The idea is that learning a skill which cannot be taught through words, but only through experience, is different than learning most other things. Since this skill cannot be taught in traditional ways, the student must find out how to best gain this experience. It seems simple: if you want to learn something that requires experience, you just do the thing. If you want to become an expert at poker, you play a lot of poker.
However, in the solitary world of poker, the lessons come slowly to the non-expert player. Good poker is a grind, and it’s rare when an experienced player encounters a situation they haven’t seen before. It’s hard to know if we’re on the right path– should I stick to Limit or mix in some No Limit to keep myself fresh? The grind can numb the brain, and it’s difficult to know if there’s something more we can do to improve our game other than “putting in the hours.”
But suppose you could follow a master of poker for a couple weeks. Imagine looking over Howard Lederer’s shoulder at his every play for a while. Comparing the way that you approach the game to that of the master would open your eyes to new possibilities. Clearly the master’s way will be different and isn’t necessarily “right,” but seeing the way a true expert of the game handles situations differently than you would force you to question both his/her ideas and your own.
So I guess that’s my poker resolution for 2005. Watch the masters of the game and learn. Long live the hole card cam.
Thanks for reading and happy new year!

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