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Studying poker to improve our game

There is an internal contradiction in modern-day poker that points to both the difficulty of becoming great and the myriad opportunities to learn from your and other players’ mistakes.  The contradiction is that there are so many poker players that a vast number are amateurs while so many players means that even among the amateurs many of them will be top-notch players!

Online Poker Can Help Turn You into a 1% Player

Poker in the modern era shares a dichotomy with many other professions: there is so much to learn and so much to learn from.  We become better professionals because the data base we learn from is bigger but it is harder to become better because the data we must learn keeps getting bigger!

We can date the modern era in poker in a few ways.  One is to date it from when land-based gaming became legal in many locations around the world rather than the few such as Monaco and Las Vegas.  A better way to date the modern era in poker is to decide that it began with online poker. 

Hunches Give Way to Science

We got this idea from the World Series of Poker.  This the fiftieth year of this fantastic tournament which began so quietly with seven great players of that era, circa 1970, with no prize money at all.  It may be that they never really played hunches; that they were great because they understood poker better than anyone else.  But the Seven Samurai of Poker never talked about the mathematics of poker.

Today, in order to become a one-percenter, you need to know the math of poker.  Most players never learn even the minimum of the minimum of poker math.  It’s too hard, they say.  It’s a lot of work, they say.  All true.  But excellence in any area requires a lot of hard work these days.

Online Poker Can Make You a Champion

When you play poker online, you play against players from all over the world.  Online poker is far more fluid that poker at a land-based poker room.  On land, if you leave a table, you may have to wait to get a seat at another table.  With online poker, if you find that you are over your head at one table, you can simply find a spot at another table.

Playing online means mining the internet for poker players who are less familiar with the poker esoterica that make modern players good.  You need to play in games where you have a much better chance to win in order to get “safe” practice evaluating hands, observing your opponents’ habits and tendencies, and generally becoming familiar with poker and the mathematical concepts that underlie it.

No one is a poker champ at birth!  Poker champs are made, not born.

Respect Wisdom

There is a massive library of poker writings.  It is way too big for one person to read in several lifetimes.  In addition, the best way to gain deep knowledge about poker is to play.  As Woody Allen once said, “reading is a secondary experience.”  Nevertheless, we need to take what we can from the wisdom literature of poker.

We have to respect the author.  If a book, article, pamphlet, or essay doesn’t speak to you, there are always many others.  But every writer puts his or her heart and soul into serious poker writing and even a short article may have a nugget or two of profound poker wisdom.

Online Poker Teaches Humility

The huge number of poker tables online mean that you can play for low stakes or high stakes; against pros, semi-pros, or amateurs; and for as long as you like.  Even if you play against weaker players, you will have losing streaks.  Anyone can “learn” from winning sessions but relatively few learn from losing streaks.

The humble person learns more than the haughty winner.  One great mistake the less humble players make is thinking that they’ll win more if they bet more.  Sometimes that means getting into a high-stakes game with more advanced players.  Sometimes it means betting so much that opponents fold more often than you would expect and you lose track of the educational value of every hand.  Sometimes even weak players catch on to the fact that one player’s betting has no logic behind it.  They start to call where before they would fold.  In short order, that player has become a kind of short order cook of poker.


The self-help movement has something to say to poker players.  We may need a boost from outside ourselves but the heavy lifting comes from within.

We need to see every game as a teaching moment.  It could be a long time before we realize what we learned so many games ago.  That is why the bets pros look like they’re running through a long list of possibilities before making a decision in a big moment.  They are, in fact, running through a massive data-base of information about the hand, the sequence of bets, and everything they know about the opponent.

Ernest Hemingway said that writing novels could be simplified into developing the plot and then: “Put in everything you know about people.”

Only through growth can we find the little gems of good advice in the ocean of poker data.

Stay with What You Do Well

Sometimes we win by making the right decision based on all the information at our disposal plus all of the analytical tools that keep getting refined in the world of poker.  Sometimes we win just by staying the course; continuing to do what we know works in the long run.

In other words, the dichotomy of poker can work to make us better players.  On the one hand, we need to continue to learn in order to make sound analyses.  On the other hand, we need to stay with the tried and true: everything we have already learned about poker that works.

In a few short years, playing online poker has become one of the tried and true ways to become better poker players.