Every regular no-limit hold’em player wants to win money. Only a modest percentage of players, however, actually win over monthlong and yearlong timeframes. What factors determine who wins and who doesn’t? One could come up with thousands of little differences between winners and non-winners. I tend to be more big picture-oriented, so in this article I’ll present five broad traits that I see in winners that often are lacking in non-winners.
Experience is the most obvious trait, and it definitely matters a lot. I would never back a rank beginner in a no-limit game even if he had seven Ph.D. degrees from Stanford and had won the Nobel Prize in economics. There’s so much about no-limit you can learn only by putting in hands by the thousands.
But raw experience isn’t the key. Plenty of players who have been playing for ten years or more don’t win. And a lot of the recent big winners had been playing for only a year or less before they began raking in the money. Experience must be accompanied by the next trait to have value.
One of the many ironies about poker players is that the bad ones tend to be more certain of themselves than the good ones. Countless times I’ve heard a player lecture another at the table. “How could you do something so stupid? You should have done X instead of Y. Everyone knows that.” Not even to mention how rude it is, with few exceptions the table coach’s interpretation of events demonstrates his very shallow understanding of the game.
Winning players are self-critical. Unlike the table coach, they don’t assume that the way they usually play a hand is necessarily the best way to play it. After a session they recall notable hands and pick them apart. They rethink each decision and consider whether they could have done things in a different way that might perform better on average.
Experience is nearly worthless without self-evaluation. You can play a million hands, but if you play them like a robot and never think about what you’re doing you won’t improve much. The more you engage your brain during and after your playing sessions, the more you’ll improve. But you have to focus on the right things, which takes us to the third trait.
So far I haven’t said anything particularly revolutionary. But here’s where I know many – if not most – players go astray. They play lots of hands. They even think about the hands during play and away from the table. But they think about the wrong hands and are focused on the wrong concepts. Good players focus their efforts efficiently in ways designed to give them the best return on their time. What is an efficient focus?
It’s easier to explain what an efficient focus isn’t. I receive a lot of emails from readers asking about a hand they’ve played. Easily more than half of the questions follow the same theme. My reader has a big hand. He gets all-in. He loses. Should he have played differently?
Nine times out of ten, the answer is, “No, you had a big hand and you put your money in. You did it right.” Poker involves risk, and whenever you put your money in the middle you can lose it. These hands stand out for people because they are very emotional. Big losses are upsetting, and many players instinctively focus their learning to find ways they can avoid these negative feelings in the future.
If you want to get better at poker, though, you shouldn’t focus on the most emotionally taxing hands. Ups and downs are an integral part of the game, and vainly trying to avoid them isn’t going to make you a winner. Efficient focus means finding situations that occur frequently that you could play better. Look for situations where you’re giving up on pots you could be bluffing at. Look for situations where you’re calling on the flop without a plan for the rest of the hand. Look for situations where you are playing in a way that’s too straightforward and readable. The good stuff is usually in the small and medium pots. If you just focus on all the obvious hands, you’ll be wasting most of your efforts. Efficient focus demands reexamining the seemingly mundane pots. But even good players can’t ignore the emotional aspect of poker, which brings us to the fourth trait.
Virtually everyone who plays poker responds emotionally to major events like winning or losing a big pot, winning or losing a number of hands in a row, and so forth. The trick for a good player isn’t to bottle these natural emotional responses up. Instead it’s to be aware of them and to react to them in a positive way.
Emotionally unaware players get frustrated at the table and react by playing much looser and crazier than they usually do. This describes the well known phenomenon of “steaming.” A lot of players try to avoid steaming by actively refusing to play loose and crazy when they feel themselves getting frustrated. But this reaction has its own drawbacks. These players often play like they’ve lost the pot before they even get going. They stop raising their aces. They stop betting their good hands on the flop. They fold too easily to pressure.
The fact is that it’s difficult to play well whenever you’re in a strongly emotional state. Instead of trying to fight or hide the emotions, emotionally aware players quit until they are feeling fresh and positive again. After a particularly bad run, however, you might not feel like thinking about poker, let alone playing it, for a long time. How long that time can be is affected by the fifth trait.
Top players all have it. Every one of them, at least every one that I’ve met. They live, eat, and breathe poker. They want to talk about hands constantly. When they’re home alone, they are reading books or watching videos. They’re fiddling with PokerStove. They’re reading forum posts. They don’t get sick of it. Working on their poker game is the thing they enjoy most. You can win without single-minded passion, but if you want to win millions, you absolutely need it and there’s no substitute.
[This article appeared originally in Card Player, Vol. 23 No. 9]