The Poker Learning Dilemma


As a coach, teacher, and podcast creator, I am in an interesting position. I get to work with and answer questions from some of the most talented and motivated established and up and coming poker players from around the globe, and yet, I also get to see how many struggle with developing their poker expertise, reducing bad habits and consistently playing in the zone. After some amount of thought about why it is so difficult to succeed at poker, I have come up with some possible hypotheses that I think can help you guide you towards improvement.

First, let’s consider the most pressing dilemma that faces every poker player. The reality is that any poker player who aspires to succeed in the tough poker environment of present day must first resolve a basic dilemma which is this: success in poker increasingly depends on how well you learn, yet most people simply don’t know how to learn. Another conundrum is that players who are the most naturally talented and smart often have the least amount of skill when it comes to learning. This is due to the fact that they just don’t have much experience with failure and struggling with concepts is foreign territory to them.

The most compelling way to explain this riddle is that most players misunderstand what effective learning is and they are unclear as to what they need to do to bring it about. In order to most effectively and efficiently learn, you are going to have to implement a new set of skills; skills which may be very different from those you’ve used before. At first it may feel boring, tedious and difficult, but I implore you not to give up. If getting better at poker is your aim, I have a lot of ideas that can help you!

The first thing you need to be cognizant of as you take this journey is that you shouldn’t define learning too narrowly. It is about solving problems and your focus needs to be on identifying and correcting errors, but it must include so much more than that. If you truly want to become an expert, you are also going to have to learn how to reflect critically on your own behavior. You must identify all the ways in which you are inadvertently contributing to your poker playing problems and then you must change the decisions you make.

In order to master poker, you are going to have to learn to embrace failure because that is where the most learning happens. This is the main reason why talented and smart players get stuck. They are not used to failure and typically they don’t like it when it happens. For most players, failure brings up threatening feelings like embarrassment and humiliation which most of us look to avoid at all costs. Behind the highest aspirations for success is an equally high fear of failure. A typical reaction to fear of failure is to become defensive and to look for excuses and “good reasons” for why a mistake happened. Smart and talented players may even screen out criticism in order to guard the ego. The end result is that their ability to learn is diminished right when they need it the most. The fear and shame that comes from not meeting their self-imposed high standards leads to an avoidance of mistakes at all costs and this avoidance leads to a serious roadblock.

If you want to overcome this limitation, there are several things you can do. First, you need to work on how you think because effective learning is a function of how well you think. There are certain cognitive rules and ways of reasoning that you can use to design and implement better learning strategies which will lead you to both taking better actions and having more effective reactions.

Second, you need to implement a program of continuous improvement. Poker is constantly evolving and so must you if you want to stay competitive. Strive to get 1% better each session. Look for any small tweaks that will enhance your performance and implement them at once.

Third, think like a scientist and be willing to test every assumption and hypothesis that you hold dear with an eye towards disproving it. Most of us do just the opposite! We look for all the reasons why we are right and why the road we are on is the correct path. This keeps us stuck right where we are.

If you really want to master poker, you must develop a process to collect valid data, analyze it carefully and critically evaluate the inferences you draw from that data. Your most critical eye should be reserved for the conclusions you draw from your data. Question everything - even if you hear a really prominent player say play X is the correct play for a specific situation, you need to collect and evaluate your own data in order to draw your own conclusion. Become a data driven poker player and you will be several steps ahead of most poker players who either want to play by feel or to do what they have always done - whether it works or not.

Finally, remember that suffering drives progress. When we suffer, it typically acts as an encouragement to find solutions and make changes. If you have been suffering from a long losing streak, for example, the best thing you can do is to study more so that you can reach a higher level of ability. While you can’t rid yourself of variance, you can make sure that you are not enabling your downswing by making poor decisions.

Learning how to learn is not easy, but training yourself to use self-reflection to increase your self-awareness of potential areas of improvement is key. Do this and you will be well on your way to solving the poker learning dilemma.