Deliberate practice, and how Team Pros get good
It's the holiday period, the perfect time to reflect on the year that just passed, and the one about to begin. For poker players that might mean examining how to improve your game. Here we look into practice: how the pros do it, and how a particular type of practice might help you take your game to the next level in 2018.
Among the best sellers online, in high street bookshops, and in those racks you find while waiting for a connection at international airports, are books on productivity - how to transform into a supercharged, hyper-efficient version of yourself, destined for success.
Some are good, others are quite terrible. But arguably one of the most compelling of recent years is So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose theories around productivity offer no short cuts, but almost guarantee results to those prepared to apply its principles.
Newport's work is fascinating to read (as is his blog), and not just because it's so convincing. He outlines a great many things that can help you succeed in the work that you do, but perhaps the most intriguing element of the book is deliberate practice - the process of spending time mastering something.
Because, as Newport points out, our instinct is to fool ourselves into thinking we are busy by answering and sending emails, responding to instant messages, or getting the unimportant peripheral things done. What matters though is getting to grips with something. Only then do we accomplish anything.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
So, Newport advocates deliberate practice, not only to help you get those projects done, but because in doing so it will put you ahead of the crowd, who are likely to be too busy tapping away on instant messenger feeling too busy to notice.
You might be ahead of me here, but it's not hard to see how these concepts might apply to poker, and how it could turn average players into good ones.
One story from Newport's book is particularly interesting.
It focuses on Jordan Tice, who at the same time Newport picked up a guitar in high school, teaching himself to play covers to a reasonable level, had also picked up a guitar. But while Newport reached his limit playing the same familiar tunes in impromptu high school performances, Tice had begun touring the world as a professional musician, and turning heads as he did so.
What was Tice doing differently?
The insights Newport gleaned from this are vital to anyone wishing to improve in any pursuit, whether that's computer science, playing the guitar, or playing poker.
While Newport strummed away on the same three chord tunes until he got bored, Tice spent an entire day focused on one particularly complicated riff, playing it again and again until he'd perfected it (starting again each time he hit a wrong note), almost like a craftsman. He was tackling directly those things he couldn't yet do, that he found difficult, rather than repeating what he knew by heart.
There are some obvious comparisons with poker here.
How many times have you stuck to the same methods at the poker table? How many times have you found yourself playing a hand in the exact same way as before, only to feel at the mercy of the gods when it came to the outcome? How many times have you spotted a weakness in your game, thought about improving it, but then given up in favour of something less strenuous?
We could go through life collecting examples like this.
But this element of practice seemed an easy one to investigate in the poker world.
So, I got in touch with members of Team PokerStars to ask how they practiced. What made them a good (or great) player, and someone like me for instance, not so great?
The results were surprising, and in some cases, predictable.
For example, only one player I spoke to said the game didn't come easy to them. The rest seemed to take to poker the moment they tried it. But before you start thinking that only naturals will ever do well, keep in mind that the player who admitted to struggling early on was Jason Somerville.
So, what else did they do?
They also immersed themselves in the game. They learned all they could, got in hour after hour of experience, and kept at it. They played relentlessly and with single-mindedness, never losing their appetite to learn more. Poker was all they wanted to do.
Then, having secured a degree of success, they took that to mean they should learn more, rather than stick to old habits. They might now play more than they practiced, but they got better at spotting what they needed to improve, drilling down into those things that surprised them, or they couldn't quite work out, rather than resting on what they already knew.
In short, they used a form of deliberate practice: identifying what they needed to improve, and spending time working on that small part of their game.
There are other elements to this process, but what follows is a fascinating glimpse into how Team Pros first started playing, but then set about improving.
On getting started...
"Used to play Magic: The Gathering. Poker came naturally. After a week I sold all my MTG stuff and bought ten books on Amazon (there was nothing in Poland) and read them all in three months. This was the basis. I built up on that and was able to identify issues and weaknesses easily". - Marcin Horecki
"Tournaments and Heads-Up came very natural to me, probably because of my experience in chess which is always heads-up, and usually a tournament! Cash games came less naturally--I remember my first time playing in a cash game in a NYC Club I was so worried about losing the real money on the table!" - Jen Shahade
"I got a lot of positive feedback early on from simple run-good. I definitely overestimated my skill and underestimated the luck factor early on, so that delayed me actually studying the game properly at the beginning of my playing life." - Liv Boeree
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"I started playing games from a very early age because it ran in my family. My parents actually met through playing semi-professional bridge. When I was very young, instead of playing with toys, I was always pining for a game of mastermind or cribbage. I think having a logical approach to game-solving built in to my brain from such an early age made poker a very natural fit." - Vanessa Selbst
"I feel I had many advantages starting in poker coming from a serious videogaming background. I don't think I was a natural though - for years, I spent almost all of my time consumed with poker, reading, playing, dissecting hands with friends and studying. I had difficulty playing tournament poker at first, primarily with some mathematical and survival aspects of the format. It wasn't until I made a key friend who was an elite math wizard that I learned those critical elements." - Jason Somerville
"It came naturally, mostly because I had a lot of practise playing player vs player strategy games. I had played strategy PC games, chess, magic the gathering etc. So I was used to the dynamic and figuring out my opponent." - Lex Veldhuis
"I was already familiar with gaming strategies from magic the gathering. I knew the game was easy to play but the strategies and the luck element behind it would pose strategic, tactical and volume training to master long-term. Having a background in those games (whichever they are) is really helpful and gives you a big head start already I believe." - Felix Schneiders
"There were moments that were difficult but the desire to get better at a game that I was making a living at was always there. In poker, I was making $X/hour and I could see a direct correlation between my results and the time I was putting in away from the table. I just wanted my hourly to get as high as possible!" - Kevin Martin
"Most players that start off playing just play very straight forward poker where they only bet if they have it and they bet the size based on the strength of their hand. I thought about it very early on that I don't need to actually have it to bet (bluff). As long as they don't have a hand worth playing, I can win the pot." - Randy Lew
"I remember going to my first home game and winning $2,900 in a 1-2 game. People in the game kept calling me a ringer and pro." - Chris Moneymaker
The first steps to improvement...
"The first thing that I did is talk to friends and ask them to analyse my hands. Some people I played against as well that were friends of mine we agreed to share weak spots in each others game." - Lex Veldhuis
"It's a common thing to know where you are bad, but not being able to do anything about it (in my case its psychological problems -- so called tilt). What about technical part -- I think I do ok in identifying leaks and fighting them." - Mikhail Shalamov
"In the early stages I would text hand histories to my friends and ask for advice. Any time I left a hand wondering if I made a mistake I would check with someone else. I also got a hold of as much training material as possible." - Kevin Martin
"When I found it difficult in the beginning, it was my competitive drive that made me pick myself up when I fell. I came from a fighting game background (street fighter). When I lost in games, I tried improving the things that I needed to improve so I wouldn't lose again." - Randy Lew
"My first real steps to improve did not occur till around 2009. The top online player in the world at the time 5-bet me in a pot with Queen-Five. I won the hand with Ace-King but was puzzled to why he would take that line. I took that as a sign I was missing something." - Chris Moneymaker
"I also find journaling a very under-rated tool to poker improvement. That may be because I'm a writer, but I find that explaining various mathematical concepts and patterns to yourself in plain language is very key for refining your instincts and knowledge. I think this is true in chess also." - Jen Shahade
"Given that I was somewhat of a "natural" I think I was a bit stubborn early on about accepting my weaknesses. I could identify them (usually they were emotional ones associated with acting against my gut instinct, a form of tilt) but would convince myself they were less important than they were.
"Just getting older, realizing the value of money and how much my tilt was costing me, as well as maturing emotionally through years of psychotherapy helped me get over being ashamed of emotional leaks so I could play my best game.
"Honestly other than the tilt issues, there weren't many obstacles. I put in a ton of work starting when I was 19, but it never felt like work so I didn't think much of it. And my career was characterized by a pretty smooth upward bankroll trend for pretty much the whole time." - Vanessa Selbst
Twitch is the new Super System...
"Social pulling is massively important here I believe which is why I also think that Twitch and us becoming people's virtual friends who they can watch succeed is a massive pull!
"I signed up to a forum back in the day and read articles, then ordered my first book. Today I would immediately sign up to Twitch Streamers or content creators who I can feel personally related to and learn the basics from them." - Felix Schneiders
"I watch Twitch, or video series. I will pick a topic like 3-bet/4-bet preflop and dive into that topic for a week, or until I feel like I have a firm grasp on ranges and player population tendencies." - Chris Moneymaker
"I enjoy playing more than studying of course but now it's an interesting dynamic because I stream on twitch. This I enjoy very much and as I enjoy sharing my thought process and helping others to improve their game and think differently.
"I also benefit tremendously from this process. I get to have all my hands readily available for review. I get feedback from many people watching and also can share easily with my friends when have questions or are unsure of certain spots. This is much more fun to review then sending a Hand History or trying to explain by recalling the action verbally." - Jeff Gross
Learning from mistakes...
"Fun things started when I had to get outside that chart area -- into deepstack poker, where there is more space for mistakes. I started working on my game myself and it was a pleasant feeling to see results go up." - Mikhail Shalamov
"Always (I learned) the hard way. I had to make mistakes a 100 times and many were simply mindset issues until I realized that all I need is confidence and stick to the strategy which I or we had been working on while not getting emotional about the outcome." - Felix Schneiders
"I learned from my own mistakes, even if it took a while, but also learned from others who pointed out weaknesses in my game. I think you learn a lot by teaching and luckily had many smart and talented friends on the same journey that I grew alongside with." - Jason Somerville
The importance of practice...
"I try to come up with heuristics (rules of thumb I can use quickly at the table) for better lines and bet sizing based on both the theory of poker and how I see or expect others to play. If I have limited time I try to focus on things that are likely to happen a ton. I.e.- Button opens, BB defends, Ace-high flop." - Jen Shahade
"Whenever I play interesting hands or have a "lightning bulb moment" I jot them down. I review those notes regularly. I also watch poker programming on TV as much as I can to study my opposition as well as the trends of the game, especially if it's been a while since I've played. I also talk with friends about poker strategy, which doesn't feel like work, but has always been the most important method for my own improvement." - Vanessa Selbst
"I tend to practice things I haven't mastered yet in lower buy in tournaments and then take them into the more serious stuff. I make me feel more comfortable to try it there before doing it in a PokerStars Championship main event." - Fatima Moreira de Melo
"I love the game and I love thinking about, discussing, watching, etc. It has seriously never felt like work. I could do more to practice - play more online poker and use computer tools to analyse strategy. That stuff feels like work to me so I don't really do it. I'm sure that costs me some EV in my game, but I feel like there are diminishing marginal returns. Knowing the math exactly in all the spots has never been my strength - my edge comes from my intuition and logical mindset. I can approximate the math pretty well, so learning it all perfectly doesn't seem worth it to me. I'd rather do the work that I find fun and continue to love the game." - Vanessa Selbst
The importance of feedback...
"Giving feedback you learn so much yourself about how others think, you think and how to improve parts of your own game with all this info in mind
"Getting and giving feedback are key. By giving feedback you also learn a lot about your own game/thoughts so it is a good way to mutually grow.
"I would love there to be challenges or special incentives that motivate this kind of behaviour on PokerStars but I have not yet given it enough thought myself about practicability." - Felix Schneider
"I think it can be harder to get honest feedback except from very close friends though, so be sure to always critically examine advice." - Jen Shahade
"I believe that being open to honest feedback and criticism in your game (and anything in life) is super valuable. Being open to making adjustments and improvements (not stubborn) is so important. If you think you are "the best" or have mastered the game you are in big trouble in my opinion. You must be open minded and constantly looking to improve and evolve with the game". - Jeff Gross
"People generally don't like to hear what they've done wrong and most friends are hesitant to openly critique each other. You must solicit negative feedback if you're a pro player - asking someone better than you what you could've done better or what you did wrong in certain hands is one of the best ways to improve. Having a sensitive ego is one of the biggest weaknesses you can have - you need to stay humble and hungry." - Jason Somerville
Tomorrow... read how deliberate practice can help your game, and what you can learn from Team Pros to help you improve as a player.
With thanks to members of Team PokerStars who helped with this article.
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Stephen Bartley is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenBartley. What did you think about this post? Let us know on Twitter: @PokerStarsBlog.