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How to Master Poker

08/11/2018 by Patricia Cardner

Over the last few years the idea of the 10,000-hour rule has captured people’s imaginations. Many books, articles, and videos have been produced extoling the virtues of this rule. Essentially the rule says that if you want to become an expert at pretty much anything, all you need to do is put in 10,000 hours of work and you, too, will become a master.

The originator of the research on which this rule is based, K. Anders Ericsson, takes exception with what he considers to be an over-simplification of his work. If you delve a little bit deeper into his research, which spans four decades at this point, you’ll see that it takes a bit more than just time in the seat to become a true expert. This is just one of several pervasive myths that surround mastery that I will be addressing in this article. I’ll also give you several tips that will improve your chances of becoming a poker expert dramatically.

First up, there is a myth that poker mastery comes from having more knowledge. While experts do know more, knowledge alone does not make them experts. Expertise doesn’t come from what you know, it comes from what you do. We’ve all been around players who can talk about every nuance of poker theory, but when it comes time to take action, they make the wrong plays or fail to pull the trigger in ideal spots. Would you consider a player like that an expert poker player?

Ericsson himself offered an alternative definition of expertise that I believe highlights this all-important action difference. He said that experts perform in a superior way more reliably than non-experts. If you accept this definition, then just knowing poker theory does not make you an expert. Nor does making the occasional brilliant move. Remember, true experts exhibit reliably consistent superior performance. Of course, they won’t win every hand – no one does, but all in all, they will play the majority of their hands in a much more profitable manner than a non-expert.

The second myth goes right to the heart of the 10,000-hour rule. It is the myth that experience is what makes us experts. After we get in 18-24 months of playing time, time in the seat is actually a very poor predictor of performance. That’s because when we first start playing, there is a lot for us to learn and we rapidly improve. Eventually, though, we plateau at the point where we are “good” enough. That is, we no longer make beginner mistakes, but we certainly cannot be considered experts. It’s like driving. When we first get behind the wheel, we have to pay very close attention to what we are doing, and we make a lot of (hopefully small) errors. After a year or two we are likely to be as good a driver as we will ever be. I’ve got well more than 10,000 hours of driving experience under my belt at this point, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for the Indy 500! Instead, I’ve plateaued out as a decent driver and that’s exactly the path that most people follow when learning something.

The third myth is that people who become poker experts have a natural talent for the game. We think that they must have been born with the mathematical aptitude of Bill Chen and the Spidey senses of Daniel Negreanu. Luckily, this is nowhere close to the truth! Yes, it is helpful to have math and psychological skills, but these skills can be learned, provided you have the right learning strategy. All you have to do to become an expert poker player is to practice in a very specific way for an average of 10,000 hours, which is how Ericsson meant the rule to be applied.

So, what does your practice need to look like? There are a few simple steps you should employ, and you’ll be on your way. Notice that I used the word simple and not easy. The steps themselves are fairly straightforward, but the process is definitely not easy.

The first thing you need to do is to figure out how an expert poker player would perform on the important representative tasks. For example, what does expert pre-flop play look like? What does expert continuation betting look like? You get the idea. It’s important to figure out what an expert poker player must be able to do in every phase of a poker hand (or poker tournament, if you play those).

Ideally, you should find some expert players to serve as role models. Unfortunately, most of us spend the majority of our time being exposed to players who are mediocre at best. To add insult to injury, we tend to practice in a way that’s mediocre, too. All this exposure to mediocrity is not good for us. Perfect practice makes perfect, but that’s not what most of us are exposed to – which is why most of us are not experts – yet!

To get around this mediocrity problem, it is critical that you engage in deliberate, purposeful practice. Once you’ve figured out the representative tasks and found some role models to show you what poker expertise actually looks like, you need to build yourself a set of exercises that will allow you to fine-tune your skills. This is not the same as watching a tutorial. You need to do something to practice with the material you’re learning. Expertise development requires an active learning process, not a passive one. To come up with exercises or problem sets, ask yourself what you need to know and be able to do such that you become more reliable/consistent in a given situation.

Finally, it’s important to have a map of the progression from novice to mastery. In areas like chess and music, such roadmaps exist and are readily available, but poker is not quite there yet. You’ll likely need to find a coach to help you with this. Having some sort of idea about the steps to mastery is important so you can stay motivated and on track.

Here are three questions for you to consider when putting together your map:

  1. Do I understand the fundamentals? Always start with these! Advanced players always understand the fundamentals better than anyone else!
  2. Am I working on the next step? Always be looking to where you need to go next to keep your progression moving forward. Don’t waste time; focus on skills that build on each other.
  3. What am I missing? What can I learn? How can I grow? What new information is out there that I need to master?

Mastery takes practice and it isn’t about the number of hours you practice; it’s about the quality of your practice. Now go forth and do some purposeful practice!

If you like this article you can now pre-order Dr Cardner’s new book, written with Gareth James which is publishing Summer 2019: Purposeful Practice for Poker