ANYONE CAN PLAY HIGH STAKES POKER

Ten Years Ago

“That’s the third time a SWAT team’s hit this block” my friend mumbled, as if remarking a Hot Pocket had finished heating.

“Since when?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he said, confused.
“Three times? What, like in your life?”
“No,” he said, looking out the window with pierced eyes. “This month.” He

pulled the drapes.
He forgave me for not knowing. I’d only been living with his family for a

few weeks. The kind interracial family allowed me to rent out their garage. There was no heating and no plumbing. We were right off Casino Road in Everett, Washington. Google it sometime. You’ll likely run into a charming description such as, “Casino Road is a place of hopelessness: drug running, prostitution, and gang warfare is a way of life.”

My friend was working two jobs, 16 hours a day, practically every day. I’d just gotten home from commercial fishing for two months in Bristol Bay. Everybody and their mother seemed intent on informing me that that was statistically the most dangerous job in the USA. “I hear Iraq is beautiful this time of year,” I’d groan in protest, thinking about how I’d likely be fishing again soon.

I didn’t mind where I was living, truly. My friend’s family was generous. They cooked for me, even though that wasn’t part of the deal. I paid them with what little money I had and with landscaping work. It felt fair to me. Despite its reputation, the area felt safe enough. I’d run at nights through the streets. No one bothered me.

In any fashion, it was better than what I came from. Not that my childhood home was bad. It was a suburban house. It was next to a gun range that never seemed to stop firing rounds and a Nike missile silo, but it was nice enough. Things just weren’t too civil with my family at that exact moment. My kinfolk weren’t bad people. We just all at the same time decided we’d really like to do some drugs. Thus started the parade of court appointments and “mental health” clinics.

While my family and I were on good terms again soon for the time being I was just grateful for a quiet room to study in. I’d tanked my grade point average a year before in high school in a pursuit to mix as much Adderall with Rockstar

energy drink as humanly possible. Don’t laugh, our metal band really was going to take off! I needed to ditch all those classes to get the growls just right!

For my senior year I’d decided to take a full schedule at my high school. While most of my friends were getting early acceptance letters and leaving campus at 11:30 am in their Beemer I was attending seven classes a day. It was a multi-hour commute to and from the school. I only knew my friend because he’d transferred to attend honors classes. We’d wake up at 5 am and would often not be back till after 5 pm. We’d do homework till around midnight, sleep five hours, and then wake up before the sun to start again.

Theoretically, this was our schedule. As far as my friend’s parents knew, this was what we were doing. But something else was keeping us up into the wee hours of the morning.

There was a beautiful online game now called Texas Hold ‘Em. My friend and I had been Japanophiles, enjoying every role playing game that came stateside. We’d broken PlayStation 2’s playing so much. I even had a job playing video games professionally. However, now we could play poker, for money, anytime, anywhere.

I’d tried playing at my childhood home, but it was very difficult to do. Aside from all the drama my eclectic family unit could incur there was also the problem of an internet connection and privacy; both of which could be sorely lacking on different occasions. In my friend’s house I had my own room and a PC I’d paid for with my Arby’s paychecks. No one bothered me ever. It was my sanctuary. I was in heaven.

My friend had loaned me $50 the first night I opened my poker account. I’d luckboxed two $5 sit’n’gos (SNGs), for a profit of $30. I sent back the $50 and resolved to work something up from the profits.

I had no idea what I was doing initially, as I kidded myself that I really could subsist on four hours of sleep a night. I’d try to bluff people on every street. I’d go all-in on the first hands. I’d try anything. Much of it failed, but I wasn’t deterred. I was playing off my winnings. The roller coaster felt like a freeroll. Everyone made fun of what small stakes I played, but I didn’t care as I was feeling the same rush. Soon, there was nothing else I was doing with my free time. If I didn’t have that much homework sometimes I’d go on marathon all- nighter sessions.

Eventually, I started looking like fried death. Bags appeared under my eyes, I became gaunt, and I had a hard time paying attention during the day. People began to worry about me openly. Yet, I was enraptured. I couldn’t be bothered: I

knew there was something to this game, and I was going to find out what it was. I loved playing from a computer. On the baseball field as a kid I’d been a ball of nerves and hated having people watch me. In the privacy of my own home, with money that wasn’t even real to me, I could be anyone.

I told everyone I was going to be a professional poker player. The response was tepid, to put it mildly. It largely contributed to my break-up with my high school sweetheart. Girls I’d date after that would stare at me as if I were nuts when I told them what I wanted to do. My old co-workers at the fast-food chain laughed in my face. Everyone who saw me at school constantly buried into a poker book would roll their eyes and snicker. Who could blame them? I wasn’t exactly on the road to being a Rhodes scholar. Among my friends I was the one known for streaking across senior citizens soccer games, getting caught in a Muslim girl’s bed post 9/11, and throwing my head into walls during metal performances.

I was a D student in my math classes. Most people when they hear that assume I wasn’t applying myself. That’s comforting, except I know the truth: I really couldn’t figure what the tan (∠ABC) was. When I took entrance exams for a community college I was informed I needed to retake 9th grade geometry. I also may add I nearly failed a ceramics class, the fine institution of higher learning my stoner friends referred to as “the place I got an A for making bongs and ash trays all day.”

Perhaps I could lie to you and say I was doing poorly at school because I was so focused on poker, but that’d be a lie too, and I was the laughing stock of local games. I showed up to 75+ three-table tournaments at a local house, decked out in $5 sunglasses and headphones, only to bust out triple barreling a nit minutes later. Basketball players in my high school who hardly ever played poker would hand me my ass; their locker room $3 buy-in sessions were sufficient training to beat me and my 20 poker books.

“How are you going to be a professional poker?” they asked, incredulous.

“This game doesn’t require a height advantage, like basketball. It’s not overwhelmingly complex like chess. It’s about mastering yourself,” I’d muster.

“Yeah, okay buddy,” they’d drawl, sometimes looking sideways to laugh with their friends. “You should go to college and get a real job.”

“I can’t afford off-brand soda most days,” I’d explain. “No one will cosign a loan of mine. Where am I going to find the money to go to school? I’ve got no future. I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m going to take my shot.”

Practice not Talent

That was 10 years ago. Today I go by the cheerful online moniker of Assassinato. At the time of this writing, I have won more than $3,500,000+ in tournament earnings. That’s what the public knows about. The Internal Revenue Service is also privy to appearance fees, coaching payments, and cash games.

I have played poker in more than 30 countries, in Latin America, Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. I have lived in high-rise condos above Seoul. I’ve taken a year on a Mediterranean waterfront in Malta. When I tired of their crowds, I rented a mansion and private beach in Costa Rica. Today I own a home in the foothills of Costa Rica and help run a physical therapy clinic and a recording studio.

I have final tabled multiple Full Tilt Online Poker Series (FTOPS) events, multiple World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) events, European Poker Tours (EPTs), PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) $5,000s, Sunday Millions, Sunday 500s, Super Tuesdays, and everything in between. If you’ve heard of a large online tournament, chances are I’ve final tabled it. (Except the Warm Up. God I hate that tournament.) I also run the largest poker consultancy in the world. We have over 1,000 clients from over 60 countries who come through our doors for tutelage. Top-ranked PocketFives players, live Player of the Year contenders, and German housewives; they all come to us for top-notch poker instruction.

Now, I don’t tell you all these things to brag. I hate self-aggrandizement as much as I abhor false modesty. However, my assistant frequently complains that I’m letting the pendulum swing too far in one direction. “It’s off-putting, Alex, when they come up to you to thank for your help, and you look amazed that they’d even want to speak to you. That doesn’t bode well for our company.”

Yet, I’m really not playing a mental game. I truly consider myself to be a normal person of fairly average intelligence. My wife will confirm my utter fallibility to anyone who will listen. What I’m not modest about is my passion. I am not speaking of a need to play poker, although I enjoy poker greatly. I love poker, but it is not who I am – still just a loudmouth kid who likes contact sports, battle rap, death metal, and energy drinks.

I am passionate about the independence and financial freedom poker gives me. You can keep all the bracelets and titles. I don’t need another pimpled-ass nerd coming up to me on a bathroom break to tell me how awesome my check-raising skills are. What I’m out for, and have always been out for, is money. Compliments from my colleagues do not feed my disabled mother, put my family through school, or keep the clinic open to pro bono work. I am selfish and proud of it, nervous and have a horrible attention span. Doing an activity so meritocratic gives me gratification. Making money for people who were not blessed with my youthful freedom allows me to feel good about myself. My time and financial investments are purposeful, which allows me to sleep at nights. Plus, I can listen to albums all day and take a two hour reading break whenever I want. What could be better?

To acquire the freedom I have in my life I had to be deliberate in my practice. That was my talent, which was wrought from my passion for not working at Arby’s again. When I studied poker I did it with the attitude that I knew nothing, that I would never be able to rely on raw skill. I had moments in my early career when I could have been accurately described as insufferably cocky, but I acted that way to mask how I really felt. Deep in my heart I knew I was not a natural talent, and never would be.

If I had any courage it was in how I never stopped learning and working, no matter how many people told me I was horrible and would never make it in the game. Now those “professionals” have disappeared from the industry. Some have been gone for years. Convinced of their inherent God-given skills they took all setbacks as an affront to them as a person. They failed to adapt, or display a modicum of ingenuity in the face of defeat. They failed, and I continued, precisely because I didn’t believe in genius or prodigal strength.

I have never met a poker player who was born a ringer, and I doubt I ever will. Phil Ivey lived in New Jersey casinos for years penniless to acquire his “gift.” In the words of Joe Louis’s trainer, “There is no such thing as a natural.” Now I enjoy my consulting work immensely because this has proven to be true. I have trained 65-year-olds who, once they worked hard, started winning large live tournaments. It has been a joy to teach many 40-year-old men how to crush the games after they’d been a losing player for years. Young men from impoverished countries have tearfully told me how hard it was to provide for their parents who had done everything for them. One of the greatest moments of my life was later hearing these same youthfully driven souls describing the homes they bought their folks.

In all of their lessons, and in the classes that featured the world’s top players, I used the same exact lesson plan. To become great at poker I needed to bring down the game to its core elements. The hifalutin and self-serving circular

explanations of poker from great poker minds never did much for my game. To improve my poker I needed to reduce the game’s most complex concepts into words I could understand and recall in the heat of the moment.

As I watched my students’ careers and my own game take off I came to find Albert Einstein’s classic quote was correct: “If you cannot explain it to a six- year-old, you do not understand it yourself.” I wasn’t a six-year-old when I entered poker: I was an infant, without money, means, or intelligence to become a professional, yet I became one anyway. This book describes how I did it.

Oh, and remember that $30 I resolved to play with? That’s where my entire bankroll has come from. The multiple millions in earnings, $10,000 buy-ins, and trips around the world were all funded by the price of two large pizzas. I never made an initial deposit, ever.

How to Learn

Now that I’ve told you the totality of what is possible with the right mindset, allow me to introduce you to the ruin that can happen with the wrong one. We’re also going to discuss what actual success is like in poker, and whether this is truly what you want to aspire to.

Remember that private mansion I was living out of in Costa Rica? My next home after that was a one-bedroom apartment in a Central American inner-city. My internet often didn’t work, so I had to mooch off my neighbor’s. My block featured several liquor stores and fried chicken spots. Kids sold crack vials on nearby corners. I remember seeing one in a wheelchair and thinking, “Well it can’t be that bad of a neighborhood if this guy can do this kind of work without being robbed.”

While my attempts to justify my lot in life are hilarious in retrospect they weren’t that funny at the time. I was five years into my career and broke. The year before I had several assistants, live-in cooks, and maids. Now I was ordering greasy pizza slices through bulletproof glass.

What precipitated such a mighty fall? My own idiocy is the short answer, but for those searching for more details: trying to back all of my friends because I wanted them to have the life I had, bad bankroll management, and a horrible mentality.

I trust everyone reading this book will not make the mistake of backing someone or themselves with money they can’t afford to lose, which really should be the qualification of any bet you make in life. I want to focus on the failure of my mindset. This is not a brief topic, for it is the most important thing you will read in this book. To understand what went wrong with most of us, and why many cannot succeed at poker, we must return to the lessons we were taught in childhood.

For reasons I have never been able to fathom, the USA decided in the 1990s to completely change how children were taught. While before, discipline and hard work was valued, right around when I got to Lockwood Elementary we started uttering two awful words every 30 seconds: self-esteem. You could not go six hours at an elementary class without their utterance beating on your skull like machine gun fire.

At first the educators of the country had a noble goal. We wanted to be innovators. Rote memorization doesn’t help you create the next ShamWow.

Thus, we wanted to create a learning environment which celebrated a child’s individuality. At first, the intention was to not have the child feel shattered if they couldn’t come up with 8 times 8 within 0.24 seconds of being asked. It wasn’t many decades before that teachers were beating the asses of students for not studying enough. The contention was a noble one: “Let’s let the kids grow on their own. Let’s not be so paranoid.”

Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Eventually, the goal didn’t become “don’t mess the kid up for life” but “make every child feel special.”

Our educators and parents began beating the dead horse and dousing it in gasoline. A children’s show called Wow Wow Wubbzy taught children to sing along to the lyrics, “You don’t have to talk a certain way. There’s nothing special you have to say… You’re so special in whatever you do, and you are the coolest.” Whitney Houston wrote a chart-topping hit called “The Greatest Love of All.” A cursory glance at the lyrics revealed that she was speaking about the passion she felt for herself. In my high school, I will never forget this till the day I die, they actually hired a specialist to come speak to us on the topic. She began asking us questions.

“Why do we go to school?”
“So we can get into a good college!” my class cheered, almost in unison. “Why do we want to go to college?” she asked, her face glowing at the

obedient group she had in front of her.
“So we can make get a good job!” they yelled back.
“Why do you want a good job?” she answered with an assured smirk.
“So we can make lots of money!” they chanted.
“Why do you want to make money?” she asked.
“So we can buy things!”
“And why do you want to…”
“To be happy!” they cried, not even letting her finish, breaking into

spontaneous applause afterward.
I tried to find out if they’d practiced this routine during one of the 50 days a

year I ditched class. I found out that, no, they had not. They really just knew the desired answers to her questions right off the top of their heads.

Somehow telling kids that they’re so special they never have to work hard at anything did not lead to massive success. While I went to a high school that Times Magazine listed as one of the 100 best in the country half of my graduating class doesn’t seem to have a job. They don’t know how to rent an

apartment. When they write me emails asking for money they don’t seem to know what capitalization or punctuation is. Yet, how could I blame them? They stopped teaching us grammar in high school, because they didn’t want to interrupt our natural predilections for language. They didn’t want to hurt our sense of self.

Now, before you think I’m whining about growing up in The Land of the Free, this whole upheaval of my country’s education actually helped me, mostly because my rank on the totem pole seriously pissed me off. When I went into my guidance counselor’s office during senior year to explain how I couldn’t afford a graduation gown they got to asking me about my plans after school.

“I don’t know,” I stammered, confused by the timing of the question. “I’m living in a garage right now. A good job would be nice.”

“Yes, but what about your education Mr. Fitzgerald?” the taut elder all of 29 years old yelled at me.

“Well, I think I’m going to save up some money and go to community college,” I answered, not sure this woman had bothered to listen to my sentence about the garage.

“Oh, that won’t do,” she said, rolling her eyes. “People who go to community college rarely do anything with their lives. You should go to university if you’re really serious.”

While it was never directly said, the message was clear: those who don’t go on to get jobs that required degrees were losers, and had a life of no meaning. If you couldn’t go to school then welcome to a life of nothing, that for some reason is your fault. The student body picked up on this. I was told flat out by kids of all flocks that I was going nowhere while they would become something. There was a class system in place. If you weren’t going to college or didn’t own a car a normal girl wouldn’t go out with you. Parents would worry about you hanging out with their kids.

Infuriated that judgments about me were based on circumstances that were beyond my control I went on to change my predicament. I wonder how far I would have gotten if you didn’t have to be a total outcast back then to try to become a poker professional. Real competition would have scared me in 2006. No doubt many other people could have gotten much farther in poker had they tried, but in a race of one you’ll occasionally finish first.

The problems only really began when I got to this Central American apartment. I’d let my anger fill me for years. It kept me hungry during 120+ hour weeks as a commercial fisherman. It fueled me during 100 hour weeks splitting my time between security and semi-professional poker. It really moved me when for the first five months of my “professional” career I couldn’t make a dollar at the game.

Unfortunately, once I made the money my high school assured me would make me happy I found I felt nothing. I’d been so focused on making it I never realized there was a life after the finish line. You are not an anomaly when you become successful. The real war is in remaining at the top. There’s a reason rich Hollywood stars always overdose and blow out their brains. In my consultancy I talk to hundreds of poker players who have made large amounts of money and are unfulfilled. It’s not the exception. It’s the rule.

In the previous section I said I am selfish, and proud of it. I’m out for money, and have no qualms with that fact. Evolution itself is a byproduct of our race not being content with what we have. There is a reason this overpopulated Earth has more obese people than starving children now, and it’s not because some caveman looked at the first sparks of flame and went, “You know what? This isn’t for me.”

While selfishness is natural it must be domesticated. A man has a natural drive to compete and gain, which does no one any good if he just spends it on loose women and good coke. However, if he’s a Bill Gates type and ends up saving millions of lives with his charitable efforts then a Scrooge McDuck can be the best asset a charitable organization can possess.

I’d had no purpose other than to keep partying, and slowly the emptiness of that endeavor was draining me. In an effort to feel the rush again I started gambling larger and larger amounts. It cleaned me out so fast it made my head spin. I’d believed I was special. I’d been told by the chosen ones of my youth that I wasn’t good enough. To prove them wrong, I sought to win their little game. If money was how they judged a man before his ability to raise a child, his fidelity to loved ones, his good humor, or any other characteristic, then money was the game we were going to play.

Sure enough, when I had tons of it everyone decided they liked me. While before I was “weird” and “a dork” and “the biggest asshole I’ve met in my entire life” now I was “mysterious” and “a prodigy.” Now I was the gifted one, and apparently responsible for everyone else’s car payments. Old friends become strangers when you get to this point. You don’t know if they come back around to see you or to ask for a favor, and you’ll be dispirited how often the answer is the latter. You have difficulty trusting anyone new in your life. You have no idea as to their motives.

When you lose your money, unsurprisingly most people in a society of this education will desert you. You’re no longer one of the exalted. Your sense of self is shattered, and you begin making desperate moves to recover what you once had. The money you blew seemed to carry your sense of self.

Well, blessedly, I did lose. Out of money I turned to coaching. My first students were young and energetic. They were from third-world countries. They were excited to learn. Their sense of self was not wrapped up in how they played cards. They didn’t have low self-esteem, but they also didn’t believe they were supposed to be born talented at Hold ‘Em.

The questions they asked me were bizarre. They went against everything I’d been taught about poker. “No, that’s horrible,” I’d answer dismissively, not wanting to challenge my beliefs I’d held onto for years.

“Well, prove it to me,” they’d say.
“Just trust me,” I’d counter.
“I want to know. Can’t you do the math?” they asked. “You’re saying one

thing, but we have a player from our country who is crushing everyone from the USA doing the exact opposite. We want to know who is right.”

My honor had been intelligently challenged by these young amateurs, so I sought to vindicate my position. An hour later I’d done the exact opposite. Staring at a screen full of spreadsheets, calculators, and hand histories I’d actually proven that the common tournament wisdom was garbage. It had no basis in mathematics. It didn’t matter whether it was chip EV (expected value), Independent Chip Model (ICM), or otherwise; the common plays didn’t clear.

I expected my students to want their money back. They turned me down. They didn’t know how to solve a hand. They’d turned to me to be able to learn how to come to their conclusions. I realized I had never done the hard work to challenge the basis of anything I’d done. I’d always gone by feel, assuming if I was a really good player then the right plays would come naturally. Sure, I’d learn how to use basic tools to solve the thinner spots, but I’d never checked something as “basic” as a 3-bet or open raise.

To these kids I was still a good player, because I was open to changing and had the tools to find out what changes were necessary. To me, I was a failure because I didn’t intuitively know what changes to make. It hit me like a rock right then that for the first half of my career I had been doing something seriously, seriously wrong. I went back to the first training videos I’d ever watched, the ones that the entire poker world seemed to have seen. There was no math. It was quoted as scripture, yet the simple methodology wasn’t described.

No one could prove anything. It was, “I am good at poker, therefore trust me.”
I saw the fault in this quickly. In that apartment, I was surrounded by the dilapidated evidence that a successful player didn’t necessarily have to be intelligent. Trusting someone who couldn’t explain the logic of their play seemed like a losing proposition. While I could have commiserated into a whiskey bottle at this juncture while crying, “My entire life has been a lie!” I was instead overjoyed. I wasn’t bad at poker, not a loser, and not a fluke. I’d just

been doing it wrong.
So I decided to go back to the start, and challenge everything I’d learned. I

fed off my students’ hopeful energy and desire for exploration. They then fed off my excitement. It made me more popular as a teacher, thus perpetuating the cycle. As my coaching business began to grow I became more motivated to teach these kids the right way to play poker, whatever that was. My first question was, “how do you learn?” I wasn’t even sure of my methodology. No one else seemed to be either. Poker players became really nervous when you asked them to break a concept down to its finest parts. They didn’t want to be exposed.

A thousand not-so-good books and websites later I stumbled on a body of literature popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. For those who haven’t read the book, Mr. Gladwell’s contention is that few prolific talents just occur in the wild. Most of them required 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. While his book was fascinating I still scoffed at it. Many people in San Jose have driven more than 10,000 hours and still can’t operate a turn signal.

Knowing there was more, I dug into additional books on the topic. One study that kept getting quoted in every single treatise was remarkably fascinating. A psychologist at Stanford named Carol Dweck gave 400 students a relatively simple nonverbal IQ test. On completion of the test the researchers gave one of two different comments. They said either “you must be smart at this” or “you must have worked really hard.”

The students, after this boast of confidence, were given a new test. This one was for students two grades ahead of them. Predictably, the children flunked. This was where things got interesting: after the hyper-difficult test, they were given a test meant for their age group. The children who were praised for their intelligence did 20% worse than before. They felt stunted. Their self-image had been destroyed by the more difficult questions. The children who were heralded for working hard? They did 30% better!

This study, or a form of it, has been duplicated several times since. Researchers have observed several new findings. When children are given the opportunity to try harder problems with the promise of learning more, they’re much more likely to try if they’ve been praised for harder work. They report enjoying their work more. Ironically, their self-esteem is raised through appraisal of work instead of their talents, because they are gifted the realization that they can truly be who they want to be.

As I began to study more I found practically no person who was noted for their great ability got there by accident. Mozart is a classic example of someone who possessed prodigal talent, to the point it was effortless. In the play Amadeus Antonio Salieri is disgusted with the hedonistic lifestyle and seeming unearned grace of Mozart’s compositions. It is a fixture of popular culture: a man who died at 35 was so very blessed that it was sufficient time to endow the world forever with his art.

It’s all a lie. Mozart’s father was obsessed with learning how to teach children about music. A composer himself, he began regular lessons with Mozart at the age of three! Many historians estimate Mozart performed 6,000 hours of deep practice before the age of six, the time when most of us are getting rocks in our shoes at kindergarten. His first works were little more than patchwork homages to composers he liked. It was another decade before he wrote an original piece people would take notice of. He could have well been into 20,000 hours of practice at this point. Still, it was several more years before he wrote his first truly successful concertos.

David Beckham was said to have spent six hours at a time practicing one exact kick in a local park. Andre Agassi practically had his life ruined by his father’s maniacal practice schedules. Bryan Cranston, a universally acclaimed actor now because of his work in Breaking Bad, did little to nothing in Hollywood till he was 44 years old. He practiced constantly, having to learn to enjoy the process because so many roles were denied to him. The week he got his breakthrough sitcom role on Malcolm in the Middle he was turned down for three other jobs.

Even in professions where most people assume you must be enthroned through certain genetics we find a pattern of hard work. Long distance running, long the domain of Kenyans and Ethiopians, was recently investigated by several researchers. They found it wasn’t even specifically people from these countries who excelled in the sport. The majority of the Olympic runners seemed to come from the same 5% swath of the country.

What did they find there? Well, they didn’t find school buses, and they did find thin air. They were at an incredibly high altitude, and the kids had to run 10 miles to school every day. For those who don’t know, altitude training is popular among high-caliber athletes. It increases how many oxygen-carrying blood cells your body can produce. By many it is described as “legal doping.” In addition to the 10,000+ hours of practice these kids were gaining from their forced school commute their bodies were also growing in an area tailored to distance runners.

One of Michelangelo’s most famous quotes is, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Everyone with so-called natural abilities had actually commandeered the right practice routine and the most effective methodology. In poker we were doing the exact opposite. Pretty much every forum post, even among the high-stakes regulars, was about how bad or good certain players were. It seemed as if they had a primal need to exalt some and burn down others. When aspiring players would post hands they were often battered with sarcastic and dismissive answers. It was seen as an act of weakness to ask for help, or to explore one’s process. Backers would openly doubt their players if they were seeking coaching or asking questions. You were supposed to know everything already. This was not conducive to what researchers term “deliberate practice.” It’s also called “purposeful practice” or “deep practice.”

These neurologists have essentially discovered the brain makes alleyways in the mind into super highways with a sheathing that goes around nerve fibers that is called myelin. The catch is that the learning party must focus on the concept or action which is just out of reach from their abilities in order to build this wiring. If they focus on what they already know, substantial myelin gains are not going to take place; there’s nothing for them to add on those neural trajectories. In simpler terms, if you want to learn something you must fail, and fail constantly. You have to identify what you do not know, as opposed to acting as if you already have all the winning components. You have to work very, very hard.

Outfitted with this new mentality I eventually struggled my way out of that San Jose grind hole and into better accommodation. Whenever people compliment my resiliency in the face of adversity I always laugh. If it weren’t for my students’ honest questions and a crushing of my spirit I would likely be out of the game. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was going broke.

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