DECONSTRUCTING LEARNING

Learning is one of the most researched and written-about subjects in the world. Poker players already have a strong knowledge base for learning, so this section focuses on critical topics they may not always consider: • Stages of learning
• Transfer of skill
• Backfilling knowledge • Repetition
• Feedback
• Rest

Stages of Learning

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” —Albert Einstein

In order to accelerate the learning process, you must gain a clear under- standing of its distinct stages. You then need to find out in which of those stages each of your skills is currently located. Although there are differ- ences in how each individual learns, the overall process is the same for all of us. You can’t snap your fingers and magically master new concepts in poker—you’re not in The Matrix. However, by really zeroing in on each of your individual skills, you can determine the steps needed to acceler- ate their journey through the learning process.

Knowing how to actively develop and grow a skill is a skill in itself. Skills that are already well-known require repetition at the table and need to be tested in challenging situations. On the other hand, areas of your game that are in earlier stages of development require study between sessions, instruction from coaches, and detailed note-taking after ses- sions. When you improve your ability to determine where your skills are within the learning process, you’ll make fewer mistakes in determining their means of progress. You’ll also be maximizing your efficiency in the time you spend working on your game.

Locating skills in the learning process is similar to finding your posi- tion on a roadmap. If you only have a general idea of where you are—as many poker players do within the learning process—traveling to your destination will include a lot of wrong turns. The odds of find- ing your way without any mistakes are very low. Determining precisely where you’re positioned on a map allows you to set a specific route for how to arrive at your destination in the quickest and simplest way possible. In regards to learning, the destination of every poker skill is Unconscious Competence.

Measuring processing speed is one of the easiest ways to determine in which stage a particular skill is located. The faster you can make a decision at the table, the more knowledge you have and the farther along that skill is in the learning process. Logically, knowledge trained to the level of Unconscious Competence processes the quickest. Knowing something instantly without having to think about it is proof of mastery. Another clue to help you determine where a skill is in the learning pro- cess is how well you’re able to explain it to others. The more easily and clearly you can explain a skill, the farther along it is. This method can also help you to highlight that a skill isn’t as learned as you think it is. For example, you might think you have a solid understanding of the concept of implied odds, but find yourself getting frustrated when trying to explain it to another player.

Locating a skill becomes much easier when you understand the unique features of each stage of the learning process. While these stages have already been covered in the ALM and the ZLM, the following guide will deepen your understanding by illustrating how your skill set can apply to each stage.


As you can see in the graphic above, there are four stages in both learning processes. There are two separate sets of the first two stages, one addressing your strengths and the other your weaknesses. They both share the third and fourth stages in common.

Stage 1 – Strengths: Intangible Competence. Your knowledge at this stage of learning is beneath your level of awareness. You have com- petence, but it’s too new for you to explain. When playing or thinking at a high level, you may get momentary flashes of insight where you’re close to being able to explain why your decisions are so good, but they quickly slip away. Sometimes players feel so desperate to understand that they unknowingly make things up. Because these assumptions are forced and usually inaccurate, they steer them off track and ultimately slow down the learning process. If you catch yourself doing this, try using the A-game journal to uncover the real explanation—this will help you to avoid making mistakes and will ensure your decisions are accurately informed.

Stage 2 – Strengths: Conceptual Competence. When you gather up enough unconscious knowledge from Stage 1, eventually it will become conceptualized and you’ll have the ability to explain it. However, that doesn’t mean you’re consciously able to apply it. You have conceptualized a high-level concept, but it can only be utilized when you’re playing at a high level. If you do attempt to consciously apply it at other levels, you may even play worse, as it requires so much concentra- tion that other important areas of your game get neglected. The concept may seem very clear in your mind off the table when talking about it with players at your skill level, or when watching your friends play. However, when you get to the table and try to apply it, you end up making errors. Pay close attention to instances at the table when you’re in the zone and able to apply it correctly. After enough study and experience, you’ll eventually get to the point where you have solidified the concept in your mind and can start to use it consciously.

Stage 1 – Weaknesses: Unconscious Incompetence. This is your blind spot—the part of your game that you don’t know is weak. If a better player points this weakness out to you, you don’t have enough knowledge to even understand what they’re talking about. Imagine an experienced player talking to a beginner about fold equity—it would go straight over their heads. In this stage, players are often dismissive of ideas given to them by better players, because they don’t yet have enough knowledge to make sense of them. Not until a moment of insight hits you after watching a video, reviewing hands, reading an article, or getting advice from a friend will you recognize this weak area of your game. While it may be disconcerting to know that you have this blind spot, just know that every player has them and many are content to overlook them. For this reason, there’s edge to be gained by becoming devoted to uncovering and resolving these areas of weakness.

Stage 2 – Weaknesses: Conscious Incompetence. This is the stage where you have successfully uncovered an area of weakness. When the weakness you’ve recognized is simple enough that just a slight improve- ment can correct it, you can quickly advance to the next level. However, when you’re trying to correct several of these minor mistakes at the same time, you must be very organized, otherwise they will easily be forgotten. When the weakness is more complex, you’ll remain in this stage until you figure out the correction and how to apply it to hundreds of unique situa- tions. Often, players too quickly assume that simply identifying the problem automatically means that they will know how to correct it. Recognition is an important first step, but there is much more to the process.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence. At this level, your weaknesses have turned into strengths, and your strengths have advanced to even higher levels. You can think through both a new concept and a correction to a weakness in your game while at the table. Perhaps you can remember the first time you stopped yourself from playing a rag ace under the gun or were able to control tilt at a time you previously couldn’t. There are variations in the ease with which you can think at this level, and the stronger your competence, the easier it is to think about the concept or the correction. Whereas in the previous stage, mistakes were made because you had to put so much effort into applying your new skills, here you make them only when trying to apply them in foreign situations. When at your peak, you may be able to apply them with such ease that you mistake them for being completely learned. However, if at any time you are tired or tilted and revert back to incompetence, it is an indication that the skill is still at this level and requires more work to become truly learned.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence. This is the level where knowl- edge is applied consistently, instantly, correctly, and without thinking— even under the most extreme circumstances. Whether you’re playing heads-up for a bracelet, at high-stakes, at more tables than usual, or while tilting your face off, there is no resistance in applying this knowl- edge. It’s second nature and explaining it is difficult because of how basic it seems to you now. With it so deeply embedded in your game, remembering what poker was like without it is hard. Think back to a con- cept you learned early in your career and you’ll see how this is true. For example, think about how you felt like a mind reader the first time you folded pocket jacks in the face of heavy pressure, but now you consider it standard. Also at this level, decision making is nearly instant and may seem more like an instinctive reaction than a decision.

In going through the model, it’s evident that each stage has clearly defined parameters that distinguish it from the other levels. However, the execution of this process is much more fluid and can sometimes blur the seemingly solid lines between the stages. A particular skill or piece of knowledge will often go back and forth between two levels many times before being firmly planted in the more advanced one. The point is to keep skills steadily moving through the learning process so that high lev- els of play can be maintained. Missteps are predictable obstacles to this feat, but identifying the stages where they occur allows you to better understand where your learning tends to slow down or stop completely. Here are a few examples that will be revisited in more detail later on:

  • Plateau = Intangible Competence and Unconscious Incompetence
  • Premature realization of skill = Conscious Incompetence
  • Immediately knowing the mistake = Conscious Competence
  • Intentionally learning while playing = Conscious Competence
  • Overconsumption = Lacking Unconscious Competence
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