Improve Your C-game

To build a taller pyramid, you need a wider base; for your game to grow stronger, you need a bigger and stronger foundation to build it on. Your C-game is the cracks in that foundation. Even if you take nothing else from this section, carefully consider the following advice, as it can have a very valuable impact on your ability to learn.

If you are unsure of what to work on in your game, your C-game will be the most beneficial and rewarding place to start. It’s also the simplest. Learning can be overwhelming, daunting, and complex at times.

Knowing you can always focus on the three or four worst things in your game gives you a reliable and easy starting point. If you maintain an up-to-date A- to C-game analysis, you will always know what to work on. That saves you time and energy, and prepares you to improve your C-game every time you play.

Looking at the mental side of your tactical leaks is very important. There is always some mental component to a C-game tactical mistake, even if only a subtle one. For example, you might take too passive a line in a hand because of a risk aversion; or, if you are overly aggressive on the river, it could be because deep down you think you can win every hand. The degree to which a mental game leak is involved directly corresponds to the severity of the tactical error: The more severe the tactical error, the more involved the mental game issue. Breaking through mental game problems makes it much easier to eliminate tactical mistakes. In order to fix a mental game problem, such as fear, tilt, or low confidence, you must first understand what’s causing it. The mental hand history is a process that was developed to help players quickly get to the root of their mental game problems. Just as a weed grows back if it’s not pulled out by the roots, so too will a mental game problem if the underlying cause isn’t corrected.

How well a player can complete the mental hand history is dependent on their knowledge of the issue and the mental game in general. Going through the process for the same issue several times allows new details to emerge. They can then dig deeper to find new insights that further strengthen the correction and reduce the intensity of emotion around the problem. If you struggle to complete the process, look to resources— including TMGP—to help you. The mental hand history has five steps and works best when your answers are written out rather than done in your head. The steps are as follows:

  1. Describe the problem in as much detail as you can. Include thoughts, feelings, actions, and associated tactical decisions.
  2. Explain why it makes logical sense to think, feel, react, or play that way. In other words, why does this problem occur? All mental game problems are rational, so if you think yours doesn’t make sense, it’s only because you don’t yet have enough information to complete this step. This step is the hardest, so don’t be discour- aged if it takes you several days or weeks to complete it.
  1. Figure out how the logic in step 2 is flawed.
  2. Come up with a correction to that flawed logic. This correction can be used as an injecting logic statement. You can also write out a strategy that you can use to learn the correction.
  3. Ask yourself why the correction you came up with will work. This is an extra step that reinforces the rationale behind the correction, and helps to firmly implant it in your mind.

To illustrate these steps in action, here’s an example that deals with tilt:

1. Describe the problem. I get angry when I lose to bad players and play too aggressively against them. I can never believe it is happening, and all I can think about is getting my money back.

2.Explain why it makes logical sense to think, feel, react, or play that way. I feel like I deserve to win more than they do because I work much harder on my game. I know it’s not smart to play more aggressively, but I also know it’s the quickest way to win back my money.

3. Figure out how the logic in step 2 is flawed. Several reasons: Without luck, bad players wouldn’t even play and poker would stop being profitable. It’s also not really my money anymore. The money on the table is an investment in my edge. Some days that investment pays off and others it doesn’t. But if I play worse trying to get that money back, I’ll make less money in the long run. Lastly, every time I make the same stupid mistakes, I actually get better at them and limit my ability to improve in the future. So, not only am I losing money right now, I’m also increasing the probability that I’ll lose money in the future.

4. Come up with a correction to that flawed logic. My hard work isn’t destroyed when I lose to a bad player; it’s destroyed when I make mistakes trying to win money too aggressively. I’m also destroying the future of my game and need to work hard to play solidly no matter how pissed off I get.

5. Ask yourself why the correction you came up with will work. It allows me to make the most money over the long term by consistently making the best decisions, period.

Players sometimes have difficulty creating injecting logic statements that work, but the information from steps 3 and 4 cuts straight to the core of the issue. Here are a few options from the example above: “Without luck, bad players wouldn’t even play and poker would stop being profitable,” “The money on the table is an investment in my edge. Some days that investment pays off and others it doesn’t,” or “My hard work isn’t destroyed when I lose to a bad player, it’s destroyed when I make mistakes trying to win money too aggressively.” The one you should select is simply the one that works best, and you may have to try out a few in order to determine that.

Although the mental hand history was originally designed as a tool for breaking down and correcting mental game issues, it can easily be adapted to address tactical leaks as well. Here’s an example of how to break down a tactical error using the mental hand history:

1. Describe the problem. I am bluffing too much against a player who has a high calling percentage.

2. Explain the logic behind that. He can’t have it all the time. He must be due to fold.

3. Figure out how the logic in step 2 is flawed. The only information I have so far is that he doesn’t fold easily. Also, my image will be viewed as wild and my range will be perceived as wide. Both make it more likely I’ll be called.

4. Come up with a correction to that flawed logic. I need to narrow my range and value bet more.

5. Ask yourself why the correction you came up with will work. With my image, I’ll be called by this player at a high frequency, so I really need superior hands in order to win.

Ideally, you want to take each tactical C-game mistake and its associated mental game leak through this process. The reason for this is that you will likely uncover similar theoretical errors among them. Let’s say you have eight specific tactical errors as part of your C-game. When you analyze each one, you’ll often find that many of them have the same flaw. In other words, you might not find eight flaws for the eight errors—there could be lots of overlap. So, rather than having to remember eight different cor- rections, you now only need to remember the few overlapping ones that apply to all eight different spots. When these tactical leaks have a strong connection to a mental game issue, it makes more sense and is more efficient to solve both at the same time.

How I Fixed A Leak

One particular leak of mine that developed over a couple of years was being too passive with second pair type hands. I would get dealt pocket queens, the flop would come king high, and I would go right into my default line of either bluff catching or check folding. Even though it’s often right to do this, there are also tons of times when bet- ting for value or to take down the pot is the best option—now is not the time to go into the merits of each line because it’s very situationally dependent. It’s clear, however, that I was shutting down way too much in this spot and it was hurting my game.

Being passive with second pair hands was what was learned to the level of Unconscious Competence; it was my instinctual reaction. I usu- ally play eight or more tables and needed to find a way of making a quick decision about whether the conditions seemed right to continu- ation bet or check. So I set a goal to remind myself to be aware of this issue by writing it on a notepad at the start of my sessions. Then

I marked every hand on Hold’em Manager where it came up. At the end of my sessions, I evaluated all the second pair hand situations to assess how I did. In my journal, I would answer questions such as: Did I bet where I would previously have checked? What did my gut tell me to do? Was I right to do it in these situations? Then, in my warm-up before future sessions, I reviewed my notes and looked over some of the hand histories as a reminder of my progress and recent mistakes.

Away from the table, I studied my hand histories further by putting play- ers on ranges, doing EV calculations, posting hands on forums, and generally assessing the merits of each option in each spot. Thankfully, Hold’em Manager has preset filters to pick out these spots so I could even look at hands from ages ago to see how I played them. I also watched training videos with the specific intention of seeing what the instructors did in second pair spots. For the most part, I ignored the rest of the information on display in the video to avoid getting over- whelmed. I wrote out their reasoning for betting out with second pair hands, as well as for the times they didn’t. Probably the biggest leaps came when I discussed specific hands with poker friends. Not only did they challenge my viewpoint, just talking about my reasoning out loud made such a huge difference. All of this went in my journal, so I could easily review it later.

Four months and 80,000 hands after I first started, the correction was learned to the level of Unconscious Competence. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of instances where I felt like I had solved the prob- lem, but then would find myself insta-checking second pair hands in tough spots, such as in deep pots or live games. Ultimately, what helped more than any other correction I had used in the past was varying the way I attacked the issue and constantly assessing where the correction was in the ALM. I even took an extended break from poker and the correction was still there when I came back, without even thinking about it.

After completing the process of defining and understanding your mental and tactical C-game, you can then start implementing the corrections with the goal of training them to the level of Unconscious Competence. Here are suggestions for creating a cycle of improvement that will help you to efficiently master corrections to your C-game:

• Warm-up. You must be prepared to make corrections to your C-game every time you play. It may take a few minutes to refresh your memory and get focused on your C-game mistakes and their corrections, but it’s time well spent. The cost of failure is too high, especially when simple reminders can make a big difference. Review your A- to C-game analysis, injecting logic statements, strategic reminder, hand histories, or anything else you need to prepare for preventing your game from crashing.

• Performance. Stay focused on playing well until you rec- ognize that your game has begun to slip or you see a sign of one of your mental game problems. When that happens, quickly make the appropriate tactical and mental corrections. Addressing these problems as soon as they arise, and not wait- ing for them to accumulate, will make it easier for you to remain in control. Also, keep in mind that even if you’ve been suc- cessful at preventing tactical and mental mistakes early in a session, it doesn’t mean you should become complacent. As the session wears on, fatigue and accumulation can make it harder, not easier, to continue to be in control. Remember to quit the session if, for any reason, you’re no longer able to cor- rect your C-game mistakes. The goal is to improve upon them, not reinforce bad play.

• Cool-down. After your session, review your progress in correct- ing your C-game mistakes. Remember, the transfer of skill concept makes it necessary to consider the difficulty of the session. Review or repeat your mental hand history on days that are particularly difficult. This helps to reduce accumulated emotion and makes learning the correction easier. Yes, this is repetitive, but would you rather repeat a mental hand history or continue to make the same mistake at the table?

• Analysis. Away from the table, you can gain valuable repeti- tions in improving your C-game by posting hand histories, editing and reviewing mental hand histories, watching videos, speaking with a coach, and doing anything else that directly addresses it. This feeds into your warm-up and completes the cycle of improvement.

Your progress might be steady, or it could be full of steps forwards and back- wards. Either way, stay focused on improving your current C-game until you have enough proof that it’s gone and has been replaced by your previous B-game—this is the concept of inchworm9 in action. The simple way of know- ing that your game has moved forward is that your previous C-game doesn’t show up even in the most difficult, level-5 contexts, and without any effort. Invariably, players make a lot of progress over a few weeks or months, and then become lazy. They assume these improvements have reached the level of Unconscious Competence, but don’t realize the importance of the transfer of skill concept. Keep them on your radar until you have proof; it doesn’t take a lot of time and will prevent major steps backwards.

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