Make Continual Progress

Athletes across the sports world are constantly trying to improve. This goal is built into the fabric of their careers. They understand how intensely their competition is working, and realize that if they aren’t moving for- ward, they’re bound to fall behind.

Whether you’re playing great or horribly, there’s always an opportunity to improve. The key is to always be tuned in to your capability, which is why maintaining your A- to C-game analysis is so important. If you are having an off day, acknowledge it and realize that it’s a great opportunity to improve. If you’re tired, tilted, or just not feeling it for some reason, prepare to play a solid B-game and don’t even worry about playing your A-game. Improvement on a day like that means making sure your C-game leaks don’t show up, or you at least hold them off for longer than you were able to previously. Too often, poker players don’t even play or won’t take the opportunity to work on their games when they’re not feeling 100%. However, as the transfer of skill concept illustrates, one of the best times to improve your C-game is on a day when it’s most likely to show up. Plus, since preventing C-game mistakes is a significant challenge, you gain high-value repetitions each time you’re successful. Go into the session prepared to battle your weaknesses and celebrate even the slightest improvements. This will not only improve your tactical game, but will also increase your confidence and mental endurance.

On the other hand, when you’re feeling strong, fresh, and ready to play at a high level, it’s important to continue to push yourself and not get complacent. Your definition of improvement should be progress relative to your capability on a given day. You can’t know the limits of your capa- bility until the day is over; so push yourself to play better, no matter where you are within your range.

At the heart of continual improvement is your A- to C-game analysis. When things start to go badly at the poker table, it can feel as though your game is in a free-fall. Knowing exactly what level your game has fallen to gives you something tangible to grab hold of. Rather than reminding yourself to just focus and play well, you have knowledge of what exactly needs your focus. If you rotate a bell curve 90 degrees counterclockwise, you’ll see a bell curve ladder. The better you’re able to define each rung in this ladder, the easier it is to stop your game from falling and to climb back up once your game has stabilized.

When evaluating progress, it is critical that you compare apples to apples. As the transfer of skill concept illustrates, comparing an incred- ibly difficult day to an easy one not only causes frustration, it also leads to inaccurate conclusions and misconceptions. Making an appropriate comparison allows you to see progress where you probably rarely see it—at the back end of your range. On a day when you played poorly, realizing you were less terrible than a previous session can be strangely satisfying. It validates the hard work you’ve been putting into improving your game, which is a pretty rare and amazing thing to see on a bad day. On the flip side, after a profitable session, you may realize that you could have played a lot better. So rather than becoming complacent the next time you play well, you are instead motivated to challenge your best and raise the bar even higher.

The following suggestions will further help you to get in the habit of improving your game:

• Make small stuff big
• Aggressively learn from failure • Practice
• Take a vacation

Make small stuff big. When looking to improve, players often only focus on the major leaks in their game, when often it’s the small stuff that has the biggest impact. At every level of poker, the edges can be very small, so any improvement matters. While each improvement may seem minute, when done consistently day after day, they have an exponential effect—similar to compound interest on a mortgage.

Another mistake players often make is giving too much attention to their biggest winning and losing hands. These are hands that have the great- est impact on how much they win or lose, so it seems logical to focus on them. However, not only do these hands usually involve standard deci- sions, they rarely contain anything to learn from. Here are a few exam- ples of the types of hands that players often overlook when attempting to learn from their sessions:

  • Hands where your decisions didn’t come easily: Rather than reviewing a hand based on whether you won or lost it, instead focus on the hands that were the most challenging. In general, the more thought a decision requires, the more there is to learn from it.
  • Small pots that you won or lost: Ask yourself if you could have made or saved an extra blind here or there.
  • Uniquehandsyouplayed:Askyourselfhowyouwouldhaveplayed in your opponent’s position or if you were dealt a different hand.
  • Smaller spots where you didn’t know how to proceed immediately.

It can be easy to presume you have nothing else to work on, but that’s never the case; there will always be small details of your game for you to analyze. If you don’t address small issues while they are still small and relatively easy to fix, they will eventually become bigger and more com- plex issues down the line. A tiny leak may not hurt your winrate much at $2/$4, but it could prove to be a major problem at $5/$10. Why wait for the mistake to become more costly before beginning to work on it?

Aggressively learn from failure. Read stories about successful people in any field and you’ll see an important commonality in how they view failure: They see it not as something permanent or to be avoided, but as part of the process of learning and succeeding. There are innumer- able famous and inspiring quotes about failure; here are a few:

  • “Wouldyoulikemetogiveyouaformulafor…success?It’squitesim- ple, really. Double your rate of failure. You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all… you can be discouraged by fail- ure, or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that’s where you’ll find success.” —Thomas Watson, founder of IBM
  • “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” —Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company
  • “I have not failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” —Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb

It’s natural to get a little down when you make a mistake or experience failure. What’s most important is how you recover from it. Does the dis- appointment fuel you to work harder and to make the most out of the mistake, or do you get stuck and allow those negative feelings to linger? Failure provides a great opportunity to learn because it highlights the limitations in your capabilities. Only when you can learn from those limi- tations will you be able to truly push your game higher.

Practice. In all sports, there are clear ways for athletes to increase their level of skill without having to compete. Golfers hit balls on the driving range and play practice rounds, runners utilize a track and weight room, and boxers have heavy bags and sparring partners they can hit. Poker, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clearly defined training environment with- out monetary consequences. Some would argue that play-money games provide a good training ground. However, beyond teaching the basic rules of the game, this style of play is too unlike real poker to be valuable.

The benefit of practice is that you get to test new skills in an environment where there is less pressure. Plus, you can rack up valuable repetitions that make it easier to transfer a skill to tougher situations. Here are a few suggestions for ways to practice:

• Play lower stakes. Drop down several limits to play a ses- sion where, for example, you focus entirely on pre-flop play, turn aggression, or C-game mistakes. Then see how much that practice pays off in your normal games.

• Play more tables at lower stakes. Playing more tables online than normal is a great way to work solely on your tacti- cal C-game mistakes. The high frequency of hands makes it a lot harder for you to think, and that forces you to work on a part of your game that typically feels easy.

• Play fewer tables. If you are trying to expand your A-game, playing fewer tables is a good way to put more focus on each table and decision. It allows you to think more deeply over each hand and explore any new insight you’re able to gain. It’s also a great way to improve focus, since the slower pace makes it easier to become distracted.

• Hand replayers. Replaying old hands from your Hold’em Manager or PokerTracker database is the rough equivalent of a basketball player reviewing game tape. This is the most common

way that poker players practice and it is genuinely risk-free. Load up a bunch of random hands or ones fitted for specific situa- tions. Then pause the hand on every street and make a decision as though you were actually playing it for the first time. You can also play the hand from the villain’s perspective. Simulators like SNGWiz and Hold’emResources Manager are good examples of dynamic hand replayer options.

• Change game formats. Some skills can be developed just by changing the type of game you play. Tournament players can rep- licate final table situations by playing heads-up cash games and SNGs. They can also play deep stack cash games to work on the early stages, and short stack cash games to practice for the middle stages. Also, heads-up games are generally a great way to improve mental game issues, as they tend to be mentally tougher.

Use these suggestions or come up with your own ways of integrating practice into your learning process. It’s a low-cost option that can pay huge dividends in the long run.


There are many reasons that players decide to become coaches: to make money, to give back to the community, and to gain exposure. Many coaches also do it because they know it’ll make them better players. Writing articles, recording training videos, and working with students reinforces concepts they already know and allows them to be understood at even higher levels. Each time a coach shares what they know, they get additional repetitions and their knowledge becomes more deeply ingrained. Coaching helps knowledge move through the learning process, and that includes helping Intangible Competence become Conceptual Competence. Sometimes in the process of sharing their expertise, they often communicate something they didn’t even realize they knew. This spontaneous understanding is exactly the same as making a creative new move while playing. When in the zone, a coach has access to more knowledge, and that allows them to bring their own intangible competence to the surface. And you don’t even have to be an official coach to reap the benefits of coaching. For example, if you’re in a study group and you’re the best player, don’t be discouraged that you don’t have anyone to learn from. Take advantage of the opportunity to solidify what you know by communicating it to the other members of the group. Encourage them to ask questions so you’re forced to explain things in various ways. This helps to conceptualize poker decisions and frees you up to acquire new Intangible Competence.

Take a vacation. Poker players are often quite reluctant to take time off. Even though the value of rest is well known, they still don’t like the amount of time it can take to knock off the rust and get back to playing at their pre-vacation levels. Consequently, they don’t take enough time off during the year, and their ability to learn suffers as a result.

The solution all comes down to organization and planning. Keeping your A- to C-game analysis up to date makes this easier. Before you leave, take notes about your game as though you’re writing them to your post- vacation self. This not only allows you to put poker down so you can truly enjoy some time away, it also helps to refresh your memory when you return. When you get back, you have two options:

1. Jump right back into playing without reviewing your notes.

2. Review your notes and play fewer tables or lower stakes so you can steadily work your way back up to a high level.

The value of jumping right back in to your normal routine without any preparation is that it gives you a great opportunity to test whether being away has improved your game. You could find, for example, that areas of your game that previously took a lot of mental effort feel easier after your break. It’s as though the time away allowed them to sink deeper into your mind. You can then use your vacation notes as a measuring stick to compare your game pre- and post-vacation. The other option—using the notes, practice, and a solid warm-up to steadily climb back up to the top of your game—is less risky. Since players who prefer this route often want to accelerate their climb, consider making it a goal to get to the top of your game in less time after each trip. For example, if it currently takes you one week to get back on top, try to reduce that to four or five days after the next trip.

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