POKER SUCCESS – Part II: The Four Pillars of Success

1. Natural Talent

Natural Talent refers not only to your born natural qualities, but also to your upbringing, the types of activities you were exposed to, and your interest in, and propensity for, learning poker.

From a very young age, it was clear that I had a talent with numbers. I remember walking home from school at the age of five and doing two digit by two digit multiplication in my head.

This was when the rest of my class was learning, and trying to memorize, that 6 + 3 = 9. This fascination with numbers remains, and to this day I often assess and analyze daily events or situations in a numerical fashion.

Seeing that I was an intelligent and keen-to-learn child, my parents taught me bridge at the age of six. Bridge is an incredibly complicated game, but I had both the mind for the game and the interest; most of my friends were playing with lego or power ranger toys, while I was playing chess, doing puzzles, or playing cards. I would rather solve puzzles out of a MENSA book than watch a Star Wars movie.

Every summer, for two months, I would hang out at my cottage with my mother, aunt and uncle, and two cousins. We would play bridge nearly every day, often for hours on end. Without a doubt, this early and frequent exposure to cards has helped my poker career immensly.

In addition, I’ve always been interested in the way people interact socially. One of the reasons that I rarely smoke marijuana these days is that it increases this tendency of mine such that I’m singularly focused on analyzing both my relationships with people and the interpersonal relationships of others that I’m unable to enjoy the present moment or activity. So while this quality can at times be a social burden, it has undoubtedly be instrumental to my success in live poker.

I’ve been fortunate enough, both in my genetic composition and in the way I was raised, to have a skill set that lends itself very naturally towards poker. Poker plays to my strengths in problem solving, logic, numerical evaluation, and human psychology.

Nonetheless, you can see that I rated Natural Talent the least important of the four pillars. I believe that Natural Talent on its own is not nearly enough, and that it is merely a seed of potential that requires the other pillars to grow into anything worthwhile.

A strong natural skillset, interest in the game, and plentiful experience in related activities throughout my youth make this my strongest category.

Self Grade: A

2. Work Ethic

Work ethic refers to the amount of effort you put into playing, studying, and learning the game of poker. People with a high level of work ethic often study the game away from the tables, talk poker with their peers, and devote a significant portion of time to the game.

In many aspects of life, work ethic has been a problem for me. My grades slipped from middle school to high school, and then even moreso, from high school to college. I simply wasn’t inspired by the material, and couldn’t be bothered to work hard just for the sake of getting good grades.

I’ve had other goals in life (gaining weight for instance) that I haven’t achieved to the extent I wished simply because I didn’t put in the required work. Ever since our childood, we’re taught that if we work hard, we can accomplish our goals, but the truth is that if you don’t find the work at least satisfying and enjoyable to an extent, it can be incredibly difficult to self-motivate.

Luckily, my work ethic in poker has always been extremely strong. Over the past three years, I’ve played nearly every day, and put in 40+ hours most weeks. I am fascinated by the intellectual nature of the game, and driven to play and put myself in new situations that stimulate me. I discuss poker with a number of friends, read threads and post strategy on 2+2, watch training videos, and put in a ton of hours.

Nonetheless, while I have a strong work ethic and passion for the game, undoubtedly some of the hours I’ve spent playing and learning poker have been hours wasted. That is to say, my work ethic is strong, but sometimes misguided. Putting in long sessions when I’m tired or tilted is counter-productive to achieving success in poker.

I’ve also been quite lazy about reviewing full hand histories. I’ll often discuss individual hands or situations with friends, or post difficult spots, but I rarely go through and dissect a full HUSNG or replay a cash session or MTT I’ve played. While this work can be monotonous, it is crucial in the process of detecting leaks, as sometimes it is in the most seemingly basic spots where we can be making huge errors. This kind of work is akin to going to the driving range – it’ll never be as fun as playing a round of golf, but it can often be ten times as helpful.

Overall, I have a love and passion for poker, a strong drive to put in hours and further my understanding of the game, and these qualities give me strong mark in this category.

Self-grade: B+/A-

3. Professionalism

This pillar is perhaps the broadest of the four, and refers to all the concepts that go into how you manage yourself as a poker player both at and away from the poker table. Related concepts include discipline, self control & playing conditions, money management and spending habits, your setup, and your extra- curricular gambling

The most important pillar, and also the one that I’ve continually failed at. My pitfalls have been numerous, and while it is somewhat painful to even put them to words, if I ever expect to improve in this category, it’s mandatory to be honest with these shortcomings and work hard towards improvement.

I’ll go through each of the concepts I mentioned and briefly outline how they have affected or shaped my poker career.

Discipline, Self-control & playing conditions: Definitely not a strong suit of mine – I have always been an impulsive person, which has led to both some amazing opportunities and life experiences (deciding spontaneously to go to Europe, and then deciding while there to live in Amsterdam for three months ranks highly) and also to some negative points in my life (impulsive actions ruining friendships, etc.).

Discipline manifests itself in a number of ways as a poker player – quitting when tilted or tired, playing a manageable number of tables, not going on facebook or surfing the web while playing, and having a set schedule would all be examples of engaging in good discipline as a poker player.

Playing while stressed about major life occrurences, playing simply for the sake of gambling, or playing while drunk or under the influence of drugs can be even more harmful. I have, at various times in my career, made nearly all of these mistakes.

Money Management & Spending Habits: Depending on whether or not you play for a living, this is relevant to your poker play only in terms of your poker roll if you are a recreational player, and to both your poker roll and life roll if you are a professional player.

I sometimes wonder how someone with as poor money management skills as myself is even able to call himself a professional player. I rented an apartment from June 2009 til June 2010 in Boston. Instead of taking a day or two to find someone to sublet the apartment, I merely paid the rent while I travelled the world. I spent a total of $10,000 on rent and stayed in the apartment for about twenty days.

This is quite bluntly a disgusting display of recklessness and poor money management. Other examples include paying expensive phone bills because I use my American phone in Canada at ridiculously high roaming charges, thousands of dollars I’ve lost in overdraft fees and credit card interest, and an estimated $-85,000 lifetime in table games and recreational gambling (I’ll cover this more later)

In terms of my poker bankroll, I blatantly disregard conventional bankroll management guidelines, confident that I’ll either be able to get a stake or rely on my skill when playing games outside of my roll. It’s astonishing that after three years I still exhibit this recklessness, but it’s also difficult to take smaller games seriously after playing higher for so long.

My main problem with money management definitely relates to my life roll and my willingness to spend money frivolously on just about anything. This is something I’ve made some progress on in the last six months or so, largely out of necessity, when a pretty large online downswing depleted my roll. Recently, I’ve pulled out of this downswing, in large part due to focusing on some of the other factors I’ll touch on in this pillar.

Setup: It wasn’t until the past month that I truly realized how important a good setup is. My best month ever in online poker was August, 2008, when I was living in my hometown of Halifax. I had a very comfortable chair, two monitors and a clean desk. I made $40,000 mostly playing 1/2 NL HU. I had a 48 buy-in day at 100 and 200nl. I kid you not.

Up until last month, my setup has been abysmal for the past year. In Amsterdam I had a desktop computer and two monitors, but was working on awful and inconsistent internet, and in an uncomfortable chair. After that, I was playing out of a laptop, often laying in hotel beds, or friends couches, and using inconsistent internet.

I returned to Halifax, and to essentially the same setup I had in 2008 (bought 2 new monitors) a month ago, and have made about $45,000 since then (including my 25k bink in the WCOOP HU). It is clear to me that this is no coincidence.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be working out of a comfortable chair that supports your back, drinking fluids, playing with a mouse and keyboard you enjoy, and using a large screen. These concepts are often overlooked and I certainly overlooked their importance over the last year of my poker career.

Extra-curricular gambling: This might be the most painful thing for me to talk about of all. I’m easily down $85k in extra-curricular gambling over the course of my life. I’m probably down 20k in recreational prop betting (a lot of this was from ping pong), down 45k from blackjack, and 20k from roulette and other table games. Most of this was done in the period of one year from August 2008 until August 2009.

This type of behavior is completely unacceptable. Stu Ungar and TJ Cloutier are two examples of excellent poker players (well, maybe not TJ) who had their bankrolls decimated by gambling addictions.

One of the problems with gambling for a living is that you are constantly exposed to other forms of gambling, most of which are at best OEV, and usually -EV. For me personally, there is no question that I have a gambling addiction. The obvious awkward irony is that if I were to rid myself of this addiction entirely, I wouldn’t be able to gamble for a living.

It’s imperative that I treat poker like a business, and am driven by success, earning potential, my passion for the game, the competitition, the sense of community, etc., and not by the gambling associated with the game, even while just playing poker. Outside of poker, it’s important that I decide what kind of gambling is acceptable and set clear limits for myself.

Right now, I’m effectively self-banned from all table games for the next two months ($500 bounty if anyone catches me, and I’ll make it a $2k bounty if I break it once). I’m still allowed to prop bet and sports bet, though I’m trying to limit this to an extent too.

Not only does table games degeneracy deplete my bankroll considerably, but its also a very unattractive quality. I think when I was a bit younger and first starting to make money playing poker, I thought of dropping 2k at blackjack as somewhat baller. Now I think of it as stupid.

Nonetheless, I still sometimes feel the urge to play table games, especially when drunk and at a casino. Until I fully conquer this addiction to table games and recreational gambling, my bankroll will suffer.

Professionalism is by far my weakest pillar. As the most important pillar, it is also the one that has held me back more than any other in terms of achieving success as a poker player. In the past, I’ve often speculated about how much money I could have made had I controlled this aspect of the game. Now, I’m aiming to take a much more proactive approach and find out by actually patching up these massive leaks. I’ve taken several measures already – improved my setup, signed up for a gym membership, gotten better about quitting when tired, and self- banned myself from table games. The process must only continue if I want to achieve my goals in poker.

Self grade: D

4. Life Balance & Confidence

Life balance refers to having activities and outlets outside of poker, exercising well, and paying attention to sleep and diet. I include confidence in the title as I feel these quailties lead to an overall sense of personal confidence, which quickly translates to the poker table.

I actually salute my mother for helping drive home how important this concept is. She has always encouraged me to exercise, eat and sleep well, play fewer hours of poker and maintain a life balance. While I have definitely struggled in all of these areas, I have come to realize that her words were not just those of a nagging mother, but in fact the truth.

It’s very difficult to assess how I’ve done in this category, because I think in some respects I’ve done quite well, and in others I’ve done extremely poorly.

While I’ve played a lot of poker (probably too much poker) in the past few years, I’ve also done quite a bit of travelling, and have quite a few activities outside of poker that I partake in.

I’m lucky to have quite a few good friends spread out over North America (and in a few cases, internationally). This is great because I love travelling, so it’s fun having the flexibility as a poker player to travel and see them. In the past year, I’ve spent at least three weeks in each of the following locations: Amsterdam, Sydney, Melbourne, NYC, Boston, LA, Halifax. I’ve also spent smaller amounts of time in Italy, Paris, London, San Fransisco, and Lake Tahoe. I’m also planning a trip to Southeast Asia and Australia with a friend of mine in November.

I have a bunch of interests, such as golfing, boating, exploring cities, eating out, seeing movies and shows, bowling, going to the gym, and going out to bars and clubs. Even when stationed in one location for a while, most of my days include at least one of these activities.

However, I usually play at least five hours of poker every day, on top of this other stuff. As such, what often happens in an otherwise activity-filled day is that instead of sacrificing poker hours, I sacrifice sleep hours. My sleep schedule is constantly changing as a result of playing long sessions of poker.

My diet is another concern. I’ll often play long blocks of MTTs (particularly on Sundays) without properly accounting for in advance my eating schedule. I’ll typically order junk food as a result, or even go long periods of time without food. Without question, sleep and diet are two issues that I need to work on.

Exercise is something that I’ve been working on lately. I’ve always golfed a lot, though I’m not sure that qualifies as exercise. Over the summer, I golfed a bunch, played tennis five or six times, did some running, lifted weights a couple times, and went mountain biking once. Not the most athletic summer overall. However, I recently signed up for a gym membership, and my goal is to go 4-5 times a week.

Overall, I am happy with the non-poker activities I have going on in my life, but still think I am playing too many hours of poker overall, and not propertly thinking about a schedule, or taking enough proactive steps to improve my sleep, diet and exercise.

Self Grade: C+/B-

Part III: Conclusion

It’s been said that golf is a tough way to make an easy living. That quote couldn’t be more applicable to poker. In so many ways, what we do as a poker player is easy, and we should never take it for granted. I click buttons for a living, and can make my own schedule and play anywhere in the world. I play cards for a living — just think about that for a second. But if you don’t give poker the respect it deserves, you will never achieve the success you deserve.

This is an ongoing process and complacency will only stunt your growth. Never stop evaluating yourself as a person and as a player. Never be satisfied with simply “getting by”. Like any job or pursuit, becoming a truly expert poker player takes a large amount of effort and, as I hope I’ve shown, it’s important that this effort is guided and channeled in a positive and effective way. Success is within grasp for all of us, we just need to go out there and get it.

– Rumnchess

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