In order to move a particular skill through each stage of the learning pro- cess, you must gain sufficient repetition. The million-dollar question is… how much repetition is necessary to master a skill or craft?
One of the reasons poker has progressed so quickly recently is that online poker has allowed players to gain a lifetime’s worth of live poker experience in a fraction of the time. The speed of online poker com- bined with mass multi-tabling means that several thousand hands can be played in a day. It would take a month for a typical live player to play that much. Along with a surplus of quality instruction, online players have the chance to repeatedly implement what they’re learning because they get such a variety of recurring situations in just a single day. A live player would be lucky to practice playing pocket queens twice in a session, whereas an online player might play them 10 times, with slight variations in each occurrence.
A theory made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers1 states that success in any field comes from 10,000 hours of deep practice. In this book, he looks at several masters of their field—the Beatles, Bill Gates, and Beethoven—and highlights the fact that they all achieved 10,000 hours of practice prior to breaking out. Framing success in this way helps people to realize that success doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s also a results-oriented way of viewing the process. Success, mastery, and learning are all achieved from a large number of hours practicing, but the quality of those hours matter. What you practice, how you prac- tice, and the effort you put into that practice are just as important—if not more important—as the quantifiable amount of time you practice.
It is important to draw a distinction between the 10,000-hour theory of success, which relates to mastery of an entire discipline, and the success achieved in the development of individual skills. It won’t take you 10,000 hours to fix a tilt problem, just like it didn’t take you 10,000 hours to learn how to do an EV calculation or drive a car. When working on individual skills within a discipline, it is more accurate to think in terms of the number of quality repetitions and not just total time.
Imagine that it takes 1,000 repetitions to master a skill, such as knowing when to value bet on the river. Playing within your normal game (i.e., level 3 in the transfer of skill model), each time you correctly value bet on the river equals one repetition. So, based on this hypothetical estimate, you need 1,000 reps to master that skill. More difficult situations have a multiplying effect on the value of repetitions. Proper execution in a level-4 situation is valued at two reps, which means you could master it in 500 repetitions instead of 1,000. Then, let’s say that you find yourself in a level-5 situation, for example, playing in a tough high-stakes game full of professional poker players, including a few who intimidate you. River value-betting situations in this scenario might be worth four reps, meaning you could potentially master it in a quarter of the time.
At the other end of the scale are repetitions that have less value. For example, studying, warming up, cooling down, or talking over hands with a friend might each be worth a quarter of a repetition. This is because, comparatively, they are taking place in low-stress situations. Although these repetitions aren’t worth as much, they’re still valuable and at no cost to your bankroll. Get into the habit of doing them regularly because they accumulate rapidly and facilitate gaining the more valu- able reps you need at the table. Keep in mind that how you study can have this multiplying effect as well. Active study, such as taking notes and asking a coach questions, can be worth more than just passively watch- ing a video or reading an article.
You also need to make sure that what you are repeating is what you actu- ally want to learn, otherwise you’re just training bad habits. Repeating a negative habit (e.g., playing weak hands from the small blind or skipping a warm-up) costs you twice. Not only did you lose an opportunity to reinforce the correct play, you repeated the bad one; in other words, you got better at the mistake, not the correction. Now it’ll take two repetitions to get back to where you could have been had you made the correct play in the first place.
Hopefully, you are beginning to realize that playing only in soft games is not always the best approach. Putting yourself in situations where you might struggle is a fantastic way to accelerate learning. This is not to say that you should jump into the toughest game you can find; you could go broke before ever coming close to being world class. On the other hand, taking shots in tough games or higher stakes, pushing yourself even when you don’t want to, playing through when you are tired or tilting, and try- ing to learn concepts you have a hard time understanding, will all have a profoundly greater impact on your learning than just showing up and playing your standard game.
Many players don’t realize how effective and helpful playing can be in their learning process. Playing poker is like taking a test, and educational research has recently shown that retention for knowledge is stronger and lasts longer when students are given tests rather than just studying2. The act of taking a test, or playing poker, forces you to dig information out of your memory and communicate it in a coherent way. It’s one thing to take information in, but it’s the quality of the output of that information at the poker table that enables you to be successful.
Deliberate practice refers to a form of training that consists of gru- eling, repetitive practice whereby performers constantly respond to feedback and correct errors. Over the last decade, a growing body of research is emerging that debunks the idea that natural talent alone is what produces elite performers. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University is the pioneer behind this research, which con- cludes that expert performers in all fields share the same traits in how they approach practice3. Almost everyone we consider to be “natu- rally talented,” such as Tiger Woods in golf and Jerry Seinfeld in com- edy, are actually just the hardest working.
One common trait found among expert performers is not just the fact that they practice so much, it is that they constantly practice doing something that tests the limits of their ability. They strive to reach higher than their current capability, very often fail, and then try again. Michael Jordan is one of the most recognizable examples of this dedication to challenging oneself, as he is noted for a devotion to turning his weaknesses into his greatest strengths. Why are Brazilians so good at soccer? One of the reasons is because as children they play a game called Futsal, which uses a smaller, heavier ball in a smaller playing area. When they finally
get on a normal soccer field, they make the game look easy; but it’s really a product of intensive training in a tougher environment.
Another attribute of deliberate practice is breaking down the specific skills required to be successful in your craft and focusing on improving those chunks of skill. In his autobiography titled Open4, Andre Agassi describes regular practice with a ball machine he dubbed, “the mon- ster.” Andre’s father had rigged the machine so it would send balls flying at him at speeds much faster than normal. So fast, in fact, that it helped him to become one of the best tennis players in the world and one of the best at returning serves. Thousands of hours battling the monster honed his reactions so deeply that serves in excess of 130 mph posed little challenge.
How does deliberate practice apply to poker? Well, the most impor- tant thing is to be aware that this concept exists. Most people look at Phil Ivey and assume he is just a natural talent, but not everybody knows that he played poker illegally for years as a teenager with a fake ID. So before the rest of his peers ever set foot in a casino, he had already acquired years of experience. While Ivey doesn’t speak often about his game, he shared this in an interview during the 2012 WSOP:
“There are tons of mistakes every session, even for me. What separates me from a lot of the other players is that I recognize the mistakes when I make them… I just practice, I think about the game all the time and am continually trying to get better.”5
The next thing to consider is the idea of challenging yourself. Even though the conventional wisdom says to look for soft games, players like Phil Galfond seek out tough games to become more formidable. Deliberate practice is all about flexing muscles you didn’t know you had, failing, and getting better. Practice is not supposed to be fun; if it were, everyone would do it.
If you want some additional reading on deliberate practice, check out these three excellent books: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and Bounce by Matthew Syed.