The Best Players Work the Hardest

Now that I’ve met 1,000+ players in private lessons I can tell you a secret: the best players are not talented. My early hypothesis was correct. Those who succeeded worked harder than anyone. Sure, there were random people who seemed to have an uncanny ability to put their opponents on hands. Yet, when they went on the inevitable downswing and couldn’t trust their instincts anymore, the wheels really fell off. They had no basis of thought to center themselves.

Many times, when these players have come to me (always privately) to find out what happened, I find out they were never talented to begin with. We do tests on their database and find they ran way over expectation. They were stabbing blindly with their hero calls, and just happened to be right in the most crucial situations. Trusting themselves beyond what their “talent” entailed, they grinded themselves into a hole. While at first this helped me feel good about my predicament, eventually I realized how childish I was being. These people really thought they were the next Daniel Negreanu. They took out mortgages they couldn’t pay off, based on their nonexistent talent. They had kids with their wives they couldn’t support, based on their nonexistent talent. It was hard to watch.

What was more heartening was what you observed when meeting the true greats. I’m talking about people 100 times better at poker than I or any other mortal could be. These are the players who make a habit of final tabling seemingly every other month. They are few and far between, but they do exist. Interestingly, they never seemed to think they were that great at poker. Many came to speak with me when they were winning large amounts. While no one was telling them to seek coaching they wanted to make sure they weren’t missing any of the angles. Truthfully, they gave you the impression that they would listen to the janitor if he had a good idea. There was not a hint of arrogance about them. When you inquired as to what made them so good they often seemed baffled by the question. They were more than likely to thank the people who helped them get to where they were.

Most pointedly was when I met a player with more than $5,000,000 in earnings early in his live career, with even more in the online world. He never discounted anyone’s viewpoint. He would just relentlessly ask them questions about why they thought that way. Even if he didn’t want to adopt their play he still wanted to know why they liked it. He sought to respect his opponent by thinking like him, so he could play against them more effectively.

All of the so-called “prodigies” I met were only hard workers. They had a schedule they kept to every day. They rarely, if ever, deviated from it. They were always training. When they had big wins they would press their edge more. They never took anything for granted. This was the true source of their “talent.”

What these players possessed should be renamed. They didn’t have talent. They had grit. Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘grit’ as “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” To me it is the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions. Without grit, you have nothing. If you Google search for the random articles I’ve written over the years you’ll find my passages on grit to be the most reposted articles by high-stakes professionals. They recognize what took them to the top.

I was once quoted for a conversation. One young man remarked to me that he would “kill” to be where I was. I responded: “Yeah, you’ll kill for it. What does that take, 20 minutes? You wouldn’t come home from your job sore after eight hours of work and then plow into hand histories, equity simulations, and controlled sessions for 10 hours more. You wouldn’t spend fruitless year after year doing that when nothing is going your way. You wouldn’t want to listen to all the detractors. You just like the idea of finally being in the winner’s circle, not of all the work that goes into getting there.”

Researchers are coming to find that “grit” is exactly what takes people to the top. Angela Duckworth was a math teacher in middle school and high school. She was interested in why her hardest working students always rose to the top. While the answer might seem self-evident, many in her field counted talent as far more important than work ethic. She decided she wanted to study what a person’s appetite for struggle said about their potential in life.

As an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania she sought to investigate the exact trait of grit, which she described as the ability “to stick with things over the very long term until you master them.” She spent over a decade testing West Point cadets, students, and corporate sales personnel. Across the board she found those who found potential for growth in their setbacks and who expected hardship, who even welcomed it, were the ones who came out ahead. Through further studies it was found that grit and the ability to delay gratification were far greater predictors of success than IQ or socioeconomic background.

In her words…

Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint… Grit is sticking with your future – day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years – and working really hard to make that future a reality… There are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.

We want to be gritty. We want to be determined, because chances are most of us are not naturally talented or lucky.

Another example I frequently use to describe the learning process is the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour. I’ve never been a fan of golf. However, when I was seeking to rebuild my poker game, I sought out other sports of personal mental exertion. I could not imagine anything as cerebrally grating as golf, so I started there.

It’s interesting to me how when an amateur golfer decides to get into tournament golf they just hope to make a little money, pay their expenses, and stay on the tour. They’re not expecting any serious purses to begin with. Who plays their first US Open and really expects to outdo a Jordan Spieth or Tiger Woods? Yet, poker players get into their first tournament, and actually expect to win it! Many of these players have only a couple years of experience under their belt, and they are playing against old codgers with 10 or 20. It’s going to take some time to adjust.

Play to get better, not to make money. Don’t expect your first few years to be easy. If you win, great, but you’re really playing to learn and recover your expenses. This is your in-field education. It might not yet be your moment of glory.

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