In poker, the more challenging the situation, the more skill is required to be successful. Value betting a medium-strength hand is a lot easier against a fish at $1/$2 than against Tom Dwan in a $200/$400 game. With an equal level of skill, your performance will progressively decline as the difficulty of the situation increases. Too often, poker players expect their performance to be at the same level across all situations they face, regardless of their difficulty. In actuality, they need more skill to perform at the same level in tougher situations. Golfers make this mistake all the time: They can’t understand why they don’t hit the ball on the golf course as well as they do on the range. The driving range is a less challenging environment, so success there doesn’t automatically generate success on the course.
It is essential to understand this point when you are analyzing your game and determining where your skills are located within the learning pro- cess. When using your performance as an indicator of which stage a particular skill is in, you must also consider the degree of difficulty of the context in which that skill is being utilized. First, let’s look at an example of how contexts in poker vary in their degree of difficulty (Level 1 is easiest and Level 5 is hardest):
• Talking, thinking, and reading about poker
• Watching poker on TV, or sweating a friend online
• Playing lower stakes than usual • Playing fewer tables online
• Playing a soft game
• Running well at your normal stakes • Playing a normal amount of tables • Playing within your bankroll
• Playing more tables than usual
• Playing at a final table
• Facing a tough opponent at your normal tables • Being bored playing lower stakes
• Running quite bad at normal stakes
• Running bad at higher stakes
• The first time playing a higher limit
• Your first final table with a big first prize, in front of a crowd
Now, think about your own game and analyze each situation that you have encountered—or want to encounter in the future. Write them out and rank their level of difficulty from 1 to 5. The process of evaluating your performance can be skewed if you’re not considering the degree of dif- ficulty in which you played. For example, if you’ve been working hard to improve tilt, and you avoid tilting in a level-3 situation, you can mistakenly think you’re close to mastering tilt. Then, when you experience a tough level-5 day, you end up failing to control tilt and so you abandon a strat- egy that was actually working, but just needed more time to be mastered at all levels of difficulty. You must compare apples to apples—level 3 to level 3. This will make your evaluation and progress more accurate and ultimately maximize the efficiency of your learning process.
It is also important to realize that you have an A-, B-, and C-game at each of these levels. Your A-game at level 2 might be equivalent to your C-game at level 4. For example, say you come to realize that squeeze plays are mastered in your level-2 contexts. This doesn’t mean that you will always know when to, or have the nerve to, make a profitable squeeze play when you’re at a big, level-5 final table. A skill mastered in level 2 might transfer to a level-3 challenge, but expecting it to show up at level 5 will not only set you up for disappointment, it will also give you an inaccurate portrait of your game.
Unless you are one of the rare incredible poker talents, you rely on other players and coaches to help you learn. While this is certainly more effi- cient, it requires you to fill in the knowledge and experience you would have gained had you learned the concepts on your own.
The concept of backfilling knowledge can be illustrated in looking at the way a house is built. If you built the outside structure of a house with- out any interior framework or any solid foundation beneath it, the house would fall apart with the smallest amount of wind. From the outside, it would appear to be a house like any other, but it would be lacking the crucial things that give the house integrity and strength—things that are in place before it ever even appeared to be a house. Your skills need to be built in a similar manner.
When you learn from others, you miss out on a lot of the unconscious data that was highlighted in the Iowa Gambling Task. It is the coaches and players you learn from who went through the beginning stages of the ZLM and ALM, and transformed their Intangible Competence into Conceptual Competence, or Unconscious Incompetence into Conscious Incompetence. You come into the learning process farther along and are piggybacking on their experience in the initial stages. Your knowledge is acquired without having to go through the process of accumulating Intangible Competence. The importance of backfilling knowledge is that it solidifies and builds a foundation beneath these new concepts or cor- rections. Without it, your ability to implement them into your game will be more difficult, and even if you are successful, their flimsiness may prevent them from ever being effective.
If it’s taking a while for a new concept to truly sink in, don’t worry, you’re in the process of backfilling knowledge. Merely grasping a concept does not make it fully learned; you need ample experience in a variety of contexts to really solidify it in your mind. Once you gather enough knowledge and experience, the concept will firmly stick in your mind and it will feel as though you’re really making progress. A good example of this is learning about the importance of position when you first start playing the
game. This is something many players learn early in their poker educa- tion, but no matter how many times they hear it, playing marginal hands out of position is still invariably one of the biggest leaks they’ll have for a while. Even though the concept made perfect sense in the training video they learned it from, the concept isn’t really grasped until they’ve gained enough experience to give it a solid foundation.
Backfilling knowledge is something that happens naturally, but the experience component takes time and effort. When you learn some- thing very mentally taxing, such as Phil Galfond’s concept of “G-Bucks,” you then need to seek out education and experiences that support and reinforce it. Watch training videos and talk out hands with friends with the new concept in mind. Review your old hand histories looking for examples where it applied. Start your sessions with the goal of apply- ing G-Bucks to your play, and afterwards, evaluate how it went. This extra work will allow you to backfill the intangible knowledge that you bypassed initially.