Why poker is hard to learn

The difference between poker and other sports or professions is that, as previously discussed, it’s a relatively new thing. There are no poker schools and there isn’t much poker literature. There is no es‐ tablished roadmap for what it takes to become good. Everyone needs – to some extent – to go about reinventing the wheel. And it’s not just learning how to play good poker, it’s about learning how to learn how to play poker. And beyond that problem there are a few reasons unique to the discipline of poker that make it an especially hard game to master.

One reason is that for most of its history, poker has been played “live” with real cards. People didn’t realize it until the invention of internet poker, but live poker was actually a very slow game. People get dealt maybe thirty hands an hour in live play. Compare this to an internet player playing two tables and getting one hundred hands an hour per table. The online player is getting almost seven times as many hands as the live player. This results in a lot more ex‐ perience gained very quickly, so this player learns a lot faster. It takes a long time for a live player to learn the game since it takes so long to gain experience.

Then there is the fact that the best players don’t teach, they play. The saying “those that can, do. And those that can’t, teach” holds an element of truth. It is especially true in poker because the best poker players can make a lot of money. As a result the people who can make huge amounts of money logically decide to do just that. They concentrate their efforts on playing rather than teaching poker. Those who don’t make huge amounts of money playing poker teach a lot more, because their opportunity cost isn’t as high. When they are teaching instead of playing poker they aren’t losing a lot because they don’t make much money from poker in the first place.

Poker can also be very trying emotionally since it is so directly com‐ petitive and because money is such an integral part of the game. So
if a player wants to learn and improve, they should disregard their emotions and use an analytical mind. However, it is actually quite hard to ignore your emotions. For example if a player wins a big pot, they should be calming their mind to analyze the hand and trying to understand if they played it correctly. When they do this they may realize that in fact they were outplayed and just got lucky. This would be an important part of the learning experience. However, maybe the amount of money they won was substantial and, naturally, this makes them happy. So now they’re celebrating and doing a little dance around the chair instead of thinking about the important things.

Conversely if a player makes a bad play and then the opponent capitalizes on it, maybe the person will become too depressed and beat themselves up with thoughts of “damn I’m so bad at poker. I’m just so bad at poker, why did I do that? I just lost $5,000. I’m so bad.” Then they keep repeating this over and over in their head. Instead what they should be doing is getting rid of these negative emotions and quietly thinking over what went wrong, and how specifically the hand could have been played better. But it’s quite hard to sepa‐ rate the emotional aspect of poker from the logical aspect which, in‐ evitably, makes it hard for people to learn to play the game at a high level.

That brings us to the biggest reason poker is a hard game to learn. When learning takes place, a person will do something, and then he will receive feedback. The feedback – whether good or bad – is what people use to learn. For instance a student can do a math problem, but the key is when the teacher marks it as incorrect so the student will know to change how he approaches that problem. Or a teacher could mark it as correct, so the student will know to keep doing it the same way. That feedback is how a student adapts his behavior to be better.

Studying poker is a little like learning with a crazy math teacher. A teacher who marks problems right or wrong with no correlation to whether we did the problem correctly or not. For a student of poker, the feedback is very difficult to interpret. For example, a player could play very badly, but win a lot of money. So the feedback is the exact opposite of what it should be. Here the experience merely rein‐ forces the bad habits. Or a player could make a really good play and get unlucky and then think the good play was actually bad and not do it anymore. Again the feedback is all wrong.

There are many different ways this could happen – for instance a player could make a good play and get all the money in as a favorite and get outdrawn. The feedback is the opposite of what it should be, but it’s pretty straightforward to understand that the play was good if the opponent hits a two‐outer. However, what if the player made what was in principle a good play but got called by a better hand and ended up losing the pot as an underdog? Now the feedback is much more difficult to interpret.

Maybe one would normally expect the opponent to have a worse hand or maybe the normal outcome would be that the opponent would fold the better hand and it was just unlucky he called this particular time. Or there can be other possibilities – maybe the op‐ ponent shouldn’t have had that hand in that situation and was lucky to have it there. It’s quite difficult to “self check” the answer and evaluate one’s play in poker because the feedback is so unreliable. Couple that with the emotional issues of playing the game and the lack of quality instructional material on poker, and it explains why most people face a lot of problems becoming skilled at the game.

In reality, however, poker is actually a much simpler discipline to master than many others. For example, it takes a lifetime of good work to achieve top level skills as an actor, an artist, a soccer player, or perhaps as a writer. For a poker player it many only take a year or two to achieve a high level of skill. Although it is a complicated game, itʹs not nearly as complicated as other skills. It actually can be a lot easier to learn than people think – but when it isnʹt the reason is usually because of these issues in learning.

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