Becoming An Elite Player

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The journey of a poker player is long, intense and comes with facets of adversity. Because of the vocation, playing poker not only comes with its own level of assumed uncertainty, but also proven inconsistency because of the way the sport constantly evolves and changes on a day-to-day basis. Poker’s community is very broad in scope, and because of its inability to screen its participants it can grow or decline at alarming rates.

In the last few years, we’ve seen poker’s reputation take a bit of a hit. However, this hasn’t meant that poker is declining, and in fact there are more people still playing poker despite economic insecurity than ever before. And with this incredible level of participation has come the desire to learn, study, and excel in every avenue that poker provides. Because of this admirable dedication, even professionals have had to fine tune their skills in order to stay ahead of amateurs and recreational players alike.

Despite an influx of players with average or slightly above average intellect, it’s innately understood that the pros have a distinct advantage over most competitors because of the engrossing amount of knowledge they withhold. But how do the best players in the world get there?

Although it would be slightly unfair to categorize the approach of all experts, I think that it should be said that many of the world’s best players have a distinctive outline which lifted them to the top. As customary, hard work is the most crucial component. But, because poker is a game of unique attributes, there are certain characteristics, behaviors, and modifications elite players perform that leave beginners bewildered. It’s lucrative to know the fundamentals – it’s life-changing to comprehend the intricacies.

Starting from the ground up

When we first begin playing poker, we have to take note of even the smallest observations. Because we’re novices to the game, we have to begin by making plays and taking actions that make sense both strategically and monetarily. To put things in Layman’s terms, most people call these “fundamentals”. In poker, fundamental concepts could include categories such as hand selection, position, bet sizing, stack-to-pot ratio, pot odds, implied odds, and bankroll management. In my opinion, while I believe that each of these should definitely be understood by a beginner, even professionals need to revisit and expand upon several of these principles. Just because these topics NEED to be learned, doesn’t make them any LESS significant in your ascent to the top. In fact, as you progress through your poker career they should only become more important. I stress this, because I think it happens frequently that players become relaxed as both their peers and critics praise their play and natural ability. They may have worked strenuously to get to where they are, but they’ve taken the foot off the gas and plateaued due to a collection of high praise.

In 90% of these situations, I believe a drop in play happens because the player has lost sight of one of the more critical, but often overlooked fundamental components. The other 10% (which I’ll get to in detail later in this article) is because of a lack in interest. Whether it be voluntarily, or more commonly external distractions that are beyond your control, it’s hard to stay intrigued in a game that’s taking more of a toll on you mentally than physically. Being able to harness your emotions and maintain homeostasis isn’t an easy task, and for some it can be so overbearing that it forces them to take a significant break, or walk away from the game altogether.

But to avoid getting sidetracked, the biggest hypothesis to take away is that starting simple is where all of the pros began. But as they progress, moving from simplicity to multiplicity becomes a primary aspiration – one anyone hoping to become an elite player should mimic.

The premise that all great players should start from the basics transitions well into my next thought. If you have great fundamentals, but you’re only a winner at 500NL and below, can you be considered an ELITE player?

Beating the small stakes games in 2012 should be considered an achievement in and of itself. Because of the nature and restrictions in the live casino setting, players who wish to take part in lower buy-in games have their work cut out for them. To be more specific attributes such as the rake in ratio to pot size, and because players who are just honing their skills are often restricted to this level, here professionals need to deal with the most improved competition and also maintain the highest win rate. But because of disadvantages out of their control, they’re often left to play in sub par conditions. Online play is much better in terms of the size of the player pool, and even with the increased toughness in competition often comes a higher win rate because of the lower rake and ability to multi-table. Pros that are still able to play online can still crush the 400NL games and below if they have enough fortitude and the right level of determination.

But let’s examine an idea: Let’s say you are a huge winner online at 400NL and below. You’ve amassed over $100K each year for the past two years, and you’re easily bankrolled for the mid-stakes games, usually 1000NL and below. You’ve seen mid-stakes games filled with players who you once dominated in the small-stakes games, and now they’re winning at the bigger level. You feel dumb for not moving up, but in all actuality, you’re fairly certain you should be at least taking a shot at the next level. Should you still be considered an elite player?

Well, many may argue no. And in some ways I agree. If you want to be considered the best of the best, at least in the eyes of the world and followers of the game, you’ll need to play against and beat the best in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not just a reality of poker, it’s a fact amongst any other sporting genre there is. Just because you were able to dominate pee-wee football when you were 8 won’t mean you’ll have success juking Troy Palamalu in the NFL. They’re two completely different atmospheres. (While 400NL and 1000NL may be a bit closer in skill, you still understand the general intention of my analogy.) But while I think that past success isn’t always indicative of the future, I do think it should be used heavily in consideration. Let’s examine this further.

When we watch poker on television, we often notice the same collection of players, battling it out for millions of dollars. Unless we’re watching a major live tournament event such as the World Series of Poker, we’re always going to be watching the same people. But why? Well there’s two primary reasons: #1 – not many players have enough talent to play at this level. It’s sad, but true. Moving up to play against the likes of Patrik Antonius, Jason Mercier and Sam Trickett will be damaging to both your mental sanity and your bank account if you’re unprepared. Usually, but not always, professionals will mercilessly attack a weak opponent. You’ll occasionally catch them on an off day, but more often than not they’ll tear you apart if you’re not ready.

But what makes up for a lack of skill? Deep pockets!!! The second reason why we see many of the same faces in the most exclusive poker games is because not many people can afford to play in such a high-stakes arena. Even if they can afford to play, the potential of losing several $100,000 buy-ins can take its course on your mental psyche and affect your game. While most pros are capable of separating the money from the madness, those who aren’t or are less risk-adverse will be at a distinct disadvantage.

So, in order to avoid this dilemma, there are many outstanding players who steer clear of the high-stakes games all together. It’s not because they can’t afford to, don’t think they’re a favorite, or don’t want to, it’s because of the variance. And most importantly, players in this category help give credibility to the argument that elite players can play lower-stakes.

I wanted to talk about the different buy-in levels because there are many players who might consider themselves world-class players just because they play or have played in uber high-stakes games. But there shouldn’t be an inherited correlation with monetary risk and poker aptitude. Many players who play in those games couldn’t hold a feather to some of the most talented and feared mid-stakes grinders on the Internet. They’ve simply forked up the cash, through business or hard-earned money, and have decided to take a shot against many of the world’s best. Not to say that players of this demographic aren’t elite, because some of them are, but a distinction should be given that it’s not an automatic privilege.

Small and mid-stakes players work hard too, but if they move up they’ve chosen to take their study habits and work ethic up a notch to play against the greatest in the world. Hey, as we’ve seen and described, players moving up may even encounter amateurs or wealthy fish they can begin growing their bankroll from immediately.

Study and Preparation Habits

Probably the most crucial distinction between amateurs and professionals, determining how best to analyze away from the felt can mean the difference between $75,000 year and a $100,000 year. While that number will obviously be adjusted to the stakes you regularly play, the numbers will only be adjusted in magnitude – their ratio will often stay the same. More specifically, as your study habits become better, you should increase your win rate substantially – only if you begin playing against different competition or you experience a decrease in skill should you see your long-term win percentage shrink or broaden.

Because of the nature of small stakes games, particularly live, players who have a reasonable grasp on the fundamentals won’t have a problem extracting profit. Although with the rake in live games it’s become harder (some might argue impossible) to make money, if you have an idea of what you’re doing and the types of players you’re up against, a simple ABC style often equate to wins. By no means is this usually the optimal strategy, but for players looking to minimize mistakes and make money at the same time, this is a great starting point.

As players begin to move up, or even transition to the online games of the same level, they will need to start altering their strategy. Because players who play online and at bigger stakes have more talent and experience, they’re able to better understand what you’re doing and exploit it. It’s not that the strategy used at lower levels is useless – it’s just that it will become much less effective than it used to be.

In order to stay afloat as your opponent’s intelligence increases, you’ll need to not only understand the basics, but begin to further explore your opponents’ tendencies. In the micro and small stakes games you often encountered players who fit a general profile – ABC players, TAGs (tight-aggressives), LAGs (loose-aggressives), maniacs and fish. There are smaller sublets of each of these, however, for the sake of time and energy we’re going to ignore them and stick with these definitions. When you play against better players, these people won’t disappear, but they’ll be much harder to define because rarely will players play one fixed strategy all the time. Instead villains are incredibly dynamic, and only with the closest observation will you be able to make consistently profitable decisions against them.

There’s never a substitute for watching your opponent’s closely. The information you can gather about crucial concepts such as range estimation will be immeasurable to your win rate. Taking notes as you observe will help you recall certain things about them, and whether it be on your phone or through your online poker client you should constantly review and update your notes to stay ahead of the curve. Keeping that in mind, the use of technology in terms of studying poker has given players significant edges at their respective stakes. A lot of options are available, including HUDs, databases, online video, and coaching sites to name a few. It’s unfortunate that nowadays, if you’re not using one of these methods you’ll likely be at a distinct disadvantage before you even sit down.

This is why most pros spend countless hours away from the game. It’s almost required to stay affluent. They’re able to recall film from previous High Stakes Poker games, Poker After Dark games, or live tournament circuit events to analyze their opponents. A HUD from your online database manager can be an invaluable tool to dissect precise pieces of how your villains behave it certain situations like continuation betting, pre-flop raises and percentage of wins at showdown. To put it simply, elite players become elite because their knowledge is stellar. They use EVERY piece of information available to them and they understand how to apply it. All the technology in the world won’t be helpful if it looks like gibberish. Be sure you can digest what you see and you should be steadily improving.

Maintaining a Healthy Life Balance

It may be overstated, but I think that what you do in your spare time is more essential than anything else you may do to improve your career. When you first start to learn and play the game, you’ll probably want to spend as much time immersed in the center of the action as you can. You’re winning, you’re playing great, you’re reading hands and you’re abusing players. Playing you’re A-game feels unbelievable, and you shouldn’t step away for extended periods of time when this occurs. However, where many players suffer is in their inability to walk away during long spells of breakeven or even worse losing play. More often than not, in games where you’re a substantial favorite, extended losing streaks comes from bad decision making. At the same time, we’ve all “run bad” before, and there’s no mistaking those times where the deck just isn’t your friend. But being able to distinguish between the two instances is an important skill the best players in the world have mastered.

It can sometimes escape players’ minds that there is life away from the game. For those who have chosen poker as a profession, it’s understood that in order to make a living we need to be playing. A Lot. But what I’ve witnessed through experience is using outside resources as a distraction has helped me immensely when I’ve returned. We all love playing poker, but we didn’t leave the womb with cards in our hand, and they shouldn’t always be attached to us. Even further, we definitely don’t want to be holding them when our play is average at best.

Poker is important, but it’s not everything. In order to be the best player you can be, I recommend finding a unique balance between poker and the things you love OUTSIDE of poker. Family, friends and significant others factor greatly in this plan. I find it nice talking to people who have no idea I play poker, or have little interest in poker themselves. I have poker colleagues too, but by engaging in conversation with the former I’m surrounded by uplifting people that won’t remind me of how my actual career is going. Sure, it sounds a bit “sensitive”, but I find it helpful to be around those who won’t focus on the negative. I think poker has an addictive nature, but it isn’t what defines the greatest players.

To look at a few examples, players such as Phil Ivey and Phil Galfond have recently had to delegate time towards their recent real estate sales. Ivey, who’s recently divorced, is both dealing with newly single life and also the sale of his multi-million dollar mansion in Las Vegas, NV. Galfond, who purchased two New York City condos and combined them with a unique two-story slide (see photos here), has recently had to film a television special featuring his spectacular pad and also a recent move to Vancouver, Canada. Both of these players are elite, but it may be the necessity of dealing with life responsibility and ignoring the game that provides them the required pause needed to regain composure and be included in the upper echelon of players.

It’s not just clearing your mind or being around other people that are clear characteristics of the best players in the world, but it’s also trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I mean, let’s be realistic: sitting down at a table or computer for hours on end can’t be good for your body. It’s sad, but lethargy is usually one of the traits used to describe poker players, and I advise that you change this stereotype if you want to become a leader. If you’ve been following the game for awhile, you may even refute that some of the most successful players remain lazy. While true, it’s not ideal. Most of them would probably admit that if they played when they were more alert, had better sleep or didn’t ignore their daily functions they’d probably be more successful.

Working out, eating right and stepping into each session with a fresh mindset and demeanor are just a few of the things you should be doing to increase your win rate. But let’s realize, because great games run at odds times and other changing variables, it not always successful in practice. But when you can, you should know you’re not immune to normal life stresses, and sitting at the table for 10 hours straight won’t relieve your problems even if you win. External distractions are hard to ignore, and should be addressed before you sit down to minimize mistakes.

Spend your off days resourcefully – you probably had plenty of hobbies before you became a professional player, so let’s go out and do them. Play other games, travel, try new experiences and attend other sporting events to watch other athletes perform their craft. It may even serve as motivation to get back to the table to perform your best!

At the Felt

So we’ve talked about a lot of things first-rate players do outside of poker. What are their tendencies when they’re playing? How do they react to other players? How do they consistently make the best decisions?

Because of their frequency of play and they’re capability to see situations before they happen, players of superior talent worry less about what they do and more about what their opponents do. As I mentioned, there is little to no need to revert back to simple strategies or fundamental concepts because those are so far engrained in our mind that they’ve become trivial. Now that we’re playing against the best in the world, it truly becomes a matter of nitpicking when it comes to maximizing edges. Many of your adversaries are now playing just like you, so in order to outplay them you need to be adjusting to their moves faster than they’re adjusting to you.

The most universal quality you’ll find in every great player is their gift to analyze each session individually. This can incorporate many different ideas such as table composition, stack sizes, and position relative to player aggression. Rarely if ever will a great player play a fixed strategy for an extended period of time, because they’re aware that if they do so they’ll be callously exploited.

Many of us tend to think in formulas that have led us to be successful over the years. Three-betting when we have premium hands, slow-playing when our opponents are unlikely to catch up and value betting to extract maximum value from our weakest villains. But great players don’t think in terms of a formula. They understand that at the highest levels nothing remains the same, because if it did, players would be printing money. In one of the best wells I’ve ever read, poster and respected mid-stakes grinder Samoleus put things in great perspective when he responded to the question of what he thinks the biggest leak most SSNL and MSNL players have:

“Playing too mechanically (e.g. I have JJ on the button … cutoff raised, so I am going to three bet the button), as opposed to: (I have JJ on the button. A tightish cutoff who tends to be easy to read postflop has raised on the cutoff. Moreover, the big blind is a squeeze happy player who is likely to make a light three bet when facing a cutoff raise and a button call. I can also read both players well postflop and make good decisions, so in this particular case, maybe a call is better than a 3bet).”

It’s this type of rationale and thinking that separates the good from the elite. There’s no more ABC, TAG, LAG or maniac. While you may feel you’re playing against these player types, instead you’ll be witnessing variations of these styles as a product of the session’s flow. Players may be particularly aggressive towards you, but passive against another – it’s simply a measure of what’s best for the table conditions. I always hate saying this, but I think it’s very true; elite players start to ignore their own hand strength and instead focus on the range of hands they could hold, and you likely hold.

Because of their ability to read hands well, it doesn’t matter what they have if they believe they can establish fold equity over time if the mean of your hand range is weak. On the flip side, if your range is incredibly strong and you’re unbalanced they can make great folds consistently and choose better spots since you’re easy to read. This is the reason why playing a fundamental, easy-to-read style won’t be useful any longer. It’s profitable at lower levels because many of the players don’t pay enough attention to exploit what you’re doing. If they are observant enough, you can usually move to a more profitable table because there are plenty available at the small-to-mid stakes levels. But when you move up, tables are few and far between and you’ll have to play against the same opponents regularly. The only way to be successful is to exploit their habits, and not become mesmerized with your own strengths.

Looking Long Term

For me, this is something that I dread. While I do long towards the future, it often scares me because of the ever-changing nature of poker. Where will poker be in 3 years? Five years? What about 10? Because poker is a career choice that even the sponsored pros carry uncertainty about, it’s difficult to think and plan long term for what you’d like to do.

This can be a bit easier if you have the funds available to make intelligent decisions about setting yourself up down the line. It’s also a relief if you have something besides poker to fall back on – a high school diploma, college degree, grad school or better yet real-world job experience. Some players have investments, stock portfolios or family businesses which would leave them prosperous even if the game suddenly became unbeatable. But for those of us who don’t have those luxuries, we should be making strides to set ourselves up for the years that follow.

It’s not easy to predict the future, but as we play and immerse ourselves in the poker community we’ll get a better understanding for how the game is moving forward. In the most recent years our game has taken a bit of a hit, both in reputation and financially because of the economy. Just like any other job, what’s going on around the globe will affect us too, so these types of indicators can be extremely helpful in our decision-making. Paying close attention to popular forums, poker news web sites and online games will also help.

Although there’s a big absence of the younger generation, I think professional players should be more involved in charity events such as Ante Up for Africa, fundraisers and also coaching. Coaching is one of the simplest ways both to earn extra stable income to subsidize your poker income and also give back to those who are likely in the same position you were once in. Players who are superlative tend to engage in these activities more than those who aren’t, so don’t be afraid to jump into one of these fields if you’re looking to take your game to the next level.

Being involved in these actions will help you be seen, which can set you up for potential sponsorships, contracts and monetary benefits. Being a sponsored pro requires responsibility, rapport, ingenuity, sincerity, and most importantly longevity. You can have all of the talent in the world, but as we’ve discussed, you need to be a complete player to finally deem yourself as one of the world’s best.

There may come a time where you wonder: Is the game really for me? Has it passed me by? Some players have retired because they understand that losing motivation in turn means losing an edge. An edge that has granted them the luxuries and monetary rewards they have today. Even if you’re an unbelievable player, don’t hesitate to take a step back, look in the mirror and do some soul searching to find out not only if poker is right for you, but what type of human being you wish to become.

I hope that each and every one of you works hard to become an elite player in the game.

In the meantime, I hope to see you all at the tables.

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One Response to “Becoming An Elite Player”

  1. Independent News Poker

    Becoming a poker player is such an unreliable career to enter. I would encourage anybody considering this option to think long and hard about this decision. When people are young, they may see the perceived ‘glitz’ and ‘glammer’ of the big TV events and think it’s a way to make easy money. It is not. Given the current economic climate, poker players, much like everybody else, are seriously suffering at the hands of their career choice. However, they do not have anything to fall back on so it becomes a viscous circle of gambling. Poker is a fun game but should not be a career.


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