You must learn how to improve in poker

April 25, 2013  

Players of all levels constantly asked me how they can improve their game. Quite often a player will be stuck in a rut and decide to read a book, watch a training video or get private coaching. While these things almost always show immediate positive results, assuming the player is studying, the player will often fall back in the rut. This is because the player doesn’t actually know how to learn to improve his game without being told what’s wrong. The ability to organically learn from experience and discussions is one of the major traits that separate the world-class players from the simply good players.

Perhaps the easiest way to learn, at least for me, is to observe world-class players. I’m lucky in that I play high-level tournaments on a regular basis. Whenever I have the opportunity to play with someone I think is amazing, I make a point to pay attention to every hand they’re involved in and I’m constantly trying to put them on a range. If I see the player do something I rarely do, I try to figure out why they made that specific play and how I can implement it into my game, assuming the play makes sense. If a play doesn’t make sense to me, I discuss the hand with friends, run some math away from the table, and try to figure out what I am missing, if anything. Sometimes, the good player will simply make a mistake.

It’s important to note that just because a play works for one player doesn’t mean it will work for you. Even if you don’t play high stakes, you can still observe the big winners in your game and figure out what makes them successful. It’s mandatory you don’t develop some sort of a system and stick with it, especially when you consistently get poor results. If your plays aren’t showing a high amount of profit, you’re probably doing something wrong.

If you keep diligent notes like I suggest you do, you’ll hopefully be able to figure out specific situations where you’re losing money. In the past, I had a hard time dealing with four-bets (probably because my three-betting range was too wide) and leads on the flop (probably because I was raising preflop with too many hands). There are only two reasonable options to remedy these problems. I could bluff more, which I don’t want to do in tournaments because the chips I stand to lose are worth more than the chips I stand to gain, or I could show up with a stronger range. While it is never fun to tighten up, this was the simple solution that has proved to be profitable. If you play online, you have it really easy, as the various poker-tracking tools will be able to quickly pinpoint where you’re making mistakes. As a general starting point, most players play too many hands from out of position and turn their strong top-pair hands into bluffs by betting when you can only get called by better hands, especially on the river when the pot is large. If you can think analytically about your game, you’ll find your leaks are generally not too difficult to plug. Be aware that poker is a game of balance. Sometimes when you plug one leak, a new one will appear.

You should also develop a group of friends with whom you can discuss various concepts. If I didn’t discover my initial group of poker friends, I’m confident I wouldn’t be the player I am today. When I was grinding the high stakes sit-n-go tournaments online around nine years ago, we were constantly discussing countless poker questions through AIM. Even if you don’t play online, you should make a point to make friends with the biggest winners in your game. Try to take them out to lunch or discuss hands after your session ends. You’ll find the best players are almost always willing to help you, assuming you approach them in a reasonable manner and don’t come off as needy. Once you find a close group of poker friends, your understanding of the game will quickly progress, allowing you to move up to larger buy-in games.

— Jonathan Little, a representative for Blue Shark Optics, is the author of Professional Tournament Poker Vols. 1 & 2, owns the poker training site FloatTheTurn.com and 3bet Clothing, plus check out his iPhone app, Instapoker.