Playing Winning Poker: Part 2

Last issue we talked about the importance of creating a foundation or structure to support your poker knowledge. We also discussed the importance of organizing knowledge. Without organizing knowledge into some coherent whole – where each building block can support ideas and concepts that come after it – that information is difficult to find and use when needed.

But is knowledge alone sufficient to make you – or anyone, for that matter – a winning poker player? Some people think so, but I don’t. While you certainly need a strong knowledge base to play winning poker, I don’t believe that knowledge alone is enough to do much more than make you a little dangerous – and that usually spells trouble.

Are Winning Strategies Enough?
Strategy, by itself, is not enough. All the strategic knowledge in the world will not guarantee success to any poker player. Personal characteristics are equally important. Success demands a certain quality of character in addition to strategic know-how. Players lacking self discipline, for example, will have a hard time ever winning consistently regardless of how strategically sophisticated they might be. If one doesn’t have the discipline to throw away poor starting hands all the knowledge in the world won’t overcome this flaw.

Knowledge without discipline is wasted, and talent without knowledge is merely unrealized potential. They are just seeds, not a harvest. But almost anyone who chooses to work at it can become a good poker player, even if he lacks innate card sense.

There are some poker players, and it’s no more than a handful, who really do have a genius for the game – an inexplicable, Picasso like talent that isn’t easily defined and usually has to be seen to be believed. But even in the absence of genius – and the vast majority of winning players are certainly not poker savants – poker is an eminently learnable skill. Inherent ability helps, and while you need some talent, you really don’t need all that much. After all, you don’t have to be Van Cliburn to play the piano, Picasso to paint, or Michael Jordan to play basketball.

This world is full of professional musicians who will never be Cliburn, scads of artists who are not Picasso, and millions of kids playing basketball who won’t ever be like Mike. But many of those same journeyman musicians earn a nice living, and the same holds true for commercial artists. And while those kids playing basketball are not yet out there earning a buck, some will. Others might coach, or perhaps they’ll just reminisce about the good old days when they could take it to the hoop with the best of them. And poker, like any latent talent, can be learned, enhanced, developed, and polished to a high, glossy sheen.

In fact, if you can learn to play poker at a level akin to that of a journeyman musician, a work-a-day commercial artist, or even that kid playing high school basketball, you’ve got it made. Do that and you are good enough to win consistently. You don’t have to be Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, or Tom McEvoy to earn money playing poker. The skills of a good journeyman poker player will allow you to supplement your income, or – better yet – earn your entire livelihood at the game.

Of course you’d prefer to be the best of the best. Who wouldn’t? But you don’t have to reach that exalted plateau to make money at the table. If I were a golfer I’d want to be Jack Nicklaus in his prime, and I’m not alone either. So would every player on the PGA tour. But remember, that teaching pro at the local country club also earns his living playing golf. Although he’s certainly not making as much, he is doing what he loves and getting paid for it – which certainly beats punching a clock.

Poker and the Information Explosion
The information explosion is everywhere. You can hardly pick up a magazine without reading about it. Whether the slant is toward business, computers, sports, fashion, photography, or current events, no publication seems complete without at least one article dealing with the information explosion. Every field, every discipline, has been touched by an avalanche of knowledge. Gathering knowledge is no longer difficult. Anyone can do it. What’s tough is sorting and sifting to find those pieces that fit your specific requirements. Poker is no different. More has been written about poker since 1980 than had previously been written in the entire history of the game, and the explosion of interest in online poker as well as an incredibly high viewership for TV programs like The World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel and the World Series of Poker on ESPN have also spread the word that poker is here to stay, and in the process these TV shows have helped educate an entirely new audience about America’s favorite game.

Some of this information is good, some mediocre, and some may be well intentioned, but off-the-mark. Once you’ve made a commitment to reach for the stars, you have to decide where to begin. If you aspire to poker excellence, the first – and probably the most important step – is to develop a perspective that helps you put each piece of information, each drop of data, each factlet, into a hierarchical structure. After all, some things are just a lot more important than others, and you might as well concentrate your efforts where they’ll do the most good.

Why Some Things Are Important in Poker and Others Aren’t
Suppose I could teach you a terrific tactical ploy that would require some real study and practice to perfect – but once learned, could be used to earn an extra bet from an opponent. Suppose I also promised you that this ploy was absolutely foolproof; it would work perfectly every time you used it. Have I piqued your interest?

But what if I also told you that this tactic works only in very special circumstances, and that those particular circumstances occur about once a year. Do you still want to invest the time required to learn it? Probably not. While your ability to execute this particularly slick maneuver might brand you as a tough player in the eyes of your opponents, the fact that you might use it only once a year renders it meaningless. In the course of a year’s worth of playing, one extra bet doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It doesn’t even amount to a can of beans.

Lots of poker theorists, however, love stuff like this. Because complex ideas can be very interesting, some poker writers devote a substantial amount of ink to writing about esoteric – but essentially inconsequential concepts. Should you ever bother learning them? Of course, but only after learning an entire raft of information that’s much more important.

That’s true about most fields, not just poker. There are other fields where this phenomenon is even more pronounced. Pick up any computer or photography magazine if you have any doubts. You’ll find article after article about really arcane technological features that won’t make the average reader any more computer literate or a better photographer. But these articles do appeal to hard core hardware junkies, and they help sell products.

We can count our lucky stars that poker is not yet a technology-driven field. It’s still played with human dealers, plastic cards, clay chips – and that’s it. Just think of all the information you’d have to sort through if Card Player contained articles about automated dealers, chips infused with artificial intelligence that advised you how to play a hand. The possibilities for worthless articles appealing only to poker techies and gadget wonks would be nearly infinite.

The next article in this series examines the kinds of decisions that are important because they come up frequently, as well as those that are important because they can be very costly when they do occur – even if they don’t come up all the time.