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Taking Notes - Part I

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Mar 22, 2005


In many professions, nearly everyone takes careful notes. Lawyers are famous for their yellow pads. Doctors know that they can't do their jobs without detailed records, and that not having them guarantees losing any malpractice suit. Cops who don't keep extremely detailed records of all the evidence will get destroyed by defense lawyers. Accountants, engineers, computer scientists, and countless other professionals would not think of working without careful notes. Why, then, do so few poker players take them?

There are several reasons, and the first two are based on denial of reality:

• They want to delude themselves about their results.

• They think, "Real players don't need notes."

• They are embarrassed or have misconceptions about note taking.

• They are just lazy.

Deluding Themselves About Their Results

Many people want to believe that they win more or lose less than they actually do. Barry Shulman commented on this foolishness and its implications: " … if you could divide all of the poker players … into … those who keep accurate records … and those who do not – you would find … the record-keeping group would be comprised mainly of winners, and the nonrecord-keeping group would be comprised mainly of losers … it [record-keeping] forces you to acknowledge the truth about your results." ("Shulman Says," Card Player, Nov. 24, 2000)

Realistic, thorough players go far beyond just keeping track of their overall results. They record how well they do at stud, hold'em, and Omaha, and at different stakes and different casinos, and under different conditions (such as shorthanded versus full table, afternoon versus late night, and tight-passive versus loose-aggressive games).

Your accounts might show that you do poorly in ramming, jamming games. If you love them and didn't keep records, you could remember the few times you won big, but "forget" the more frequent losses. You may dislike tight-passive games, but do well in them. You may learn that you win at $5-$10, but lose at $10-$20. The most important decision you make is your choice of games, and without detailed records, you can't make it sensibly.

"Real Players Don't Need Notes"

This belief is just another form of denial. If doctors, lawyers, and so on need notes, how can anyone believe that poker players don't need them? Are we smarter or better trained? Is our information so simple that we can mentally record and instantly retrieve it?

We obviously are not smarter and better trained, and our information is extremely complicated. Doctors and lawyers generally deal with one or two people at a time, while we have to cope with seven or more, and they keep changing. Unless you have an extraordinary memory, you can't remember how every opponent plays. In addition, opponents' play changes when they get tired, are winning or losing, have had too much to drink, and so on. Pretending you can remember all that information is just a fantasy.

In fact, you probably can't even remember exactly how various key hands were played. I can't, and neither can my friends, including some successful pros. In our Wednesday Poker Discussion Group, we often describe hands and ask for advice. We have been embarrassed when we couldn't answer questions about the size of the pot, the positions and styles of the players, the exact sequence of bets, and so on. We thought we remembered the hand, but had forgotten critically important information.

After being embarrassed a few times, most of us learned to take very detailed notes about any hand we want to discuss. And, because we take those notes, we get valuable feedback to improve our game.

Taking Notes Online

Most websites make it extremely easy to take notes, and you would be foolish not to do so. However, because so many people play online, these notes are not that valuable. You may never play again with many of your opponents, while in brick-and-mortar cardrooms, you often play with the same people again and again.

I expected people who had developed the habit of taking notes online to transfer it to live games, but it hasn't happened. I still rarely see anyone taking notes openly.

Embarrassment and Misconceptions

Some people may be embarrassed or think that taking notes in a live game violates some rules. A few of them even leave the table to write their notes so that no one can see them.

That's a costly overreaction. First, it takes you away from the table, and you can't win any money in the restroom. Second, the longer you wait to write your notes, the less you will remember. Because I want to keep playing, while gathering the most complete information, I immediately write notes on 3-by-5 cards, and I carry hundreds of them in a fanny pack. When I join a game, I review my notes on every player.

Countless people have asked what I'm writing and why I do it. I usually say, "I'm a psychologist, and I write notes about people." I've even had a few complaints. One player emphatically insisted that I should be forced to stop. The floorperson told him that there is no rule against it.

The Downside

Although I have never been told I can't do it, taking notes does have some negative effects. One friend told me, "It makes you look like a nerd." So what? I've always been a nerd, and I'm quite comfortable with that image.

Besides, doing many smart things at a poker table can make some people look down at you. If you play tightly, some people will think you lack courage, that you aren't a "real gambler." If you're deceptive, some people will see you as "sneaky." If you're aggressive, a few people will resent it. If you worry too much about what people think of you, you don't understand what poker is all about. "It's not about winning respect. It's about winning chips." (Roy Cooke, "Perception, Deception, Respect, and Results," Card Player, Jan. 23, 1998)

That same friend also mentioned three effects that are much more important because they could cost me some chips:

• Some people may become uncomfortable, which can make the game too serious. Instead of relaxing and having a good time, they may concentrate on playing better.

• A few people may actually leave to go to a more relaxed table.

• A few people may focus their attention on me and try harder to beat me.

He's right about making the game too serious, but hardly anyone has left the table because of my note taking. I don't worry about having people focus on me or try to beat me. Anything they gain by focusing on me will probably be offset by their irrational desire to take my chips. Anyone who sees my chips as especially valuable is probably going to act foolishly.

Besides, even if a few people play better against me, I gain much more than I lose. Virtually everything we do has a price. The question is always whether that price is too high. Poker is an information-management game, and I gain much more by taking notes than I lose from these minor negative effects.

Let's put it in terms of your bottom line. If you are as skilled as your opponent, but know more about him than he knows about you, you're going to beat him (and vice versa). So, get and retain all the information you can.

Final Remarks

Since I spent many years in a profession that demands detailed notes and places an extremely high value on information, I take more notes than anyone I know. If the negative effects are important to you, perhaps you should take fewer notes or take them less openly than I do.

However, you should recognize that the more quickly and openly you take notes, the better they will be. Memories are extremely fallible and selective. The longer you wait, the less complete and objective the information will be. Your inhibitions will hurt your bottom line.

If you don't take any notes, you will miss out on many opportunities to improve your results and develop your game. My next columns will discuss what you should look for, how you should write notes, and what you should do with them. spades