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Winners Prepare Thoroughly: Part VI

It's hard work, but it pays off

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Apr 09, 2008


Previous columns in this series stated that winning poker players and generals win battles by preparing thoroughly. Their commitment to preparation never ends. After one battle is over, they prepare for future ones.

I asked Barry Tanenbaum, a very successful pro and Card Player columnist, "What do you do after playing?" He reviews his session to:

• Prepare to play against the same opponents

• Develop his own skills (which he considers more important)

This column discusses how to perform both tasks.

Preparing to Play Against the Same Opponents

If you won't play much against someone, focus on other people. In home games, you normally play against the same small group. Some cardrooms have many regulars, but hardly any tourists. In Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and other tourist towns, your opponents are constantly changing. Learn whom you can expect to encounter again by asking, "Where do you live?" or, "How long will you be in town?"

Since your time is limited, focus primarily on important opponents, ones who play particularly well, poorly, or unpredictably. Pay less attention to average players, since they don't require large adjustments. Review every important opponent's action to learn:

• How well he plays

• Which style he plays

• Any tells or telegraphs

• Anything that changes his play

• Any surprises

How well he plays: Assess his skill level and decide whether he is so weak that you should try to get into his game or so strong and/or tricky that you should avoid him. If you can't completely avoid a dangerous player, plan to sit to his left or far away from him to reduce the danger.

Which style he plays: Learn how loose, tight, passive, aggressive, tricky, or straightforward he is, plus any specific tendencies such as raising for free cards or "floating" on the flop. Then you can make better decisions about where to sit and how to adjust. My book, The Psychology of Poker, provides detailed guidelines for where to sit and how to adjust to each major style, but you also should prepare to react to each opponent's specific tendencies.

Any tells or telegraphs: Make a mental or written note about every signal he sends and what it usually means. Mike Caro's The Book of Tells and Joe Navarro's Read 'em and Reap provide excellent guidelines for the meaning of various signals, but the meaning of an opponent's specific signals is much more valuable.

Let's take an easily seen example:
Checking and deliberately picking up chips almost always means that an opponent hopes to prevent you from betting. However, players vary about how they follow through on that "threat." Joan will usually make a crying call, but Harry will usually fold. Value-bet against Joan, but bluff Harry.

Anything that changes his play: Almost everyone's play changes under certain conditions, but the conditions and reactions are individualistic. For example, many players loosen up when they are losing heavily, but others have the opposite reaction. If you detect such a change, make a note. The next time you play, keep track of how much he is winning or losing (or whatever conditions change his game), and then adjust your play.

Any surprises: Barry mentally replays every hand that contains a surprise. For example, if he sees a player he thought was fairly conservative three-bet the river with an 8-high flush, he reviews the action and asks, "Why did he do it?"

Either he saw something that indicated his apparently risky three-bet was safe, or he is not as conservative as Barry had thought. By analyzing the hand, Barry may learn something about either the three-bettor or the other player.

Barry also takes special note that a player has developed new moves, such as a check-raise bluff on the turn. If he has not seen that move previously, he adds it to his database about that player.

Developing Your Skills

The more frequently and thoroughly you review your play and prepare to improve it, the more rapidly your skills will improve. In fact, if you don't take those steps, you probably won't improve much. Look for specific weaknesses, such as not bluffing enough or chasing too often.

An earlier series, "Planning Your Personal Development," focused on long-term issues (, Nov. 29, 2005-April 18, 2006). Now I'm concerned with short-term development of specific skills. You will make more rapid progress if you:

• Set narrowly defined missions

• Gather the right data

• Discuss your data and conclusions

Set narrowly defined missions: In 12 Days to Hold'em Success, Mike Caro recommended this step: A "mission" is one change you want to make, such as bluffing more often. Don't work on anything else. If you try to develop several skills simultaneously, you probably will not make any significant changes. Obviously, the missions you set depend on your specific strengths, weaknesses, and developmental goals. For example, if you don't bluff often enough, you could set a mission to bluff in specific situations (such as being the big blind in an unraised pot, and the flop contains a medium pair and a rag).

To make a fundamental change in your play, you may have to spend several days on a mission, and you may take a short-term loss while accomplishing it. Regard it as "tuition."

Gather the right data: Make notes about your mission. Because hand histories are readily available, and you can use hand-tracking software to show you the patterns, many missions can be executed and analyzed more accurately online. Record as completely as possible:

• What you did (how you played the hand)

• Why you did it (your motives, thoughts, and feelings)

• How others reacted and your conclusions about their reasons

• The ultimate result

• The lessons you learned

Discuss your data and conclusions:
You can discuss hands, missions, and almost anything else on Internet forums (such as at, in poker discussion groups, or with coaches or poker buddies. Since we all are biased about ourselves, you need these discussions to increase your objectivity and education. You may dislike what other people tell you, but you need to hear it.

Final Remarks

You may think that six columns on preparation is overkill, but preparing thoroughly is the easiest way to improve your results. Some players don't study or prepare in other ways, and they may even brag about it in the immature way that high-school students brag about never cracking a book. A few of them do very well because – as David Sklansky put it – "They are freaks like champion athletes." They just know how to read and manipulate opponents.

Unfortunately, you probably aren't a freakishly gifted player. But, thorough preparation can compensate for your limitations and dramatically increase your profits. It's hard, often tiresome work, but it pays off.

To learn more about yourself and other players, you can buy Dr. Schoonmaker's books, Your Worst Poker Enemy and Your Best Poker Friend, at