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Which Help Should You Get?

Part II: Assessing your needs

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


Many players want to improve their poker games, but don’t know what they really need. So, they just buy a book, take a course, or hire a coach. They may get an excellent book, course, or coach, but still waste their money and time because it isn’t what they really need.

Two of my previous columns, “Planning Your Personal Development, Part IV and Part V” (see, Jan. 24, 2006, and Feb. 21, 2006), described a way to assess your needs. It showed you how to compare yourself to your current and future opponents. Now, I’ll build on that foundation.

It won’t be easy or pleasant, but self-improvement is hard and often painful work. You’ll just have to tolerate that pain. If you’re like most people, you can handle physical discomfort better than its psychological counterpart. For example, if you diet and exercise, you naturally accept hunger and aching muscles. You may even say, “No pain, no gain.”

Trying to avoid the pain of critically examining and changing yourself can cause several mistakes:

1. Inaccurately assessing your strengths and weaknesses
2. Overestimating your ability to improve
3. Working on the wrong issues

Inaccurately Assessing Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Very few players clearly understand their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, many losers think they play well. They either don’t know how much they lose or don’t understand why.

Even if you’re a winning player, you may not know why you don’t win as much as you’d like. For example, you may make one or both of these mistakes: playing too many hands and chasing too much.

Because you make the decision to play or fold on every round of every pot, it has more impact on your results than any other decision, perhaps more impact than all of the other decisions combined.

If you play too loosely, your biggest need is quite simple: You have to tighten up. You’ve probably known it for years, but still haven’t done it. You’d rather read a book or take a class than ask yourself, “Why do I keep playing cards that I know I should fold?”

Because the forces preventing you from accurately assessing yourself are extremely powerful, you should take several steps.

Monitor Your Play: You probably study your opponents more carefully than yourself, but it’s much more important to examine your own play. If you do, you’ll probably agree with Stu Ungar, three-time World Series of Poker champion. He once said, “At the table, your worst enemy is yourself.”

Monitoring your play will reduce — but not eliminate — some of your self-destructive tendencies. Constantly ask yourself:

• “How well am I playing?”
• “Which mistakes have I made?”
• “Which good plays have I made?”
• “Why am I playing well or poorly?”

If you don’t ask and answer these questions, you’ll repeat the same old mistakes.
Conversely, if you conscientiously monitor your play, you’ll certainly improve your immediate results and acquire information for future improvements.

Take Notes: Hardly any players take notes while playing, and they may sneer at note-takers. They foolishly believe that note-taking is a sign of weakness, but note-takers are simply accepting and coping with an obvious reality: Memory is selective. We tend to remember and forget whatever makes us feel good.

Bad beats are the most obvious example. We remember the ones that cost us money, but forget the times that we played a hand badly but won a large pot. Our selective memory reinforces our belief that we play well but are unlucky.

If you take good notes and review them carefully, you’ll see patterns that reveal your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you record the amounts that you win and lose by playing weak cards and chasing, you’ll be shocked at how much those mistakes cost you.

Discuss Your Play With Other People: A coach, poker buddy, discussion group, or online forum can help you to see those patterns and understand what they mean. You need other people’s feedback to overcome your natural desire to kid yourself. Of course, you can’t get good feedback unless you give other people accurate information. That’s another reason to take notes.

To get the most benefit from these discussions, take two steps. First, clearly communicate that you welcome criticism. Otherwise, people’s fear of offending you may prevent them from providing critical but helpful information.

Second, keep your mind open, especially when people say things that you don’t want to hear. If you get defensive, you won’t learn the lessons that they’re trying to teach you.

If you take these two steps, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you’ll learn. Discussion groups and poker buddies have told me about many mistakes and weaknesses (and even a few strengths) of mine that I never would have recognized without their help.

Overestimating Your Ability to Improve

Most people — not just poker players — overestimate their capacity for improvement. This natural tendency is reinforced by the repetition of nonsense such as, “You can be anything you want to be.”

No, no, no you can’t! Your genes and personal history put extreme limits on your capacity to change. For example, you can’t significantly increase your intelligence; hundreds of well-controlled studies have proven that nothing you can do will make you significantly smarter. Nor can you greatly change your motivation or most other personal traits. They are like the cards in poker; you have to play the ones you’re dealt.

So, learn how to play those cards well. Work on the factors that you can improve: your knowledge, skills, and discipline.

Working on the Wrong Issues

Even if they accept the limitations that I just mentioned, many people still work on the wrong issues.

Issues That Don’t Fit Your Level: Many people study techniques that are much too advanced for them. Either they haven’t mastered more basic techniques or the advanced techniques don’t fit their level of play. For example, if you’re playing low-level, no-fold’em hold’em, many advanced plays will just cost you money. You’ll gain much more by thoroughly understanding and developing the discipline to play ABC poker.
Issues That Make You Comfortable: Many people don’t realize that they will gain more by working on their weaknesses than on their strengths. They work on their strengths because — at least partly — they enjoy the process.

For example, math nerds who can’t read other players study advanced math, while naturally sensitive people read books or take seminars on reading tells. They may rationalize that they need to get even better, but their primary reason is that it’s more comfortable to work on these subjects.

Of course, working on your strengths will help your bottom line, but you’ll gain much more from an equal investment of time and money in eliminating your weaknesses. You can make much greater progress in eliminating your weaknesses than in improving your strengths, and the more your play improves, the better your results will be.

Future columns will suggest specific techniques for eliminating your weaknesses. ♠

Dr. Al ( answers your questions at his blog at He is David Sklansky’s co-author for DUCY? and the sole author of The Psychology of Poker, Your Worst Poker Enemy, Your Best Poker Friend, and Poker Winners Are Different._