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5 Poker Strategy Lessons from the Winningest NoseBleed Players

by Reid Young |  Published: Sep 04, 2013

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Reid YoungThe best players usually have some amazing story about how they got to where they are today, but is there a pattern in those stories? If we discover a theme, even quantify it, then we can use those stories to improve our own game play and results. Let’s check out five quotations from the game’s best and see what we can learn.

“Throughout my career I have had multiple instances of my dreams being crushed into nothing, completely shattering my morale.” — Dan “Jungleman” Cates

Dan Cates is one of the most successful heads up no-limit players in the history of the game. Recounting his rise to the highest stakes games, he cites his resilience to swings as a key to his success. Not to say playing professionally should be about taking Rounders-esque shots at games with your entire bankroll, but there is something to be said for, shall we say, aggressive bankroll management. Being able to take some big hits and come back swinging is a common theme among the best. You rarely hear one of the very best say “oh yeah, I played starting at $50 buy-in games and three years later I was beating $100,000 buy-in games.” Why is that? Hmmm…

Check out any solid poker literature, like Chen and Ankenman’s Mathematics of Poker, and you can see that the math that defines correct game selection and bankroll management. Numbers don’t lie and the math proves that the best way to move up the limits in poker is to be extremely aggressive with your money. That’s aggressive, not foolish. Think about this: If you win a buy in with a ten buy-in bankroll, the relative value of that win is much higher than if you win a buy with a 100 buy-in bankroll. Cates’s story isn’t rare at the highest stakes, but the norm. Resiliency is an important characteristic if you want to be one of the greats and exercise correct bankroll management.

“My self-worth as a poker player is not dictated by how much money I win or lose because that is often out of my control.” — Ben Tollerene

This quotation from Ben Tollerene says that life isn’t just about winning money. Heck, life isn’t even all poker. It is funny though. Once you truly follow your passion and stop worrying so much about the results, then it’s fairly often that the results come to you. If you listen to any successful person from any area of life, be it big business or poker, money is rarely the motivator. Poker is a nearly infinite puzzle, and if you have the curiosity and passion to work on solving it, then you just might get close to achieving your poker goal. Of course a little luck helps, and that’s why this quotation resonates so well. If you define yourself by what you can’t control, then you’re inviting troubling times during those invariable downswings. The game is often defined by variance, but that variance doesn’t have to define you.

“No matter how you good you are, you’re always going to make mistakes.” — Gus Hansen
In any poker game, the best players constantly make mistakes. Reads are usually a little off, hand versus hand matchups frequently cause different results than range against range matchups, and even the best players are prone to tilt a little. So what does Gus mean? All poker players are human beings. Like the rest of us, the best are prone to making mistakes at the table. The trick is that they minimize the negatives and capitalize on the positives, so the mistakes are few.

You can be sure that when the best players make a mistake, that they realize what went wrong and they learn from it. Sometimes a short-term mistake is unavoidable, or just the name we give to bad luck. For example, if I move in with pocket kings and my opponent calls with pocket aces, did I make a mistake? In one way, yes. But in another light, it’s extremely unlikely that the play is incorrect as long as my opponent calls with other hands, too. If we all make mistakes, then learn from them when possible and use them on your way up.

“The results you achieve will be in direct proportion to the effort you apply.” — Doyle Brunson

It makes perfect sense. If you keep plugging away, learning and playing, eventually the short-term variance of the game disappears. If you understand all possible spots and know how to play your hand with different stack sizes in the best way against different combinations of hands for possible turn and river cards, then eventually, you reach the top. Most poker players are a bit entitled and prideful, but those who take a bit of time to stop, look around, realize that work gets results, and then actually do the work, reach the top. I don’t know about you, but the hardest working poker players I know are also very good at poker.

“There’s no poker player alive that plays as good when he’s losing as he does when he’s winning.” — Phil Ivey

We have all been on tilt to some degree. Admitting it is the first step! Quitting sessions when you should is a fantastic way to minimize losses, and if you have ever seen Ivey play, you know that he’s very good at setting a maximum amount he will lose and coming back to fight another day. Since you can often leave a game and come back to it tomorrow, there’s no need to chase that loss or stick around for the emotional aftermath of that bad beat. The game will be waiting for you. There’s a fine line between resilience and chasing losses. Being a professional is about knowing your emotional state and knowing where that line is.

By distilling quotations from the best, it’s plain to see that what seems sensational on the surface is actually extremely systematic. Whether it is accidental or born from frustration and drive to be the best, all of the greatest players share an archetype. To be the best is no accident. It isn’t lucky. Luck runs out in the long run. The themes among the best mean that we can learn from what successful players have to say, quantify it, and replicate it on our way to the top. See you there! ♠