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Leveling Up

by Jonathan Little |  Published: Mar 19, 2014


“Leveling up” refers to when you make a breakthrough in your thought process about poker that allows you to take your game to the next level. Poker is awesome because every player has the capability to get better, assuming he is willing to put in the requisite time and energy, studying the game diligently both at and away from the table. In this article, I am going to list a few of the concepts I have learned during different stages of my career that propelled me from being a weak-tight nit who was scared to put money into the pot to a top professional.

When I first started playing poker, I thought I was supposed to look at my cards and put money in the pot when I had a strong hand, as all of the 20 year old books suggested. I was sadly mistaken. You must be able to pay attention and figure out why your opponents are making specific actions. There are many spots where you have to fold top pair because it is clearly beat. There are also times when you have a marginal hand, such as ace-high or bottom pair, and should not fold. The only way you will ever learn to recognize these situations is to stop worrying about exactly your own two cards and start thinking about the numerous other aspects of the game, such as hand ranges, your opponents’ tendencies, and stack sizes. While poker is a very dense game, if you refuse to get the least bit out of your standard poker routine, you are almost guaranteed to be a constant loser.

After a while, I became a small winning player. Eventually, I made it to the top of the online sit-n-go world by playing a robust strategy based purely on game theory, which works decently well as long as you are playing with short stacks. As I ventured into deep-stacked tournaments and cash games, I quickly realized playing a predetermined strategy will leave you broke. One of the biggest realizations I made was that my opponents do not have the same thought processes that I have. I frequently hear mediocre players discuss hands as if their opponents have the exact same strategy as they do. In order to win at poker, you have to figure out what your opponents are doing incorrectly. While they have some of the same flaws as you, they likely make mistakes you could never dream of. You have to pinpoint exactly what they do incorrectly, then adjust your game drastically to take full advantage of their errors.

Once I become a professional, supporting myself financially entirely from my poker winnings, I quickly realized I had to work on my life away from the poker table. In order to succeed at poker in the long term, you must be well rested, clear-minded, and ready to play your best poker whenever you step up to the table. This means not partying too hard, getting adequate sleep, and maintaining a balanced life. If you spend all your time playing poker, you will quickly get burnt out. If you spend all your time spending your winnings, you will find you have no winnings left.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is maintain the hunger for poker. It is easy to stay motivated when you are constantly learning new skills and playing only a few hours per week, but all of that will change when your learning plateaus and you start putting in 60 hours per week at the table. I have found that playing poker “full time” around three weeks per month and taking the other week off works best for me. Other professionals tend to put in 30 hour weeks all of the time with no problem. I have found very few professional poker players who play at a high level and play more than 40 hours per week every week. In order to figure out what works best for you, you must experiment with various routines and see which works best.

In order to continue improving both as a person and as a poker player, you must keep your eyes and ears open, especially when spending time with enlightened people. I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas to better my poker and my life. If you never think outside of the box and only learn what is spoon fed to you, you will constantly be behind the curve. In order to be an innovator, you must work hard to see things other people do not see. Once you learn to truly observe the world around you, you will be better able to figure out ways to improve, allowing you to continue to learn and progress. ♠

Jonathan Little, 2-time World Poker Tour champion has won more than $6 million in tournaments since 2006. He is sponsored by, Instapoker and BlueSharkOptics and teaches poker at and Follow him on Twitter @ JonathanLittle.