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Working With Your Support Network

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Apr 30, 2014


Alan SchoonmakerMy previous two columns said that serious players need a support network and recommended ways to build one. After building it, these tips will increase its value.

Give First; Ask Second

Poker is a predatory game: We want to take each other’s money, and the strong eat the weak. So players naturally suspect that their advice will be used against them. Reduce their suspicions by giving help before requesting it.
The more you give, the more you’ll get. First, other people will become more willing to help you. Second, helping them indirectly helps you. Analyzing their play teaches you about your own play. Helping them to cope with their emotions, teaches you how to cope with yours.

Meet Frequently.

The more often you meet, the more you’ll gain. My poker buddies and I have had thousands of meetings. Sometimes we have an agenda; sometimes we just have coffee or lunch. But even when we’re just relaxing, we discuss poker seriously.

Our Wednesday poker discussion group has had over 600 meetings, and closely related groups have had over 300. These groups also have home games, parties, an online league, and tournaments. Frequent meetings develop the trust and understanding we need to help each other.

Ask the Right People.

Earlier columns said that you need two types of support, intellectual and emotional. Intellectual support improves your knowledge and skills. Emotional support helps you to handle poker’s frustrations.

As I said in Serious Players Need a Support Network, “Intellectual supporters should play better than you and be impersonal, judgmental, and critical. They should tell you how to play better, even if it hurts your feelings.

“Conversely, emotional supporters should protect your feelings. Their task is not to improve your skills; it’s to help you to avoid tilt. When you need to complain about your luck, other players, dealers, and so on, they should listen sympathetically and withhold judgment.

“Very few people can do both well.”

Make sure you understand which kind of help you need, then contact the right kind of person. If you’re depressed from a losing streak, a critical expert can make you feel worse. If you want help with a specific hand, don’t go to someone who will listen sympathetically and say, “You played it well.”

Don’t kid yourself about what you’re doing. Think carefully about what you hope to accomplish and how to accomplish it. I’ve heard countless rants from players who insisted that they weren’t ranting. They just wanted to understand why people are so stupid.
Accept the fact that you, I, and everybody else sometimes need to lean on others, and it’s OK to do it.

Ask The Contrarians.

It’s natural to talk to people who agree with you. You’ll enjoy hearing them say, “You played it perfectly.” It’s good for your ego, but bad for your poker.

Instead, ask the contrarians, the ones who see things differently from you. If you emphasize math, request the opinions of psychologically-oriented players. If you’re conservative, consult aggressive players. If you work only with people like yourself, you won’t overcome your weaknesses.

Let me digress briefly. Countless chief executives, including U.S. presidents, surround themselves with “Yes Men.” Anyone who disagrees is rejected as disloyal. So the boss hears what he wants to hear, and everyone is surprised when they get blindsided. Don’t follow in their footsteps. You and everybody else need advisors who say, “You’re wrong!”
Continuously Expand Your Network.

Sometimes, nobody in your network has the expertise you need. So constantly look around for people who might be helpful. Even if you don’t need their skills now, you may need them later. So build relationships before you need them.

Ask The Right Kinds of Questions.

There are two types of questions, open-ended and closed-ended. Closed-ended questions can usually be answered in one or a few words, “Yes,” “No,” “I had aces.” Open-ended questions encourage a longer, wider-ranging response.

Ask closed-ended questions when you want specific information: “What was your stack size?” “Who else was in the pot?” “What was your position?”

Ask open-ended questions when you want opinions and advice: “How should I have played the hand?” “What kind of player is he?” “What did I do wrong?”

Ask mostly open-ended questions. Their longer, broader answers provide richer information than you can get by requesting specific information.

Ask For Explanations.

After getting opinions or advice, ask people to explain their answers. Let’s take the classic poker question, “How would you play this hand?” After you hear the answer, ask, “Why?” You may have to ask several “Why?” questions to understand the other person’s thinking.

Encourage Debate.

For complicated questions, get three or four people together and ask them to discuss a question such as how to play a hand or adjust to a certain kind of player. Get them started, and then shut up and listen. Many poker players love to argue. Ask follow-up questions to learn the logic of their positions. Why would they play it differently?
Ask For Evidence.

Don’t take anything on faith. When someone takes a position, don’t just ask, “Why?” Ask them to provide evidence. Do it respectfully: Communicate that you want to learn, not challenge them or put them down.

Whenever possible, use tools like Card Player Analyst or Poker Stove to resolve disagreements.

If you ask for evidence in a non-threatening way, some people — the open-minded ones who can really help you — will examine why they have taken certain positions. Sometimes, they will realize that they don’t have good evidence. They just made assumptions or careless inferences. They may then change their minds, which benefits everyone.

Encourage Them to Be Critical.

You need their criticisms, but many people don’t want to voice them, especially if they think criticisms will hurt your feelings. Four simple rules will make them more willing to be constructively critical.

Don’t defend yourself: Don’t explain why you did something or say, “Yes, but.” They may feel that you’re defensive and either stop commenting or start arguing. You’ll learn much more if you just listen.

Listen actively and visibly: Don’t just sit there passively. Take notes; ask questions; point out similarities and differences between people’s comments. Active, visible listening will encourage people to give you more information and help you to understand and retain the information you receive.

Help them to help you: They can’t read your mind. Tell them what you hope to learn and keep the focus on the problem that’s bothering you. Many discussions wander so far from the subject that nobody learns much. Ask for specific recommendations. Exactly what should you do differently? Why?

Say “Thanks:” Let them know, by your words and your body language, that you appreciate their help and honesty. If they believe that you sincerely want and are grateful for their help, they will become more willing to provide it. ♠

Dr. Al ( coaches only on psychology issues, such as controlling impulses and emotions, coping with losing streaks, and developing yourself. He has published five poker books, five books on other subjects, and is David Sklansky’s co-author for DUCY?