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The Poker Player’s Manifesto — Know Yourself

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: May 13, 2015


Bryan DevonshireWay back in part sixteen of this series, I started down a road inspired by a Sun Tzu quote from The Art of War. Three thousand words later, I have made it through knowing your enemy. We discussed general reconnaissance, learning your opponents’ styles and hand ranges, always seeking new information and cataloguing it away for future use. Then we discussed conditional probability, the concept that wrestles with human behavior and decision making-skewing mathematical probabilities. An opening raise on the bubble of the World Series of Poker main event means something different than the first hand of the tournament. Then we talked about tells and using body language to directly apply conditional probability to opponents’ individual hand ranges. Let’s talk about ourselves now.

“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

You’re not as good at poker as you think you are. You probably know that already, since you’re reading this article. Well done. It is absolutely essential as a poker player to examine things objectively. If you can analyze yourself with objective clarity, then you will be good at poker… after a lot of hard work. If you have any excuse for why you lose, then you’re doing it wrong. Here are some common errors poker players make in self-awareness:

I’m good at poker. Had a guy brazenly state that he knew he had won the most money playing poker at the table, as evidenced by his $300,000 in career earnings. I smiled and said that’s pretty good. A long time ago when I was new to the game, I made a lot of noise about how good I was. Going back to read what I wrote back then, I laugh at how bad I was at poker. Granted, most of my opposition was worse, but I still had a lot of work to do on my game. A decade later in the hangover of the poker boom, I know I still have work to do. I am confident in my poker game, but only because I am confident in my logic and process, not because of my results. Part of that process is constantly striving to improve. I know that I don’t want you to think that I am good at poker, because the less you know about me, the better for me at the poker table.

I lose because I am unlucky. No you don’t. Not if you’ve been losing long enough. Granted, variance is a savage beast. I personally have lost for 15 months straight once, but at no point in that journey did I blame it on bad luck. Being aware of variance and how it affects things, I weathered the storm, and now I’m winning again, more than I should. I don’t take credit for that either. I simply play as good as I can every single time it is my turn. Maybe I lost this hand because of variance, but maybe I could have done something better along the way.

I lose because I have a bad poker face. Another excuse. If you read my last article on tells, you may have noticed that I never mentioned the eyes. This is because the eyes are unreliable, and the eyes are all people think about when they think about tells. People know how to manipulate their eyes. People wear sunglasses. Sunglasses are dumb. They don’t conceal any tells, and they make you look dumb for wearing them inside. If you really do have glaring tells from your eyes, which you probably don’t, then at least only wear the shades while you are in a hand. Keep them off the rest of the time. It’s nice to see somebody’s eyes when you talk to them, and since this is a poker game, you should be talking. What you should be wearing is a scarf, because way more information comes from your neck than your eyes.

I can’t beat small stakes games. Usually the excuse for this is they can’t beat all the fish, too many callers, nobody respects my bets, and the occasional nit will claim that the rake is too high in small stakes games. Let’s get this straight. If you can’t beat the smallest game in the room, then you can’t beat the biggest game in the room. Worse players play in small games. Worse players lose more big blinds per hand. Somebody’s gotta win those disdained dollars. The rake will get theirs, and you should get the rest. If you can’t do that, then you can’t beat poker. Don’t try and bluff the unbluffable, every player is beaten differently.

I lose because of the rake. This I can actually buy. Some games have rake so high that you cannot beat them, but I’ve spent hours in a game with a rake of 50 euros per hand, and was disappointed when they closed it. Part of being a profitable poker player is putting yourself into good spots, and a game with a rake that you cannot beat is not a good spot. If the rake you cannot beat is fair though, then you’re just using the rake as an excuse for mistakes you are making, because I bet you I could beat that same game.

Instead of using any of these excuses, you should know yourself as a poker player. If you are a loser, fine. Identify where you are making mistakes and work on your game. If you don’t care about being a loser, then no worries, continue having fun. Go read a Playboy or something instead of this magazine. If you are stumped, then there is something you are not understanding. If you always lose a bunch of money with aces, the problem isn’t bad luck, the problem is how you have been playing the hand. Know your strengths too, and encourage those situations. If you know what you do well, then you can know where to strike, and if you know where you are weak, then you know where to improve and what to avoid in the meantime. ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade and has more than $2 million in tournament earnings. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.