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Head Games: How Top Professionals Improve their Game Away From the Table

With Brian Rast, Alex Foxen, and Nicholas Palma

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 19, 2015


Craig Tapscott: In the past, what have been some of the ways you have worked on your game away from the table to vastly improve your game?

Brian Rast: When I first started out, the primary way I worked on my game away from the table was reading books. This was over ten years ago, and there weren’t many resources back then besides books and other people, and I didn’t know any good players when I was starting out in college. Books aren’t best, in my opinion, for beginning to intermediate players, as they can’t be as specific or nuanced as a person, nor answer your questions.

As the years went by, I started working on my game by using three different tools. The first was, as I developed relationships with other good poker players, I would talk strategy about hands after sessions. The second is, as it became available, I replaced reading books with watching videos by professionals on online training sites. I found that the best players putting out material were doing it via training videos and not books. And the third is using online tools such as equity calculators to analyze the equity at various points in the hand in order to better learn equities. I didn’t do this much for hold’em, because by this time I knew a lot of the preflop equities, and it’s pretty easy to figure your equity based on your number of outs post-flop. But it was useful for me when learning pot-limit Omaha and other mixed games, because by then I was an experienced poker player and once I’d know the equities of hands in various spots, I’d generally know how to play them.  

Alex Foxen: Putting in the extra work away from the tables is essential for continued growth as a player. Since poker is a constantly evolving game, growth is necessary to avoid falling behind the curve. Before studying complex techniques (or any techniques for that matter), it is important to understand the driving force of poker—probability. It is necessary to have a firm grasp on the mathematical aspect of poker in order to understand the reasoning behind a particular decision or line.

The way I study this side of the game is primarily through decision tree analysis. After a particularly difficult decision, or interesting hand, I will make note of it and look back in depth after the session to break down some specifics, such as the range I have assigned my opponent, my equity vs. this range, fold equity vs. this range, and how ranges and fold equity changes on future streets based on the decisions made.

One example in which knowing these numbers was particularly valuable to me was in being able to see the value of playing draws aggressively in position. When you combine your fold equity with the equity in the draw it makes raising in spots like this a very profitable weapon against many opponents. A dedication to studying this side of poker is very rare even among professionals, but doing so will lead to drastic improvements in your understanding of the game.

My favorite way to study the game other than by the numbers is by watching face-up replays of high buy-in tournaments such as European Poker Tour super high rollers. While watching these, I look at some of the lines taken by the top players in the world and reverse engineer them to understand the thought process and look for changes I can implement into my own game. This is definitely the most enjoyable form of studying away from the table. As long as you attentively watch with a critical lens, this will be a very valuable and enjoyable exercise.

Nicholas Palma: There are lots of ways you can improve your game off the table. One thing I like to do if I’m playing live is always go over a few key hands that happened throughout that session. I will break the hands down and see what I can work on for the next time I find myself in that situation.

There are also a lot of tools these days to fix your game. You have good players, like Jason Somerville for example, doing Twitch streams and giving you good insight to the game and sites like with very good training videos for all skill levels.

Also, my advice is to always talk poker with various players and see how people are thinking. The game is all about thinking and knowing how other people’s brains are working in order to manipulate them to do what you want. It’s also good to watch videos of top pros playing and interviews in general to see how the elite players handle different types of situations; and to see how they react to winning and or losing.

It is just like in any field you are trying to excel in, with poker you can always learn from the people who have the most experience. I used to think I knew it all, but with experience, you realize it’s all about learning and improving. Mistakes will always be made, but it is what you do after the mistake that matters.

Craig Tapscott: What has been the biggest learning curve for the growth of your game over the past five years?

Brian Rast: Obviously when I first started playing was when I had the sharpest learning curve. Whenever you are starting out you make leaps and bounds, as opposed to the refining process that happens once you are already good and experienced. 

That said, I had one notable learning curve after I had already become a pro and been playing (although it was about eight years ago). I had already been playing for a couple years since I started in college, and done almost all the growth on my own through books, or my own analysis and thinking through various spots and strategy. I had advanced from nothing to bouncing between mid-to-high stakes, but couldn’t quite push through the last barrier to the nosebleeds. I had some leaks in my game that I hadn’t figured out on my own. I became good friends with a couple of guys here in Vegas though, who were both good players. We talked poker a decent amount and one of them pointed out some of these leaks to me. Basically I was a bit of a lagtard (a loose-aggressive kind of bad), and he helped me see that. That was probably the biggest learning curve, because now I had a second opinion with someone who was being honest with me. 

A lot of times the worst errors you make aren’t ones that you realize. Close spots that you study, are spots that you realize are close. And even if you played it wrong, you learn from it by studying it and improve for next time. Getting help from a player you trust can help you make breakthroughs in things you didn’t even know you were doing wrong. In my case it was with a friend, and we did it through trust and for mutual gain. You could also accomplish this through a coach or mentor who you would pay for their expertise and honesty. I started up Zen Poker Mentoring in order to provide that service for players through the seminar process, as after all my years playing, I’ve found that I enjoy teaching and the academic side of the game.

Alex Foxen: In the past five years, and really throughout my entire poker career, my biggest struggle has by far been the emotional side of the game. My downswings were almost always longer and more severe than necessary. After some time of running bad and not getting the desired results, it is easy to start to lose confidence and start
feeling bad for yourself. When in this destructive mental state, the frustration of relentless bad beats would come after losing the first coin flip of the day. Whether I knew it at the time or not, this frustration was certainly impacting my decision-making.

After I read just the first chapter in a book titled The Mental Game of Poker by Jared Tendler I knew it would forever change my poker game. This book gave me tools to control my tilt, and also revealed it for what it was: a weakness. Without a doubt, I still struggle with emotional issues and go back to the book for counsel when I’m in a particularly bad run or feeling down on myself.

Learning the game of poker, whether it be technique or emotional control, is definitely a slow process. I was lucky to come across this book at the right time in my career, and it propelled my game to a new level and continues to help me make improvements to this day.

Nicholas Palma: In the past five years, the biggest thing that has helped my game has been online poker. Online poker is the best way I would tell anyone they could improve their game. At one point, I was playing 14-16 hours every single day online for a three to four month time frame, and after that my game changed a ton.

Online poker allows you to see so many more hands per hour in each game and can play multiple games at once compared to live poker. With live poker, you can only play one tourney a day and play a few hundred hands. Online, you can play 20 or more tournaments in a day and see thousands of hands.

Let’s say you are a basketball player and one person is practicing his jump shot 10 times a day and the other is shooting 100 times a day. Who is going to have the advantage? Playing online also helps you deal with tilt issues since you are playing so many more games. You will tend to get unlucky more often and quickly be forced to learn how to deal with the ups and downs of the game. Because if you don’t, it will affect your game which, in return, affects your profits. ♠

Brian Rast is the founder of Zen Poker Mentoring. Brian plays in the highest live cash games and has more than $7.9 million in tournament cashes. Rast won the 2011 $50,000 WSOP Poker Players Championship.

Alex Foxen played football at Boston College, and is the CFO of Reality Bites, a cupcake company that his sister started. He lives in Los Angeles when not traveling the poker circuit. Foxen has more than $500,000 in lifetime career tournament cashes and one WSOP circuit gold ring from the 2012 Harrah’s New Orleans $365 event.

Nicholas Palma is a professional poker player from Bronx, New York with more than $330,000 in tournament cashes. He can be reached on Twitter at @nicholas_palma.