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The Poker Player’s Manifesto - Self Help Part I: Be Objective and Make a Plan

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: May 19, 2015


Bryan DevonshireContinuing along in our discussion on all things poker related, we move to part twenty, and the second part under the umbrella of knowing yourself. We discussed for a while the concept of knowing your enemy, and last issue we started talking about knowing yourself. Most poker players are losing players, yet most poker players think they are good at poker. Losers often have a long list of excuses for why they lose, and there are fallacies to each and every excuse. While bad beats can be a reason for losses and sometimes come in streaks, bad beats should not be used as an excuse because there is usually some other flaw in our games contributing to losses. We as poker players should always be striving to improve our games, and that is what we will talk about now.

I am often asked how I got good at poker, and it’s an interesting timeline to reflect on because the lessons I learned along the way should be applied toward the future. For me it all started with a fundamental understanding of game theory. I grew up playing games like Cribbage and Chess. Cribbage taught me things like random distributions and optimal play with incomplete information. In Chess I learned how to make a plan and think about what my opponent was thinking. By junior high I was playing Magic: The Gathering competitively. Using my knowledge of cards and opponents and plans I made decks and dominated the competition. Tournaments had prizes and many things were straight up gambling. Then, I was allowed to play in the family poker game once a month. By the time I hit college I had a firm grasp on the concept of playing card games competitively. Making the step into a casino was an easy transition for me. Learning these fundamental concepts of game theory are essential to success in poker, how you learn them is unimportant.

One important lesson I learned from Magic was the ability to objectively analyze a deck and my use of it. While there is variance in Magic, there is much less variance than most card games using a standard 52-card deck. The worst player can win at poker and Cribbage far more often than the worst player can win at MTG. So when I lost consistently, it was safe to say that I was doing something wrong. There was either a flaw in the construction of my deck or I was making errors playing the deck. Perhaps I’m doing both wrong. It’s important to start with the fundamentals, so I need to make sure my deck is good. If it is bad, then my results will still be bad even if I play the bad deck expertly.

It didn’t take long for me to hit a losing streak in poker because everybody hits them. Knowing that I can always improve my game, I took this losing streak as an opportunity to evaluate things. I started with my deck, assuming there had to be flaws in there somewhere. In poker, your deck is your starting hand selections. In both poker and Magic you control what cards you take into battle. If you’re wielding bad cards then you’re going to lose. I discovered programs like Poker Tracker and was able to analyze every single starting hand from every single position over all the hands I had ever played online. I eliminated the biggest losers from various positions and simply started folding them. Immediate improvement to my results when I stopped playing K-10 offsuit under the gun. Then I noticed some hands showing more of a profit than I would have expected, like deuces, which I was folding under the gun. I started playing them from any position and began winning a little bit more. Eventually my losing streak ended, and I’m sure it was helped by the improvements made to my game during the losing streak.

The worst thing to do during a losing streak is to grind through it or move up in stakes. People on losing streaks play worse than people on winning streaks. If you are not actively and objectively analyzing your play during a losing streak, then it is bound to deteriorate and become a bigger losing streak or one that will be back soon.

After correcting my starting hand selection, I moved on to assessing my decision making process throughout the hand. This is something we should always be working on as poker players. One day I was donking along in a hand and had no idea what to do with a raise on the river. I never saw it coming. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. I remember thinking I should have just checked. On the long drive home with empty pockets, I realized that I played poker like life, without a plan. I also realized that I would be crushed in Magic or Chess if I tried to play without a plan. By this point in life I was guiding whitewater rafts professionally, and I knew that I got in trouble on the river without a plan. So I should have a plan in poker. But how?

Just like in whitewater, I worked backwards. Where do I want to be at the end of this hand? Do I want to play for stacks or get to showdown cheaply? Can I get three streets of value? Two? One? Do I have the worst hand and not want to put any money into the pot? With these goals in mind, what’s the best way to get there from where I am at? Now, if I bet this much, how will my opponent respond most likely? What does it mean if he responds in other ways? What will I do for each of those possible responses? Then, what is my plan on the next street given each possible combination of actions on this street? And after that? You should always be running through this process in your mind. Like a choose your own adventure, flip ahead some pages to avoid pitfalls. If you feel like vomiting when they raise your bet, then you probably shouldn’t bet. If you understand what is going on and feel fine about your plan to respond to their raise and still want to bet, then bet. The poker players that do this the best will be the best. ♠

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.