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Getting Started with Purposeful Practice

by Tricia Cardner |  Published: Jan 15, 2020


If I told you that there is a specific tactic that you can use to get better at poker and this tactic has the power to cut the time it takes to improve in half (or in some cases even more), would you want to learn more? As it turns out, such a strategy exists and it is used by the best athletes, musicians, chess players and elite performers of all types the world over. 

In recent years, scientists have determined that purposeful practice is the path to getting better results in any field and poker is no exception. K. Anders Ericsson, the leading researcher on the subject, sums it up this way: “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.” 

If you want to get better at poker and you want to get results quickly, you’ve got to train the right way. And therein lies the rub. While the research shows that implementing purposeful practice strategies is a no-brainer if you want results, most players aren’t sure how to get started. 

Try these techniques to get started with purposeful practice:

1. Understand that showing up is critical, but not sufficient. You cannot engage in purposeful practice if you don’t practice, but just showing up to the tables or making time for study sessions isn’t enough. There are plenty of players who mindlessly put in their time, making the same plays over and over again, but purposeful practice is much more than this. Take a few minutes to reflect on the following:

• Do you make your best effort to improve your game every time you play or do you simply go through the motions? 
• Plenty of hometown heroes show up to the games day in and day out, but how many of them ever become elite players? Why do you think this is so? 
• Do you spend time off the felt reviewing your hands for mistakes while actively looking for weaknesses to eliminate? 

If you want to become a really good player, you’ll have to try some things are what we call simple but not easy. Most players find it tough to focus on their weaknesses in order to come up with solutions. Likewise, playing is fun, but studying can be quite tedious. If you’ll suck up the pain, however, the results will payoff immensely.

2. The most essential piece of the purposeful practice puzzle is to have a clear goal for each practice/study session. To get the most out of the time you spend studying, you must be clear on what you want to accomplish with your practice session. The following are examples of good, clear goals you could set for your study session

• In this study session, I will construct my opening ranges (using Equilab, Flopzilla or similar) for each position and stack size.
• I will have a coach, friend or study partner analyze my stats and compare to GTO solutions or tendencies of the best players to see if I’m opening the correct frequencies from different positions and different stack sizes.
• I will watch a top player live-stream and make a note of any hands that I see being opened that I wouldn’t normally open. Then I will seek out information to determine why I am missing these opens.

3. Determine the most important tasks. For the biggest ROI on your efforts, take a look at the parts of the game that would return you the biggest gains if you were to put effort into them. Imagine that you’re over defending your big blind against early position openers in multi-table tournaments. If you put the time into fixing this leak, you would lose less from the big blind and your win-rate would improve substantially. There are many different ways you could work to improve this area, and some would probably yield better results than others. This fact underscores the key point:

• Purposeful practice requires doing the thing that delivers the most results. This never seems to be the easiest thing, but if you are going down the path of purposeful practice, you should do the most effective thing, even when it is hard.

4. Focus is critical. Your mind must be completely dialed in on your studies or your practice time cannot be considered purposeful. For the duration of your study session, put all of your attention on your practice. One interesting and encouraging fact is that short but frequent study/practice sessions are more effective than long but less frequent sessions. This is good news for several reasons but the main one is that it is easier to focus intensely for shorter periods of time. 

5. Measure your progress. Pick up almost any business book and you’ll see some version of the saying that “what gets measured gets improved” and poker is certainly no different. You need to figure out a method for tracking your progress towards your learning goals. Besides keeping you on track, measuring progress has a way of motivating you. Tracking and measuring doesn’t have to be elaborate, but you need to get some data to work from. 

6. Find a coach. The best in every field use coaches. The best violinists in the world have a teacher; the best tennis players have coaches, and certainly the best poker players in the world have a coach (or two or three). You’ll get better feedback from a coach than you can get from yourself because self-awareness is limited. As soon as you can afford to, look into getting the best coaching that you can. If you’re just getting started, look into coaching sites or even forums. Sure, you have to be skeptical about the information you receive, but some of it is surprisingly good. Just make sure you go in with a plan and don’t just hop from topic to topic. Remember, you must have a clear learning goal if you want to be efficient! 

Purposeful practice is the most reliable way to become proficient at poker, but remember, this type of practice is quite challenging. Experts like Ericsson believe that it’s only possible to engage in true purposeful practice for at most a few hours each day. That’s because it requires so much focus and that limits how much you can do in one sitting.

Don’t get discouraged, though. By applying these ideas diligently and consistently, you’ll see improvement in no time! ♠

Dr. Tricia Cardner is a mental game coach, licensed professional counselor, & former psychology professor who has been an avid poker player since 2007. She is the author of Positive Poker & Peak Poker Performance (both featuring commentary by Jonathan Little) and Purposeful Practice for Poker with co-author Gareth James who she also podcasts with at Poker on The Mind. You can sign up for her FREE online course Rev Up Your Poker Success at