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Poker Strategy With Matt Matros: The Poker Paradox

People With The Best Psychological Makeup To Play Poker Are The Least Likely To Take Up The Game

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Matt MatrosIt’s hard to win at poker. Brutally hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that approximately 75 percent of poker players lose (some studies say it’s even higher). Last year, the federal government argued in court that because so few players win, skill cannot possibly predominate over luck in our game. Thankfully, Judge Weinstein rejected this absurd argument. He understood that just because it’s hard to win at poker, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. (Sadly, Weinstein’s verdict was set aside a few months ago by a higher court, but that’s an article for another time.) The interesting question is not whether poker is a game of skill (of course it is), but why it’s so difficult to win.

Let’s set aside the most obvious reason players lose — the rake. I’ve seen data that says at least two-thirds of players would lose even if there wasn’t any rake. This certainly makes sense to me. In tournaments, of course, chips aren’t taken out of the pot, but the best two or three players at the table are often the only profitable ones at the end of the night. Poker isn’t and never has been a game where the top half win and the bottom half lose. The rake is a very serious obstacle to a professional player’s success, but it’s not the biggest reason that it’s hard to win at poker.

What is? I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. There are a myriad of reasons why poker is a difficult game to master, and one could formulate many strong theories about why people don’t win at it, but I believe the phenomenon is best explained by something I’ll call the Self-Assessment Paradox. My argument goes like this: Properly rating one’s own poker skills is a hugely important quality for a poker player. If you think you’re better than you are, you’ll almost certainly play over your head and get crushed.

Conversely, if you correctly determine that you’re not a very good poker player, you may never take up the game seriously or get the requisite experience at reasonable stakes to become a good player. Since no one is good when they start out, this latter hypothetical becomes a very real possibility. In short, people with the best psychological makeup to become good poker players are the least likely people to take up the game. And vice versa.

Those who buck the trend and become long-term winners tend to fall into one of three categories. 1) A person with no ego who starts out at small stakes and climbs the ladder only when his skill has improved enough to justify it. 2) A person who gets very lucky early in his career, and develops the skill of self-assessment before his early winnings run out. 3) A persistent die-hard who fights through months or even years of being a losing player until he eventually develops his skills enough to become a winner.

At the risk of coming across as bragging (although can one really brag about being humble?), I think of myself as the first kind of player. When I was a beginner, and I stunk, I knew that I stunk. In fact, when I turned 21 and played casino poker for the first time, I got destroyed and vowed never to play again. I was sure it was a losing proposition, and I hated losing far more than I enjoyed playing. Throughout my career, I’ve stayed nearly as cautious as I was then, at least in my unwillingness to overrate myself. I’ve been very reluctant to move up stakes, and to this day I avoid the nosebleed games the superstars play. I’m confident these decisions have been good for my bankroll.

A lot of the online wunderkinds will admit that they’re the second type of winner — the type who starts out on a hot streak and learns the game after the fact. Some of these players will go further and admit that if they hadn’t run good during their initial sessions, they probably would’ve quit the game after only a few weeks. Those beneficiaries of this early success who eventually take the time to acquire the necessary poker fundamentals become extremely tough players indeed. They’re completely fearless (you would be too if you turned $100 into a six-figure bankroll without ever having to reload) in a way that most other successful players aren’t. Everyone has downswings, of course, but players who start on a hot streak often have the bankroll to ride them out.

The professional grinder who stays with poker despite a lengthy initial period of losing, is the rarest and maybe the most admirable type of winner. A losing player must either change his mind about his own abilities, or swallow his ego and drop down in stakes. Human beings are terrible at changing their minds, and even worse at swallowing their pride, which is why not many people go this route. If a losing player does manage to clearly see the flaws in his game, he still has to overcome the trauma of losing real money while trying to learn his craft. Many otherwise level-headed people will drive themselves insane as they watch one well-crafted strategy after another fail before their eyes. One of the ways poker professionals cope with losing is to look at our lifetime results and remind ourselves that we are winners in the long run. Losing players don’t have this luxury. They press on out of something like blind faith, or maybe just love of the game. I know some high-stakes tournament regulars who fit into this category, and they do especially well against other regulars who haven’t bothered to notice that they’ve improved. In poker, it’s best never to underestimate anyone.

Nobody can expect to get rich off this game right off the bat, and the people who understand this know enough not to try. But if you work hard, and if you move up at a reasonable pace, and if you’re honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, you may someday find a large number of overconfident, under experienced players who are lining up to give you their money. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player, and a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. He is also a featured coach for cardrunners.com.