How to Study Poker

Knowing the importance of poker study isn’t enough. Neither is knowing what to study. The final piece of the poker learning puzzle is understanding how to study. And while there are many theories and methods of optimal learning, there are three critical principles you must employ if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your off-table study time. These are: (1) be SAD; (2) embrace Kaizen; and (3) strive to employ the Three Pillars of Learning whenever tackling a new topic.

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”One cannot learn a game as complex or challenging as poker by dabbling. Jumping from one topic to another, reading this, watching that… this is just a waste of time. One must put a structure in place, have a plan, and work that plan. Failing to plan is absolutely planning to fail.” —Xi Liang

The first thing you need to employ when studying off-table is the concept of SAD, which is an acronym for Structured, Active, & Disciplined:

  • Structured Learning. Firstly, you must be structured in your learning; i.e., organized. As the quote above says, jumping around between topics is, at best, ineffectual. You must have a plan of attack for the topics you’re going to cover, a means of tracking your progress, a time of day in which you’ll set aside to learn, and so on. As we said earlier, you should pick the topic that has the biggest bang for the buck and then drill down deep. Further, refine that topic down to a specific sub-topic to learn. Don’t just say you’re going to study “poker math” or “hand reading.” Instead, focus on very specific topics, such as learning shortcuts to calculating pot odds or understanding early position hands that a loose-passive villain typically plays. Also, put together a professional note-taking system. At a minimum, get a notebook in which you can take notes. Even better is an electronic (i.e., searchable, editable) system, like Evernote or OneNote. Consider implementing flash cards. The key is to think of “structured” learning with proper notes and a searchable collection of study information. I.e., put together a formal, cohesive, comprehensive, and structured plan for learning. Or, as a well-known high-stakes poker coach told us, ”In every other form of learning, from grade school through high school, college, graduate school, medical school, etcetera, there’s always a syllabus. There’s always a plan. Why do poker players somehow think their schoolwork should be any different?”

  • Active Learning. The second key to learning is to do so in an active manner. Many poker experts echo this point, including Sky Matsuhashi of Smart Poker Study who often preaches, “Action is the greatest teacher.” The opposite of action is passivity; i.e., watching poker videos, listening to podcast, or even just reading poker books without pausing, thinking, pondering, taking notes, and reformulating what you’ve learned into your own words. Countless studies have shown that Active learning beats Passive for retention of information by a factor of ten to one or greater. Get in the habit of actively studying. Question what you read or hear. Rewrite and/or re-state it in your unique words. Play devil’s advocate and try to poke holes in what you’ve read. And, of course, take notes, review them, revisit them, edit them. Even consider teaching other players what you’ve learned. And, of course, actively and deliberately employ what you’ve learned in your next poker session. This concept of “action” is the key. As Ryan Holiday wrote, “In an age where far too many people default to breathless journalism or mindless internet streaming, it’s a good start to be bookish, to read a lot, to finish a stack of books each year. But it’s not enough. What you read matters more. How you read matters too. You have to attack subjects you’re not familiar with and spar with them until you are.”

  • Disciplined Learning. The third key is the need for discipline. You can’t give up at the first sign of adversity or get distracted by some other shiny object. Studying is work—fun work, but work nonetheless. Most poker skills and knowledge aren’t exceedingly difficult to learn, but they’re not necessarily easy to master, either. If they were, then everyone would be an expert. You must have the discipline to stay the course. You must work on your studies every day, for a set amount of time per day, until you have a full and deep understanding of each topic. Discipline is key, and it includes patience, consistency, and making study a habitual routine that is as much a part of your day as brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. The late Mike Sexton summed this idea up when he said, ”Patience and discipline are two highly underrated secrets to success. This is as true away from the poker tables as it is during play.” Or, as Tom Marchese has said, ”Players tend to reach a level of aptitude in poker where they are good enough to make a lot of money, then they stop working on their game. This is the reason why players who were relevant five-to-six years ago are now nowhere to be found. Their ego told them they were the best and they stopped working on their game.”

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”How do you eat the elephant of poker information and skills? One lesson at a time.” —Zach Fiedler

Improvements in poker skills and abilities are rarely attained in big upward quantum-like leaps of knowledge. Instead, advancements come most effectively via the layering of small, incremental steps upon each other, over and over and over again. With very few exceptions, most of us don’t experience anything close to overnight success at the game. Instead, we have to work at it, day-by-day, step-by-step, skill-by-skill. It sounds trite, but poker mastery really is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Japanese have a word for this incremental approach: Kaizen, which means continuous learning. Kaizen is by far the most effective means to learn poker. Focusing on a small, digestible sub-subtopic in poker every day, in a regular and consistent manner, is an incredibly powerful technique. Just 1% improvement per day can yield huge gains in only a few months of effort.

Albert Einstein famously quipped that compounding interest is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time. In fact, he likened it to a mythical eighth wonder of the world. This is what Kaizen is all about: compounding gains. Being just one percent better every day is like interest paid on savings; the more consistently you add to the account over time, the bigger the effect. Apply this principle to something in your life such as learning, and it has the same impact. Today’s incremental gains get added to and built-upon yesterday’s total gains. Doing something small—over and over—will lead to huge improvements in the long-run.

”I consider my journey of learning poker the same as how a Japanese sword maker creates a blade,” said Austin Peate, ” Take a thin piece of steel, heat it up, and fold it back on itself. Keep doing this, forging small thin layers over and over onto themselves. It’s not very hard to do but it takes patience and work. With time, those folds add up to incredible strength. That’s how to think about studying poker—folding small gains back on themselves.”

Or, as Brett McKay said, “Instead of trying to make radical changes in a short amount of time, just make small improvements every day that will gradually lead to the change you want. Each day, just focus on getting 1% better in whatever it is you’re trying to improve. That’s it. Just 1%…. In the beginning, your improvements will be so small as to seem practically nonexistent. But gradually and ever so slowly, you’ll start to notice the improvements in your life.”

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Finally, we come to what is known as the “3 Pillars” of learning poker. To truly master a specific concept or topic in poker, you must think in terms of multiple approaches, or “lines of attack” to learning that item. Whether it’s expected value, hand reading, or bet sizing, a single approach is usually not enough. In fact, there are three key techniques that you should incorporate in most of your off-table studies. These three so-called “pillars of improvements” are:

  1. Research & Study. This first foundational pillar of improvement centers on traditional methods of learning a topic, including reading books, watching videos, and/or listening to podcasts. But that’s not enough; as we said above, you must actively study the topic, which means taking notes, pondering the topic, and even rewriting and/or teaching the subject to someone else in your words. Bhajan famously said, “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” Similarly, modern medical students are taught that to master a new surgical procedure one must ”see one, do one, and then teach one.” Learning a poker topic is best approached in the same manner; you must first read and digest the information, then transcribe it into your words, and then be comfortable enough with the topic to explain to someone else. Can you describe what pot odds are, why they’re important, and how they relate to other elements of poker math, including expected value? And can you answer questions another student has on the topic? Until you can explain something like this to another poker player who is at least at roughly your skill level, you don’t fully understand it on a fundamental level. Said more plainly: Simplify, rewrite, reformulate, and re-state ideas in your own unique voice and words. Do this until the ideas become yours. Then try to simplify them further. This is how real knowledge is attained, through re-statement and simplification. Or, as James Clear said, ”The goal isn’t complexity. The goal is simplicity. Beginner = ignorant simplicity. Intermediate = functional complexity. Advanced = profound simplicity.”

  2. Review Hands. The second foundational pillar of poker learning centers on the review of individual hands. It’s one thing to know how something is supposed to work via the theory, but it’s another thing altogether to dissect it in action. Techniques like hand discussions, postmortems, reviewing “game tape,” and analyzing specific poker situations and hands are a fundamental aspect of mastering poker. Where most people go astray with this approach, however, is they attack it haphazardly. They read a hand problem description and spout out, call!” or ”fold!” with nary a further thought. If calling or folding is indeed the correct play to take in a specific hand situation, then why is this so? You must be able to apply a logical and systematic thought process to a hand (e.g., RED-X) before truly understanding why one action is more correct than another. Further, hand reviews can and should be used to not only think of hands as a whole but also to work on discrete subtopics; i.e., big gains can be made in understanding a topic when you focus on it via a series of hand reviews. For example, when learning pot odds, we could go through a series of hand situations and specifically calculate the pot odds on each street, determine how we could manipulate bet sizing to give poor drawing odds to an opponent, estimate break-even odds at various points in the hand, and so on. The key is to take deep analytical dives into hands to understand how the theory of something actually gets applied in practice. Or, as James “Splitsuit” Sweeney of Red Chip Poker has said, “One of the most valuable resources when it comes to studying is not a new video course or a classic book — it’s actually your own poker hands. Reviewing the hands that you’ve played and dissecting your own lines is one of the most invaluable activities you can do between sessions to self-improve. And this isn’t about passive-study where you review a hand you got sucked out on and grumble about how bad you run. This is about active poker study sessions where you review your exact hand AND tangential lines to get a well-rounded exploration of spots that impact your overall winrate.”

  3. Drill and Practice Common Situations. The third foundational pillar of off-table study is the application of focused practice during play and repetitive drills off-table using training software. Working on specific aspects of play in a targeted, repetitive, and focused manner can be highly effective. Practice indeed makes perfect. Sometimes this type of practice involves hiring a coach to work on areas that you’re weak in, such as training your responses to 3bet pots or blind steals. It can also mean using training software, like the Advanced Poker Training app, to drill specific scenarios, such as playing from the blinds or folding in early position. Similarly, working with an equity calculator, like Poker Cruncher or Flopzilla, to train, inculcate, and ingrain ranges and equities into your thought process can be highly beneficial. You can even do this with just a deck of cards and some time: ”[A recent discussion about] dealing hands to find out the equity of hands brought back memories,” said Doyle Brunson, ”Amarillo Slim and myself would deal out hand against hand almost every night before going to bed. Usually 2 hours but worth it.” Additionally, hand reading drills and routines, like Smart Poker Study’s “66 Days of Hand Reading” can be an incredibly powerful way to improve specific skills, mixing short Kaizen-like daily practice sessions with targeted skill construction. Drills can also be performed during actual play; many poker coaches recommend dropping down to smaller stakes than your standard limits to practice deliberate strategies and tactics, such as raising every button, or betting every river, or even learning to fold in EP, which can be powerful learning techniques. Drilling can be used to ingrain everything from hand reading to math to bet sizing. Even simple drills like learning to quickly estimate a player’s stack sizes and the current pot amount are quickly learned via repetitive practice sessions. Some winning players have even employed drills to ensure they don’t give off tells or other information during a session, practicing how they look at their hands and react. Nathan “Blackrain79” Williams points out that, Poker is played in real time and under pressure.” In other words, the play of an actual poker hand happens quickly, so repetitively working on specific skills and techniques off-table can be a huge boon to your abilities to quickly and accurately arrive at the correct decisions to take during a hand. Or, as a mid-stakes tournament coach told us, ”I recommend practice basic to advanced skills in the safety of your homework sessions. Become comfortable estimating what percentage of villain’s range beats your hands, how much equity you have in various situations, all of it. Practice the hard stuff over and over when it doesn’t cost you anything, then capitalize on those learned and ingrained skills during the real thing playing tournaments.”

Knowing how to study poker is as important as understanding what to study. Employing the SAD, Kaizen, and 3-Pillars methods should give you a starting framework to build your poker study sessions upon. But that’s just a start. The truth is learning poker is a never-ending endeavor. This is because your opponents are out there now, working on their game. To stay ahead of them you must accept the off-table work as just part of the overall game of poker. As Jonathan Little said, “You don’t just work on your game once and then you’re ‘good.’ You have to constantly work on your game if you want to maintain a significant edge on your opponents.”

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