I remember vividly 13 years ago 3 tabling $6 sng’s on Pokerstars. I desperately wanted to make enough money playing poker so I could afford $300/month rent in my 8×6 room (no joke) with some extra leftover for golf, gas, and pasta.
I was in the middle of a session, took a bad beat, and reflexively went to pile my chips in with no hand. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, a voice from the heavens, “Dude, you cannot do undisciplined garbage like this and expect to make a living at this game.” It was a sad realization to know the intentional gamble aspect of the game had to be set aside, but I knew to succeed I had to be disciplined in those tough moments.
While I view discipline as perhaps the most important trait to success in poker as well as in life, discipline in poker is far more expansive than simply not dumping your chips into the middle every time you get upset.
When it comes to study habits it’s important to determine what your goals are, how much effort is required to achieve those goals, and how much available time you have to spend on off table work. Once that part is figured out, it’s so important to stick to your daily or weekly quota. For more on this, check out this great article on Jerry Seinfeld.
Ok great, you want to move up 2 levels in 6 months, it’s going to take you 30 minutes a day 4 days a week. Hold yourself accountable by having a regular study partner, tracking it in excel or a notepad, or by having a supportive friend who you can use as an accountability buddy. Tell him or her, “Hey look, I want to improve my poker game so I can triple my earnings the next 6 months. It won’t be possible unless I work at least 2 hours a week. At the end of each week I’m going to let you know how I did on my time invested to keep myself honest.” It might sound silly but the data backs it up. Folks who track their goals achieve them at a far higher rate.
Now for the hard part of studying. It’s got to be uncomfortable. If you’re not in at least a bit of mental anguish while you’re studying, you’re not going deep enough. You need to deeply engage, deeply struggle, spot real weaknesses and figure out how to bridge those knowledge gaps. I used to review literally every HH I ever played hunting for errors in my shoving and calling game. I quickly realized a study strategy of simply spotting a mistake and checking to see what the right answer was was incredibly weak. The strategy I developed and still use now when I see a spot that I am unsure of is to write down or type out in detail what I think both Nash ranges for each opponent should be. After that I consider how various opponents may deviate from an equilibrium strategy in that situation and determine the best response. Only then do I allow the ICM program of choice to show me an answer. If I am right or close, great, I’m smoothing things out. If I am completely off base I look deeper into the spot and ask why. Usually it is a function of stack setup issues.
The same strategy applies for postflop hands as well. Determine reasonable ranges for both opponents, and just go deep. Do not mindlessly click through hands in a “yes, no, yes, good, fine, no, shrug, bad” manner. When you’re done a study session, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, your brain should be sore and you should feel like you got better.
I’ve seen countless solid players blow massive bankrolls over the years by playing stakes and opponents well beyond their means. While most know it is obvious to move up gradually and only once you’ve proven yourself at a given stake, lots of players struggle with it. Not only can it deplete your bankroll in a flash, but any fleeting success at a level 10x what you’re used to will give you a false sense of competence. To think for a moment, “Hey, even though I’m a breakeven $10 grinder, maybe I’m a great $100 player after all.” Once the bottom inevitably falls out and you come crashing back to earth it takes a lot to pick up the emotional pieces.
Having said that, the biggest mistake I ever made in my poker career was to spend too much time in the early golden era at low stakes. The best year I ever had was when I found the courage to 4x my ABI and went for SNE. If you are anywhere near the top players at your current stake after a reasonable sample it’s important to know that is a sign you’re good enough to move forward to the next level. The game is not so different from one level to the next. If it’s frightening to move up even with great results and a large sample, take it slow, but make sure you make the move upwards and don’t allow yourself to stagnate in comfort.
Sticking to your strategy
Ever face a difficult river decision and then ask yourself “Why am I even in this hand to begin with?” Often times the biggest mistakes we make come from a lack of discipline in a basic preflop situation that we know we should avoid. You have to have set preflop ranges that you can rely on. Of course allow for some exploitative fluidity, but if you don’t know your preflop starting ranges it’s important to figure that out before you develop your postflop strategies. If for some reason you are going to drastically veer from the strategies you have chosen (eg, don’t bluffcatch vs river raises), make sure it is done for a good reason (villain is insane), otherwise it will send you into an awful tilt spiral.
If you’re unsure of what kinds of ranges and strategies you should be using, that’s a good sign that you need to get better and seek out answers whether it’s in the form of asking a more skilled friend, watching training videos, or getting coaching.
If you find yourself struggling hard with discipline in poker or life in general, I strongly recommend this 1 minute clip from former RIO pro Nick Howard. Hopefully it helps you to view things from a more positive point of view and how you want to act rather than staying stuck in negativity.