If you play poker, you probably already know the answer. Or you might over or underestimate yourself. However, I was asked recently by a non-poker playing friend recently what I thought made good players successful at poker. The obvious answer is that “it depends”. However, the question did get me thinking so I thought it might be good blog material to do my best to answer the question.
Different poker players are good for different reasons. And, not only that, they’re good at different things. It’s actually kind of hard to call someone a “good poker player” because it’s a very broad subject matter. That’s kind of like calling someone a world-class runner. It just doesn’t make sense to say “oh yea, Bob is one of the best runners in the world”. Because, obviously, it’s way more specialized than that. There are guys who can run 100m in sub 10 seconds but they would get lapped by the best milers in the world running a 1500 meter. And obviously those milers would be left way in the dust if they tried to compete with the 100m guy in a short sprint. Not only that, it gets even more specialized into the best flat v hill runners, road v mountain terrain, etc. It’s just too hard to even call someone world-class at “poker” because it’s too broad.
With that out of the way, there are certain traits that I believe lead one to success in poker in general. None of these are ironclad — there are exceptions to every rule. Not only that, I am thinking more about long-term success. Just because someone won a tournament on TV does not mean they’ll fall within these parameters:
- Even-keeled personality. If you’re the type of person who gets into screaming arguments even on an infrequent basis, you’re probably not suited to the game. If you find yourself in tears over what most consider to be small matters, you’re probably not going to win at poker. Both are indicators that you tilt too easily. On the other hand, if you stay even-keeled — ie, never letting yourself get too high and never letting yourself get too low — then you’re probably in good shape. However, don’t mistake “usually even-keeled” with “always even-keeled”. Some people think they are but they actually aren’t. Even people who blow up a few times a year are very tilt-prone in my opinion. The best candidates for poker players are people who almost never get very sad, angry, upset, worried, etc. Obviously all humans feel emotions but good poker players need to be in near-total control of their emotions.
- Good money management. Have you found yourself in credit card debt that you weren’t sure you were able to handle? Or have you made impulse buys for more money that you afford to spend and then regretted it later? Both are pretty bad indicators that you’ll be good at poker. And by that I mean a successful pro who can manage a bankroll. Impulsive personalities, while occasionally successful, will often fail in poker. If you’re the type to say “I only live once” and takes tons of shots in life (money or otherwise) then I really don’t think it’s going to work out for you in poker. While occasional intelligent shots are actually a necessary part of being a professional poker player in today’s environment, a habitual shot-taker is going to go down in flames of variance. But most of these clues are there in everyday life for non-poker players. Everyone has been tempted by various material items that they could technically buy — but they can’t really afford. How easy is it for you to say no? That’s a good indicator as to whether you’ll be good at poker.
- Analytical mind. Do you find yourself saying “well I’ll do this just to be safe” when you make decisions? If so, that’s a bad thing. A good poker player almost always has an analytical mind. In other words, they make decisions based on the math behind a situation AND they use logical reasoning skills to arrive at the basis for their math. For example, let’s say you’re trying to decide what time to leave for the airport for a domestic flight. And let’s assume it’s a 30 minute drive. But the drive can be up to 1 hour long 10% of the time. A good poker player will internally calculate the likelihood of missing the flight, the benefit of extra time at home, the detriment of taking a later flight, the likelihood of getting another flight the same day, etc, etc. The people with analytical minds will evaluate everything they know about the situation and they’ll usually ask themselves, maybe without realizing it, to figure out what factors are affected by their decision. And they arrive at their conclusion based on the facts and, usually, they will take calculated but not crazy risks as they go through life. A non-analytical thinker will use reasoning like “I’ve never missed a flight and I’m not going to start now, I will be there 3 hours early” which, quite frankly, sounds totally retarded (to me at least). Keeping your streak alive simply doesn’t make sense to an analytical person because there isn’t any tangible benefit to it (on the other hand, if you have a 10 year bet to not miss a flight — well that’s an analytical person’s dream! They live for situations like that and figuring out the optimal play). If you think you have an analytical mind, you’re off to a great start.
- Ability to view money as a tool. Some people say that poker players need to have a healthy disregard for the value of money. I agree but I think some poker players use this as an excuse to become degenerate gamblers to prove to the world that they simply don’t care. That’s just dumb (well, it’s dumb if you want to make money). The best poker players view money as a tool to make more money. And that’s the right way to think about it. When they lose some money, they don’t see a $20,000 loss as if someone took a car off their front lawn. They view it as a cost of doing business. Like… imagine a mom & pop version of Best Buy. When they buy, say, $100,000 worth of TVs in the hopes of selling them for $150,000 over the course of the Christmas season it is NO DIFFERENT than a poker player committing $100,000 to the WSOP under the assumption of a 50% ROI. Just because the TV store owns some TVs doesn’t change the long-term expectation. The difference is simply variance. But the outlook of seeing that money to be used as a tool to run a business is the key. If you can’t separate what your money can buy from what it can do for you as an investment then you’re in trouble. Don’t even bother playing poker for serious money until you can mentally disconnect yourself from poker bankroll equaling spendable money.
- Realistic expectations. I find that a major downfall for poker players is vast overconfidence in their abilities. There are so many poker players who’ve said “I’m a such and such player” (referring to the stakes they play) and they refused to drop down because of pride. They look at their PokerTracker and they say “look at that BB/100, I’m great”. But they never evaluate if they REALLY have an edge. They convince themselves they have an edge just because they don’t want to believe that they don’t. This is similar to people in the real world who are consistently overconfident and they always seem to think everything is a good idea. I remember in college meeting people who were always convinced they knew everything that was going to be on an exam and they were going to get an A. Then they were devastated to get back a B-. And it was because they said to themselves “my parents tell me I’m smart, I got a 1540 on the SAT, I don’t need to study”. But there they were in their second year of college still talking about their SAT score. That’s like a poker player talking about their 2005 winrate in 2009. That just doesn’t make sense. It’s a whole new world and things have changed. So if you think you consistently re-evaluate situations as objectively as possible, you’re probably in good shape.
Anyway, there are more factors but I think those five are among the most important. If you’re not a poker player and you think you “pass” all five then you’re definitely capable of making a lot of money playing poker. And if anyone ever has a friend ask them “would I be good at poker” you can either ask them these questions or you can simply point them to this blog entry.