Philosophers, teachers, parents, and poets have always pointed out
that one learns best from mistakes. I suppose that holds as true for
poker as for any other endeavor. After all, who among us has not grown
moody and introspective after a losing session, as we dredge and drag
instant replays of hands lost and opportunities squandered across the
vast expanse of our consciousness in a furtive attempt to learn from
our failures, and eliminate their recurrence. Losing, after all, is
a ticket to another day at the School of Hard Knocks, where experience
is the only teacher, and brooding morosely upon one’s failures
is often seen as the only road to enlightenment.
When you’re in a poker game it’s easy to tell the winners
from losers. Losers are quiet and introspective. Winners are expansive
and extroverted, as they recant tales of their poker prowess to the
entire table. Losers, on the other hand, lean heavily on two tired old
mantras: If they’re not droning on about their most recent bad-beat,
you can hear them holler, “Shut up and deal!”
Until recently, I wasn’t much different. With a big win under
my belt I’d leave the card room thinking I was the best hold’em
player I’d ever encountered. While I abhor bad-beat stories and
never tell them, I would replay every hand over and over in my mind
whenever I booked a sizable loss, trying to find some glittering nuggets
in a landscape otherwise dark with gloom and despair.
But I’ve lately taken to analyzing my successes. When I do something
right, I don’t want to have done it unconsciously. I want to be
acutely aware of what I did right, so I can do it again and again —
as often as opportunities present themselves.
Instead of trying to simply solve problems associated with poor play,
I’ve decided to capitalize on opportunities. Solving a problem,
after all, simply gets you back to ground zero; you haven’t lost
any ground, but you haven’t gained any, either. Capitalizing on
opportunity gives you a chance to fly and soar, to create, to innovate,
and to place yourself firmly on the leading edge of winning play. Never
mind that even when you do book a big win, you probably didn’t
play perfect poker, and there are some things you could have done to
make that win even bigger.
What’s surprising is that until recently I’ve never analyzed
my successes, and I’m not altogether sure why. Perhaps it’s
human nature. Winning, after all, takes us straight to the bottom line,
where the only question is “How much?” But losing is so
distasteful that it can be tough to swallow. We seem to have a need
— almost a compulsion — to dissect our losses, not to look
for excuses, but to discern the underlying reasons for our failures.
“That way,” we tell ourselves, “I may have to swallow
a bitter pill now, but I’ll learn from my mistake and won’t
make it again.”
I recently had a big win in a series of $15 - $30 hold’em side
games at an out-of-town tournament, where I found myself competing against
opponents I had never seen before. There were some solid players in
the game, although most called far too often and went too far with weak
hands. There was also one very aggressive player who bet almost every
time a hand was checked around to him. When I analyzed my play during
the drive home, I made the following judgments: I held reasonably good
cards during the game, though by no means would I have claimed “...the
cards were running over me.” Since most of my opponents were there
for the action, they called with a frequency that essentially obviated
bluffing as a money making strategy, and I correctly refrained from
doing anything fancy. Instead, I played simple, straightforward, solid
poker. On the river, I never bluffed; but I bet every hand that figured
to hold up if it was called.
I also managed to change my seat so that I could act after the overly
aggressive player. Because he tended to bet and raise much too often,
particularly whenever there was a flop that didn’t look threatening,
I began to reraise anytime I had a hand that I normally just would have
called with. He released enough of his hands to make this play successful,
although in retrospect, I believe I could have taken even greater advantage
of his style by bluff raising when he bet into a checked flop when it
didn’t appear likely that he held a strong hand.
While this might have been the only tactical mistake I made during
these side games, I probably cost myself as many as three or four pots
over a three day period. With each pot being worth approximately $200,
I should have come away a bigger winner that I did.
If I had not analyzed my play, and instead had gone straight to the
bottom line to exalt in what was a sizable win in spite of some opportunities
I clearly missed, I would have lost the opportunity to learn how I could
have done even better. If, as most of the poker literature suggests,
good players win at the rate of one to one-and-one-half big bets per
hour, then the additional three pots I could have won, but didn’t,
were worth $600. In a $15 - $30 game, with a win rate of between $30
and $45 per hour, those three pots that I left on the table will take
an additional thirteen to twenty hours of play to recoup.
I learned a valuable lesson. By scrutinizing my winning sessions I
believe I can add as much to my game as I can by analyzing my play when
I lose. Don’t get me wrong. Although I’m still introspective,
frustrated, embarrassed, and angry with myself when I lose, and like
most players, tend to be expansive when I win, I don’t believe
that feeling miserable is a required condition for constructive critique.
The key to continually improving your game is surprisingly simple.
Just dissect wins as thoroughly as losses. Not only will you find errors
to correct, you might also find that opportunity has been loudly knocking.
But if you’re too expansive, and haven’t been listening,
you might never hear it.