Lesson #7: Improve Your Learning

Improving Poker PlayThis second-to-last lesson I want to dedicate to sharing some ideas on how you can improve your game more efficiently. Reading the books and playing lots of hands is great and all, but with only a little bit more effort you can get so much more out of it. Let's start by looking at the books.

You will probably want quite a few books in your poker library. Mine - and I'm only an eager student, without any plans for a professional career whatsoever - contains 14, right now and there are at least four more I'm planning on getting. As I said in the first lesson, it's probably true that not every book is worth reading. The catch 22 here is that you won't know beforehand which of them will be useful to you, so you will still need to pick them up and read through them to form your own opinion. Of course, you can practise some selection, I'm not saying that you should go to amazon.com, put in "poker" and order everything that matches your query. But the greater point still stands: You likely have a lot of reading to do.

The human brain is a fascinating piece of machinery, and it's clever enough to automate anything that needs (or even can) to be automated. This automation is called "reflexes." One of the reflexes that I'm pretty sure every adult that can read has, is the automatic eye-movement when reading. Have you ever been reading a book and suddenly realized that you have no idea what the last two pages contained? I know I have. What has happened is that your mind took a stroll down some memory lane, but your eyes kept scanning the text. When you reached the end of the page, your finger turned it over, without you really having to think about what you're doing. Sure, some of the words stick, but in general you have no idea what you've just read. The eyes are so used to reading that this behavior becomes automatic. You have to consciously think about what you're reading in order to make good use of it. There are many ways to do this, and I think most people who have studied on any higher level of education will have heard or read about at least a few of them; taking notes, making mind maps, trying to visualize what you're reading, etc.

There's no one way that's better than all the others. Personally, I don't take notes and I don't make mind maps. I don't find "visualizing" the hand or situation (or whatever) that David Sklansky is writing about helpful. I do, however, quiz myself. For instance, if someone suggests limping with low pocket pairs on a loose/passive table, I ask myself where I'd place the cut-off point between limping and raising. 8-8? Etc. I consider what other factors that would tip my decision between limping, folding or raising. Every chapter takes more time this way, but I find that I'm able to understand a lot more about what I'm reading when I do this, as opposed to when I'm just browsing the text.

Another thing I do is to regularly go back and re-read chapters in books I've finished before. I don't often go back and re-read a book from cover to cover, however, but I often pick up a book and work through a section to see if I'll pick up something I may have overlooked last time. And even if I realize that I already know what it says, I know that repetition is the mother of knowledge, to roughly translate a Swedish saying. Repetition and reinforcement. I know what it says, and if I I now know it again, I'm less likely to forget.

If there's a chapter or a section that you have trouble understanding, ask a friend about it or post on the forums. "Why does he say I shouldn't raise with AQo preflop? I don't get it. Don't I have a huge equity advantage?" There's no guarantee that anyone who answers will be better equipped to answer your question than you already are, but arguing and discussing will definitely help you understand it better. Also, make no mistake, poker books contain mistakes sometimes. Some strategies listed can be, if not flat out wrong, at least highly inappropriate for the limits you play or for the competition you face. If something doesn't feel right, take the time to figure out why it doesn't. Discuss it with others. If you finally "get it," there's reinforcement again for you.

But reading, while practically a necessity to become a good player, is only a small part of how you'll spend your time with poker. Your long hours will be spent at the table, playing hand after hand after hand. The more you learn here, the better, that goes without saying. But how do you maximize your learning while playing? Again, there are many things you can do and ultimately you'll have to figure out what works for you. But here are a couple of pointers:

Make conscious decisions. When you decide to bet, call, raise or fold ask yourself "why." Don't just raise, raise because of something. "I will raise, because I think he will fold ace-high often enough for my bluff to be worth it." "I may yet have the best hand, and I don't want to give a free card." Again, what you're doing here is reinforcing good behavior. Very often, decisions will be automatic and the decision trivial. Even so, reinforcing it can't hurt. And when you make a conscious decision that doesn't sound right ("I'm raising because he will call with a worse hand... Uh, wait. No, he wouldn't") and you change your decision because of it, you've really accomplished something!

Think through non-trivial decisions. It's very easy to think "I'm not sure what just happened. I'll call his raise." Sure, often enough the call may be the right decision, but when you find yourself wondering, if only for a split second, what the proper action will be, take some time to think through the hand. I, myself, am patently poor at this. I tend to make decisions much faster than I sometimes should, and this is something I need to work on.

Make a mental note of difficult situations, so you can review them later. If you're playing online, just look up the hand history and review it when you're done playing. Reviewing and analyzing hands away from the table is a very powerful tool for learning, but you should already know that. Still, as obvious as it may seem, this is something that almost no one does enough of. What should trigger a later analysis isn't whether or not you won the hand, but whether or not you had a difficult decision to make at some point. Compare to the non-trivial decision making above; all the situations where you realize that you need to mull it over, even if just a little, are things that are worth a review at a later time. Very often, you'll get checkraised on the turn, let's say, and decide to call anyway. Turns out the guy was overvaluing his middle pair and your pocket kings held up, and so you just shrug and move on. But if you had to think about it at the time, it's probably worth reviewing later on. Something in your mind told you that what he did was out of the ordinary, and you'd do well to check up on things like that. And, even though I feel like I'm repeating myself ad nauseam, if you find out that you did do the right thing, you've gained reinforcement of correct play. Practise, reinforcement, repetition, experience.

I don't know if there are players who are so skilled and experienced that they have very little left to learn about playing poker, but I think I'm generally correct in saying that mastering this game is a never-ending pursuit. I can always become better. You can always become better. How much effort we're willing to put into it is, naturally, what determines how quickly we'll advance. Knowledge is sadly not really a measurable goal. You can measure how many pages you've read, or how many hours you've spent analyzing your play, but you can't gauge how much you've learned. And what's worse, your results may not immediately improve either - it can take a long time for a new experience to start to pay off. This is pretty troublesome from a pedagogical point of view, since a treat (or a dragged pot) doesn't necessarily mean that we've played it right, nor does a slap (or a lost hand) mean that we played it wrong. This is why analytical reinforcement is so important. The results of the hand won't always (or even mostly) tell you whether or not you played well, so you have to do that job yourself.

Reinforce the good habits and plug the leaks that you get from bad habits. It's a lot of work, but it's very rewarding.

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