Most kids learn to play some variation of poker. For me, I knew 5-card draw, 5-card stud, 7-card stud, and 7-card draw before I was 10 years old. Did I know everything about the rules? No. I was a kid.
I played Monopoly hundreds of times as a kid, and as an adult, I found out I didn’t know the proper rules.
I knew the basics. I knew poker basics. I knew that the card rankings were:
- 5 of a Kind (if we played with a wild card)
- Royal Flush
- Straight Flush
- 4 of a Kind
- Full House
- 3 of a Kind
- 2 Pair
- 1 Pair
- High Card
I also knew what comprised these hands. I learned by watching my dad and my older siblings play the game.
As I grew up, I realized that despite knowing the mechanics of a basic draw or stud game, I was not a good card player. I’d confuse game terminology. For example, I’d trade in cards and say “hit me” as if I was playing blackjack.
But these are things kids eventually figure out as they grow into adolescence and adulthood.
I learned my first hard lessons in the late 1990s. I’d play poker online. I got my first computer and my “super-fast” 56k modem that I hooked up through my telephone line to hop on and play 7-card stud.
I soon found out that I was getting my backside handed to me every time I played.
I just wasn’t good.
Luckily, the gambling sites had “free play” sections or even separate sites where I could take time and learn the games. The sites had buttons to push that gave hints and tips. I got a bit better, but I was still a long way off from where I wanted to be.
But I was determined to get better.
As the new millennium dawned, I was working an inbound customer service job that took up an immense amount of my time. Between my 10 hour shifts, my hour commute each way, and getting ready for work, I only had a few waking hours of free time.
1 – Read As Much As Possible
I started hanging out at bookstores. A new Barnes & Noble bookstore opened up at my local mall. It had a coffee shop inside, so I started frequenting it on my days off.
It was nice, I could sit down on a nice comfortable couch with a cup of coffee and read. I found lots of books on how to play poker and how to strategize.
I literally started out with Poker for Dummies. My train of thought was that if I really wanted to learn how to play, I needed to forget what I’d learned previously and start fresh.
Starting over really opened my eyes. I learned games I never heard of before like Texas hold ‘em and Omaha. I learned terms like hole card and blind. None of this was familiar to me.
I started reading other books. I found one by a World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth called Play Poker Like the Pros that I found of immense help.
I tried to soak in all the information like a sponge. I’d make notes in the books that I bought like I was studying for tests in high school. The ones that I didn’t buy I’d make notes in a little pocket notebook I carried around with me (after all it was 10 years before the advent of smartphones).
I would head online with these notes and play real money games. I was surprised that I did better.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, read a lot. Whether you’re getting books, reading an article online, or loading up e-books on a Kindle, read. Allow yourself the time to do so. Get comfortable while reading so you enjoy it and retain more.
2 – Watch Television
I fell into a bit of luck when I was learning poker. I got really serious about learning about 2002 or 2003. This was before YouTube or Facebook. We were all still navigating the world of MySpace and internet speeds were too slow to make watching videos online worthwhile.
The luck I fell into happened to come in the form of cable TV.
At the time cable was still about 30 channels for everyone and about ½ of the channels no one really cared about. One of the big channels then was ESPN. This was before they had 15 different streams available of the network. Back then it was one channel. They had 2 feeds, one for the east coast and one for the west coast of the United States.
Where I lived I caught the east coast feed.
ESPN always had an eclectic hodge-podge of “sports”. Sure they’d have baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. But they also had strongman competitions, billiards, chess, cheerleading competitions, and, in 2003, they added poker. Specifically the World Series of Poker. It was amazing.
I had seen the WSOP on TV before, but it was an entirely new concept in 2003. They showed the player’s hole card. They discussed strategies and probabilities. Plus they broadcasted the entire tournament, not just the final table.
It added a whole new dimension to the game for me. And to see the games being played by the best in the world, made it all that much more enjoyable.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, watch the best go head-to-head on TV in competition.
3 – Play Online
My father was big into sports when I grew up. While I think he knew that I’d never be an athlete, he drilled into me the fact that you can’t get better at anything unless you practice.
As I mentioned, I played a lot of free sites in the late 90s. I rededicated myself to this action when I was relearning poker.
I hit a bit of luck at work. I was part of a customer service team that only had contact with customers through instant messenger. So I didn’t have to worry about customers calling in or them hearing me. I also didn’t have to worry about the volume of calls I was used to.
I used that as an opportunity to play on free play poker sites.
I’d stick to 7-card stud sites rooms and this new phenomenon Texas hold ‘em.
As I play I’d use my notes and take more notes.
I had to keep in the mindset that no matter how haphazardly people played on the free play sites that it had to be taken seriously like it was for free money.
And that’s what I did. I made sure that I played like every game I was gambling my life savings.
The mindset gave me a new appreciation for taking the game seriously. It made me better.
I’d eventually graduate back up to real money games again. I found myself in a lot of tournament games with $10 and $20 buy-ins so I could maximize my gameplay and save money.
But I’d also play some sit and gos for low amounts.
I kept getting better and I’d win every now and again.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, you need to practice. The easiest way to practice is to play online.
4 – Play in Person
I love the fact that the internet has given me the ability to play from the comfort of my own home. But playing live and playing on a computer are 2 different animals.
While playing online has its benefits, playing in person provides unique opportunities.
First, you get some the human interaction. You can look at your opponents. You can see their faces when they make bets. You can hear them breathe. You can observe their hand gestures. You can find their “tells”.
I obviously didn’t pick up on any of this in my first in-person game. Nor did I in my first year.
I’d have friendly games at my apartment on Friday nights with friends. I made it a point to alternate the friends I invited so that the cash flow wasn’t a problem for the attendees.
One week I’d have a group from work. The next, I’d have old college buddies. Occasionally they’d overlap, but it was rare.
The big thing was that I wanted to interact with humans.
I also would make my way to some poker rooms in nearby casinos. I needed to go to get some “official” play in.
I couldn’t spend as much time as I liked in the poker rooms. My job and distance were issues. I might have made it out once every 2 or 3 months. But it helped.
I knew by going to the poker rooms, I was raising the level of competition. I knew that by playing friends or even playing people online, that I was playing mostly the same universe of people.
But being “stuck” in that universe, I wasn’t getting any new blood to compete with.
As with any sport or skill, you can only raise your level of play by playing people better than you. By playing at the poker rooms, I knew I was going to find people better than me to play, so I could make myself a better player.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, play real people.
5- Be Mindful of Your Budget
I never go online to a casino or walk into a brick and mortar casino with any expectations. I have no belief that I will win.
I play to win, but play to win and expecting to win are 2 entirely different things.
Because of this, I always budget money that I can afford to lose.
It took me a while to learn this lesson. I thought that I could make a few bucks here and there playing. But the more I played, the more I realized that there were better players out there. Better players that could beat me. I also realized that some of the not so great players could beat me sometimes too.
When I get paid, I always create a budget. In my budget, I allocate how much I wish to gamble with. I separate that from the rest of my income.
Within the funds I allocate for gambling, I set another budget. This is for how I wish to use the gambling funds.
Some months I may allocate 100% for online gambling. Other months I may have a trip planned to go somewhere like Las Vegas or Atlantic City, so I allocate the funds for those trips.
Once I have those funds set up, I stick to them. Sure, I will add any winnings to that fund, but I won’t dip into my other accounts to try and turn around a losing streak.
I’m meticulous about managing my bankroll at a casino. So much so that I will use 2 different accounts for gambling and for incidentals like buying drinks, food, and even lodging.
This is in addition to personal accounts for things like rent, car payments, and other living expenses.
If I know I’m on a losing streak, I will simply walk away from a table. Because I learned a long time ago the only way not to lose is to not play. The opposite is true too, you can only win if you play, but sometimes, you have to regroup.
I also look for ways to maximize my play. If I play online, I look for deposit bonuses and other bonuses sites may offer. I always read the fine print in these cases, to see what strings are attached to these bonuses, but is they seem fair, I accept them.
In brick and mortar casinos, I look for tournaments. Paying a one-time fee and getting thousands of dollars in chips to play is a lot better than having to account for every dollar that you throw on the table.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, make sure you have the change (and the dollars) to spare to play poker.
6 – The Magic of Video
I’ve been playing now for 20+ years. But I still learn all the time. Whether it’s a new strategy or a new poker variation, I take the time to learn.
One way I do this is to hop onto sites like YouTube, VideoMotion, Metacafe, and Vimeo to watch poker videos.
I can see videos from some of the best of the game like Doyle Brunson, Phil Galfond, Daniel Negreanu, and Doug Polk.
I can also see videos from different casinos like the MGM, the Sands, the Bellagio and many more.
These videos give a well-rounded glimpse into how to play the games.
Over the years I’ve learned or I’ve improved my skills in:
- Texas Hold ’em
- 7-Card Stud
- 5-Card Draw
- Pai Gow Poker
I have studied more too, but I studied these in anticipation of playing in World Series of Poker satellite games. All these games except Pai Gow Poker are played in the WSOP.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, watch expert videos.
7 – Don’t Get a Big Head
Players in the poker world have some big egos. It seems only fitting. If a player is on a winning streak, then he should have some bragging rights.
By winning all the time, some players avoid the sting of soul-crushing losses. They develop a feeling of invincibility.
But eventually, that invincible feeling becomes their downfall.
Losing allows you to vent held in emotions. It allows a person to look at things in an objective way. It allows time for reflection and to process pain.
Yes, I said pain. Can losing a poker hand be painful? Sure it can.
For example, a loss of $50 may feel like an ant bite. It’s a bit itchy and stays for a few days to remind you that you’ve been bitten. A loss of $50,000 may be more like a knife through the back. You’ll survive. You need to recuperate, and you’ll never be the same.
The feelings of pain and even anguish stimulate your growth as a player and as a person. It allows you to let go of what you think things should be. It makes you more receptive to change.
With change, you can learn.
In reality, it may take a string of losses to start bringing anyone down.
Learning to channel that pain, and the emotions associated with it can make you better. This is true in poker and in life.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, let go of your ego.
8 – Taking Notes
I mentioned earlier that I take notes when reading. But I also take notes while playing (when possible). I take notes on the hands I play and what everyone else played.
Once I finished playing for the day, I take all the notes and type them out again on my computer. It was necessary to type the notes while they were still fresh in my mind because some of the notes I take aren’t the most legible. So If I wanted to get them right, I needed to wet them into the computer quickly.
By writing and then typing out what I do, it helps me commit the plays to memory.
To this day I still take notes. I learn something each time. I can see my mistakes if I lose. I can see the mistakes of others if I win. I can see what to do next in a draw.
I also learn about the other players by taking notes. I find that I come across players I have played before. Having notes on who I played and how they played helps me know how to develop a strategy to beat them.
I can review their gameplay. It lets me take all their actions into account.
This way, even if I lose, I know that I can take away something more valuable than the chips on the table. I have taken away the knowledge of how the other players play. I may not see everything at the table in real time. But when I review my notes, I can have those “ah ha” moments that teach me how to be a better player.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, take good notes.
9 – Learn Strategy
In all the learning that I’ve done: reading, playing, taking notes, watching TV, and watching videos, I made it a point to learn winning strategies for each game.
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is to walk up to a poker table and just start playing without any type of game strategy.
When you play with no strategy at all, you give your opponents a huge edge over you.
You need to learn tactic and scenarios that teach you what to do in various situations. You need to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” as the old Kenny Rogers song goes.
No strategy is perfect and you may not remember what to do in every situation. Even after playing for many years. That’s ok. Learn a framework of what to do so you aren’t blindly throwing away good money after bad to play the game
If you want to change the way you approach poker, pick a strategy to work with.
10 – When It’s All Said and Done, Poker Is Only a Game
I’ve seen some players play with the intensity of 20 white-hot suns. I’ve also seen some players pay so laid back that I thought that may have fallen asleep. And then I’ve seen people fall on different points in between these 2 extremes.
The level of intensity that you play with is a personal choice. I fall somewhere towards the more laid back area spectrum.
Don’t misunderstand me, I take the game quite seriously, just not to the point where I want my blood pressure to rise and develop ulcers. My health is too important to me to do that.
I just try to keep focused on the fact that not every loss is the end of the world. Not every losing streak is the universe imploding. A loss is a loss. If I lose too much, I walk away. I take breaks. I play other games.
I had a losing streak last a month once. I decided that I needed to try something different. So I decided to learn how to play pai gow tiles. It was a huge departure from what I was used to playing. After all, it’s like Chinese dominoes.
Did I lose at pai gow tiles? Yes. But that was expected. I just wanted to learn and have fun. I still play for fun today. Admittedly, I’ll never be a great player, but its fun to me. Even when I lose. I’ve invested so much in poker, that losing, while part of the game, can make it less fun. In those cases when the lack of fun gets me down, I do something else for a while.
If you want to change the way you approach poker, remember, it’s only a game.
When I finally got in the mindset that I wanted to be a serious poker player, I had to change my mindset. I looked at it as a computer with a virus. Sometimes you have to wipe the hard drive and reinstall the operating system to get the computer to be effective.
So that’s what I did. I let go of what I thought worked and didn’t work. I took the time to relearn the game, and learn new ones. I practiced.
Do I play perfectly now? No. I play fairly well and I’m motivated to continue to improve. And someday, using all that I’ve learned, I hope to get a bracelet in the World Series of Poker. But until that time, I’ll keep striving to improve.