New Year’s goal: Become a winning player

By Bernard Harris

The hard truth is that the majority of us are not long-term winners. Of course we all win on occasion and are comforted by the memory of that awesome $500, $1,000, or $2,000 night we had many moons ago. But if we were to add up all of our winning poker dollars and subtract our buy-ins, tournament entry fees, the rake, and other poker related costs, then the vast majority of us would be in the red. So how can we join the ranks of the elite who live in the black? How can we become long-term winning players?

Step #1: We Have to Study.

Since birth, we have been indoctrinated with the dogma that we are all special, unique, extraordinary snowflakes. In poker, this translates into a belief that our inherent god-given abilities (i.e., our magical guts and reading skills) give us a winning edge. Similarly, over the years we’ve developed our own poker philosophies and strategies that seem to work, as validated by the big tournament we won last year or our $1,500 night last month. So why should we have to study? Surely, we’ve proven ourselves the exception to the rule!

Convincing a poker player who is reluctant to see the importance of studying is akin to explaining a sunset to someone born blind. If you have yet to study poker theory beyond pot odds, the rule of 4 and 2, or the occasional web search of common poker terms (three-bet, equity, M-number, etc.) then you are fighting a boxing match with one arm tied behind your back. Simply put, you have to study if you want to become a consistent winner.

Buy poker books, read poker periodicals, google every poker term you come across, download free poker software (like Poker Stove), and learn how to do your own poker calculations. Yes, it is time consuming hard work but it is the price one must pay in order to become a winning player. Or put another way, if it were easy, then everyone would be profitable.

Step #2: Adopt a Positive Expected Value (+EV) Mindset

Most players are overly obsessed with results-oriented poker. Their decisions and deductions are based on whether they win or lose a specific hand. As a consequence, their thoughts and decisions are overwhelmingly short-term based and Level I (see Step #1 if you are unfamiliar with these terms). When they have “something” they tend to bet or call. When they have “nothing” they tend to check and fold.

Conversely, profitable players have a correct play +EV mindset and tend to be Level II and Level III players (if you don’t know these terms, see Step #1). They evaluate the board, their villains, chip stacks, position, etc. and then they make the play that realizes the most value in the long run. Whether that particular play results in a win or loss in that specific situation is irrelevant.

The greater our commitment to Step #1, the easier Step #2 becomes. Through study, we will see that virtually all pros and grinders think in terms of “the long run” and +EV instead of evaluating their decisions based on the singular outcome of the immediate hand in question.

Step #3: Follow Proper Bankroll Management (BRM).

Steps #1 and #2 will give us the skills to become a profitable player, however it is all for naught if we don’t follow proper bankroll management (BRM). BRM is more than just having enough money to cover a few buy-ins. Bankroll management incorporates the negative variance that is part of poker. In a nutshell, if we are winning or breakeven players and follow proper bankroll management, we will never go broke!

The rule of thumb in (no-limit) BRM is that we need a minimum of 20 buy-ins (a buy-in being 100 big blinds) to play a particular game. So, if we play $1/$2 NL ($200 buy-in) then we need a roll of at least $4K to play that game. Similarly, if we play $2/$5 NL ($500 buy-in), go on a downswing where our roll drops below $10K, then we need to move down in limit to rebuild our bankroll. Chris Ferguson validated these BRM principles by turning $0 into $10,000 during the “Chris Ferguson Challenge.” Unfortunately, a couple of paragraphs are not enough to do BRM justice, so I refer you to Step #1.

Many players believe a trial-and-error approach plus experience will turn them into winning players. Unfortunately, poker is just too complex for this sort of brute force empirical approach to be viable. A player could literally play millions of hands over several decades and still have serious flaws and leaks in his game. Studying is instrumental in conquering poker’s learning curve and developing the +EV mindset that is the staple of winning players. Yet, becoming a profitable player is meaningless if we fail to follow proper bankroll management. By studying, adopting the +EV mindset, and following proper bankroll management, we will ensure that the coming New Year will be a profitable one.