How to Live as a Poker Player, Part 1

Nobody teaches us how to be poker players.

Poker culture teaches us how to slowplay, how to setmine, how to manage our bankroll. It teaches us how to think, how to talk, what is cool and what is not. We absorb these teachings eagerly. But when was it going to teach us how to be poker players? What to think of ourselves? How to thrive in a culture that is built on degeneracy?

If you know the lives of many professional poker players, you know this question is not too paternalistic.

Professional poker is a strange and isolating life. Nothing you have ever done before will prepare you for it.

Over my career as a poker teacher, I have taught many things. But one thing I regret never emphasizing is the importance of living well as a poker player. This will be my attempt to rectify that, and recount everything that I think every poker player ought to live by—and what I wish I had heard when I began playing poker 7 years ago.

I will discuss many things within this series of three articles, but I will begin with: first, how to structure your poker sessions, then the art of quitting, how to pace your career, the importance of keeping poker fun, and how to avoid envy and learn to be happy for others.

We will begin with practical things we can do to maximize our performance, most of which are backed by research and studies, and some of which is based upon my experience of working with poker players. I will attempt to answer the question—how should you structure your poker sessions?


Structuring your Poker Lifestyle

Freedom is a double-edged sword. Your freedom as a poker player means you can live almost any way you want. The downside of that freedom is that, in the modern world, a lack of responsibilities tends to move us toward unhealthy habits. As human beings, we tend to take the path of least resistance. And in the modern world, the path of least resistance is to live an unhealthy and unstructured life.

Structure is extremely important. As adept as you may think you are at playing poker at any time of day, studies show that structure and regularity are very beneficial to learning and attaining mastery. Remember, you alone are in charge of your poker playing. You must therefore self-regulate in almost every respect. It becomes much more difficult to control tilt, marathon sessions, or other forms of bad poker judgment without a defined structure to keep you in check.

Set a daily schedule for yourself. Decide when you’re going to play poker, and for how long. I recommend not playing any sessions for longer than 3 hours, and taking a short break every 90 minutes. Studies show that there is a drop in performance quality and mental acuity around the 90 minute mark; taking a break and refreshing yourself, for just 5 minutes if you can, will make you much sharper throughout the entirety of your session.

If you want to play more than 3 hours a day, break it up into multiple sessions. Put enough time between them that you don’t feel like the sessions bleed into each other. I.e., resist the urge to think “I have to get even from my first session.” Your sessions should feel independent, and putting time between them will make that easier.

Always play at the same time everyday. Plan these times out in advance. If it is difficult for you to keep to these times, try setting timers (kitchen timers are especially effective, due to their physicality). Try not to play extraneous sessions, especially not serious ones. Train your brain to think “this is when I play poker. Only at these times.” Allowing yourself to play sessions at other times will circumvent much of the mental conditioning you’ve accrued in playing during your normal sessions. That is, you’ll feel more like you can “bend your rules” if it doesn’t feel like a “real session.” Thus, when you break your structure, you will be much more susceptible to tilt and bad decision making. Don’t take the psychological effects of your routines lightly—they will help you immensely in controlling tilt and maintaining your level of play.

Play tough matches sometimes, but not all the time. Sometimes take it slow and just play weaker players. Whenever you are playing tough matches, do so consciously and intentionally. Focus on the game. Know what you’re doing and what approach you’re going to be taking, what you’ll be experimenting with, what you’re going to try to exploit. Focus on learning.

Always review sessions, ideally on a daily basis, with a thorough review at the end of each week. Go over hands in detail. Remind yourself what you did wrong and how to change it. Don’t review your session immediately after you finish it, though—your memory is too fresh, and you’ll be biased toward thinking that your reads were correct. Give some time in between; the next day is usually best.

Spread out onto as many sites as you practically can. Download every program that seems vaguely useful to you (Pokerstove? PokerEV? Tiltbuster?). Don’t procrastinate on getting acquainted with any of them. Every day that you hold off on trying out a potentially helpful program, or moving onto another site, you are bleeding away money. Employ every possible tool. Search for every conceivable edge. It will only make your life and poker career easier.

Choose your rituals, and stick to them. What do you do every morning when you wake up? What do you before you start your sessions? What do you do when you take breaks? Rituals allow us to divest much of our anxiety and negative emotions. Always engage in rituals of some kind before your sessions. And by ritual I don’t mean they have to be spiritual. They simply have to be consistent—choose a little routine that prepares you to play, and then stick to it.

The Art of Quitting

A great player once told me that quitting is the most important skill that a poker player can develop. The more I came to understand the life of poker, the more I realized how right he was. Almost all poker players quit too little when they’re down, and too much when they’re up. It is imperative that you treat quitting as a skill, and practice it mindfully. Don’t ever be afraid to quit when you’re down.

Yes, sometimes you’re ahead in EV, you believe you have an edge, this player is worse than you. We’ve all heard such claims a thousand times before, from others and from ourselves. They are irrelevant. The best players in the world are not afraid to quit players who they think are worse than them. The skill of quitting, in fact, is not in quitting people who you think are better than you. Think about it—we almost always quit once we truly believe that we are the worse player.

The skill in quitting comes in quitting before you believe that you’re worse. Because in every losing match you’ll ever play, it will always take a certain amount of time before you reach that point of realization. Quit early. Never kick yourself for quitting (unless you’re up).

It is even okay to quit fish sometimes. Some of the players I respect most have been known to quit fish. After all, 10% of the time, the people who you think are fish are not fish at all. And 1% of the time, even if they are fish, their strategies may be exploiting you, until you realize that your assumptions about their play or psychology are mistaken. This scenario is not as uncommon as you think.

As poker players, we are constantly judging our opponents. It’s in our blood; it’s how we differentiate the skill levels of players and how we dissect their psychology. But this instinct works against us when it comes to quitting. When we see that the structure of someone’s game is incongruous or shoddily put together, we are quick to lump them into the category of “fish.” And, of course, if someone is a fish, then we decide we cannot quit them no matter what.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received as a poker player was this one: only play when you’re having fun. Doesn’t matter if he’s a fish, doesn’t matter if you’re supposed to play a session today, or if you think you have to keep playing this guy—if you’re not having fun, quit. No matter your structure or how many hands you want to put in, never mentally penalize yourself for a good quit.

Poker should be played. Play-ed! We use the word so easily that we sap it of its native meaning, but play should mean what it sounds like. Poker should be fun! Not only because it makes it easier, but because it makes us perform better. Being at play, enjoying when you’re playing not only maximizes your sensitivity to learning (as we’ll discuss later), but also makes you more creative, free-flowing, ready to experiment.

Poker is a game, in the end. Even if it is your passion, even if it is your livelihood, always remember that poker is a game. That is not to say that you shouldn’t take it seriously—of course, you should. But if you are not enjoying it, then you should walk away until you can find a way to enjoy it again.

Outlasting the Mountain

Although poker can often feel like a race, it’s not. It is, rather, a feat of endurance. It is more about lasting than it is about being the swiftest. So make sure you last. Take your time. Build up slowly, check your footing at every step, and treat the mountain with respect.

Be sure to take days off. Play almost everyday, but not everyday. Take at least one day a week off. Don’t be afraid to take days off on important life events, or days when you’re simply not up to it (and never play when you’re feeling mentally unwell). Having periods of rest, giving your brain time to recuperate from the stress and mental taxation is important, not only to prevent burnout and keep your brain healthy, but to allay some of the negative effects of stress, as well as consolidate learning. In any kind of training, you must engage in cycles of intense performance, followed by rest. Not giving your brain rest is just as bad as working out 7 days a week—you must allow your body and mind some time to rest and recover.

Take longer breaks as needed. If things are going really poorly, you’re very unmotivated about poker, or if you’re going on a trip of some sort, don’t be afraid to take a week or two off once in a while. These sojourns can actually be very good for resetting your perspective as a poker player, and letting you come back to your game with fresh eyes and an open mind. They can also help to reintegrate your self-narrative after a painful downswing. Just be careful to always set a date when you start playing again, so that you don’t stay away from the game too long, or start dreading your return. However, if you are somebody who continually takes breaks (or has wider motivational problems), this is a more insidious problem to tackle. In that case, I would advise perhaps living with other poker players if you already don’t (the grinding energy tends to be infectious), or working with a mental coach.

Don’t spend money. Don’t withdraw. Play, play, play, and be as frugal as you can while you’re building up your bankroll. In the early stages of your career, your money is not yours yet. It’s your bankroll, not your “money.” Decide on a set amount that you’ll cash out every month—more than the minimum you need to live reasonably, but not too much more—and don’t cash out any more than that, even if you have a big day. Decide when you’ll change these monthly cashout limits (perhaps once you reach 2/4, or 3/6, or whatever). This will keep you motivated, and keep your life connected to your success, without making you anxious about poker being able to sustain your lifestyle, or having your lifestyle drain your bankroll.

Right now, as you are growing as a player, it’s all about building your bankroll. Poker is the egg you’re nurturing. Take care of it, polish it, keep it warm, and it will grow into a big, healthy, egg-laying chicken. But for now, it’s just an egg, so keep your dick in your pants and keep things simple.

Lastly, always have a poker goal, something guiding your development. Goals are invaluable motivation. They will stoke the fire in your belly and keep you climbing. Make sure time-related goals are procedural rather than results-based. That is to say, don’t make a goal like “I want to be at 2/4 in 2 months” or “I want to make $10,000 in the next week.” Any goal related to time should be about procedure such as “I want to play 7,000 hands this week,” or “I want to obey a 3 buyin stop loss everyday for the next 2 months.”

It’s okay (and very motivating) to have a results-based goal about eventually reaching certain stakes. But never tie that goal to a period of time. Let the goal come when it comes. And don’t worry; there’s nothing wrong with staring at 10/20 tables and daydreaming a little. If you ask me, that’s part of the fun of poker too.

Distress and Eustress

Stress is ubiquitous in poker. Being a professional poker player will age you; make no mistake of that. But the breadth and effects of stress you experience depend on how well you are able to manage that stress, and, particularly, how you manage your downswings.

We consider downswings to be bad because, obviously, they lose us money and are deeply unpleasant. But another important reason why downswings are bad for us is because they can contribute to chronic stress, and trigger your long-term stress response. Chronic stress is, simply put, long-term and consistent exposure to stressors. Evolutionarily, our stress responses were supposed to be short-lived and intermittent (and usually related to food acquisition or combat). It should be no surprise then that the continual and complex stresses that poker places on us are unnatural, and we are not built to withstand it for long stretches of time.

You’ve probably heard about the various bad things that stress can do to your body and brain, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about the physiology of it. But the important points are that chronic stress inhibits neuronal growth, causes depressed energy levels and mental functioning, and can negatively affect your immune system—on the whole, it is very detrimental to health and mental clarity. Clearly, we want to avoid chronic stress.

But how can we? Downswings are inevitable, aren’t they? Perhaps this is simply our Faustian bargain—that in exchange for the lucre of poker, we must cede our mental well-being.

It is true that with a game like poker, it is impossible to avoid stress completely. If you are being constantly challenged, molded, and affected you will undergo stress. But it turns out, not all stress is equal. There are different neurochemical pathways activated by the stress that results from work, and the stress that results from play. This latter form of stress is sometimes termed eustress (as opposed to distress), and is analogous to the kind of stress your body undergoes during vigorous exercise, strength training, intellectual stimulation, or sexual activity—all of which are demonstrably good stressors for the body.

The idea, then, is that we must transform the stress of poker from distress into eustress. If we can manage this, we can subvert many of the negative effects of stress and maintain our mental well-being. The idea of play, as I stressed earlier, is paramount. When you play poker, you must be playing!

Make poker fun, engaging, interesting, and self-interested. Whenever it is not, step away from it. Poker should motivate you. It should be fun, and satisfying! Poker should never feel like a grind, but rather like a journey, an adventure, a quest.

How to be Happy for People

It is a statistical certainty that every single day, some fish somewhere will win a tournament. Sitting in his mother’s basement, clicking buttons and playing his lucky cards, he binks more in one sitting than you make in an entire month—or an entire year.

How does that make you feel?

Perhaps this doesn’t bother you. If you’ve played poker for a while, it probably shouldn’t. So imagine instead one of the regulars at your stakes. Not the good one—no, he might almost deserve it. Think of the fishiest, scummiest, trash-talkiest nitreg you know. The guy you always want to pound on at the tables. And then imagine him binking a massive tournament for $400,000. You wake up one morning to find him at the top of the tournament leaderboards. He’s donking around at $10/$20 PLO, laughing in chat and sending free money to the rail.

How about that? Steaming yet?

Or worse yet, imagine your poker nemesis. You know the one. Maybe he’s the guy who rose up the stakes alongside you, always talks trash, is infuriatingly good and always knows when you’re bluffing—maybe you’ve never spoken to him, but in your mind you two are eternal competitors. Or perhaps, your closest friend, the one with whom you have competed side-by-side, the one who sets all of the milestones by which you measure your progress—what if it’s him who binks that big tournament? What if he gets catapulted to high stakes, leaving you behind to grind out your .5/1 or 2/4 by yourself?

If there’s one inevitability in this poker, it’s that things will be unfair. Great players will sometimes fail, and bad players will sometimes succeed. This is an inevitability. But how can we embrace this fact? Intellectually, it becomes easy to accept after a while. But the challenge is in accepting it with grace—and eventually, with happiness for other people’s fortune.

We naturally have two emotional responses to other people’s success—envy and self-consciousness. Envy, because we want what they have. When they gain respect, fortune, or fame because we already desire those things for ourselves, we naturally resent them. But they also make us feel self-conscious, because their fortune separates them from us. Once your nemesis becomes rolled for high stakes, he is no longer a member of your caste. He has risen above you. It leaves you wondering—why not you? Were you not as good as him? Not as smart? Not as deserving? In the end, this reaction has more to do with negativity toward ourselves than toward others.

But the one thing we all have in common is our desire to be free from these emotions. No one wants to feel bad when others succeed. We want to be indifferent, or happy for them. But how do we get there?

Survey yourself. When someone else succeeds and you feel negatively towards it, where does that negativity come from? Analyze your emotions as clearly as you can. Then find and espouse a mental frame that diminishes that response.

For example, here is a very powerful mental frame: “I am climbing my own mountain of poker. My challenge is dealing with what happens to me; what happens to anyone else is irrelevant.” If you’ll remember, this is similar to the fog of variance frame discussed in an earlier chapter. It reinforces the idea that other people’s fortune is independent from your own. You must imagine your mountain is already set in stone, as are others’—but that needn’t bother you, anymore than it should bother you that someone else at a table was dealt AA. People will get dealt AA. You know they will. But all you can do is focus on playing whatever you were dealt as well as you can.

Try being happy for people. Even people you don’t like. It’s hard, and we are inundated with stories of other people succeeding, while poker constantly tries to convince us: “why not you?” But you suspect—rightfully so—that your life as a poker player will be better when you can be genuinely happy for others. This point extends to bad beats, too.

Stop telling bad beat stories. The desire to complain to others about your bad beats derives from a nearby artery—wanting affirmation that your failures are not your fault, and that you deserve more than what you have. Sharing bad beat stories makes you pay inordinate attention to hands where you lose unjustly. Just by repeatedly re-living those spots, you reinforce negativity, and the belief that all of your losses are unjust.

Make a rule for yourself that you’re no longer allowed to tell bad beat stories, but instead, are only allowed to show other people hands where you suck out. Remind yourself of how fortunate you are. Reinforce the belief—I am lucky to get the breaks I do get. Things could always be worse. This will not only make you a more positive and better poker player (and improve your well-being outside of poker), but focusing on your good fortune is bound to make you a better person on the whole.

Practice being happy for others. Tell a friend good job on his winning month. Write someone who won a tournament a private message, applauding him. Maybe, if you want a challenge, write that regular you dislike, the one who outstripped you and is now a higher stakes player, and congratulate him on a success. Do little things. Make sure they hurt a little, kick up your bitterness, or make you a little sick to your stomach. Lean into your envy. This is the only way to extinguish it.

Eventually, it won’t bother you anymore. You’ll learn to be more relaxed about other people, and with yourself. You will find great relief in being happy for others.

\*Storm Trooper image by Kristina Alexanderson.

This concludes the first part of this three-part series on the life of a poker player. In part two, we will continue by looking into health, how to structure your lifestyle outside of poker, and the role of ego and obsession in the development of a poker player.

Note: this is adapted from the rough draft of my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. If you like what you read, consider buying the completed book—it's tightly edited and contains new material! Hope you enjoyed. :)
July 15 2013
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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