The Art of Talking to Yourself

We all come to poker with a blank slate. No one arrives knowing how to identify a SA/WB, read a flop texture, or spot a cooler. We learn these things through the feedback that poker provides us. And yet, though poker gives us all essentially the same feedback, some of us become proficient and others do not. One of the strongest determinants of how good a player will become is in how they respond to that feedback.

How do we become masterful in poker? How do our responses and attitudes toward feedback determine our skill level? And what can we ultimately do to better orient ourselves toward feedback?

In this final article on learning, we’ll be delving into the science of mastery, how to position ourselves so that we respond as optimally as possible to feedback, how to avoid loss aversion and other pitfalls in self-conditioning, the power of self-talk, and we’ll discuss some tips on how to maximize our efficiency as learners.

In previous chapters, we have skirted around the concept of mastery, but let’s now face it head on. As poker players, this is ultimately the one goal we all have in common: mastery of our craft.


The Science of Mastery

The definition of mastery can be elusive, since it’s subjective what we consider masterful. After all, to a 5¢/10¢ player, any $1/$2 regular might seem masterful, whereas to Phil Ivey, perhaps no one seems masterful. The exclusivity of “mastery” depends on your vantage point.

But for simplicity, we’ll accept some ambiguity in our definition. We’ll say that mastery is “reaching the highest level of proficiency in an art.” So a master could be a concert pianist, a chess grandmaster, a professional athlete, or, for poker, a consistent mid-high stakes regular.

The science of mastery was famously explicated by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which was largely based on the research of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. According to this research, achieving mastery is the result of a supportive environment and continual, consistent effort, rather than due to innate skill or natural “genius”. More contemporary studies have posited two key elements to acquiring mastery: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, and a capable mentor. (We will focus on the first element in this article; we will discuss mentorship in a later article.)

10,000 hours is an intimidating number. If we take this number literally, for someone who’s been playing poker for five years, playing 360 days a year, in order to have reached 10,000 hours, they’d need to have played about 6 hours a day, every day. If you’ve been playing poker for eight years, that number adjusts to about 3½ hours a day. These numbers might seem daunting—but it’s important to remember that there are different levels of success in poker (you can be a top $2/$4 regular, or a losing $10/$20 regular). Furthermore, studies have shown that the 10,000 hours rule famously touted by Gladwell isn’t so clear-cut—depending on the field, that number may range from 8,000 to 25,000 hours. For poker, chances are, it’s on the lower end, since it’s a relatively young game, and many masters of poker have been playing less than ten years (whereas the best concert pianists have been training all their lives). So you should take this to mean not so much that there’s a magic number of hours that you need to play, but more simply that you just need to play a lot to get to the highest arena of the game.

So, the dictum goes, “10,000 hours of deliberate practice.” What is deliberate practice? Ericsson theorized that it is not enough to merely perform a skill a large number of times; how you practice is the key to whether you will ever attain mastery. Here are some of the essential properties of good deliberate practice:

  1. Breaking down skills into smaller chunks, and rehearsing those specific skill chunks
  2. Continually practicing the skill at more and more challenging levels
  3. Being very conscious and attendant toward feedback and mistakes, with the intention toward mastery

What makes practice “deliberate” becomes very clear—rigorous effort with the intention to dissect a skill and master every part of it.

This is all well and good for mastering a piano sonata, but what about poker? In poker there’s no such thing as “practising”—you can only perform it (since play money is nothing like the actual thing). A concert pianist can practise his piece a hundred times before a recital at Carnegie Hall, but it’s impossible for a player to practise taking a shot at Jungleman unless he actually plays Jungleman. Or is it?

This problem troubled me for a long time. What does practice mean in a game that is all performance? Is poker some kind of exception from the conventional concept of mastery? After pondering this problem for some time, I eventually came to the conclusion that although poker has some particular nuances of its own, the same rules that apply to other forms of mastery hold true for poker.

Poker has some counterparts to deliberate practice, like studying or watching videos. Ultimately, however, they are not enough. The only thing that qualifies as true, deliberate practice is deliberate play. Play is practice in poker. Every session in which you are paying your full attention to your errors and trying to learn from them, in which you are actively trying to train a particular weakness, e.g., to take more risks, play more conservatively, or learning to play deepstacked—when, that is, you are listening as closely as possible to*what poker is telling you—this* is deliberate practice.

Thus, it is not enough to have done 10,000 hours of mindless grinding or 24-tabling. It must be deliberate. You must be listening to feedback from poker, and using it to inform changes in your game. In order for each session you play to count towards your goal, it must be a conscious, intelligent, and measured attempt to improve and monitor your weaknesses. There are only two types of players who are ever able to quickly shoot up through the stakes—those who put in many hours in a short time, or those who are profoundly rigorous with their playing and studying habits. This is the only viable path to mastery—genius alone always falls short.

Orienting Yourself Toward Feedback

We’ve already discussed things like isolation drills and elaborative rehearsals, which can help make our practice more deliberate, but on the whole, practicing poker is trickier than practising most other things. If you are practising a piano sonata, by playing the piece through, you can usually hear whether or not you’ve misplayed a note, but as a poker player, you don’t always know when you’ve made a mistake. Poker is constantly giving us feedback, but that feedback is noisy, chaotic. This is partly why poker is such a difficult game to learn.

Feedback causes mental conditioning—positive feedback will reinforce a behavior, while negative feedback will discourage it. Imagine your brain as a little mouse in a cage, which is either fed little pellets, or shocked by electricity. Usually, you get fed pellets for being good, and zapped for being bad. But in poker, both pellets and shocks sometimes come down randomly. It can sometimes seem like there’s no rhyme or reason—pellet, shock, pellet, shock, shock, pellet. With all of this chaos, your little mouse is bound to get confused, and come up with all sorts of strange and outlandish explanations of why pellets and shocks appear (which, unsurprisingly, is exactly what novice poker players do—when I was playing NL10, after losing a few big pots to 25o and 34o, I used to believe that playing low cards was smart, because no one would ever guess when I’d hit two pair or trips).

This is the basis of being results-oriented. Somebody who is results-oriented will respond to the surface-level feedback that poker is giving him. For example, if he makes a bluff that fails, he will often get discouraged and assume that it’s bad. Being results-oriented means that you’re conditioned by what poker does in this instant—whether it shocks you or feeds you a pellet. But poker is capricious and as experienced and thoughtful players, we ought to know this. So instead of letting poker shock or feed our brains, we must take hold of the lever, don our labcoats, and become the scientist feeding or zapping our mouse brains.

We want to be process-oriented. Instead of focusing on results and winning every hand, we focus instead on going through the right decision making process, on making plays that will be good in the long run. This gives us the ability to make plays that may lose in one instance, without becoming negatively conditioned against making that play again. It gives us control over our own conditioning. Being process-oriented allows us to circumvent some of the stochasticity and chaos of poker, and more directly shape our brains toward an ideal game.

That’s all well and good, you might say. But how do I become process-oriented? How do I stop feeling bad when I lose an individual hand? There are two answers to this problem—the first is that it gets easier with time. Lose enough hands and you’ll become desensitized to losing, eventually no longer feeling the negative conditioning that often comes with it. But the second answer is a bit more complicated—and that brings us back to the realm of cognitive biases.

Loss Aversion and Other Feedback Imbalances

Loss aversion bias is the observation that people are inherently irrational in risk-taking—they overvalue averting losses, and undervalue making new gains. For example, if you’re in a 300bb pot, and you have 200bb behind with which to bluff shove the river, and you think that he’s folding 50% of the time—would you shove, or would you fold? Even with these assumptions, many people check back this river because their mind is inherently biasing them toward keeping what money they have. The 200bb they already own have feels more valuable than the 300bb in the middle. Another way of saying this is that losing 200bb feels worse than winning the 300bb in the middle feels good.

In reality, every dollar should be equal to every other dollar (in most cases). A dollar gained should be equally as good as a dollar lost is bad.

This bias is one of the most difficult to overcome, because, ultimately, emotion plays a huge role in how we make internal decisions in poker—not simply in terms of strategy, but also in terms of how we play, when we play, and who we play. To combat this bias and become more process-oriented, perhaps your most valuable tool is self-talk.

Self-talk is the process of mentally “talking to yourself” while you’re doing something. It’s a ubiquitous feature of our mental lives, as we are constantly praising, reminding, and chastising ourselves as we act in the world. There are three basic types of self-talk: positive, negative, and instructional. Positive self-talk is self-reinforcing, such as “I’ve got this in the bag,” or “I’m so sick!” Negative self-talk is self-rebuking, such as “god, I’m such a donk,” or “how could I make that call?” Instructional self-talk, on the other hand, is a mental reminder or walk-through on how to execute something, such as “okay, call this turn and then shove any blank river,” or “don’t tilt, stay calm, and wait for him to 3-bet you again.”

It’s unsurprising that positive self-talk is vastly better for performance than negative self-talk. But, interestingly, studies have shown that instructional self-talk actually produces better performance than positive self-talk. Thus, it is in your interest to mentally talk to yourself and, essentially, to coach yourself through your poker game in your mind (that’s not to say that positive self-talk doesn’t serve an important function, as we’ll discuss later). But it’s instructional self-talk that best remedies the problem of loss aversion bias.

Instructional self-talk can help our rational mental processes overcome and influence the biases of our unconscious mind. If you tell yourself “it’s okay I lost two buyins, because I had a good shot at three buyins, and that was hugely +EV,” by saying this to yourself enough times you will learn to accept this as a satisfactory justification. By repeatedly instructing yourself and tempering your natural loss aversion with self-talk, you can counteract the natural impulse of your mind to inhibit whatever behavior led to that loss. You can do the same thing to counter other cognitive biases, such as first-impression bias (your tendency to cling to first impressions longer than you should). Self-talk is an invaluable tool for a poker player, one that needs to be developed right alongside any other.

As the loss aversion bias demonstrates, quite often our brains do not interpret different kinds of feedback with equal weight. I call these feedback imbalances. Because of feedback imbalances, our brains provide their own additional layer of noise over and above the distortion inherent to poker.

Consider negative events. A negative event is when you decide not to do something you were considering doing. Negative events happen all the time—you elect not to 4-bet, or decide against a flop checkraise. The problem with negative events in poker is that we rarely allow them to strongly condition us.

Say, for example, you’re in a big pot, you’ve barrelled two streets, and you’re deciding whether or not to bluff the river. If you barrel the river and he folds, you win the pot, you feel really good, and get a big chunk of positive conditioning. If you bluff the river and he calls your bluff, you lose, and you get a big chunk of negative conditioning. But what if, after some consideration, you don’t bluff the river, you lose, and he shows the nuts? You might feel a little sense of relief, but probably you’ll feel relatively neutral, and perhaps even a little irked that he had the nuts and won the pot. There is a feedback imbalance here—when you make the right decision by barrelling and he folds, you get a lot of psychological reinforcement that it was a good play. But when you make the right decision by checking and he wins with the nuts, you get very little reinforcement that you made the right play. The latter doesn’t feel like a win, when strategically it is.

Another prominent feedback imbalance is in hero calls. Think about the last time you made a hero call with ace high in a big pot. If you were right, you probably felt amazing—heroic, even, as the term suggests. You got an enormous surge of positive feedback when you called, a surge that was repeated every time you showed that call to a friend. But what happens when you call with ace high and lose? Well, some of the time you might feel really stupid, especially if you get berated. But most of the time, you’ll probably just think to yourself: “well, I knew I was beating his bluffs, and he happened to have it this time. I still don’t know if it was a good call.” Or, if he had a bluff that beat you, you might think to yourself, “damn! I knew he was bluffing! So sick!”

This might not ring true for you, but it does for many players. Hero calls carry a lot of psychological baggage, because we tend to glorify them in a way that we don’t other poker hands. It’s almost as if they’re exempt from the normal rules of poker diligence. As a result, failed hero calls tend to get relatively little negative feedback, while successful hero calls get overwhelmingly positive feedback. In terms of the emotional calculus, you can see that your brain incentivizes you to make outrageous hero calls. After all, it doesn’t feel that bad when you lose, and it feels amazing when you win. Hence, hero calls introduce a troublesome feedback imbalance.

So what can we do to equalize feedback imbalances? The answer comes back again to self-talk. Using positive self-talk, you can reinforce behaviors and plays that on its own, poker does a poor job of reinforcing. For example, after checking the river in a big pot and not firing a final barrel, once he shows down the nuts, instead of simply allowing yourself to feel bad or neutral that he won that medium-large pot, you might instead mentally tell yourself, “Good job not firing that river bluff. He would’ve called. Good play.” With hero calls, you can do a couple of things to equalize the feedback. First, you can engage in negative self-talk (followed by instructional self-talk) to make a failed hero call more likely not to get brushed over by your brain: “damn, I shouldn’t have made that call. Bad play. Be more careful with hero calls.” Second, you could try to dampen the positive reinforcement by successful hero calls to make things more even. For example, you could make a rule for yourself that you’re not allowed to show off your hero calls to any of your friends. This would remove a large part of the psycho-social incentive to making the hero call to begin with, and make you more likely to simply focus on making the best play in a vacuum.

Related to the idea of a feedback imbalance is the concept of indicative strength. Indicative strength is, simply put, how much information a certain fact (a hand he shows, or a play he makes) gives about your opponent’s game. I’ll illustrate with a non-poker example, for simplicity.

Say you have a jar of marbles. You can’t see inside it, but you know that there are 100 marbles, and there are only two possible overall configurations: there are either 95 red and 5 blue, or 65 red and 35 blue. You don’t know which of these configurations it is, nor the probability of each configuration, but you are allowed to draw out one marble. So let’s say you draw out a marble and it’s red—this is an event of low indicative strength. That is, it doesn’t tell you much about whether the jar is 95% red or 65% red. It could easily be either. But if you draw out a first marble and it’s blue, this is has very high indicative strength—it makes it more likely that it’s the 35% blue configuration.

Using marbles, this concept might seem self-evident. But in poker, the confluence of emotions, noise, and complexity make it much harder to properly attribute probabilities. For example, in a spot where you call top pair because you think your opponent has either the nuts or a missed draw, in the event that he shows you the nuts, you generally accept a large chunk of negative conditioning—“god, I’m such a donk, I should’ve folded.” Quite often, his showing down the nuts is an event of low indicative strength—he would have the nuts sometimes whether you thought he was bluffing with his draws or not, and so you shouldn’t be very strongly conditioned by it. But when your unconscious mind loses a big pot (because it naturally wants to find significance in everything), it doesn’t account for that. It simply sees a hand you lose to, and rings the hurt bell.

Our unconscious minds tend to be very poor at processing data for its indicative strength, and so we must use our conscious minds to calibrate our reactions (and thereby, our self-conditioning). Self-talk, again, is a powerful remedy. By telling ourselves: “I knew he might have the nuts either way; that doesn’t tell me anything about whether my play was good,” we mollify some of the negative conditioning that comes with losing that pot.

We must always be vigilant with our conscious minds, and learn to orchestrate the dialogues in our heads. Eventually, with enough practice, your unconscious mind will learn to interpret such events in a way such that you no longer need to consciously regulate it (that is, attributing indicative strength will reach a level of unconscious competence). But until then, you must be rigorous with your mental dialogue to calibrate your own self-conditioning. Self-talk is one of the few things over which you have genuine control in poker, and so you must wield and master it as best you can.

The Pitfalls of Hand Histories

There are some pitfalls in learning that are more deeply entrenched, and often, more difficult to see. One such pitfall is what’s known in psychology as context-dependent memory. This is the phenomenon by which something that is learned in one context is much better retained, retrieved, and reinforced within the same context. So in short, if you want to retrieve a memory, you should put yourself in the same context you learned it (e.g., go to the same place, engage the same senses, put yourself in the same physical state). This might seem obvious, but it has one very important implication to the learning of poker.

If your first thought was “hand histories,” you’re right on the money. Hand histories are, in a very important sense, alien to the context in which we actually play poker. Think about it. A hand history is a big, meticulous, awkward block of text. It has no sense of time, it (usually) has no visual cues at all, and it is static, while an actual poker hand involves movement and action—the way you experience a hand history is completely**different from the way you actually experience the living hand of poker. The effect of this is that learning you gain from a hand history (or books or forums) is not going to be fluidly exported when actually playing poker.

This partially explains the existence of players who offer robust analysis on hands, but who are much weaker at actually playing poker. There’s various names for this phenomenon: “theory crafters” and “keyboard jockeys,” among others—these people have learned most of their poker skills in the context of hand histories, perhaps by reading lots of forums or watching videos, but they have difficulty retrieving that learning during an actual poker game.

How can we avoid this pitfall? To some extent, our psychology makes the problem is intractable. The further we move from the context of learning, the more difficult recall will be, period. But there are a few things we can do to make our learning more effective when crossing over contexts.

The first and most effective thing to do is to try to emulate the native context. I.e. do everything you can to make a hand history more like an actual hand of poker. Try to put every important hand you want to learn from in a hand replayer, so you get more visual feedback, like a real hand of poker. This might seem simple or a waste of time, but the cues it activates make it much more likely you’ll be able to retrieve the learning in a real game. Even more powerfully—try visualizing the hand as though it were real. Try to invoke the poker-playing part of your brain to accept the conditioning you’re receiving. Close your eyes and imagine the money amounts, what they would mean to you, the timer ticking down, and making the right play. The closer you get your experience of hand histories to the actual experience of playing poker, the more effective your learning will be. Go out of your way to make this happen! It’s a pain, and it can sometimes seem awkward and unnecessary, but it’ll dramatically improve your learning and retention in the long run.

A second thing you can do is to try to boil down your learning from hand histories (and forums and books) into cues that can be imported as self-talk. For example, let’s say you read a hand that shows a great river 3-bet bluff. Instead of simply thinking to yourself, “I’m going to do that next time” (a commitment that usually never materializes), write down an actionable piece of self-instruction. For example, “when you can rep the absolute nuts, 3-bet bluff the river.” Keep that piece of paper with you the next time you play a session of poker; ideally, read over it periodically to remind yourself of this piece of self-instruction. This will make it much more likely that in the moment 3-bet bluffing the river is a possibility, this hand you read about will come back to you, and you’ll be more likely to make an uncharacteristic play.

The Hubris of Theory

In my last three articles, I have ardently extolled the virtues of poker theory and rigorous study. But I should also make clear that I don’t believe theory is all-powerful. Some players, especially ones who are mathematically inclined, can have a rosy conception of how poker works. In their minds, poker is just a mathematical construct—a puzzle, with a discrete solution. They imagine that if locked in a room for 20 years with a calculator, they could develop a poker game so robust that it could take down the best player in the world.

These players imagine poker consists merely of figuring out a set of strategies, as though writing them out on a notecard—“how to play poker”—such that having the right set of strategies on your notecard will make your game impregnable. Of course, that’s not how poker works. Poker must be learned; you must absorb that learning into your bones. Your brain must get conditioned into the right network, which takes many hundreds of thousands of hands. You needn’t worry about mapping out all of your strategies, or obsessing over the mathematics. Focus on getting the learning into your fingers. I have known countless players who were more mathematically capable at describing poker than I was, but who couldn’t stay afloat in a $1/$2 game.

Imagine a difficult poker hand you’ve played. You imagine, don’t you, that there’s some way to theoretically break this hand down and trace the “right answer,” like a scientist looking from above on his lab rat’s maze? Theory will show you this—the right theory. This is what we believe. Why?

You want to see it from up there, the scientist’s view, but in reality, you are the rat caught in the maze. You will never be the scientist. You’re trapped, and you will always be. You don’t have access to perfect theory, and you don’t know how your theory is imperfect. It’s quite possible that, in everything that you know, it’s impossible for your “theory” to lead you to the optimal solution. You might believe in some part of your mind that poker is a beautiful, righteous, mathematically pristine game. But you, the learner of poker, are merely a rat in its maze, and you must find your way out. Reason will not always save you.

The limitations of poker theory are very real, and must be taken seriously. In my next article, I will be exploring the nature of poker theory and poker language, focusing on how we actually use them to inform our play. Turns out, poker logic is not nearly as pristine—or logical—as you think. Stay tuned for next article!

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. :)
April 29 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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