Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, Earn.com (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.
Poker cannot be played alone. For a game to be dealt, you must have other players to battle, to deceive, to outmaneuver, to control. And yet, every hand of poker you are ever dealt you will play alone.
No one else is in your corner. You may find sympathy in others, encouragement, words of wisdom. But you know they have no stake in your success. You are the only one who will feel your swings. Your ups and downs belong only to you.
Poker is played alone.
And yet, there exists a poker community: a collection of self-interested individuals who nevertheless teach one another, help each other grow, share ideas, feelings, stories. They sacrifice their time, their knowledge, and their EV to help one another. Why?
In this article, we will try to make sense of the poker community. First we will try to answer the question of how and why it exists. Then, more practically, we will look at advice on how best to get value out of the poker community, how to forge healthy poker connections, the value of coaching and mentorship, and how to exist sanely in the culture of gambling.
Let’s begin with the first question, the one which has always fascinated me most. Perhaps the most fundamental axiom of poker is: “always maximize EV.” We internalize this from the beginnings of our careers. So why does something seemingly so at odds with that—the poker community, with its sharing information, helping other players—exist at all?
The culture of poker offers us a strange system of values. First, we are meant to be dispassionate toward money in poker. They’re just chips—we are supposed to be detached and objective. And yet, at the same time, we are supposed to be driven, to the point of obsession, in maximizing our EV.
If we’re not supposed to care about money, how can we be monomaniacal about EV? And more importantly, why would we be?
Poker culture teaches us to protect information, to look out for ourselves, to be indifferent to up and downs. Here, the ideal human being is the ruthlessly selfish one. Poker drives us apart. After all, when you win a big pot from someone, there is no fanfare, nobody to congratulate you, no handshake at the end. Once you win a pot from someone, the only recognition you get is the new enemy you’ve made, sitting across the table from you.
Money is not important, we are told. Money is not the end. Then what is?
As in any other human endeavor—other people are the end. It is only through the poker culture that having a 6bb/100 winrate, or making an amazing hero call, or being the biggest winner at $2/$4 for a month becomes an accomplishment. Without other people to care about those things, they would simply be arbitrary facts. But here, they mean something. The poker culture instils us with a value system, it gives us a reason why money is important, why bb/100, and non-showdown winnings, and hero calls, and marathon sessions, and minute questions of poker theory—why they all matter. It is thus that the stories of poker are created and imbued with meaning. As humans, we need actualization, and poker culture gives us that.
This is why the poker culture must exist. Through it, a dry monetary gain is transformed into an accomplishment, something laudable, even noble. It is chiefly through the poker culture that your success truly matters. Your skill, your fame, your journey—in reality, they mean very little to the outside world.
Yes, you would be making money. But in a vacuum, making money means very little. Poker culture is the logos; the source of values. I contend that without the poker world, much of poker would be meaningless.
That is not to say that this is good or bad. It is simply how it is. And it is also not to say that you must derive all of your values from poker culture (there are some who do, and many who don’t). But all of us who participate seriously in the journey of poker are in orbit of the poker culture. It’s the sun that both propels us in different directions, and holds us together.
Somewhere in your education as a poker player, you learned that you have to protect information. You probably can’t pinpoint where exactly you learned this. I certainly can’t. It’s one of those ideas that’s so deeply ingrained into the culture of poker that it seems to have always existed.
Of course, you should protect information. Information is important. It’s EV. Money. We realize the wisdom of this caution, and so we generally follow it. But we don’t always. We do share information sometimes. We gush to other people about our poker ideas. We show hands instead of mucking. We discuss theory at the table. We trash talk. We post hand advice in forums and help out our friends when they have a tough spot. Really, we share information all the time.
Our desire to share information stems from our desire to commune—to participate in the poker community. In a sense, sharing information is the only way to puncture the veil between you and another human being. Those are the moments we brush our minds against others—we get to feel poker. After all, the game is not much fun without other people to play with.
This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t protect information. It’s important. You probably shouldn’t show hands, you really shouldn’t trash talk, and you definitely shouldn’t discuss theory at the table (unless, of course, any of these are done strategically). But sharing information on the whole is very, very important. In fact, if you want to become a great poker player, it is absolutely essential, because it is the only real way to build a healthy and supportive poker network.
When I first started playing poker, I was alone. I had no one to share my ideas with. I had no friend climbing up poker alongside me. After several months, I finally gained a companion or two, but it would always happen that, as I improved and climbed up the stakes, I continually left my poker friends behind. Almost always, I would become the best player within my circle, and would have to search for new companions who were stronger players.
I was not lucky in how I started poker. I knew none of the right people. It took me a long time to find good resources. I had no gifted companions to rise up stakes alongside me. I never won any tournaments, and could not deposit more than once. And yet, I quickly became successful. If you asked me why I think I became good at poker, I would give a few answers—obsession, competitiveness, intelligence. But really, those things alone are not enough. What truly saved me, I believe, was my ability to make connections with other poker thinkers.
That’s not to suggest that I was great at it, by any means. I was 16 when I started poker, and woefully dense. But if I did not possess this skill, I suspect I would have had no chance at all of success.
It takes a village to raise a child—and to raise a poker player. You have to reach out to people. You have to find people to talk poker with. People to bounce ideas off, to learn from, to encourage you and make you feel less alone in this game. There is probably no single greater determinant of a poker player’s success than with whom he talks poker.
Well, let’s say you agree with all of this—but you don’t really know anyone. You’ve learned poker on your own, you have no poker friends who are on your level. This was the position I found myself in time and time again. The task seems daunting. How do you start? How do you make your own poker network?
The answer is simple: give.
Find someone whose game your respect—they might be a regular in your games, a poster on a forum, a friend of a friend, whatever. Offer them something. Share information. Reveal to them what you had in a hand and what you were thinking. Tell them some of your reads. Offer your own tips that you think they’d find helpful. Offer to help them review hands, or to let them know when good games are running. There are many things you can do, even if you’re an unknown player, that another poker player will appreciate.
You might think, “why would I do that? Just give away information—especially to someone I play against? I might as well set money on fire!” I hear protests like this sometimes, especially when I encourage solitary students to start reaching out to other players and expand their network. And almost every time, despite sounding pragmatic, this response is usually not motivated by EV. More often, it is motivated by a fear of rejection.
Try it. Just see what happens. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised.
But there are times when you really don’t have much to offer someone. Times when they are so much better than you—and you both know it—that you have little of value to give him. In that case: compliments go a long way.
It might sound trite, but as I was rising through the ranks, I made a number of my poker connections that way. Not flattery, mind you—it does not help to be obsequious or fawning. Most poker players, especially successful ones, find that kind of attention obnoxious. There is an art to complimenting. In the end, all poker players want to feel respected for their accomplishments. Most of what they are looking for is not money, but esteem. So give it to them. Find a way to make them feel like they’re the kind of person they want to be.
Such is the way to a poker player’s heart. Deep down, we’re more emotionally driven than you’d think. If you can make someone feel good about themselves—if you are honest, forthcoming about what you want, and can humbly but genuinely communicate your respect for them—there’s a good chance they’ll like you, and be willing to help you out.
Reach out. Make connections. No matter how smart or capable or hard-working you are, you will never become a world-class player on your own. It takes a village to raise a poker player, but unless you were born into one, it is up to you build that village.
I remember one day, when I was an up-and-coming $10/$20 and $25/$50 regular, I tilted and played a long session against a very good nosebleeds player at $50/$100. He and I had never really talked before, but in that session he completely destroyed me. It felt like every hand he knew just what to do, how to rise above me again and again, every right call and every right fold. My game felt maddeningly futile. Eventually I was down $150K—my worst losing day ever at the time—and I quit him.
But the story doesn’t end there. I sat out, but I didn’t leave. I started talking to him. I told him that he was the best player that I had ever played. I told him how much I admired his game. I told him that he had just given me the worst beating of my life—and I wanted desperately to know how he did it. I asked him to teach me. And he did. He became one of my coaches, and eventually, a friend.
It doesn’t matter how good you are. And it doesn’t matter if, right now, things are great or terrible—finding a coach is vital to growing as a poker player.
There is only so much that you can achieve through playing, reading, or watching videos. A good coach can shine light on parts of your game that you’ll never otherwise be able to see. Coaching is now so ubiquitous in poker that extolling its virtues any further would be unnecessary—if you don’t have a coach by now, get one. Maybe see your coach just once a week, or once every two weeks—but see someone. Always have that eye over your shoulder. No matter how good or bad things are going, you always want a second pair of hands guiding your development.
Be thoughtful with choosing a coach. Choose someone both who is a successful player and a good teacher (i.e., is intelligent, articulate, versed in theory). Bad players never make good coaches, but good players can sometimes be bad coaches. Look for people with communication skills and teaching experience. And, just as importantly, choose a teacher whose style you like. If they’ve ever made videos, written articles about poker, or whatever, be sure to research them first and make sure you feel like a good fit. Don’t be afraid to ask for a consultation beforehand, just to feel your coach out.
And once you’re working with a coach, be sure to prepare before your sessions! When I was a strategy coach I taught over 100 poker players, and, consistently, the students who put in time preparing learned much more in any given session. Knowing exactly what you want to ask, which hands are giving you trouble, which aspects of poker theory you need help on, or pre-recording videos against the kind of villains who bother you is great for maximizing your value as a student. And, most importantly, grill your coach. He’s there for you. If there’s something you don’t fully understand or agree with, don’t be afraid to argue with him or call him out. It will not only train you to better engage in poker argument and navigate theory, but it will also keep him on point and prevent him from being sloppy. Remember, coaches make mistakes too. Keep your mind engaged, and your questions sharp.
Your relationship with coaching should not just end with hiring a coach. If you want to be a great player, I recommend that you yourself start teaching. It doesn’t necessarily have to be professionally, or for money at all. But actually mentoring another poker player will teach a great deal about how to articulate theory, how to understand and mold another player’s mind. It also sheds light on how your own poker mind works. A student will see your ideas and your logic with beginner’s eyes. He will often, merely in the process of trying to understand you, teach you something about yourself that you never knew. Teach and be taught. The two are instrumental in developing your poker mind and keeping it sharp.
Many of the greatest lessons and “eureka!” moments that I had as a poker player came from teaching others. It forced me to refine my thinking, to explore and defend my thought processes in a way that I would never have had to do alone. I would say that teaching a challenging and incisive student is one of the best ways to deliberately practice your poker theory skills.
As a poker player, the culture of poker is all around you. Its values, its ideals, its language, its attitudes, its history. You’ve been swimming in it since the moment you entered this world. Whether you want it or not, poker culture is your inheritance. But it is up to you to take that inheritance and make it your own. If you are to be a professional poker player, this water will be your home. So make it yours.
When I was playing, I was a very atypical poker player. I didn’t really identify with poker culture. It teemed with values and attitudes that I didn’t want to accept—so I didn’t. Never accept any value that you do not yourself choose. If you don’t want to be ruthlessly self-interested, don’t be. If you don’t want to be materialistic, don’t be. If you don’t want to be misogynistic, or to make light of degeneracy, or to be pessimistic about the goodness of people, then don’t. You are free to choose.
Poker will change you, no doubt. It changes everyone who accepts it as a part of their life. But you must be conscious of what you won’t let it change about you.
In all of the poker culture that I’ve observed, if I had to choose one most valuable caution I could give an upcoming player, it would be this: don’t gamble. If you go down the path of a poker player, you will be constantly surrounded by gambling. Blackjack, prop bets, sportsbetting, roulette, craps. Or gambling within poker—taking enormous shots, buying huge pieces of someone that you can’t afford, entering a tournament with half your roll.
That poker players gamble in casino games has always baffled me. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of poker. Poker is a game in which we repeatedly put down our money with the knowledge that, even though this hand may be random, we will win out in the long run. Casino games are the opposite—every play whittles away at your EV. Playing casino games contradicts what it means to be a poker player.
One could argue that prop bets and sportsbetting fall into different categories, being skill and knowledge-based. While this is true, I recommend against them for an important reason. Once you start prop betting or sportsbetting, it is difficult not to let your gambling extend into other arenas. It sets a mental precedent that some gambling is okay. The brain already has enough trouble regulating itself when it wants to do something.
I have seen numerous players who started with sportsbetting or prop betting, thinking they were being strategic, and who wound up having gambling take over their lives.
As poker players, we often think ourselves immune to such a thing as a gambling addiction—we’re not addicted to gambling, we’re running a business, we tell ourselves. This may be true for many of us. But it is unwise to tempt that boundary. We are all merely human, and gambling is very good at sneaking up on us, desensitizing us to it, and making it a part of our lives.
But, as we all know, there are many times when gambling is necessary. Sometimes the fish wants to gamble. Sometimes everyone at the table is starting to partake in sidebets, or straddling, or whatever. In this case gambling is fine—but only within the context of being strategic within a poker game. As long as you obey this rule, you can keep your relationship with gambling in check.
In many cases, however, we tend to think we need to gamble more than we actually do to appease the fish, or the table, or the moment. The reality is, you can elect out of a lot more than you think you can. So long as you are sociable and confident, you would be surprised how easily you can get away with a “no thanks, I don’t gamble like that,” or a “no thanks, I don’t like to drink when I’m playing,” etc. If you turn things down with confidence, remain positive and friendly, people will respect you and want to play with you. Yes, gamble when you need to, take a drink when it’s necessary, but don’t surrender every decision to them.
You’re a professional. Treat your life with dignity—let your body be a sanctuary to your mind. It is all you have. It is your only refuge. The better you treat it, the longer you will last in the poker world.
\*Network image by Simon Cockell.
For the next and final article, we are going to discuss the last, but most important part in what it means to be a poker player—how to live. How can you live a good and healthy life as a poker player? How should you make sense of yourself? What should your relationship with money be? How should you deal with people outside of this world? How can you find peace? How can you be happy? I won’t be able to answer all of these questions for everyone, and in some sense, what I can tell you comes less from expertise than from personal perspective—but I will offer what insight I can, and hopefully, lead you closer toward your own answers. Look forward to it.
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