Not everyone can win at poker. So we’ve taken a look at three fundamental traits that are the pillars to success in all habitual poker winners.
Pillar One – Discipline
“To win at poker, you have to be very good at losing”
Unlike most pro sports, in poker even the best players can lose more than they win. This dynamic can be depressing, maddening and just plain boring for many people. The best players accept this dynamic and can live and thrive in a world where losing is a daily reality. So let’s first consider a must-have trait for successful poker players – discipline.
Poker can be an absolute grind. In most arenas, if you do the right thing you win. If you shoot the perfect golf shot you get close to the hole, or if you perform well on stage people clap at the end and give you five stars in the next day’s paper. In poker you can do the right things for weeks and months and still have a big losing streak, the element of chance can’t be avoided. In the long run – thousands and thousands of games, of course – the right moves will pay off, but many players go mad or lose all of their money before their good play pays off.
So the most successful players can accept and thrive in this world.
Successful players know that winning isn’t the key metric but making the right decisions. Anyone can go on a winning run in the short term but consistently making the right plays is what makes a player great.
Winning players will maximise their Expected Value (EV) in any given situation and then simply not worry about the outcome. The variance in outcome can swing dramatically; the best players can shrug that off.
A big part of accepting this often unjust world is avoiding tilt and remaining logical and systematic when making bets. Some of the best players are susceptible to getting emotional, but they know how to control those feelings, and they sometimes put self-imposed limits on their play if they’re losing their head.
Without discipline, poker can eat you up. As two-time WSOP bracelet winner Roger Hairabedian, says, “If you are in it for the long run you have to work. There is no easy money, and it is not always fun”.
Managing your poker bankroll wisely is essential and a lack of discipline is very counterproductive to achieving this.
Pillar Two – Solid Strategy
Have a deep understanding of the game and build a flexible strategy on top of that. This boils down to making the right move in any given situation so you can ignore variance.
To be successful, you need to embrace the human element of the game. Top players know they’re playing against human beings who often make irrational decisions, change their strategies and become impulsive. In a game where everyone is trying to suss everyone else out being able to read opponents is important.
Taking notes about your opponents can be a good tactic to understanding their approach more intimately. If you’re playing online then using a HUD may be a useful tool to organise your thoughts and evaluate how other players are performing; although Steve McLoughlin of PokerTracker says, “It’s actually not as important as reviewing your game after it’s done.” Whether true or not, making notes on the game during or after will help you distil what you’ve learned. Most players don’t do this so it’ll give you an edge.
You should mix up your play; good players will be trying to work out your style so try to throw them off. Having a proven strategy is important, but you shouldn’t stick to it at the expense of in-game situations which are emerging. Have a balanced range of starting hands so you’re less predictable – when the big hands come up in the game this will give you an advantage.
Once the human element has been factored in you should still have a strategy which works. TAG or tight and aggressive is the favoured style of many pros, playing good hands aggressively means you’re generally making value bets that will pay off over time. Of course, there are a million variables to consider like the style of the other players and the strength of your hand but TAG poker is lower risk, and if you can add in some human elements to supplement your play it can be very effective.
Many poker players start with a TAG strategy and then start to think they’ve sussed out their opponents and are tempted into more dangerous plays. This can come from boredom or the Dunning-Kruger effect where players overestimate their abilities. Until you become very experienced, have a low-risk strategy. If you’re tempted into risks don’t take them and then calculate what would have happened if you’d taken the risk. Once you start to make winning predictions you can look to expand your strategic repertoire.
Pillar Three – Passion
Finally, what is not discussed enough as a key trait much in poker or any other similar discipline is passion. From the outside professional poker can look like a fantasy lifestyle, with colourful characters, big winning pots and glamorous locations – who wouldn’t want to be in that world? Of course, the reality is different. Long arduous games, bad luck and the need for extreme concentration all make playing and succeeding at poker hard.
There are many important traits to being successful in the game, but if you’re not going into games with zest and passion, you will be more susceptible to tilt or boredom or stress. Real passion is a baseline because without it you’ll probably fizzle out.
How you get real passion is a different topic but having something outside of poker (like Daniel Negreanu’s love of the game Hearthstone), and a happy family life seem like good basics.
Ultimately these are the core traits that make the best poker players so successful, and need to be at the front of your mind every time you play.