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Away from the table


In this article
  • The most common mistakes off the table
  • How the mistakes affect your game at the table
  • How to avoid them

Once Michelangelo was done sculpting “David,” he was asked about what his creative process had been.

“I just looked at a block of marble,” he answered, “and I cut away everything that didn’t look like David.”

You might see a poker pro swoop in and steal a huge pot, then walk off into the Vegas night and think, “THAT’S the life for me.” But the truth is that a gift for the game is a very small part of what created that moment. The reality is that success in poker has as much to do with the trouble you avoid as the success you attain. Like Michelangelo, you must cut away everything that doesn’t look like a path to success.

It’s with this in mind that I’m embarking on a three-part series of articles titled “Where Poker Businesses Go Wrong.” Yes, we’ll be getting into decisions made at the table. We’ll also talk about the mental side of the game, and how to anticipate and steer clear of the psychological pitfalls inherent in the game.

But I’d like to start by talking about where poker businesses go wrong away from the table, as these factors relate most specifically to the prism through which you view the game. Unless you have your game straight away at the table, you will never be successful in poker.

Most common mistakes

With that said, here are the four most prevalent ways that poker businesses go wrong:

Not practicing effectively

Here’s a concept you’ll hear me harp on about over and over. You have two commodities your poker business can consider as inventory: time and money. Which one would you say is more important?

The answer is time.

How do you become more skilled? How do you stay ahead of the pack? Practice. Lots and lots of practice. I typically tell those who want to take their poker seriously that they’ll need to spend about 20 percent of their time practicing. For every four hours they play, one hour should be spent working on your game away from the tables.

Not that long ago, I failed to heed my own advice and sure enough things went astray. I went through a rigorous process of getting my game back on track, and in the process took on board a few things that I feel confident passing on:

  • 1. Get back to basics. This might seem counterintuitive. It’s similar to how parents are told that when their baby doesn’t seem tired at night, they should put it to bed earlier rather than later. I’ve learned that your reaction to your opponents’ elevated skill levels should be to take your game back to its roots. Play fewer hands or drop down a limit. This re-establishes the foundations of your game.
  • 2. When you’re running well, be sure to video yourself. This will serve as a touchstone for the sort of play you should return to when you’re struggling.
  • 3. Don’t make mid-game adjustments. If I don’t know how to solve a situation, I table it for later. I write about that situation in my notes, and study it between sessions.
  • 4. Take yourself out of the game. One of the hardest aspects of poker is that there is no coach to be objective. In baseball, if you historically struggle against a pitcher, your manager will take you out of the lineup if that pitcher’s on the mound. No doubt the hitter in this scenario feels takes this as a blow to his ego, but he has no recourse. He can’t put himself in the lineup — but a poker player can. Part of being a better player is letting a guy take $100 from you, then study and take $1,000 from him later. This is a much better scenario than being foolhardy, losing $1,000 and feeling like you have to win it back.
Not having proper inventory

OK, we’ve established that time is money. Now let’s talk about money as inventory.

If you owned a widget business, you’d want to have enough widgets in your warehouse so that you could fulfill a big order. Money is the inventory that allows you to sit down at a table with a fish where the odds are in your favor. Without that inventory, everything else is moot.

If you’re cashing out your bankroll all the time, you may not have the inventory to play a poor player when he sits down at a table, especially in the case of a fish who has decided to move up the stakes. That’s a big sale you’ve missed out on. It’s found money, basically, and you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to pick it up.

Maybe your regular game is a $100 buy in, and you saw a mega-fish in the lobby for a $200 game. Now he’s $400 down and the seat next to him is open. You could have position on him. But without the inventory, you’ve missed out on a big sale.

If you keep a constant but inadequate bankroll, you will go broke — of this I am 100 percent certain. Spending parts of your accumulating bankroll because a long losing streak seems unlikely, is a recipe for total disaster.

I’ve known many a winning poker player go broke. They may start with $5,000, win $100,000 in three months, spend $80,000 and lose another $25,000. Now they’re broke despite having won $100,000.

Everyone wants to be seen as a baller, but what is the right path to get there? Gradually progressing up the stakes is the surest means of having lasting success as a poker player. If you’re hopping from big pot to big pot without a net, you’re going to go broke — period. No one is talented enough to escape that reality. If you have a comfortable balance in your poker account, you can justify taking shots at higher-stakes games more easily. If you cash out and are always on a short bankroll, it’s easy to fall into a scenario where you say, “I’ve got a great shot at the bigger games …,” and you deposit money from your savings online. Now you have your real-life money in there and if feels like you’re losing a lot more than just the ups and downs you need to withstand as a poker pro.

As a conservative estimate, you want to have 100 buy-ins in your bankroll at all times. If you’re playing $100 buy-ins, you want to have $10,000 in your account. This is a minimum. A more aggressive coach might tell you 20 buy-ins is sufficient. But I’m conservative, because I like to have plenty of money in my account in case I see somebody I like at a higher-stakes table. It also gives me peace of mind similar to someone who just paid off his home. Is it the best way to invest your money? Probably not, but peace of mind should be a huge factor in your decision because you can only really play your best when you are comfortable.

Choosing a coach

Golfers don’t have 10 swing coaches. Soccer teams don’t have 10 coaches. But in poker, we tend to listen to anyone with the slightest bit of pedigree.

Poker instruction is as much investment advice as anything. We’re all looking for that insider information; that stock no one else sees. Money is both the end game and the measuring stick in poker, so indulging in an abundance of advice is certainly understandable. But by being less discerning, we’re letting voices in that don’t have a rightful place in our poker hierarchy. In fact, by entertaining these voices, we have no intellectual hierarchy at all. Our decision tree becomes a forest.

You need to narrow the number of voices in your head and organize the learning process. When choosing a coach, I’m a huge believer in following someone who is or has been a big winner in the game you’re playing.

Should this player be an online player or a live one? You can become great playing as either. I’m an online player and I might seem biased, but we do have the luxury of establishing our credentials faster. I can put up a graph that no mathematician can argue with. I’m able to play more in a week than a live player can in a year; thus in 52 weeks of poker per year, I have more than five decades-worth of proof that I know what I’m doing. Again, being able to prove this is a luxury. If a guy’s been supporting his family for 10 years by playing live, he’s got a great argument for greatness.

Remember, you wouldn’t follow 10 diets at once. You wouldn’t simultaneously go to 10 marriage counselors. So don’t listen to 10 poker coaches at once.

Instead, think like a golfer. Choose one coach who best represents what you want to become and follow his advice until you feel you have your feet firmly planted and then you can branch out.

Misunderstanding television

Not all television programs are created equal, as is the case with any media.

At its purest, televised poker lets you see the hole cards of great players and decipher their logic. But you need to watch actively, and you need to ask yourself why a given player is at the table in the first place: there will be more than one reason.

First things first: If you’re a tournament player, there is almost nothing to be gained by watching “High Stakes Poker” or “Million Dollar Cash Game.” Watching a cash game to improve at tournaments isn’t exactly like watching soccer to get better at golf, but it’s close.

My advice here is similar to what I had to say about choosing a coach. You have to make sure the game you’re watching on TV is the same as the one at which you want to improve. The problem with televised tournaments is that the final table rarely has superb players around it. In fact, sometimes those players are barely competent. You’ll often watch the World Poker Tour and see three or four guys at the final table who are insurance salesmen. They’ve gotten lucky and caught some good cards, and now they’re on television, a medium that bestows validation where it often doesn’t belong.

Having these sorts of players at the final table is great for poker because it shows that on any given night, anything is possible. But at the end of the day, there’s almost nothing to be learned from a guy on a hot streak.

Yes, there are some good — even great — tournament players on these programs. Why not watch them? It’s a valid question.

Televised poker is edited — heavily so, in fact, which I learned when I played in The Big Game in London a couple years ago. To fit into an hour-long format, the shows are edited to within an inch of their lives. Televised poker does a poor job of explaining what the stacks and blinds are. It’s often hard to tell what position people are in when they make certain plays. You’re seeing a given hand in isolation from others, missing out on the meta-game that led to how that hand would be played in the first place. They probably won’t show that a tournament pro has folded 5-6 times to a player, or raised another player 5-6 times. That meta-game might be the predominant factor in the decision you’re seeing on TV, but you’d never know it.

However, there is good news for the cash-game player. If you approach it the right way, you can learn a lot from watching cash games on TV. In fact, I’d say that half the bets I’ve made this year have been inspired by action I’ve observed on TV.

The critical difference between televised tournaments and cash games is the people at the table. In tournaments, they have to show the six lucky slobs who made the final table, regardless of who they are. With cash games, people are invited.

They just weren’t all invited for the same reason. Cash game tables usually have some big pros, some rising stars, and a couple of tournament players who, for whatever reason, want to be on TV even though they’ll get destroyed. Cash game pros want at least one or two bad players at the table so it can be a profitable for them, and tournament players are the fish.

The overriding message here is that you need to know who you’re watching and watch actively. If you did nothing but focus on Ivey, Patrik Antonius and Tom Dwan, you’d be in great shape. If you’re deeply into poker and can recognize other participants as being good cash-game pros, you’ll do even better. But do not devote undue energy to players who can lead you off course.

About the author

Dusty Schmidt is an instructor at PokerStrategy.com, as well as the author of Treat Your Poker Like A Business and Don't Listen To Phil Hellmuth: Correcting The 50 Worst Pieces of Poker Advice You've Ever Heard. In his five-year online-poker career, Schmidt has played nearly 9 million hands and won close to $4 million, without ever having a losing month. He is a columnist for Card Player Magazine. Schmidt’s books can be purchased at www.DustySchmidt.net.


Comments (13)

#1 staktas, 06 Sep 11 14:15

Great read.

#2 Avatars91, 06 Sep 11 15:22

Indeed a great read.
I particularly liked the idea of choosing one rather than several coaches, though I would like to ask if the advice given here on pokerstrategy.com is really that coach dependant?

#3 ZeroDegrees, 06 Sep 11 15:37

Welcome and GL!

#4 datsmahname, 07 Sep 11 01:44

Excellent read. The last section on TV poker was painfully obvious to muddle through, in truth I skipped most of it... but the first sections of this article are very insightful and well written.

#5 datsmahname, 07 Sep 11 02:05

I guess with regards to that last section, I'm sure they're paying Dusty a decent amount of money and I don't think either party is well served by having him echo obvious and boring arguments about TV poker being a poor platform for improvement.

I think that entire section is approximately worthless when compared with other possible topics related to game development away from the table.

#6 Mandator, 07 Sep 11 07:41

Excelent article indeed!!

#7 EuanM, 08 Sep 11 15:00

Very nice Dusty, thouroughly enjoyed the Article!

#8 Leatherass9, 12 Sep 11 16:26

If you all have any questions, feel free to let me know!

#9 eldarismo, 03 Jun 12 20:43

perfect article! thanks

#10 Ramble, 22 Nov 13 14:27

Wow... he is averaging +$0.45 per hand over his career... that is pretty sweet.

#11 WpIoNker, 07 Jul 14 19:34


#12 WpIoNker, 07 Jul 14 19:34


#13 Plattfot, 31 Jul 15 11:20

Good one!