How to improve your poker game – the seven-step program

In poker there’s no substitute for sheer hard work when it comes to learning, but some methods work better than others

In his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell popularised a concept known as the ‘10,000-hour rule’. Gladwell claims that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practising a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Equally important, though, is how you spend those hours. Time is a finite resource, and as improving players, probably your most precious one.

While taking two hours to go through your database and find out how many times you’ve had your Aces cracked might make you feel better, it won’t help improve your game. Those two hours could be better spent fixing preflop leaks, watching a video, or perhaps even discussing hands with other players.

The point is that when it comes to poker no one is really sure what is the most efficient way to learn and improve, and it’s different for each individual. The purpose of this article is to look at some of the established and accepted ways of getting better at poker, and see which is the best fit for you.

There are several ways to get better at poker, but not all are necessarily important to everyone. For instance, there are some world-class players who’ve never read a poker book and possibly never played a hand of online poker. On the other hand there are as many players who will claim a certain book changed their game forever or that they got better by playing hundreds of thousands of hands online. Each method has its pros and cons, and effectiveness level, and that’s what we’re going to look at.

Playing poker

Playing is a great way to improve as experience is invaluable. But other factors such as bankroll management and game selection are also vital. If you concentrate 100% on just playing it can be detrimental to your game. You should make an effort to learn away from the table, or you’ll get left behind. It’s easy to find a game you can beat, robotically click buttons, and forget to actually learn the game.

Poker is a time-intensive hobby and you need to play many hours to show significant improvement. There is no minimum or maximum amount of time that you need to play, but clearly, the more you play the quicker you’ll learn. Playing poker is one of the most efficient ways to improve, and depending on your ability to multi-task while playing online, you can browse and discuss hands on forums or with friends, and make a note of hands you want to look at later when your session is over.

Training videos

Watching videos on training sites helps improve your game, but the trick is finding the right ones to watch. Before deciding which training site to join or video(s) to watch, ask for recommendations, look at the ratings, get feedback from other viewers, and pick a video or series that is relevant to the type of poker you’re trying to improve at.

Most videos come in at around 30-60 minutes mark, and it’s quite common to have a multi-part video series, too. It’s crucial to do your research before watching. Some great players are bad teachers. Sure, it’s possible to watch a video while playing a couple of tables or so, but to get maximum benefit from the video you should probably take notes and that’s best done with total focus on the video. It’s rare that 100% of the content in any one video will apply to you.

Try CardRunners for one of the most comprehensive and well-regarded training sites or GrinderSchool if you’re looking for training at the lower stakes. Both offer fantastic value for money.

Reading material

There are many books out there and it depends on your level of play as to whether they’re of use or not. If you’re new to the game books can be a great way to get the basics down. Doyle Brunson’s Super/System is still essential reading and there are some great books that have little or no direct strategy elements in them, like Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker or the brilliant The Mental Game of Poker by Jared Tendler. Articles, however, can be more up-to-date, react to recent trends in poker, and be of more use to developing players.

Individual reading speed varies, but a poker book will take some time to read. An article on a website, or in a magazine such as this, on the other hand, can obviously be read in a shorter space of time and bookmarked so you can read it time and again.

Reading a book, especially one that’s strategy-heavy, is going to take time. It’s tough to multi-task while reading, so the trick is to read when it’s your only option. Long journeys on trains or planes, for instance. Similarly, many poker books are also available as audio books and can be listened to on journeys or in the gym.

Getting a coach

Getting a coach is a very efficient way to learn. One-on-one coaching is tailored to your individual needs and can specifically target leaks in your game. On the downside, for those very reasons, it’s expensive. The going rate varies but you’re looking at around $100 an hour at least for some decent coaching. You could combine with a staking deal for reduced rates though. Lessons usually come in one-hour slots and the time goes very quickly.

Procuring the services of a coach is a highly efficient method as it will rapidly improve your results. And with free programs such as TeamViewer (www.teamviewer.com) and Skype readily available, it makes one-on-one tutoring possible wherever you are.

There are many places to find coaches, but one of the best is poker forum 2+2. The site has a dedicated poker coaching/training part at http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/164/poker-coach-listings/.

Hand histories

Deconstructing hands that you considered to be a close call or tricky decision can help you make the ‘correct’ decision if a similar situation arises in the future. And you’ll also find mistakes you missed when multi-tabling.

Going back through hand histories takes a lot of time. As such it’s a good idea to have a Word document open during a session so that you can cut and paste the details, and review them afterwards.

It’s time-intensive, so to make it an efficient learning tool and maximise its potential you need to be prepared. Get additional software, such as Universal Hand Replayer, that can quickly identify the key pots for post-game analysis. Hold’em Manager or PokerTracker are essential purchases. These databases will store the hands you play on various sites in one convenient location. You should also sign up to a site like www.Pokerhand.org, where you can post hand histories in an easy-to read format.

Sweat sessions

Obviously it pays to choose a friend that you consider to be better than you (but not so much that ideas have no value at your level) and who primarily plays the same type of poker. Programs such as TeamViewer make sweat sessions a doddle. It’s also a cheap alternative to coaching if you can trade skill-sets. Discussing hands with friends can widen your poker knowledge considerably, but on the downside, what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. It’s up to you! If a mate will let you sweat him for an entire cash or tournament session, that’s great. Discussing hands with friends should be an ongoing process.

While the efficiency of each session will vary, sweat sessions are a great way to plug leaks. Try to tailor sweat sessions to your needs, though. For instance, if you struggle to accumulate chips early in tournaments, try and see how a friend goes about building a stack. In terms of discussing hands, getting a few differing opinions doesn’t take long, but trying to incorporate them into a balanced playing style can take longer.

To enable you to sweat a friend online get TeamViewer (www.teamviewer.com) and Skype (www.skype.com). The former will enable you to see each other’s computer screens and the latter enables you to chat online.

Watching TV

Watching TV is a great way to see how the big name players play. However, be aware that what you see on TV is highly edited, so hands are often taken out of context. What may seem like a strange decision could be because of some action the programme didn’t show. As an educational tool, you need to watch a lot of poker to catch something good. And cash poker TV is more useful than sit-and-gos or tournaments.

Live streams are excellent as they let you see the action as it happens – and often with hole cards up so you can see exactly what’s going on in real time. PokerStars live stream from all major EPT tournaments and show the final table action with hole cards.

The most efficient way to incorporate televised poker as a learning process is to watch it while playing. You don’t need to watch entire shows either. An interesting hand that you’ve heard about on a forum may be enough for you to understand why a certain strategy is best.


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