Lesson #3: Studying
Learning poker will take a whole lot of playing it, but what separates the experts from the novices is often the time spent on studying the game away from the table. I’m not just talking about reading books (although that is surely a big part of it) because lots of people read books but never excel at poker. No, you need to study the books, not just read them. There’s a huge difference, and anyone who’s ever gone to school (that presumably includes all of you) will know what I mean. Sure, I can read through the entire book I have on calculus, probably pretty fast, too. I can even feel like I get what the author is saying, and have no real trouble following the lines of reasoning about integrals and derivatives. But if all I do is read it, I’m going to flunk the test for sure. I need to practise what I’ve learned to fully absorb it, and so all math courses (this goes for virtually any subject, but math is a convenient example) supply their students with problems to solve, helping them to absorb the knowledge they’ve just read about.
Few poker books do this, with a very notable – and commendable – exception of the Harrington on Hold ’em series. Many of the other Two Plus Two publishing books have quizzes at the end to help you test your knowledge, but most of them fall hopelessly short of a standard that would allow the book itself to be enough material for absorbing the concepts it contains. Therefore, we need to work harder than just reading the books. In fact, without a stern teacher and an upcoming test that we may flunk, mustering the motivation to force ourselves to study at all may be hard.
But I realize – as do you, surely – that learning more about the game is the way we come to the point where we can beat it. And so the problem is not that we don’t understand that we’d be better off if we study hard, the problem is that hard work is often not fun. We need to be motivated to pull it off, and making a habit out of studying takes time and discipline. That’s the core of this lesson: Realize that learning takes time and plan accordingly.
Furthermore, we must realize that studying doesn’t end at some point; we don’t graduate. The money that we make in this game come from the mistakes of others and our job is to make fewer mistakes than our opponents – or more specifically, less costly ones – which is how we show a profit. Competition at its finest. But our opponents aren’t dumb – well, not all of them at least, and the dumb ones become fewer and more far between as we move up in limits – and they learn more about the game for every day that passes, too. In order to keep our win-rate where we want it to be, or even keep winning at all, we need to stay ahead of the curve. We need to know more about the game than they do and we need to work harder than they do so that we can keep outsmarting them. For this reason, there’s no end in sight, no light in the tunnel, no day when our job of studying is done. Learning is a continuous process in poker.
I can’t stress this enough. It seems very obvious to me that most of my opponents today have read many of the same books I have, even at the low limits. I see them applying concepts that I recognize so well that I could almost pinpoint the page where they read about them. Of course, they misapply a lot of them, and that’s why I’m still profiting. They have read the books, gotten the general idea, but they still fall short of understanding how to apply the concepts. You don’t want to be one of those people, you want to be one of the ones who know how to beat those people. You’ve got to know more than they do.
I spend at least one third of my “poker time” studying. For every two hours I spend at the table, I try to spend one hour reading books, analyzing hands, posting hands on boards, etc. Sometimes I play a session with the specific purpose of practising something new. Specific tips on how to make good use of the time we spend studying are found in Lesson #7. How much time you are willing to spend on learning more about the game is of course a matter of choice, but I put in about 10 hours a week on poker, and spending on average three of those hours working on improving my game away from the table has worked for me so far.
You would do well to take this – studying – into account when you plan how you will spend your time on poker. How strict you want to be about it is, of course, a matter of preference. Perhaps you want to take a whole week to finish a specific book before you go back to the tables, or perhaps you like to spend only 30 minutes here and there on it; do whatever suits you best. But be prepared to spend a lot of time on it. No, be willing to spend a lot of time on it. You already know that it’s the right thing to do, but it’s up to you – and only you – to actually make it happen.
I believe there’s also a risk of overstudying. The theoretical knowledge of 20 books doesn’t mean much without the experience that tells you how to use it properly, so for the best result, you should balance these two. Although I spend on average one third of my time studying (in “studying” I basically include all the time spent away from the table actively thinking about poker), this is not something that I’ve scheduled rigorously – I don’t set the alarm for Sunday morning so I can go up and review sessions in PokerTracker. I think the best thing that can happen is that you’re excited and curious about the game, so that you freely look up the information, rather than having the “must study”-sign hanging like a weight around your neck. Learning new things is fun for me, and I hope it’s fun for you, too. It makes the whole process so much easier. So if you find that you’re just not interested at the moment to continue reading the book you’re trying to work your way through at the moment, take a break from it. Play poker instead, let the book rest for awhile. While studying is virtually a must to become better, it doesn’t have to be a “must-right-now.” Forcing yourself to learn something is pretty inefficient, and I think you’ll find you have much better results if you spend your time on it when you actually feel like it.
If you have a busy schedule and only a determined number of hours every week to spend on poker, make sure that you don’t set goals that require such a high number of hands played that you leave no room left for learning more about the game. Remember: You must stay ahead of the curve!