Every winning poker player has had it happen to them.
A friend, family member, co-worker, or even stranger has caught wind of the fact that you’re proficient at poker. And so they approach you with a humble request: teach them to also win at cards. They too would like to make a little extra scratch on the side. How hard can it be? I mean, you do it. They’ve seen other people on TV do it. And also your friend is smart – why shouldn’t they get in on some of the action?
But, here’s the thing. Sure, anyone can be taught the game of poker. Learning poker (or more commonly no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em) isn’t particularly difficult. That’s not the tricky part. It’s becoming conversant with the game – becoming a winning long-term player. And there’s the rub.
That’s really what your family and friends are asking: can you teach them to win at poker the way you do. Consistently. Frequently. And for life.
But as Mike Sexton says “poker takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.”
So can anyone learn to win at poker? Yes, absolutely.
But can anyone be a winning professional player? That is a different question entirely. And the answer… is no. Not anyone can. Some people just aren’t cut out for the grind.
Given enough time, I feel I could teach any rational person to become an occasionally winning low stakes player. It’s really not particularly hard to play ultra tight in some bad 1-2 games and turn a small profit long-term. Plenty of people do it.
But becoming a professional poker player is hard. It’s really hard. To quote Mr. Hanks, “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”
And so I’ve listed the five specific characteristics that I feel come naturally to great poker players. Think of these more as personality traits than skill sets. For example, most successful winning poker players are pretty good at money management and playing within their bankroll. But that’s not really an attribute. Anyone can learn to do that.
Rather, these are more like capacities that most great poker players seem to share. Sure, they can all be cultivated and enhanced, but all the truly successful players seem to possess a natural proclivity toward some combination of:
1. Math Skills
“It’s 3.4 to 1… You have 10 outs and there are 44 cards left.”
– Tom Dwan, Poker After Dark Season 5
In the Boom Years (the Golden Age of Poker), a lot of poker commentators on television would try to categorize players into one of two different camps. There were the “math” players and the “feel” players. Math guys would always know the pot odds and the percentages. Feel players would go with their guts and rely on instinct. Andy Bloch and Chris Ferguson were examples of math players. While players like Doyle Brunson and Sammy Farha were feel players. Both can win! Which are you?
Or so the announcers would say. In actuality everyone is a little combination of both. And as combinatorics and solvers and range charts became more prevalent in the game, so too did the realization that mathematics play a much bigger role than the old-school players had originally thought.
Now you need not be a math savant to excel at this game. But you do need to be able to multiply, divide, and know percentages relatively quickly. You need to know how to calculate the pot odds, how to calculate your opponents’ range, and how to know the optimal percentage of the time you should call, raise, or fold. If your opponent bets on the river, you simply must know how to calculate his bet in relation to the pot to know how often your call must be correct to be profitable. You simply need to know that.
The good news is that none of this math is particularly hard. However, some people are truly horrific with numbers. And if you’re someone who has to count on their fingers, then those same fingers probably shouldn’t be handling chips.
Related Terms: Book Smarts, Quantitative Reasoning, Numeracy
Exemplary Players: Isaac Haxton, Justin Bonomo, the German High Rollers
2. Risk Tolerance
“You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle… but you can’t win much either.”
– Mike McDermott in Rounders
Of all the traits on this list, risk tolerance is the hardest to teach. The risk involved in poker (or in any betting) is really what keeps a lot of people out of the game. Many people, most people probably, simply do not like risk. They don’t like taking chances – in cards or in life. And poker is a game of chances. Every time you sit down you take a risk. And a lot of people just don’t have the stomach for it.
And with poker (especially tournament poker) you know you’re not always going to come out on top. In poker, you lose and you lose a lot. Individual hands, sessions, entire months… the losses can go on and on. It happens to the best.
Interestingly enough, the concept of risk tolerance actually applies on both micro and macro levels when it comes to poker. You not only have to become comfortable with losing individual hands, but also with just losing money in general. Sure, anyone could probably handle losing individual hands if they still won all their sessions. You don’t mind when your team gives up some points – just so long as they win the game, right? Well in poker, the session is the game, and the pots, the points.
But not everyone can handle repeatedly losing games and continuous losing sessions. That sort of thing takes its toll. Conceptually and specifically, you as a player must be prepared to risk your money – and to lose it.
“In order to win you have to be willing to die.”
The late Amir Vahedi immortalized those words in the broadcast of the 2003 WSOP Main Event, and he was right. That’s not to say you should only be willing to die, but he had the right idea.
Because in poker one of the absolute worst things you can do while playing, is play not to lose. It’s a crippling playing style. That mentality can sometimes eek out a win… but never a score.
I’m friends with a man who has millions of dollars in the bank, but to him check-raise bluffing someone is so scary that it’s practically tantamount to him base-jumping… for the first time ever… blind-folded.
You have to take chances in poker. If you peddle the nuts, you simply cannot win.
And if you want to win, you have to be willing to die.
Related Terms: Gamble, Heart, Fearlessness
Exemplary Players: Sam Farha, Haralabos Voulgaris, Phil Ivey
“Instinct just tells me that the way he checked it, he just had a big hand. After the flop, I knew my hand was no good, so I just turned it loose.”
– Johnny Chan on folding aces on Poker After Dark Season 2
In general some of the best Hold ‘Em players fall short in this category. Many top GPI players are remarkably in tune with no limit Hold ‘Em tournament poker, yet those same players wouldn’t be able to pick up a brand new game very easily. In fact they may be outright bad at them. Because other variants of poker require the player to think outside the box and truly outsmart his or her opponent. Sure, math is the foundation on which you should build your house. But the house itself can come in many different shapes and sizes. This is where exploitative play comes in, and where creativity can shine.
Because sometimes the math of poker can be simply overshadowed by creative bet-sizing, psychology, and table talk. I have watched British poker pro Charlie Carrel use table talk so effectively that his opponents ultimately end up playing right into his hands. I have watched Daniel Negreanu control and finesse a hand of poker like a conductor leading an orchestra.
Now don’t misunderstand me; I still think it behooves a player to study hand ranges rather than facial expressions. That’s definitely true for the poker variants that require a more concentrated focus on math. (Heads-up limit Hold ‘Em for example is virtually entirely solved). In poker, the sciences are more important than the arts.
But the best poker doesn’t make mathematics the only attribute. The most exciting poker to watch (and play) is when two opponents are trying to outthink one another. That’s where real creativity starts to come in: when both players know the math… and strategically decide to overlook it. Look at the Phil Ivey/Daniel Negreanu heads-up match from The Shark Cage. Those two know each other’s games extremely well. And at that point, it’s all about feel.
The best players have a solid grasp on math and creativity. GTO and exploitative. Book smarts and street smarts. Call it whatever you want, but simply put I think the best poker players are both right-brained and left-brained. And as a player, when you bet in such a way as to manipulate your opponent into doing exactly what you want them to do, well there’s no greater feeling. It’s like the miniaturized version of pulling off an elaborate heist.
The potential for creativity isn’t a trait that everyone possesses. Some players just can’t think outside the box. Intuition and creativity are essentially unteachable; they can only really be cultivated after a certain amount of experience. But once experienced, they can be the most satisfying (and most rewarding) facets of our game.
Related Terms: Streets Smarts, Natural Poker Ability, Psychology, Exploitative Play, Intuition
Exemplary Players: Michael Mizrachi, Daniel Negreanu, Stu Ungar
4. Emotional Control
“No, he didn’t! Called a raise with five-seven…. Idiot from northern Europe!”
– Phil Hellmuth during ESPN’s coverage of the 2008 WSOP
I once heard Doyle Brunson talking about Chip Reese. He said Chip was able to weather every bad beat, shake off every suck-out, and keep a level head throughout all of his sessions. That he was able to walk away from the table with the same demeanor as when he arrived regardless of how his session went. He was that cool. That composed.
For the rest of us mortals, managing our emotions doesn’t come quite so easy. Suppressing your natural feelings of injustice, revenge, despair, and rage can be nearly impossible – especially when your opponent makes a terrible play yet somehow ends up with all your chips. The swings in this game can be absolutely brutal. You can go from cloud nine to the ninth circle of Hell on one turn of a card.
Maintaining your composure is imperative to success. Poker is a game that requires cold, calculated logic. As a player you have to let the past die, and focus on the next hand, the next raise, the next pot.
This can be particularly difficult when transitioning from the competitive sports world. In the field or on the court, getting pumped up and getting the adrenaline flowing can result in a big hit or clutch play. And as competitors, that’s often a recipe for success. Grit your teeth, sweat more, run faster – and victory will be waiting as your reward.
But that’s not the case in poker. In poker, adrenaline is your enemy. Emotion, your nemesis.
Fedor Holz does not get amped up before a big final table. He does literally the exact opposite. He meditates. And he calms down. And then usually, he wins.
“Good players, pros even, won’t play no limit – they can’t handle the swings.”
So says Michael McDermott, and he’s right. I’ve seen some would-be great poker minds fall by the wayside because of the emotional devastation this game can cause both at the table and away from it. Some of the angriest moments of my life have come as a result of particularly brutal river cards.
But you have to overcome those beats to be a consistent winner. Master your own emotions and you can begin to master your fate as well. Countless are the pros I’ve heard say that suppressing their emotions on the felt has resulted in that same suppression off the felt. That’s how hard they try to quell their excitement. And that’s why when you watch poker on television, the players’ friends and family in attendance (usually) seem far more excited and emotional than the players themselves. Because the players in the game know they have to keep a level head.
Interestingly enough, emotional control is not limited to managing your negative emotions, but keeping in check the positive ones as well.
A term that’s been floating around recently is ‘positive-tilt,’ where a player is so happy that they start to play poorly. I’ve seen the effects of positive-tilt on my television and in events I’ve played more times than I can count. A player has won all-in after all-in and his God-complex starts to grow exponentially. They can’t lose…. fate is on their side! They are the descendant of the poker gods themselves, and their time has finally come!
They overplay their hands. Call all-in too light, bluff too much, and eventually come crashing back down to earth after losing a bunch of chips.
You must stay (relatively) even-keeled. Bad beats happen. Suck-outs happen. If not for luck, you’d win every one, right? But there is luck. There will always be variance.
Allowing the past to affect you will have nothing but a negative effect on your chips.
That’s why the best pros rarely go on tilt, negative or positive. And instead of living in the past, they try to learn from it.
Related Terms: Patience, Positivity, Focus, Calm
Exemplary Players: Phil Galfond, Chip Reese, Erik Seidel, Mike Sexton
“I won this pot because I have the heart and the commitment to this game.”
– Tony G on The PokerStars Big Game
Think of someone in your life who has absolutely no confidence, or very little. Could you ever imagine them being good at poker? Outside of Steve Carell’s character in The 40-year-old Virgin, cautious, timid people can virtually never succeed at the poker table.
Excellence in poker demands confidence. Why? Because the game itself is so confrontational. You are literally taking money away from other people by outthinking them. It’s not an arena for the feint of heart.
The best poker players don’t back down from that confrontation. And few shrinking violets sit atop poker leaderboards.
Confidence and risk tolerance are very similar. They oftentimes overlap, but they are not mutually inclusive characteristics of a person. Nothing demonstrates this more than some of the rock solid nits that frequent your home game or 1/2 table.
Risk tolerance means being able to handle loss. Confidence means you expect to win.
So where does confidence come from? From what seeds does it germinate? Generally, confidence stems from talent and experience. I’ve been playing poker for well over a decade now, and each year I’m more confident than the year before.
But specifically in a person, confidence or swagger seems to be something an individual develops during their formative years. And once they grow older, some people have it in spades (pun!), while others seem to have almost none at all.
If you watch the very best players in the world, they are oozing confidence. Sure, part of that has come from experience. But a lot of it comes simply from who they are.
Being great at poker didn’t give them confidence. Confidence made them great at poker.
Poker requires confidence and courage. And a lot of it. It can be really hard sometimes to put all your chips in the middle. A great player has to be willing to bluff on every street. Or to make hero calls with next to nothing. Or to put all their chips in when they’re behind, but getting the right price. A great player cannot be intimidated. They have to be the one intimidating.
You always hear about the greatest being fearless. And what is confidence, but the absence of fear.
Related Terms: Aggression, Courage, Swagger
Exemplary Players: Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Doug Polk, Bryn Kenney
And there you have it. The five critical traits that make a great poker player. In my next article, I’ll go over a few characteristics that didn’t quite make the cut, but still hold weight towards making one elite. I’ll also examine which of the five traits listed are the most important, the most vital. Because they’re not all equal.
I’ll also explore a few poker players that I feel exemplify all five qualities the best. And finally, we’ll take a look at how to calculate an individual’s Poker IQ.
That’s all till next time. Thanks for reading. And good luck out there.
Photo Credits: PokerNews.com, Pokerlistings.com, PokerRoyalty.com, PokerCentral.com
Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. Keith won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.