The Difference Between Playing Poker and Teaching It

Alex Weldon : September 24th, 2015


Earlier this week, on his Full Contact Poker blog, Daniel Negreanu made the controversial statement that “only the elite players themselves can write the best poker books and provide the best training videos.”

A tale of two arguments

In a way, Daniel erected his own straw man by stating his thesis this way, because the argument he actually appears to be defending throughout the rest of the post is a considerably weaker one, and one which is harder to disagree with. He follows up in the next sentence by stating that a “mediocre or losing poker player” cannot be an elite coach; this is probably true, but there’s a fairly large swathe of players in between “mediocre” and “elite” which Daniel seems to be ignoring.

So, I’m not sure how deep Daniel’s feelings on the issue really run. He may have a reasonable stance that he simply overstated, or a more extreme one which he did a bad job of defending. We’re responsible for the words we choose, however. Although I don’t disagree with Daniel on the fact that there are many bad players giving bad advice, as well as a lot of formerly-useful advice which is now outdated and unhelpful, I’d like to examine the argument that he opened with, rather than the one he ultimately defended. Is it really the case that the best players will also necessarily provide the best training materials and services? I would say it is not.

Playing poker is not a single skill, and neither is teaching it

There’s a sort of irony of Daniel’s post in that he actually provides the refutation to his own point in the second paragraph, but just doesn’t carry it all the way through. Here’s what he says:

You could be a great mental coach, preparing someone to be the best player they can be without also being a poker player, but that’s because the coach isn’t required to know what to do with AQ under the gun. It’s irrelevant when it comes to having a mental coach.

Daniel brings this up as a caveat to his overall point; that because personal psychology and emotional control is important to succeeding in poker, it’s possible for someone to coach solely on those aspects even if they don’t understand the technical side of the game.

The converse is also true, however, and if you take Daniel’s caveat and combine it with its flip side, you get the full counter-argument to his original thesis. If it’s possible for a psychologist or life coach with poor poker skills to be helpful in improving the mental side of one’s game, surely it’s equally possible for someone who understands the technical aspects of poker to lack the other skills to make it as a player, yet still have useful insight into the game’s strategy and tactics.

In fact, if you drew a Venn diagram of the necessary skills to perform various poker-related jobs, the only point of overlap between playing poker, writing about poker, coaching poker and making training videos is exactly that: a solid theoretical understanding of the game. Each of those jobs require additional skills above and beyond the theoretical basis, and those skills are different in each case. In fact, I’d say that because specialization in one field generally comes at the expense of studying others, it’s pretty unlikely that the same person is going to have all the skills necessary to be the best player, best personal coach, best poker writer and best video trainer all at once.

It’s always about the weakest link

Now, it’s probably true that a top player also has a deeper theoretical understanding of the game than a slight winner who has given up on professional play and moved into related fields. I fall in that category, and I wouldn’t pretend to know as much about poker theory as Daniel. If we sat down for an hour and got into the real nitty-gritty of range balancing and bet sizing, he’d likely catch me saying something not quite correct. However, you have to think about limiting factors.

All other things being equal, you would of course prefer a writer, coach or video trainer with slightly better theoretical knowledge than one with slightly worse. In practice, however, things aren’t all equal, and in most fields where multiple skills are required, the quality of a person’s work is determined by their weakest skill, not their strongest.

I’m sure Daniel would agree that as a player, it doesn’t matter how well you know your theory if you’re constantly tilted or distracted, nor does it matter how emotionally stable you are if you don’t understand fundamentals like position, pot odds and counting your outs. The same goes for other fields: a great player who can’t write will produce poor books, a great player with poor listening and teaching skills will make a poor personal coach, and a great player who is disorganized and uncharismatic will produce poor videos.

Of course, it’s true that your technical ability places a cap on the level of player who can benefit from the material you produce. Whether you’re writing, coaching or producing videos, you will never be of much use to someone whose understanding is already deeper than your own, because you can’t teach what you don’t know. As long as you have something of value to teach, though, the most important thing is the ability to communicate through whatever medium you’ve chosen. You won’t find me posting an article about optimal light 4-betting ranges or how to size a check-raise semibluff in a deep-stacked cash game: someone like Daniel would surely have more of use to tell you there. But if he and I were each to write 1000 words explaining, say, the difference between direct and implied odds, I don’t think it’s a given that an amateur would find his piece more illuminating than mine.

A matter of personal interest

To be fair, this is a hard subject for either of us to be impartial on. Daniel would obviously like it if aspiring players spent their money on his books and training products, and those of his friends. Meanwhile, I write a fair number of strategy pieces and hand analyses alongside my news and opinion articles, and naturally I have a strong incentive to justify my own career. However, I think it’s one of the nice things about the poker world that it does contain room for multiple career paths; there aren’t only pro players and casino employees, but also a whole ecosystem of bloggers, journalists, ghost-writers, video-makers, software tool developers, coaches of one form or another, and so on.

And sure, some of those people are charlatans, but in my opinion, many are also producing content that does have value. It can be hard for a beginner to tell the difference, of course, and that’s a real problem. I don’t, however, agree with Daniel’s suggestion that the answer is to judge the quality of poker content based on its creator’s tournament results. That may, arguably, be a way to avoid the sort of stuff that will actively make your game worse, but you’d be missing out on a lot of quality stuff in the process as well.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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