When poker pros deconstruct moves cultivated over decades, the pots they no longer take down (having given up their edge to readers now poised like Ray-Banned condors across the table) can vastly outweigh whatever royalties their primers bring in. As Brunson told Alvarez back in ’81: “If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t write that book.” He hasn’t won the World Series since.
-James McManus, from Positively Fifth Street
So this one’s a little tricky. But at least it will be short. Well, short for me anyway.
I can’t imagine anyone who takes poker seriously hasn’t received some form of instruction on how to improve his or her game. Now that instruction doesn’t have to be confined to one-on-one coaching paid by the hour. It can be something as simple as reading an article online or simply receiving advice from a friend. We never stop learning in poker. But something unique happened towards the later half of the Golden Age of Poker. The knowledge base began to explode at record speeds. While general knowledge of game theory had increased steadily year after year for all of the 20th century, once the poker boom ignited, that knowledge base began to skyrocket.
Millions of new players were taking up the game. The internet had provided an easily accessible platform for new ideas to be exchanged and cultivated at lightning speeds. And online poker created a space where infinitely more hands could be played than ever before. Suddenly kids were learning more about poker in two years than generations before had learned in two decades.
As a result the game itself got substantially more difficult. Not at first, mind you. In 2004 and 2005, the influx of new, inexperienced players made both live and online poker more profitable than ever before (and likely ever will be again). But as the cream rose to the top and the deadweight fell off, those who survived needed to hone their edges even more.
All these new opponents had made the game more competitive, especially the higher up the ladder in stakes one climbed. (Again, for both live and online).
And so, quite naturally, coaching evolved with it. Suddenly more books, more online coaching sites, and more individual coaches were available than ever before. And now everyone had a chance at either becoming a poker pro or becoming a better poker pro. Yet with that came escalation. As the game became harder, more people sought coaching, which made the game harder, and so forth.
As far as game theory is concerned, poker players began diving deeper into the numbers than ever before. Similar to Billy Beane’s sabermetric approach that the book and film Moneyball were based upon, new age poker players began throwing their old books out the window. Forget raising three times the big blind. The min-raise is more effective. Six-betting light and clicking it back and floating out of position were born (or at least cultivated).
So many better theories began to arise and get passed around that the game progressed more in ten years than it had the previous century. And it has led us to a point where the playing styles at big buy-in final tables are night-and-day different than that of their predecessors.
And now I believe we can all agree that poker (as far as game theory goes) is closer to being solved than ever before. At the very least, we can agree that this is a very difficult time to become a top name professional in our game.
Poker is rather unique in that (theoretically) you should never be too old to compete. Obviously older players may have less energy for week-long tournaments and 24-hour sessions and so forth, but for the game itself, there is no overwhelming reason why a 22-year old should be better than a septuagenarian. Or vice-versa for that matter.
But in athletic competitions, age of course matters. Clearly, a minor league baseball player is currently a better player at this moment in time than Willie Mays is. But the mind doesn’t deteriorate at anywhere near the rate the body does. And in this, mental competition is unique.
And coaching and teaching increase the skills of your immediate competition. In very few games can the students become the masters quite like in poker.
Therein lies the Catch-22 with instructing your player base in poker. You get paid away from the table, but it can damage your profit on the felt. Which leads us to the question that you may be asking: is coaching and teaching your player base bad for the game longterm?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a few times. But I’ve only had to ask myself multiple times because there is no right answer. The answer is both yes and no.
Coaching and spreading the wealth of knowledge in poker does some very good things. It can bring in new players who were previously too reluctant to attempt the game without a working knowledge of sound strategies. Instruction makes many players more comfortable about finally taking the plunge to play live and for real money.
Coaching, publishing and teaching can also provide a much needed complimentary income to the average pro and thus make his or her swings during the actual game much more manageable. And since (in theory) lesser-skilled players are paying for the coaching, this creates an influx of new money into the poker economy – always a good thing.
Finally, coaching allows some bits of wisdom and knowledge to stay in the game. Phil Ivey probably knows some things about poker that no one else knows. It would be a shame if he never passed along that knowledge at some point in his life.
But on the other hand, there can be no question that the industry of training videos and personal coaching has made the game of poker much harder to beat. Ask any player who played both before and after the poker boom. They will tell you it’s like playing on two different planets.
Yet, lately, and very subtly, I have noticed a slight pushback against coaching and training sites, and I think it’s due to the reasons I stated above. I have heard more and more pros (and amateurs alike) agreeing on the fact that the game is simply too difficult now. And I think they know the main reason why.
I am of two minds about this topic. If there had never been any coaching or any poker books written, would any of us have played the game for very long? Or had very much success at it? Probably not, honestly. So where (if anywhere) should we draw the line? I’m simply not sure.
I’m not saying the poker world needs more poker books or less. I’m not saying the game needs more coaches, better coaches or less coaches. There’s no way to know if all these books and sites have created more players or if by making the game so tough, created less.
Coaching creates two paralleling consequences that are seemingly at odds with each other. On one hand it creates camaraderie and learning in a game that I feel desperately needs a return to its socialization. On the other hand its strips the game of its mysticism, secrets, and tells that make it so alluring to amateurs and the general public.
Poker is a game driven by money. But is coaching only driven by money as well? Or simply a love of the game? I have a friend who coaches high school tennis. He doesn’t get paid to do this; he simply loves the game of tennis with all his heart. Do poker players love their game enough to coach for free as well? Or for them, is it only about turning a profit?
I do not know. But all that being said, coaching isn’t exactly going anywhere any time soon. People enjoy coaching, and they enjoy teaching. Passing on knowledge gained through experience and study is a part of life. And in poker it can definitely be profitable (at least in the short term).
None of these concepts I’m offering are new or revolutionary. Many of them have been mentioned before. But I felt an article about coaching needed to be included in this series simply so that I could fully paint the picture of the current landscape of poker (at least here in the United States).
Coaching has become a very legitimate side business for many players. Is it better for the poker economy as a whole? Who’s to say? But the game has certainly gotten much more difficult because of it.
I think this is another topic that some of you may not agree with. It’s another one of those polarizing subjects with no clear right or wrong answer. So as always, feel free to let me know what you guys think and where we overlap or clash on ideas. This entry is the penultimate topic in the ‘Thoughts on Poker’ series. Part 9 will be the final entry, but it is by far the most important.
So until then, thanks for reading. And as always, good luck out there.
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. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.