The Coach’s Challenge‏

Every coach has experienced the same request (or is it a challenge?) The request is worded many different ways; but the words always end up sounding something like this: “How can I learn to play like…”? or “Can you teach me how to play at XXX level”?

The inquiry presents a unique challenge to most poker coaches. The challenge is one involving candor. Coaches don’t play as well as Ivey, Negreanu, or Dwan. The challenge is also one of correctly identifying the fundamental issue: There is no quick and easy path to playing better poker. And, if there is no easy way to get better, what does that mean to the “poker student”? It means the path is long, arduous, and requires hard work. It is counterproductive to search for a perfect formula, or the “Holy Grail”. Phil Ivey seldom says anything; and has offered only one important clue: he has no rules. If your goal is to be one of the best; eventually, you will need to adopt this “no rules:” philosophy. It is the foundation of Iveys game as well as Negreanu’s, and the most overlooked player in poker – Erik Seidel.

To play as a professional requires that work begin on all aspects of the game. Before you can successfully employ a no rules style; you must become proficient in every aspect of the game-including how, when, and why, to employ the rules of any style or strategy. After becoming proficient in each aspect of the game, the next chore is creating balance. A simple secret is learned along the way. It is easier to win chips by betting a medium strength hand against a donkey with a weak hand than it is with a “great” play against the field. Moreover, confidence to make that great play comes from experience, hard work, and great overall skill. Great plays aren’t learned in a vacuum; you must first learn to be a great player, and that means improving your game in small increments. To become a superstar requires becoming “Larry Bird.”

Bobby Knight, a great basketball coach, once said that the will to win wasn’t nearly as important as the will to prepare to win. Everyone wants to win a tournament, but few are willing to read books, study each opponent, honestly evaluate their weaknesses, keep detailed records, and pay for coaching. It’s easier to get with a few friends and have one of them tell you what Harrington spent lifetime learning. It seems cheaper to ask a buddy how to improve. Reviewing results can be painful, and therefore the records may need to be soothingly massaged. The willingness to do the math is work; learning to count outs, figure pot odds, and calculate M, have to be weighed against less boring alternatives. The work we call “War Games” has to be done away from the table.

What role does the coach play in this journey? A good coach serves four functions. He is a teacher, a motivator, a “psychologist”, and a “policeman”. His knowledge and skills need not equal those of a superstar, but they must be above average and he must be willing to constantly expand his horizons. All coaches must have motivational skills; if professional athletes respond to motivation; indeed, may require motivation to achieve peak performance; then poker coaches are well advised to develop those skills. Being a poker psychologist requires no degree; it requires the ability to comprehend the relationship between life’s experiences and emotionally induced poker mistakes, the empathy to understand a player’s view of the poker experience; and the desire to help them temporarily overcome these issues. Periodically a coach must serve the function of a policeman-reminding the player of “to play or not play” rules they may have established, reminding the player of the record keeping responsibilities he committed to, and directing self-improvement in areas of weakness rather than areas of interest. This is where the “Larry Bird” phenomena becomes important.

Superstars understand coach Knight’s advice better, and more completely, than mortals. When Larry Bird played for the Boston Celtics, each off season he picked one particular weakness and devoted his entire training regimen to that weakness. For example; early in his career he felt that faster defenders were forcing him to his left and preventing him from scoring. He determined that if he could shoot with his left hand he would offset this defensive strategy. He spent the entire off season shooting with his left hand. When asked in a television interview how he could remain so devoted during the off season – he related that whenever he considered deviating from his summer plans he would imagine Magic Johnson practicing and regained his motivation. Superstars are the most intense competitors, and are fixated on making their weaknesses disappear.

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The Second Goal of Coaching – Help You Play Your Best‏

Every poker player has a skill level that could theoretically be graded. Player A for example might perform at level 75 (scale 1-100). A coach should have three objectives with this player:

  1. Gradually increase their skill level
  2. Insure that the player perform consistently
  3. Assist in the search for opportunities to play against players that perform beneath his level

Increasing the skill level of a player is a relative task. In basketball; increasing made free throws from 50% to 65% is easier than from 85% to 90%. A poker player that possess top 20% skill levels is probably already proficient in hand selection, reading his opponents, picking up tells, and has knowledge of pot odds. If his experience and skill place him in the top 10%, his skills are even more advanced. Even a good coach can bring very marginal improvement in this skill level. But he should recognize areas where he is weak, and concentrate on improvement in those areas. Clearly an 85% player exceeds 85% in some of his skills and is beneath 85% in others. Reading, game theory, and bluffing theory are common weaknesses; whereas pot odds and hand selection are usually strengths for an above average player. Coaching is often rejected because a player is: “working on their game”. Such players are often attempting to improve by concentrating on the things they enjoy which are usually areas of strength; while ignoring subjects of lesser interest where they are uncomfortable and weaker. A good coach insists on working on problem areas. The fundamental truth about all poker players is: They seldom play as well as they know how or they play their best for a short period of time. A player with a 75% skill level will seldom play at that level. Ironically, the biggest reason that poker is so profitable for those at the top is because the group that they take money from is, while equally skilled, erratic and inconsistent. Winners know that the 75% skill player will become emotional, go on tilt, become bored, or lack the stamina to continue playing his best-and will lose.

The coaches’ job is to identify the life forces that create fertile ground for self-defeating, and self-destructive tendencies to grow. With this identification process completed; preventing these problems from manifesting into poor decisions can be expected. Focus is directed toward the goal of helping a player play their best as often as possible, and for as long as possible. Even the most experienced players are often shocked to learn that a 60% skill level player can make slight improvements in his hand selection, recommit to disciplined position play, then play his best most of the time and outperform the 85% player in NLH. Playing a few hands poorly, or avoiding mistakes, explains this surprising result.

Searching for profitable games, or the best tournament, is not taught in books, is boring work, and is therefore overlooked by most players. If you select opportunities where you have an edge; then your profits will increase. Many excellent tournament players ignore their strengths and weaknesses. They often sign up for the next tournament. Why would a small ball player sign up for a 20 minute round $3000 starting stack tournament? It was there!

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The Limitations of Learning from Peers (Revisited)

A common argument advanced for learning from peers is, that because they think differently. You are exposed to a fresh viewpoint and your understanding has expanded.

Rebuttal: Assuming both you and your friend are excellent players; it is reasonable to conclude that each of your games are designed, coordinated, and implemented to mesh with a particular set of skills, an image, strategies-including strategies within strategies, and then becomes functional with a chess like plan based on those criteria. Attempting to implement what works for him may be a colossal mistake for you. Consider the idea Pete Rose taking hitting lessons from Mickey Mantle, and borrowing his bat. Then, if you can, imagine Joe Montana attempting to play QB with the reckless abandon of a Brett Favre. In poker the dangers are magnified because of the nature of random. A successful venture into Danny Negreanu’s small ball game in one event might distort your game for months–because you won and thought it fit you! It might take months for you realize that the first step was a poor choice, and many more months experimenting before you end the slump. Can your friend help? No; because he is still winning with a strategy that fits him, and he is certain that it is a grand idea because it was validated by your early results.

A peer offers a comfortable place to blow off steam is another reason offered.

Rebuttal: Venting is a valuable emotional release. Venting can also serve to demoralize your friend. A potential for reinforcing each other’s negative emotions can become a very real danger. Maintaining a positive mental attitude is every players continuing challenge. Selecting the best “partner” for those days that venting is essential is important. Selecting someone who really doesn’t care, or might be hurt in the process is a bad idea.

A study buddy can greatly reduce the chore of keeping current is a third potential advantage.

Rebuttal: This is one of the oldest fallacies of friendship. It sounded good when you were in high school and it sounded great when you went to college. Some of you have even learned that it was an appealing concept when a partnership was contemplated. Most of us know that it’s Bull Shit. Hard work, especially studying, is always has an alluring alternative-and her name is fun. Two poker players studying Sklansky, Chen, and Negreanu is a siren call for pizza, beer, cheetos, and marijuana. The recipe, however, never quite gets the cake baked. Sorry Charlie – this is a career that requires hard work.

A poker peer can enhance your growth by providing a challenge and competition-a 4th.

Rebuttal: Let me get this clear; someone is contending that intense competition is an inherent advantage of having a poker buddy who is also your study pal, your mentor, and the person you trust to tell your darkest secrets and fears to. This person who is the poster child (as you should be) for a predatory game is also committed to making you better. I don’t believe it! The concept is so inherently flawed that is goes beyond inconsistent to foolish.

An off shoot of the poker buddy concept that is often advanced for learning purposes is the group study and research program. May I suggest that those who hope this might work in poker ask any of their friends that attended law school. The law professor assigns 5 people to research the precedents and the next week 2/3 of the work has been done by one person, another has done 20% (his share), and the other three students have completed the other 14% of the work-poorly. The result is that hate, anger, and jealousy are abundant.

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Why Do I Need a Coach? I’m winning!

“Jan, I like what you are saying, but, I am winning right now. I’m leery of disturbing anything. I’ll contact you when I need some help-when things are not going so well.”

Since I solicit from winning players, this is a common objection to my coaching offers. Here are some things to consider: (Begin by rereading the previous essay – The Challenges of Minefield)

  1. When you are losing, paying for coaching is much more difficult.
  2. Why wait until you are in a slump? Wouldn’t it be wiser to allow a coach to help you stay in the groove, the zone, and winning?
  3. A good coach never tries to change your game unless it is horribly flawed. His goal is to refine your game, smooth out the edges in your game, and encourage your growth.
  4. Growth, learning, and intelligent adjustments are the processes that prevent your game from faltering.
  5. It is crucial to understand why you are winning. Otherwise, you may make unwise changes.
  6. A coach’s job is to encourage you to take note of what is working well. This information can be crucial to continuing your winning behavior. Focusing on what you are doing well, and not so well, is the joint chore of you and your coach.
  7. Many players that are doing well make the decision to make radical experimental changes. A good coach will discourage this. There is a big difference between taking a shot at a $1600 buy in after you have been winning at the $400 buy in level- and the mistake of moving exclusively to the $600-$2500 level.
  8. Many winners become complacent. They begin to believe that they have “arrived”. A good coach is diligent in his demand that you continue to study, prepare, and grow.

Winners often are not consciously aware of why they are winning, and therefore, have great difficulty returning to what Jared Tendler calls the zone. He concludes: “Instinct uses our most ingrained and basic knowledge to inform our decisions. It’s common to view players with strong instincts as having an innate gift that doesn’t result from training. The truth is you do not have to be a “natural”. Instincts can be enhanced by training your knowledge to the level of unconscious competence. This knowledge is so well trained and basic that you may struggle to explain decisions that a made using it- a phenomena called “input induced amnesia”. When knowledge is so deeply ingrained, you can sometimes forget the steps and details it took to learn it so well. This concept explains why experts make terrible coaches.”

Fellow coach Chris “the Fox” Wallace says that the most common question he receives is: What is the fastest way to improve? The most common question I receive is: “What do they know that I don’t”? The answer to both questions is the same. There is no easy path to becoming a great player. It takes time, hard work, perseverance, resilience, and dedication. Chris: “You can shorten the amount of time it takes-but most players won’t make the necessary sacrifice because it demands more study time and is hard work. Most poker player would rather play than study the fastest way to improve would be to work directly with a poker coach…but most players won’t do that. Too much misplaced pride.”

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Searching for Improvement

There are two ways to get better results. The first is to get luckier. The second is to get better. If you find a way to get luckier – patent it. If you want to get better, here are five things you can do:

  1. Make mistakes and learn from them aka the school of hard knocks.
  2. Read a lot and hope that those you read have ideas that you can effectively implement.
  3. Talk to fellow poker players and hope that they are interested in actually helping you – and that what they do you can also do and profitably.
  4. Attend seminars and purchase film study programs from” power” winners. This is a vastly untapped reservoir of knowledge.
  5. Pay for professional help which is certain to include hiring a personal coach.

The disadvantages of learning through mistakes are numerous.

  1. You often “learn” that a mistake is “correct” because the random nature of poker often rewards mistakes. This is extremely troublesome because it may take months before you come to recognize the original mistake. Moreover you usually have to make the mistake many times before it becomes clear that it was/is a mistake.
  2. Taking a corrective strategy for your mistake is often bereft with additional errors because you are implementing trial and error solutions.
  3. The inevitable occurrence of variance, slopes, and tilt produced by mistake creates an emotional impediment to corrective strategy.

Learning from mistakes can be the most expensive way to improve. Imagine for a moment, the financial cost of the three disadvantages listed above. Then consider this – one preventable mistake in a tournament with a $35K prize fund will cost $1000 if it prevents you from min-cashing and over $7500 if it costs you a top three finish.

The process of learning by reading requires learning the skill of critical reading. Authors make money selling books. Mundane academic books do not sell well. Books promising the Holy Grail and Master Plans for success have always sold well. In poker, such books “sell” a whole new cycle of mistakes. Make no mistake, there are many excellent books available – and an equal number of very poorly conceived books. Even the good ones usually require “application assistance.”

Your fellow poker players are sometimes far more advanced, and almost always can offer fresh and differing insight. This information can be very valuable. The following caution signs should be observed.

  1. These players may not be true friends; they may be very astute predators.
  2. These players not may not be as astute as they would have you believe. They may be “friendly figure skaters” who are more interested in the self-gratification of appearing to be advanced player. They may be more concerned with earning your respect than in your advancement.
  3. These players usually do not understand your game and your emotions. They may be in capable of helping you integrate what they know into your game.

Attending seminars and purchasing study films, if produced by respected professionals, are highly recommended. They offer an organized and quickly assimilated information gathering system which may prevent – or correct – many common mistakes. They are, however, impersonal, and are therefore inherently limited.

Professional coaching is personal and is probably the fastest and most effective way to learn – and it still takes time. In selecting a coach these are important considerations.

  1. Look for referrals from players who are happy with their coach.
  2. Look for a coach who has an established record of success as a coach. Just being a good player does not qualify someone to be a good coach. Moreover, great players are not usually good coaches.
  3. Look for someone who is willing to devote the time to understand your game. Avoid those coaches who want to re-create you in their image. Cloning is not a recipe for long-term success.

If you find a good coach, stick with him. Remember that Tiger Woods’s slide coincided with the replacement of his entire “team.”

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Who Coached the Coach

Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jen Harmon; she revealed a truth that will shock many people. Everyone is coached. Her mentor was Chip Reese. Some people have a coach named “the school of hard knocks”. – They only learn by making mistakes and then hopefully learn from those mistakes. Others learn by forming a group; the old Texas road gamblers – Doyle, Slim, Moss, and Sailor shared wisdom and bankrolls. The Balfour group-Lederer, Zolotow, Harrington and Seidel learned from each other. “The Crew”, including Scott Fischman, Dutch Boyd, continued this trend in the modern era. Professional coaches have become more common in the last decade. I entered the poker world during an era when there were very few “professional” coaches. My mentors included the following professional players and friends.

After my children graduated from college (20+ years ago); my wife and I began to travel to Las Vegas and rekindled my passion for poker. Legal gambling arrived in Colorado at this time, but limited gaming made tournament poker more attractive. As my interest grew, I began to travel to Reno. The Hilton, and the Peppermill, each had 4 14-day tournaments a year. They became my school and The Mirage in Las Vegas became my office,

My mentors included:

Hans “Tuna” Lund: Hans* lived in Reno, and after becoming one of the best pros in the world, chose to semi-retire and play only in Reno. His wife had developed a drug addiction and the court gave him custody of two children – IF – he would stay in Reno/Sparks and raise them. He did, and I learned that there is always something more important than poker. He shared his poker experiences, passion for the game, and his favorite saying: “If you want to be a top pro you have to be able to push in all your chips into the pot with ATC (any two cards). Tuna passed away at age 59-18 months ago and is missed by all who knew him-especially my second mentor, his best friend, and WSOP champion Brad Daugherty.

Brad Daugherty** credited Tuna with teaching him. They remained best friends for over 30 years. Brad taught me what Tuna had taught him. Never give up, survival allows you to get lucky and apply your skills, remain aggressive, trap with the instincts of a predator, and play satellites to reduce your overhead. Through Brad and Tuna I met Vince Burgio, and he also became a mentor.

Vince Burgio*** grew up in Kansas City, and we shared Kansas experiences from our youth. Vince was a patient and observant mentor. He taught me to bring my patience to the poker table, he suggested starting hand systems (he introduced me to books by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth books); and he reminded me after bad beats that I was learning and talented. His confidence gave me confidence.

Tex Morgan**** is a professional player of huge stature (6’6” tall), of unequaled poise, and he developed the Texas Tears tournament system. Tears is a computer based system that allows the tournament director to predetermine by the minutes per round and blind structure when his tournament will end. Tex told me to control my temper, to accept the game for what it is, and he taught me that if you know the blind structure, and when a tournament will end, you can develop a good strategic plan.

Tom McEvoy***** was a regular attendee at the Reno tournaments, and a close friend of Brad, Vince, and Tuna. Tom reinforced the “survival theory”, and expanded on the value of tournament structure knowledge. Tom suggested that I calculate on the tournament structure sheet where I should be after each blind round. With his help, I learned that tournament poker demands balance between accumulating chips and a healthy respect for survival.

Asher Derie:****** As my success grew, I began to play more tournaments in Las Vegas. The Mirage was poker central. One evening, a few days before the beginning of the WSOP, a large number of players entered a tournament at the Mirage. As the tournament progressed, I was fortunate enough to make the final table with a rather distinguished group. It included Brad, the Australian pro Danny O’Dea, Kathy Liebert, and an Isreali I came to know as Aher Derei. My Aces held up against Brad’s Kings and I was the co-chip leader with Danny (six players remained). My ego, and my invincible voices were in full throttle. Kathy made a 3X raise and I re-raised with 10/10. I had 4.5 stacks of 1000 chips – 25 deep. Kathy bet 5000 into a 1000/2000 blind pot. My re-raise was the .5 stack (which preserved my beautifully arranged 100,000 in chips). The total raise actually was to 17K. Earlier Asher had bluffed someone off a pot and I had nicknamed him “old 7/3” the hand he had bluffed with. Asher took his time and re-raised all-in for a stack of 36K. Kathy folded, I folded and he showed 7/2. My image was shot, and my efforts ended in 3rd place. Asher invited me for breakfast and I learned that by betting the 17K stack instead of a 25K stack I had told him I would fold to his bet. And, by focusing on his prior bluff, he knew that I did not think he would bluff me. Over the years, Asher and I have remained friends, and I am often reminded of the multi-dimensional thinking top pros employ.

“Boston Billy” Duarte*******Billy and I became friends, and my description of Billy goes like this: Bill Gazes once told me that he and Billy seldom discussed poker. What he learned from Billy was how to be a better person in the poker world.

Dr. Alan Schoonmaker PhD********Al has become one of my dearest friends and closest confidants. He has been a constant reminder of the two most important lessons in poker…know yourself/control yourself and play your best or don’t play..

* “Tuna” won two WSOP bracelets and finished second in the main event
** Brad has 19 cashes at the WSOP and in 1997 won the main event
*** Vince has 28 cashes & 7 final table finishes at the WSOP and a bracelet
**** Tex has over 50 career cashes dating back to the early 80’s
***** Tom has 4 WSOP bracelets, 10 titles, and 128 cashes
****** Asher has a WSOP circuit bracelet and 4 major titles, he has 34 cashes in major events
******* Billy was a pros pro. Doyle Brunson said he was one of the 5 best players in the world.
******** Al is a low limit player, and the world’s most profound and insightful writer on poker
psychology. His books have been translated and sold in 7 languages.

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Why Do Poker Players Need A Coach? What Do They Receive?

The most common questions posed about coaching poker are: Why would it benefit me? What does a poker coach do? This is composed to answer those questions, and to offer some insight into proactive strategies a poker player can employ to maximize value from a coach.

Why would it benefit a poker player to invest in a coach? Ironically, this question is never posed by the hall of fame quarterbacks of NFL history; nor do people question the existence of 5 or more coaches on a NBA franchise. Baseball hitters have even sought out psychologists to supplement the full time hitting coaches the major league team provided. Golf and tennis greats including Tiger Woods have coaches. If a tournament player wins 1 first instead of a 5th, or increases his cash rate from 13% of the tournaments entered to 17%; his increase in net profit can be huge. A coach may save large sums of money for any player experiencing slumps, tilt, or poor game selection. A poker coach must first understand the skill level of the player; then his strategic knowledge of the game, and then his goals. He must help define the games that have the highest profit potential for the player; and understand the personal history and life forces (financial, marital and psychological) that influence his poker behavior.

After completing a personal history profile; a preliminary syllabus is addressed in 45-90 minute sessions. Long term adjustments based upon development and goals should be expected. For many players reading is a chore and not enjoyable. Coaches read and reread the literature of poker and direct players to those books and articles most helpful to him. In many instances they serve as the reader and editor of materials. A coach offers a perspective that fellow players usually lack. Your poker pals can be helpful, but they usually view poker problems through their eyes; whereas a coach has to have bifocals (a lens based on the coaches understanding of poker and a lens based on all that he has learned about the player). This is one of the truths a poker coach must remember: answers are situational and personal. They not only vary by the situation, but it is common for advice to be correct for player A and inaccurate for Player B. Finally, confidentiality is crucial to the trust required. Help your coach help you:

  1. Take notes. Players seldom recall crucial information ranging from blind levels to pot size, from position to player profiles. This renders specific hand analysis difficult.
  2. Transfer this information to record keeping a.s.a.p.
  3. Email your coach your results after each tournament or session with any questions.
  4. Arrange regular communication via telephone, text messaging, as well as email.
  5. Periodic face to face meetings greatly increase the depth of the process.
  6. Know that if the goals you outlined dictate major changes it is likely the early stages may involve a downturn. If you wish to avoid this risk; then adjustments will need to be more gradual. In either event; be patient.
  7. Coaches like accountants, doctors, and lawyers face a regular problem: they advise diets, a tax strategy, or a will and their advice is often ignored. If you feel uncomfortable with, or incapable of following a coaches advice, tell him so and work out a compromise. A good coach will respect your opinion.

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