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.