So my good friend Jason Koon just posted a great video on Run It Once here (He titles "From the Heart") where he shares advice he's learned over his career for fellow professionals. I think Jason shares a lot of really valuable advice in this video, a lot of things that personally I have experienced, realized, and agree with. He asked me to chime in on the thread, and I wrote a post which I decided to share here on my blog. Mostly because I think the advice that I discuss is something that is not only really important for poker, I think it's the type of general, translatable advice that can be applied to many facets of life. And because I spent quite a while actually writing it, I figured I'd spread it around to others - as I figure anyone who can be bothered enough to read my blog probably would be interested in what I wrote somewhere else:
I'm almost 37 and been playing cards for over 15 years at this point. I've been around and experienced a lot, and very happy to chime in on this thread and share some advice.
If I cold-offer one thing right now, it would be this: It's super important in poker to strike the balance between being confident and being critical. Think of it as a spectrum:
Confidence is good in that it allows you to execute what you think is right. It allows you to go play in a game and risk your bankroll because you believe you are +EV and can win. Being critical is good in that it allows you to analyze yourself and your play honestly to find leaks and through study/discipline/work you can then improve yourself going forward.
If you have too much of one without enough of the other, if you're too far on down one way, you'll have clear problems. If you're too confident and not critical enough, you'll put yourself in bad spots. You probably won't make good quits. And you definitely won't analyze your play, find leaks, and improve. That is unsustainable. If you aren't confident enough and you're too critical, you won't take the risks you should (because they're smart +EV risks), you'll generally be unhappy personally, and you won't perform your best. This sounds silly perhaps, and if I had to pick which way to err, I would choose erring towards the side of being more critical as I believe it to be more important (in poker at least). But don't be mistaken, they are both important.
Because Jason invited me to this thread and I think it's a good idea, I'm going to take the liberty of sharing an experience we had for the betterment of the group here, to make this real, and to reinforce what I'm saying. As Jason mentions in this video, he can be very hard on himself. One day a few years ago when he was really down on himself I told him something along the lines of: that I thought he was a great player, that I had been witnessing him improve a lot, that he needed to maintain confidence, and that no matter where in the tournament he was, just reach back and make the play he knows is right. That he has the tools, he just needs to believe in himself to do it and not let the moment, worries, previous failures, etc... hold him back. The consequences are out of his control. That even if it doesn't work out, it's ok. I believed in him and still would in the next tournament. It often won't work out. But that you need to have the confidence in yourself to make the right play. This had been a conversation lost to my active memory (and I'm sure Jason remembers more precisely what I said than I do - but I believe it was something like that) and recently when we were talking he told me how he remembered me telling this to him and that it was an impactful moment for him at the time, as it helped perhaps not only with his confidence, but more importantly I think with visioning simply executing what he knows is the right play and not letting the emotional moment-noise enter. There is some practice/experience in this, but also confidence in yourself. This is something that is an issue I think for people who are critical of themselves - a quality I think a lot of people who have grown in to good players have - who haven't yet achieved enough success to be able to obviously tell themselves this... for whatever standard that is for them - maybe there is never enough - maybe this is just something you learn with practice. I don't know, I'm kind of working this out here in this post. It's also hard to tell yourself this, as you can honestly believe you'd be lying to yourself. And perhaps my role was that simple - an outside voice Jason trusted enough to tell him he was ready to put it all on the line if he thought it was the right play. It's hard to say. But regardless of exactly what it was, I believe that it had to do with the balance of these two things that I'm stressing in this post. It's hard, in a high pressure time-sensitive moment in poker where you're weighing all kinds of logic, thoughts, intuition and calculation... where often times different clues pull in different directions - to narrow it down... and when you do narrow it down, to listen to what you know as an expert is the right play. There's a lot of potential for interference from yourself. And without the confidence in yourself, the noise involved in this situation can increase and pull you in the wrong direction. Since then, I've realized how big a deal this is in poker (where I believe it's accentuated over other things in life because of how important being critical is due to the self-delusion aspect of hidden information in poker, and assessing your EV, skill, etc... and how immediately that impacts your results) not only because of this - and how important achieving balance on this "spectrum" is. As Jason mentions in this video, and I've said myself many times before: things don't work out, and quite often, in poker and gambling. It can be very easy to lose confidence. But, if you've been working on your game, and if you know you're playing well (admittedly not an easy thing to know) - remember success in MTTs (especially large fields) has a lot of luck and randomness involved - You have to keep getting up to bat, keep giving yourself chances. Success in life is often when hard work meets luck and opportunity and capitalizes.
For myself, I believe I was in different parts of this spectrum at different points in my career. Early in my career, I am sure I was more confident in my abilities than they deserved for the first couple of years. Despite that, I always tried to keep learning what I could - despite the fact that a long time ago there wasn't much in the way of good materials. After being exposed to some really good players on high stakes on line and later coming to Vegas, I became a lot more critical and definitely had a number of times where I thought guys played better than me. I became more careful with my game selection, which helped me win more. I still believed in myself, but wouldn't play in really tough games as much. I just realized that the bottom line was more important to me than battling for my ego. I always felt I handled pressure very well and thought that in big situations I trusted myself. That said, I had a number of bad personal habits - like partying, not being prepared when I played, playing long sessions too many days in a row to where I got frayed, etc... I was never a tournament player early in my career, but at some point I started playing more. I had a number of frustrating exits before having my breakthrough tournament year in 2011. That said, prior to that I believed in myself. I had already had success in cash games, so was easy to not let tournaments define me. For me personally, I found my career turned around the moment I met my wife. I believe it's because I mentally decided to be responsible, care and build a career. I eliminated a lot of bad personal habits like those I mentioned before. It's probably true that the psychological difficulties of playing tournaments are tougher than those of playing cash. You're supposed to fail most of the time in tournaments, and even when you do cash, most of the time you're still failing because you're not going far enough and definitely not winning very much. I thought I was a good player, and I didn't think tournament results were that important. I suppose they weren't that important given that I didn't play that many. But if that's most of what you play (and since then I have played more than I used to), obviously they are as they are your primary results. But that's what you're signing up for with tournaments, and that regular frustration is just a real part that comes along with the occasional glory. To this day, I still find having an accurate idea of where I am in the many different forms of poker and gambling that I do is important. After all I'm risking money to win money, and in order to make that work as a career, I have to be able to identify when I'm +EV and when I'm not. It's not easy, and I question myself a lot. I think this process, the one of analyzing where you're at... your strengths and weaknesses... how you've gotten where you are and where you're going... and being confident in your ability to get yourself there ==> that's a very important process. You have to be critical of yourself and make sure you're honestly improving your game. As Seth mentions - use your failures as an opportunity to press yourself to work harder. I have done that myself, and I think it's good advice. But you also have to have the confidence to not only keep trying, but execute to the best of your abilities when it's your time. (The executing thing is hard also... lots of issues like focus, dealing with stress, pressure, tilt, personal emotional issues, etc... but that's for another post) So, I'm sharing this with you all to reinforce this dichotomy I've structured and the importance of finding balance in it.
CONFIDENT <----------------- REAL -----------------> CRITICAL
The goal for any professional gambler is to be right in the middle, where you're just being real. You perceive reality (your EV, other's skill and EV, etc...) for what it is. You see when you play well, when you play badly, when you're balanced, when you're tilting, etc... This is a very difficult place to be. In fact, much of the time you can never be objectively there because it can be very difficult to assess not only your own actual EV in a particular situation, but other player's as well. That is ok though. As long as you are being emotionally honest and doing the best assessment you are capable of, and you have a good idea of how much you know and how much you don't (on say a probabilistic confidence spectrum, to be precise) - in other words, being subjectively there - that's perfect. That's the most you can expect for yourself. That's being real.
We're ultimately super-chimps controlled by our limbic system (reptile brain, whatever you want to call it) before our reason and logic, and only through experience, self-perception, and dedication to improve can we really master ourselves and then what we dedicate ourselves to.
Mastering poker is also mastering yourself. You are running your own business, and making the financial decisions that run your life whether it's the games you play in, the plays you make, when you start, quit... how you eat, exercise, sleep... how much you study and improve... how often you work... etc...
Be the right amount of confident, be the right amount of critical: be real.