level up“Leveling up” refers to when you make a breakthrough in your thought process about poker that allows you to take your game to the next level.

Poker is awesome because every player has the capability to get better, assuming he is willing to put in the requisite time and energy, studying the game diligently both at and away from the table.

In this article, I am going to list a few of the concepts I have learned during different stages of my career that propelled me from being a weak tight nit who was scared to put money into the pot to a top professional.

When I first started playing poker, I thought I was supposed to look at my cards and put money in the pot when I had a strong hand, as all of the 20 year old books suggest. I was sadly mistaken.

You must be able to pay attention and figure out why your opponents are making specific actions. There are many spots where you have to fold top pair because it is clearly beat. There are also times when you have a marginal hand, such as A high or bottom pair, and should not fold. The only way you will ever learn to recognize these situations is to stop worrying about exactly your own two cards and start thinking about the numerous other aspects of the game, such as hand ranges, your opponents’ tendencies and stack sizes. While poker is a very dense game, if you refuse to get the least bit out of your standard poker routine, you are almost guaranteed to be a consistent loser.

After a while, I became a small winning player. Eventually, I made it to the top of the online sit n’ go world by playing a robust strategy based purely on game theory, which works decently well as long as you are playing with short stacks. As I ventured into deep stacked tournaments and cash games, I quickly realized playing a predetermined strategy will leave you broke.

ThinkDifferentOne of the biggest realizations I made was that my opponents do not have the same thought processes that I have. I frequently hear mediocre players discuss hands as if their opponents have the exact same strategy as they do. In order to win at poker, you have to figure out what your opponents are doing incorrectly. While they have some of the same flaws as you, they likely make mistakes you could never dream of. You have to pinpoint exactly what they do incorrectly then adjust your strategy drastically to take full advantage of their errors.

Once I become a professional, supporting myself financially entirely from my poker winnings, I quickly realized I had to work on my life away from the poker table. In order to succeed at poker in the long run, you must be well rested, clear-minded and ready to play your best poker whenever you step up to the table. This means not partying too hard, getting adequate sleep and maintaining a balanced life. If you spend all your time playing poker, you will quickly burn out. If you spend all your time spending your winnings, you will find you have no winnings left.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is maintain the hunger for poker. It is easy to stay motivated when you are constantly learning new skills and playing only a few hours per week, but all of that will change when your learning plateaus and you start putting in 60 hours per week at the table.

670px-Maintain-a-Will-and-Desire-to-Succeed-Step-7_miniI have found that playing poker “full time” around three weeks per month and taking the other week off works best for me. Other professionals tend to put in 30 hour weeks all of the time with no problem. I have found very few professional poker players who play at a high level and play more than 40 hours per week, every week. In order to figure out what works best for you, you must experiment with various routines and see which works best.

In order to continue improving both as a person and as a poker player, you must keep your eyes and ears open, especially when spending time with enlightened people. I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas to better my poker and my life. If you never think outside of the box and only learn what is spoon-fed to you, you will constantly remain behind the curve. In order to be an innovator, you must work hard to see things other people do not see. Once you learn to truly observe the world around you, you will be better able to figure out ways to improve, allowing you to continue to learn and progress.

This article initially appeared in CardPlayer magazine.

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6 Comments

  • David Vaughn says:

    Jonathan,

    Excellent article. I find that if I start making poor decisions at the table (either online or live), I step away from the game for a week or two and before going back to play again, I actually reread your first poker book (Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker) and sure enough, when I hit the felt again I am playing MUCH better poker. I think what happens to me personally is that I fall into a decision rut and become afraid of losing instead of trying to win. I find that when I take the break and restudy your excellent concepts, I start paying more attention to my opponents ranges versus the cards that I’m holding and show much more consistent results. I did this in August after going on a brutal losing streak and cashed three tournaments in a row (7th, 3rd, and 1st) for a profit of over $2500 (two $65 buy in tournaments and a $185 buy in). Thanks for all these helpful tips and keep up the great work.

    • I am glad you find the books to be helpful and congrats on the good results. Taking time away from actually playing is usually a good idea to reset your mind and get back to thinking soundly. I know that I play much better poker after some form of a break.

  • fannie says:

    I don’t play poker but this is a very nice read.=)
    p.s.I had a conversation with a confident and happy Florida guy earlier on a flight to HK. I was wondering , any chance that was you? Either way, great articles!=) -Fannie

  • Azar says:

    Excellent read. Like the first comment i always reread your book to find holes in my game. I must have read volume one of Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker about 50 times. After a long losing drought i had reexamined my game to find out what i was doing wrong. In one case i found that i was C-betting to much on the flop with air in a multi way pot after raising pre flop. In your book you recommend playing the flop straight up when there are multiple players in the pot. So now when i miss the flop completely, i start checking a lot more unless i have a read that tells me otherwise. By doing so i conserve chips because now i am not getting reraised or even called when i miss the flop, i can just check fold. Another issue in my game was not checking the turn, i ended up playing too many big pots with hands that didn’t hold up or draws that never got there. I put in as much work as i can into my game, its hard when having a full time job, girlfriend, friends and family who all need your attention. I hope one day my dream of leaving my job to pursue professional poker happens because i genuinely love this game

    • I am glad you have diligently studied the book. It seems like the book has also taught you to find holes in your game by yourself, which was the main goal of the book. From here, you can continue finding minor leaks and constantly improve as a poker player. Nice job!

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