“How would a poker coach go about learning poker from scratch in today’s environment?

It’s a fascinating question, and on this week’s podcast, James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney answers by breaking down the four pillars of poker learning: Math, Tactics, Strategy and Mental Game. If you’re not learning poker from scratch, it doesn’t matter, there’s something to be learned in this podcast for any player.”

Featuring: Zac Shaw and James 'SplitSuit' Sweeney

Zac: How can I learn poker from scratch? James”SplitSuit” Sweeney is on the podcast today. Welcome, and can we get an answer? How do I learn poker from scratch? I know a lot of people out there in our listening audience are just starting out studying. So it seems like a good thing to talk about today.

James: Well, thank you so much for having me as always. It’s a really complicated question. Mostly because poker is inherently so complicated. There’s a bunch of moving parts. It’s kind of difficult to know what you don’t know, especially in the beginning of poker, and that’s really what creates the most amount of confusion is people just don’t know where to start. Do you start with a book? Do you start with a video? Do you start with a course? Do you start just by playing some hands and then figuring it out from there? It’s a really complicated thing to start with, but I think if we can break it down and do a couple of different phases, kind of prioritize which phase is going to be the most important for where you are right that moment, it can really help give you a good starting point and kind of help you trampoline from there. The hardest part is just simply not knowing what you don’t know, but hopefully we’ll be able to help with that, at least a little bit by the end of this episode.

Zac: So one of the first things I think of is I’m sure everyone is in a different phase of their poker studies. But poker is in different place today versus where it was when you and I learned it. 2004 poker, 2018 poker, I mean, they’re completely different scenarios. So how do you learn in an age where the information is just on overload, and you never know where to start?

James: That’s really the largest difference is like back in the day 2004 is pretty much when I started playing. There wasn’t very much information out there. There were a couple of books that were worthwhile, and the beyond that, you had forums. You had your communities that you build you’re little masterminds. But beyond that, there just wasn’t a lot of front facing information. Like, YouTube poker videos was not a thing. Poker Podcasts, barely a thing. I’m actually not even convinced it was a thing at that time. So it’s more that today you have so much information available that it can be a little bit overwhelming. It can actually become daunting to the point of why would I try to learn this when I’m already signing myself up for having to learn like a thousand hours of content just to understand what that heck I’m doing in this game. To complicate matters even worse, there is so much jargon in poker, right? I mean, we have 16 different terms for every single thing that we say. So it’s a complicated game to learn.

So I think first and foremost is understanding that you have heaps of good information available to you. You have books that are better than they ever were before. You have a lot of solid quality podcasts and videos that are available. For you, it’s more about prioritizing the time because the quality of information is there. There’s actually really good free resources. There’s extremely good paid resources. So it’s more if you’re really serious, you have to start getting in there. You have to understand, okay, there’s a lot of moving parts in this game, and if you don’t really continue working to understand them, you’re just going to flounder. Because people in this game are much, much better on average than they were 14 years ago and that’s only going to continue improving, you have to work quickly and you have to prioritize and you have to jump in fast. You can’t think you’re going to be productive at this at 30 minutes a week and somehow be great by even by the end of the month. It’s going to take a lot of work and dedication, but anything that’s worthwhile is going to take a lot of work and dedication. So that should not be too, too shocking.

Zac: You mentioned these four phases, and it’s really a useful way of breaking down and kind of bucketing all of the things that you have to learn in poker, the fundamentals, the categories of topics that you’re discussing. Like you said, the jargon is unending. The information is unending. But with these four phases it’s a little easier to get grip on what you’re actually learning when you’re learning poker.

James: Yeah. 100%. This is the way that I learn anything is that I quickly try to say, “Okay, What are the biggest pieces that I need to learn right away? What are the most important facets of this thing?” Once I can get the big picture idea on those buckets, then I can start refining and going forward from there. So in poker, what I think is our four major buckets. Those are poker math, poker strategy, poker tactics, and then the psychology and the mental part of the game. I’d say those are like the core four. Now, in general, I would suggest starting in that order.

So you start with math first and make sure that you get that. Honestly, that’s probably going to be the biggest barrier for most people because most people self identify as awful at math, right? They didn’t do great in high school math. They didn’t really get stats all that well. Then they just kind of write it off as I’m not a math person. To you, if that is you listening thinking that same exact thing, I’m just going to call BS on you. Everyone can handle poker math. Honestly, my son can handle poker math. Mind you, he’s a little gifted towards math, but he can get it and he can grasp it. He’s like, “Oh, that’s how that all fits together.” Easy. If he can do it, you can do it as well. I learned it and I’m an idiot and took the same math class in college twice. Twice because I’m an idiot. That’s 100% my fault, but the point is you don’t have to be a genius to understand poker math. It’s actually really not that complicated once you just spend a couple hours, focus on it, and start digesting it because everything in this game at the end of the day boils right back to the math. Something as simple as calculating SPR (stack-to-pot ratio). Something as complicated as estimating EV (expected value). These are all things that boil right back to math, but you can grasp it. You just have to spend the time with it.

Then after that, get into strategy because that’s really your big picture thing. How does everything fit together? Understanding how value and bluffs really work together. Too many people try to make it black and white and try to get a little too tactical. Tactical is really kind of the zoomed in approach, how is this play going to make profit. Whereas, strategy is how is my entire game plan going to make profit? It’s kind of a zoomed out picture. So I think prioritizing strategy over tactics is more important. Too many people prioritize tactics over strategy and then find it difficult to try to swim out of that and get back to a strategy. They don’t have one at that point. They just have this memorized list of tactics. They have a playbook, but they don’t understand how that playbook really works. If that’s how they try to make changes to their playbook or add extra things or delete extra things that aren’t working, they don’t have a strategy to fall back on. That’s inherently going to be a massive issue later in the day.

Then finally, rapping it up with the psychology and the mental part of it because there’s a lot of it in this game. But then again, there’s a lot of that in life, right? So if you constantly find yourself road raging or constantly find yourself tilting in real life situations, chances are this might be something you prioritize over maybe strategy because if all you’re doing at the end of the session is constantly tilting off all of your winnings, well that’s not going to help you actually make money in this game. So maybe prioritizing that would make sense in that scenario where your tilt issues are really, really aggressive. Sorry for the massive word vomit there. I’m sure you had other things to ask, but I had to get that out to start.

Zac: No, that’s fantastic. It’s a really awesome framework, and I would love to dive deeper into each one of those categories. You talked about poker math at the beginning, and identified with a lot of what you said about being math-phobic. I never met a math course I didn’t fail. However, I’ve been brushing up on my poker math and you’re right, it’s not as daunting as you think it is. When you really get into it, it’s less about doing lots of calculations at the table and more about building an intuition for how to think about things in the mathematical context, right?

James: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, just like anything else, the more you do it, the more of an intuition and an inherent feel you’re going to get for it. So yes, you could run through a million different equations. You could run them through all of these very specific zoomed in plays and hands, but the more you do that, the more you’re just going to get a general feel for like, “Okay, when the risk reward is like this, this is going to be good,” or, “When it looks like this, it’s probably not going to be so good. If I think my equity’s going to be here, here’s how that fits into the entire thing.” So everything in poker math, yeah, you’re probably going to have to pull out some software. Maybe pull out Equilab. Maybe pull out Flopzilla. Maybe pull out a fold equity calculator. Whatever it be, you’re going to get a feel for it with time. So, again, even if you identify as math-phobic and most people do, it’s something that you can grasp, and the more calculations you do, the less you fear it, the more it’s just going to sink it. In real time, you’re going to be better.

Here’s the real truth. In real time, when I’m actually at the tables, I’m very, very not precise. I’m never to the tenth of decimal place. Really my whole thing is like am I plus or minus a couple of big blinds. More often than not, that’s super, super usable. Inherently, when I’m able to get to that level of understanding and my opponents are no where close to that level of closeness, an edge is inherently born. So don’t fear that you’re not getting it to the tenth of a decimal place in time. That’s not the point. The point is to be far better than your opponents, and because most of your opponents are going to identify as math-phobic and will never do the math that you will, again, you can develop a really nice edge just from that. So don’t fear it. Just put the time and effort into it, and it will start to become more ingrained and more usable, and that’s of course the goal at the end of the day.

Zac: So a lot of people getting into the math start to flake out. It’s just too hard to do all these calculations and drill these formulas away from the table, and what does this have to do with learning strategy, learning tactics and so they jump ahead and they get into these tactics and these strategies and they feel a little bit lost because they haven’t developed that mathematical foundation. Talk a little bit about why it’s so important to start with math and to learn that first before you really get into actually playing the game of poker.

James: Well, I guess the best way to phrase it or to pose it is if you didn’t, what would your strategy be built off of? What would your tactics be built off of? So for instance, most people want to start with tactics. They want to start with that playbook of here are the things that I do. Okay. That’s fine. Let’s say that’s a double barrel bluff. Okay. That’s fine. How do you identify a good double barrel bluff? Well, you need to have some basic hand reading skills, some basic understanding of range advantage based upon did that next card help me more, my opponent more, is it kind of bricky to both of us. You need to be able to understand some basic equity, right? Are you expected to win this pot a lot of the time, a little of the time? How does that really frame the way that you identify your hand strength? Then you also need to understand bet sizing and how that bet size relates to the break even percentage.

Now, if all of those things makes sense to you, you probably already have a basic inherent idea of the basic poker math. If a lot of those ideas make no sense to you, then this is something you want to spend some time in. Again, you could spend an hour a day for maybe two weeks and you’d almost have all of the poker math you need in the beginning to get poker math ingrained in your system. So, again, it’s not something that is going to require months and months and months and hundreds and hundreds of hours to understand. Understanding doesn’t take all that long. Perfecting it and refining it takes a long time.

But everything you want to do in this game, be it bluff more, be it value bet more, be it work on your sizing more, be it work on your aggression more. All of that at the end of the day hinges upon solid math fundamentals. If nothing else, understanding basic things like the break even percentage, understanding basic equity, understanding basic EV (expected value). Because if you don’t understand EV (expected value), how the heck are you going to be able to estimate which line is going to be best? Right? You simply couldn’t. Again, my goal when I’m trying to estimate EV (expected value) in my line, when I’m in real time isn’t going to be to a tenth of a penny. It’s just going to be close enough. Which one do I think is going to be best based upon the information I have? Make the best decision with what I come up with. So, again, perfection is not the goal. It’s just being close enough and usable enough that you will be infinitely better than what your opponents are doing.

Zac: One of the things you said there that I thought was really important was you’re talking about being aware of these mathematical concepts and you’re also talking about being able to actually calculate them in spots. But it’s almost like you can develop one layer and one level, let’s say, of knowledge of poker math where you’re familiar with the concepts and you know what they are and you can understand strategies and tactics because you know the concept of expected value or pot odds. It’s another level to say, “I can calculate those in any given spot to not the decimal, but with enough precision to make the best decisions at the table.” So I guess the question is what level are we trying to approach when we’re getting started out learning from scratch, and what are we trying to reach at the end of our learning process?

James: Well, you kind of just outlined it there, right? The starting point is just understand what the terms are, rough ideas on how to calculate them, and rough ideas on what the application is. So I’m not sure if you’re like me, but when I was in school, I struggled a ton if I did not understand what the application of whatever I was being taught was, right?

Zac: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James: So if you didn’t clearly explain, “Hey, James. Here’s trigonometry,” and you didn’t go the next step and say, “Here’s how it’s used.” I was not going to do trigonometry. I was just going to breeze through it and just get done with it. I wasn’t going to really actively try to learn it.

Now, if you’re going to try to become a good, solid poker player, you need to actively learn this stuff. So it’s also important to understand the application. We’re not just throwing out terms and jargon. We’re not just throwing out formulas for no damn reason. There’s an actual thing there. It’s on us as coaches and as teachers to really explain what the application is, but it’s also on you as a student where if you can’t clearly understand it, ask. Because once you can understand, “Hey, this is where something would be applicable. Here’s how it will be helpful in your overall learning.” That’s going to be the most important thing. So ask that. Ask it in the forum. Ask one of us. Send us an email. It’s doesn’t matter just ask the question because once you understand that, it will help you say, “Okay. This is important. I’m going to prioritize this stuff, and I’m actually going to learn EV (expected value) even though it scares the crap out of me right this moment. I see the application, and that’s going to inherently help me. Help me improve my win rate, help me meet my poker goals, and as such rock and roll. There we go.”

So I don’t. For me, I think that’s really, really important. The theory is really important, but you also need to understand what the practice, what the application is. Once you get all those pieces kind of flowing together, I think things become much, much easier.

Zac: Gotcha. So learn the definitions first, but don’t stop there. Drill the exercises. One other question I had, when I look at these four phases, and I think a lot of listeners have this question. What’s the difference between strategy and tactics? You’ve mentioned this before on a podcast, but I think it bares repeating because a lot of people get this confused.

James: Sure. So if I kind of had to like really sum it up simply, kind of like I mentioned earlier, is strategy is the zoomed out entirety of your game plan, right? It’s very, very zoomed out. It’s here’s how all the pieces fit together. Here’s how value and bluffs fit together. Here is my overall strategy. You have an actual plan of attack. Your tactics are your playbook. That’s really zoomed in. That’s saying, “Okay. I’m in a situation here and maybe from a strategic point of view, I wouldn’t check, raise, pocket deuces here.” But from a tactical perspective, I look at this and I say, “Well, I think it’s going to be profitable because my opponents folding too darn much. So I’m actually going to run this play with deuces even though from a strategic point of view, that doesn’t make much sense.

So it’s really just looking at things zoomed in, that’s your tactical. Zoomed out, that’s your strategy. Focusing on a strategy first is going to be helpful because when you have a strategy, it also gives you the understanding of when you need to change your tactical approach, right? So if you’re in a situation where the table is very, very fishy, your overall approach is going to be very different from when you’re at a table that’s very, very nitty versus a table that very, very aggressive versus a table that’s going to be half fish and half really aggressive regs that are looking to attack those fish just as quickly as you are, right? If you have a strategy, you’re going to be much better off in all of those environments because a lot of the times the games will be differ from session to session versus if you only had the tactical knowledge, you’d be able to handle spots but you wouldn’t be able to handle all situations, all game dynamics, and all environments.

So a strategy, at the end of the day, is extremely important, and too many people don’t prioritize that. They prioritize memorizing the tactics. Again, you can make money with tactics. I’m not saying that you’re dumb if all you have right now is tactics. That’s not true by any stretch. In fact, I was very tactically focused probably for, I don’t know, the first decade, probably a little bit longer of my overall poker playing. So only in the last couple few years that I’ve become very, very focused on strategy as a whole. In fact, when I wrote Dynamic Full Ring Poker, which is kind of the book I think most people met me through, I, at the time, thought I was writing a strategy book. Then I look at it years later, I’m like, “No, this is just all tactics. This is like a recipe list of okay, if this is true, if that is true, if your hand is this, then you run this play.” Whenever you find yourself with that kind of mentality, you’re almost guaranteed in tactical land. When you have a legitimate strategy, it’s going to be very, very different than that and it’s going to be more all encompassing. It’s going to be understanding your range, what that looks like, how compositions and densities kind of fit in to everything. That’s going to be when you’re looking more at a strategy.

So strategy is extremely important, and if you only have tactics right now, it’s not that you can’t win with tactics. It’s that you’re not setup for the best long term success, especially if you’re serious about jumping up from 1-2 live and you eventually want to get into 5-10 and 10-25, you really have to be working hard on building a strategy. Just having tactics won’t get you there when you’re talking about moving into much, much tougher environments.

Zac: Okay. So we’ve talked about the first three phases in depth, poker math, strategy, tactics. Let’s get to one that a lot of people ignore and wait until the last minute fix at their own peril, psychology, mental game. Why is it so important?

James: So first of all I need to say this, most people actually skip over the first three buckets as well. So don’t fear if you’re the kind of person that’s like, “Oh, I’m not even close to working on my mental game yet.” Most people aren’t working on all three of these, yet alone four of them, yet alone even one of them. But essentially, you need to be focused on your psychology and your mental game. I know a lot of sources start to get a little woo, woo when it comes to this part of the game, but at the end of the day, you have to understand how your mental works, how you are wired, how you perceive things, and then start understanding where you need to make changes.

So for most people it’s understanding what your tilt triggers are. What forces you and not forces you, what leads you to start dumping money or to start making really, really bad decisions. Essentially, tilt is anything that has you creating or making a suboptimal decision. So what are those triggers and factors for you? Is it when you’re watching fish get really, really lucky? Is it when you lose a pot? Is it when you haven’t won a pot in the last five hands you’ve played? Is it when you haven’t had a hand in an hour and a half? What are your triggers? So it’s a very, very introspective thing, but the whole reason why you need to work on this bucket is because any sort of mental or psychological error that you have is going to lead you to dump money in some way. It’s an inherent leak, and it’s usually very, very identifiable to an introspective person but it’s very difficult for someone whose not introspective to understand what the heck is going on.

Here’s the thing for me. Because I view everything I learn in poker as having wider reaching application outside of poker, I view all of these things as very, very important. Anything I learn in poker math, I can typically find some application in real life. Same thing with overall strategy. Same thing with overall tactics. Same thing when it comes to the psychology and the mental. Again, I mentioned far earlier in this podcast thinking about if you have road rage tendencies, and really sitting there and saying, “Okay. I identify this is an issue in my game.” Then introspect it and understand what the heck those things are, right? I view life as a game. So a red light is just a function of my game. It happens. So I need to understand what about that game is making me upset. It’s the same thing for anything, right? My communication, my social skills. If I’m talking with someone and I notice myself getting uncomfortable, or if I’m talking about this that or the other thing and I’m feeling really happy and elated. You need to start exploring everything that happens in your life from a very introspective mindset. Once you’re able to do that, you’re going to understand yourself better than anybody else possibly could, which is a huge, huge, huge thing. Very, very important. It’s also going to help you in real life as well.

Again, fixing tilt issues is going to be massively helpful, especially when you’re talking about having serious relationships in life, right? If I had a lot of tilt issues, I don’t think I would have the relationship with my wife that I do. That, to me, is extremely important. So, again, another thing like being introspective about my poker tilt has helped me have better social relationship and a better loving relationship with my wife. Those are very, very important things to me. For most people, that’s very important too.

So at the end of the day, it’s zooming out. It’s asking yourself the question of why am I feeling this way and why am I feeling that about that and why is this my response to this? When you start doing that more and more and more, you’re going to understand your triggers, and you’re going to fix them and ignore triggers. You’re going to change your perception of those triggers, or you’re going to come up with an overarching strategy for kind of curbing these things as they progress. Maybe you’re not able to control the trigger. Maybe you’re not even able to control your response to it right away, but you can start controlling your physical response, which in poker means you’re tilting less and you’re dumping less money away at the table. In real life, that can have very, very different looks. But essentially, at the end of the day, start working on that. It’s incredibly important.

Zac: Always got to keep that in mind. It’s like the mental game can feel like such a separate thing from learning the math and the strategy and the tactics, but when you look at all four of those things and their impact on your actual life … I mean, we talk about trying to get dollars off of this table, but we get more than just the dollars. Although, I got to say, it’s not a coincidence that we’ve been talking about learning because we have been working on that new product that I teased about a few weeks ago on the podcast. Can I give our listeners a little bit more info and maybe that’ll help them learn poker from scratch?

James: For sure. So this is something that we have been working on for a very, very long time. So we heard … I don’t know if a lot of you know this, but we’re very involved in the forum, at least in terms of reading it constantly and seeing what you guys are looking for, what you guys are needing along your poker learning journey. So many people have requested a syllabus, have requested kind of a full, dare I say, course load on what would it take to learn poker quickly, to fill in those knowledge gaps along the way. We have been kind of trying to answer this question I want to say about a year. But I mean, in the last like seven or eight months have been hardcore focused on this. So we finally agreed to pull the trigger and start building this thing, and to that end, I’m very excited to finally talk about CORE.

C-O-R-E. Core. This is something that is our answer to the syllabus problem, right? People want a what do I learn, how do I learn it in order, what’s most important, how do I prioritize things, and how do I make sure that I fully understand this whole thing. Because again, I don’t want you to walk away from this podcast, from Red Chip as a whole, from anything with just a tactical knowledge. I want you to have a full strategic knowledge, and to have that, you need to understand all the foundational elements that are built into that strategy, how all the moving pieces interactive and fit within each other. This is our goal and our way of saying, “Okay. We’re going to do all that. We’re going to bridge it all together. We’re going to make it much, much easier to kind of condense and also digest.” It’s our entire goal to really help you. Again, this is whether you’re learning poker from scratch, which is very, very important, or if you’ve been playing for a long time but there’s probably some knowledge gaps in there. Everyone has knowledge gaps, guaranteed. Unless you’ve been playing for ever and ever and every and you’re super, super high tier, most people have knowledge gaps. Once you can understand what those knowledge gaps are and then fill those knowledge gaps, then all of a sudden your strategy is going to become infinitely stronger.

So CORE is our way of helping you do exactly that.

Zac: For our listeners, who are just now hearing about CORE for the first time and are the first people to hear about it, and I’m just so excited to share it with them. How are we going to let them join in? Should we set up a sign up page?

James: Yeah. Let’s set up a sign up page: Sign up now! Enter your email address. We’re going to send you some early information about what’s going on with CORE, what you can expect within CORE, show you some sneak peaks of it, and also, every single person that signs up on that page is going to get a special gift once CORE actually begins. So this is something that’s, again, whether you’ve been playing for a long time or you’re kind of newer to it, I would definitely suggest signing up. Again, RedChipPoker.com/fire. This is going to be a lot of fun. Trust me, it’s been so much work on the backend. But I’m hoping that all of that work is going to allow you to have a much smoother experience when it comes to learning this stuff. I know, poker’s extremely complicated. There are so many moving parts and our goal is to help you see the whole thing from a very big picture, strategic point of view and help you fill in any of those knowledge gaps you may have. Whether it’s a couple, whether it’s a ton, that’s the goal with CORE. We’re going to fix all that up for you and help you become the well-rounded poker player that you’re looking to become.

Zac: So excited to release this. It’s been so long we’ve been working on this. I really do feel like …

James: It has.

Zach: It’s definitely going to change the way people are going to learn about poker out there. So we’ll be updating people on the podcast. We’ll maybe even pull up the curtain and show you a little bit behind the scenes of what’s going on. But until we can announce that this product is officially launched, I think we did a pretty good job this week teaching people how to learn poker from scratch.

James: Fingers crossed.

Zac: Well, we’ll rely on our skill in this game, right? Not our luck.

James: Indeed. Our overall strategy. That’s our goal.

Zac: Math, strategy, tactics, mental game. Learn in phases. James, thank you so much for being on the podcast and we’ll talk again soon I’m sure.

James: Of course. Thanks for having me, Zach.