Poker is a peculiar game. There’s no score. If you’re playing a cash game, there’s no winner. If you’re playing a tournament, there’s one winner and a zillion losers. Your opponents can play terribly and win a bundle. You can play great and crash and burn. All of this peculiarity has left more than one player completely frustrated, grovelling to the poker gods for a break. Clearly, if you’ve been reduced to begging for better luck, you probably haven’t succeeded. But what is success at poker?
This article is my attempt to convey what success means to me, personally, as a poker player.
First, I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t a winrate. If you poke around on the internet, you’re bound to find dozens of people who will gladly tell you that if you don’t win $20 on average for every 100 hands you play at game X, then you must suck. Or they’ll tell you that they win $20 for every 100 hands, but they don’t expect a lowly mortal such as yourself to win that much, so maybe you should win $10 for every 100 hands. Or you suck.
Please ignore all of these people. Most of them are full of it. They don’t win nearly as much as they say they do. In fact, you should take it for granted that any poker player telling you how much money they make is bending the truth at least a little bit. Most bend a lot. Don’t compare your real results to someone else’s fantasy. You can’t possibly live up.
…Don’t compare your real results to someone else’s fantasy…
If you are good at poker, you can definitely win money at it. But unless you’re a very uncommonly outstanding player, you won’t be retiring to a tropical paradise with your winnings any time soon. Your long-term wins willl be modest. It’s in the sheer numbers. There are lots of good poker players around, and they can’t all win fortunes. The money just isn’t there.
For example, I’ve been lucky enough to sell over 250,000 copies of my poker books. I believe that most people who buy and study my books will become better players. But most of them won’t be $100,000-plus winners at poker. They can’t be. Multiply the two numbers together and you get a figure that would impress even the Department of Defense.
So what does it mean? It means to me that we have to develop non-monetary metrics for success at poker. Success isn’t winning as much money as some internet braggart says you should win. Success at poker means getting something meaningful back from the game in exchange for the time and effort you put into it.
For many players, it’s as simple as enjoying your time at the table. If playing poker lifts your mood and exercises your brain, then that alone might constitute success. While it may seem a low bar for me to set, I have seen enough temper tantrums at the table to know that a lot of people clearly don’t enjoy themselves while they play.
The only way I know how to enjoy the game is to work at becoming a better player. I get my joy when I win an extra bet or an extra pot using newly acquired knowledge. One of my favorite plays is to steal a big pot with an all-in river bet that I know, based on my hand reading, that my opponent simply can’t call. Another one is to make a value bet on the river knowing that my opponent likely has ace-high and will be too suspicious of me and my aggressive style to find a fold. Each time I pull either of these plays off, I feel a twinge of success. These are plays I never made early in my no-limit career because my hand reading wasn’t sharp enough. I never had the confidence that my opponent couldn’t call a bet, and my style wasn’t aggressive enough to induce ace-high calldowns. These moments are concrete successes in my never-ending journey to master poker.
I like to focus on particular hands and sessions I’ve played well to measure my success. Other people prefer to focus more on numbers. Instead of setting money goals, they try to play a certain number of hands in a month. If they reach their goal, they’ve succeeded. Or some online players will try adjust their play so that their statistics in a tracking database hit certain targets. The closer they get to their targets, the more they’ve succeeded. These particular measures don’t mean much to me, but I think they can be reasonable ways to measure poker success.
I strongly think, however, that if you’re trying to measure your own success, you should avoid focusing on the money. There are two important reasons. First, of all the things you can control when you play poker, how much money you win is the aspect you control the least. If you focus on monetary goals, you’re bound to disappoint yourself. That’s variance. Second, if you miss your monetary goals repeatedly, you may become a little desperate. Every day desperate poker players make bad decisions. They play much bigger than they should. They hit friends up for loans they likely won’t be able to repay. Or they become prey for others who are looking to make a buck. If you keep your focus on the game and on things you can control and away from the money, you’re more likely to keep your wits about you and also appreciate the successes you’ve had.
The bottom line is that when you’re trying to measure your success at poker, the yardsticks have to be personal for you. You can’t use someone else’s benchmarks. An anonymous forum poster’s winrates don’t apply to you, and the numbers are likely just a figment of his overactive imagination anyway. I like to focus on particular hands I’ve played well. You might find other aspects of the game that mean more to you. No matter what you choose, though, if you evaluate yourself in a reasonable way, hopefully you will conclude that all the hours you’ve invested and all the ups and downs you’ve experienced playing this peculiar game have been well worth it.