What’s a good play/study ratio? Seems like a simple question, but we actually found it a deep and interesting enough topic to do an entire podcast on.

Red Chipper therob1776 posted this “Ratio of study to play” thread that got us thinking… what kinds of considerations does one make to find a balance between study and play? Turns out, there are a lot:

Featuring: SplitSuit

Three Stages of Ratio

SplitSuit breaks down his take on study/play ratio into three phases in one’s poker career:

  1. Very Beginning – At the absolute start of your poker career, you’ll be focused a lot on study as you build fundamentals. Play will be important to generate feedback to help direct your study.
  2. Once You’re Comfortable – When you have the fundamentals down and can proficiently win at poker, you enter a new phase of refining your fundamentals with more advanced moves for your level.
  3. Established – When you establish a strategy that works, two things will happen. One, you could be ready to move up a level, in which case your study-to-play ratio will transform as the plateau you were coasting on becomes a challenging mountain of obstacles.

The Poker Noob Study Plan

When you’re first starting out, make no mistake, you should be studying more than playing. Unless you enjoy losing money, your play should serve your study.

SplitSuit recommends a 3:1 ratio of study to play for gamers first starting out in poker. Studying three hours for every one hour of play may seem excessive to many beginners, who have a tendency to play more than they study, or at best, have a 1:1 ratio. Here’s why that’s a mistake: You have no idea how much you don’t know. Poker is as popular as it is because most players think they’re much better than they really are. They don’t know what they don’t know. Until you get to the level where you begin to realize how much you really still have to learn, it’s best to be cautious and make those lessons as inexpensive as possible.

SplitSuit talks about “front-loaded knowledge”, and how poker is full of it. The most basic example of this is the ranking of hands, but there are more applicable ideas, like pot odds, basic pot odds, understanding equity and implied odds… these are all things you can and should learn before you play too many hands. They won’t become “real” until you play and encounter the concepts in person, but having a strong grasp is going to be the advantageous move as a beginner. Realize that many beginners jump right in and lose a lot of money before learning that studying is a much cheaper way of improving. By studying first, you’re taking advantage of their weakness, and exploiting an edge is what poker is all about.

Here are two poker math books we highly recommend in particular:

Book #1: Poker Math that Matters by Owen Gaines

Book #2: Poker Work Book for Math Geeks by Doug Hull

It may seem advanced to you for SplitSuit to be recommending learning the mathematics of poker as a new player, but trust him. Even if you don’t grasp the nuances of every concept — and chances are you won’t — you will develop a general awareness and intuition that will instantly be enough for you to get the leg up on other beginners, and start your poker playing career off right.

Beginners — don’t treat 3:1 like a law, it’s more of a guideline. Spend some quality study time, probably more than you think you need. It will pay off. We actually did a podcast entirely about how to study poker:

Related Podcast: How to Study Poker and Improve Faster

The Proficient Poker Player’s Plan

There will come a time when study has diminishing returns. You will start to realize that all the studying you’ve done has given you a perceptible edge on other players. You will see your superior knowledge pay dividends. You will see long-term success. You will feel proficient.

At this point, SplitSuit recommends closer to a 1:1 ratio of play to study. Now, proficient players may be just as surprised at this advice as beginners, and much for the same reason. Typically, proficient players study much less than they play. They feel comfortable, their results speak for themselves, so many feel the pressure is off to study.

Again, SplitSuit drives home the reality: Poker is a game of complexity. It is a game of subtlety. And most importantly, poker is always evolving. As you progress, edges become smaller. To stop being aggressive about studying is to let your game lapse to a style of play that may still be profitable, but is not A-game level.

When to Play More than Studying

When should you let study take a complete backseat to playing? When you’re in an incredibly soft game. Are your opponents horrific? Get in there and take their money until the game adjusts or dies altogether. If there’s a small window of opportunity to crush a huge win rate, put in a tremendous amount of play time. But don’t study nothing. Keep the study flame alive, it will only help you squeeze the last drop of value out of your dream game before it dissipates.

Another common question would be, how do we know when to make the transition from the beginner 3:1 strategy to the more intermediate 1:1 strategy. In reality, it’s a gradual increase rather than a switch flipping. SplitSuit’s rule of thumb: Count the number of times you’re confused during a session. For example, if you’re confused in 10 hands during a live session, that can easily be 10% of the 100 hands you played. That’s a lot of hands. You need to study more. Look specifically at the spots that confused you, then study the tangents. What if the flop came out slightly different? What if you were holding a better hand? Or a worse hand? That’s how to study really well.

Be objective and honest with yourself and you’ll be able to intuit when to study more or when the game’s juicy and study should take a bit of a backseat.

Never Stop Studying Poker

There are a couple situations you’ll find yourself in when you achieve proficient player status. The first is that, once again, you may find your game plateauing. Maybe your opponents are finally picking up your exploits. Maybe the game feels tougher, like it’s evolving without you. The second reason would be that you’re feeling almost too comfortable. You feel like you could stack a profit at your level in your sleep. If the next level up is calling your name, perhaps it’s also time to refocus on studying.

And this is where the old adage, “never stop learning” comes in. Great poker players truly never stop learning. After all, the game is always evolving. The complexity to start is daunting, but mix in an ever-evolving strategic metagame and those who are unable to balance study with play can quickly find themselves busto.

SplitSuit’s advice for players who reach a plateau or are ready to take a shot: Go for a 2:1 balance. Again, like beginner and intermediate levels before it, expert-level players have a tendency to study less than this. Many are at 1:1, if that. If you’re playing well, it feels like you’re ready to take a shot right now, but keep in mind, the play is going to change dramatically. Be prepared!

Likewise, if you’re finding games are tougher and your usual strategies are hitting walls, play off your strengths at first. For example, if you’re comfortable 3-betting, maybe look into 4-betting. Playing off your strengths is important, and doing an audit of your play for leaks is just as necessary. Players that are used to winning can let losing streaks sneak in under the guise of variance. Maintaining a constant self-critical mindset about your play ensures these leaks don’t go unnoticed.

Parting Thoughts

While the player tendency is to study less than they probably should, there does exist a portion of players who study too much. They bury their heads in books and videos, then play far too few hands to capitalize on all that knowledge. Or perhaps their knowledge can’t be applied due to lack of experience. These players need to sit down and play longer and more frequent sessions. Make sure you have struck a balance based upon where you are in your poker career. Be honest with yourself. Know what your strengths are. Know where you need work. Get prepared to study, so you can be prepared to profit when you play.

Showing 4 comments
  • Ed

    yup. pretty much watch videos & read books and never play.

    • James "SplitSuit" Sweeney

      Like everything in poker…we need to find the balance that allows progression =)

  • Roy

    Ive recently decided to flip my play:study ratio from 3:1 to 1:3 in the hope that the time investment in study will lead to quicker progression in my overall game. My question now is whether is would be advisable to still try to play daily in shorter sessions or only 2 or 3 longer sessions when I play?

    • James "SplitSuit" Sweeney

      Session length is a personal preference. I prefer to play more short sessions when possible but that’s because my focus caps out around 4-5 hours.