Studying is not the sexiest part of being a winning poker player. But it is a necessary part, and poker writer and educator Eileen Sutton is on the podcast this week to share more effective ways to approach thinking about and studying the game of poker.
Author of The Total Poker Manual and regular blogger here at Red Chip Poker, Sutton has a unique perspective on how to integrate serious study into our poker routines. In addition to writing about poker, she is a dedicated player, and she speaks to her own revelations on how get more out of every minute of study you put in towards becoming a big winner in the game.
Zac: I’m excited to talk about this topic that I know a lot of our listeners are struggling with and wanting to know more of, which is how to have a practical poker study routine and how to approach studying in general and learning about the game, and you have a lot to say on that.
Before we get into that topic, though, can you give our listeners an introduction to who you are and what you makes you qualified to give great poker advice.
Eileen: Sure, thanks. I’ve been in the game for about five years. I play on the cash side. I’ve been a serious cash grinder in New York for the last three years. I am the author of a poker book, The Total Poker Manual, and I’ve been coached by Matt Matros, who’s a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet holder and also by Ed Miller who’s a columnist for Red Chip.
I learned the game very late in life in my 50s, and I have a very intimate relationship to how I study, how I understand how I study. I didn’t have a history like a lot of players where I learned cards when I was a child, so I’ve always felt behind the eight ball, and this has profoundly affect how I learn the game and what my study habits are, and that’s some of what I wanted to share with your listeners.
Zac: I was taking a look at your book, The Total Poker Manual, and it’s just fantastic, beautiful, illustrated on every page. I mean, anyone who is starting out in poker or maybe working their way up to the intermediate level, I’d recommend they check that out. That must have been quite the undertaking. You must have looked at how to learn poker from the ground up. I mean, tell us about writing that book and your experience putting that together.
Eileen: Well, this is a nice segway to our topic for today because actually, what allowed me to write the book is that I had been immersed in content for several years, and I feel like the good news is that 10 or 15 years ago, a content meteor arrived, a poker content meteor arrived from space, and the good news is that we’re swamped with help. The bad news is that it can be a little bit overwhelming, but I had been really immersed in articles and videos and to a lesser extent, podcast when I was hired to write the text.
It was a challenge for me to figure out what, first of all, what I had learned, who had taught it to me, why it was valuable, how I could make those decisions and present a text that would allow somebody to immerse themselves not only in the technical aspects of the game, but the culture of the game, and that’s what I tried to do to organize the, just a tremendous, tremendous amount of information and give folks an opportunity to find their way.
Zac: Well, that’s fantastic because, as you said, we’re all immersed in tons of poker training, videos, articles, what have you. How do you suggest players navigate this wealth of content, and as you say, create a more holistic approach to learning strategy?
Eileen: I like that we’re holistic. I think it’s very relevant here. What I appreciate about where our community is now is how much time and energy folks spend trying to teach one another the game. This is historically relative. It wasn’t true 15 years ago or 20 years ago or 50 years ago. It was Super System, and folks started to write books at some point. Obviously the technology made all of this ubiquitous content possible.
I think with the exception of a handful of articles that help poker players map how they study or taking notes on a video, I don’t think there’s enough attention paid to how we should, as you say, consume and integrate the content in a holistic way. I think about, for myself, building what I call an intellectual bankroll. What that means for me is, it’s not just about … We see a lot of poker writing on building literal bankrolls and how we can move up. On the catch side, I don’t play tournaments at all, although that’s where my career started, but on the catch side, we’re taught to build a, have a bankroll. This is, play at reasonable stakes. Move up in a particularly defined way.
All of that’s great. We don’t really have a lot of information about what our intellectual bankroll looks like, and what I mean by that is I think that the game, I think that poker, like any intellectual engagement, and even for a lot of sports and how we train our bodies, but the game for me is a slowly developing Polaroid. That’s how I’ve experienced it. I compare it to children learning to talk and walk in stages, and the reason that as a culture, we’re always amazed about prodigies is because they’re ahead of schedule. I would say that the more typical human brain works just more gradually.
For example, Stu Ungar, we see his amazing rise in his 20s and his 30s and his performance in his 40s, but he was training his brain in logic paradigms playing Gin rummy as a child and watching his mom play cards when he was little and helping her make decisions and in Stud games. He was training his thinking and his consciousness from a very, very early age.
To also reference Jared Tendler whose work has helped me tremendously on the mental game or the inner game, and he relies a lot on a very established adult learning model, which has to do with how we move things from a conscious level to what’s referred to an unconscious competence level, and that’s kind of super nerdy language to describe almost how well we’re learning to drive.
When we first learn to drive a car, we feel kind of helpless, and then overtime, we can even drive a car drunk. God, we don’t want to do that, but all the moving parts are happening simultaneously, so when I think about for myself and when I talk to other players about building an intellectual bankroll, I encourage folks to allow themselves to learn and improve slowly or at least to honor that it just can’t happen all at one. I know for myself, and I’ve myriad examples of this. Even now, five years into the game, three years into a serious cash game streak, my brain is just now comfortable looking at various concepts, and that was just time and patience.
Zac: And time and patience is something that a lot of poker players don’t have. I constantly get emails saying, “I don’t have time to study. I don’t know what to study. I don’t know how to study.” They might not even be convinced of the value of studying, and I’m sure if you look at yourself as a professional, as all the professionals I’ve talked to, they take it very seriously, they’re building this intellectual bankroll, as you say, picking the best pieces of advice and creatively putting that into a game plan, working those strategies in one by one.
But if we look at ourselves as many players do as more recreational players, how should we approach studying and learning the game that way? How does the way we see ourselves as a poker player affect the way we learn?
Eileen: That’s a great question. I mean, I think that that’s a critical first question if what somebody’s identity is as a player. If I’m a recreational player or if I’m aspiring to play professionally, that’s a very critical distinction. It’s a question that each person answers for themselves in a very personal way.
I play with a ton of recreational players who, I’m certain, never study the game. The minute I’m at a table with somebody who may be presenting as a recreational player in the sense that maybe they have a full-time job and they’re not trying to become a professional poker player, or they’re not relying on their poker income in any meaningful way … I mean, sometimes, I see recreational players in that category who have done some study or have some pretty solid knowledge of odds and percentages and equities, percentages and that kind of thing, but it’s a very, it’s a critical first question for someone to ask.
I would say if someone said, “I’m a recreational player. I play once a week or twice a week,” they’re not trying to enter the rank and file of professional players, I’m not sure how much they would need to study. One’s identity, I think, determines that.
On the other hand, say somebody is a recreational player, or even on a pro path, and they want to engage some study. I would say what’s really most important … I would say also parenthetically to ignore what feels like overnight success stories, which is what the point for me of Stu Ungar’s training was. He was this genius card player that rose, an overnight success that only took 15 years or something like that.
When folks are just starting out, I would ignore what often looks like these intellectual rags to riches stories from certain kinds of players because I just don’t think you could ever take any shortcuts in the game. With that said, if a rec player or somebody on a beginning of a pro path does want to engage some study, I would, first and foremost, say find the teachers that you like.
At this point in my career, I only study, for the most part, I only study and take in information from three pros. I don’t have to know everything. It can feel … I can sit at my desk all day and never do anything except click on really intriguing, interesting porker articles, but first of all, I find the teachers that I like, and I find the teachers that match my style. My style is just starting to emerge, which I can speak to a little bit more later on in this conversation, but there are lots of pros who are playing the game in a way that I don’t play it.
Style is a really big deal. I would recommend that folks limit, find the teachers and find the pros that whose voices, whose approaches, whose theoretical approach to the game fits you. It’s very, very important.
Then I would say, think about the areas that you want to concentrate on. At this point in my playing life, I’m really clear about what I’m not doing so well, where some of my leaks are, and so I don’t need to read countless articles on things I’m already pretty good at, or I don’t need to read countless articles on things I’m not yet really sophisticated enough to understand, and I’m really … For myself, when I said at the beginning of our chats that I have a really intimate understanding about my own learning process, that this is where it kicks in because I’m really clear about what areas of the game still kind of overwhelm me and scare me, and I don’t try to learn things ahead of schedule.
Finally, I would say if people say that they don’t have time to learn or they don’t have time to study, I mean, it just really depends on someone’s priorities. If someone’s saying, “I want to learn the game, but I don’t have time,” I would say, “Then you don’t have time.” If someone says, “I want to learn the game, but there’s all these articles and where do I begin?” I would say, “Just as much as possible, not only talk to other players and friends that you trust about their studying process and their learning process, but put as much structure around it as you can.”
If you got two hours a week, that’s eight hours a month, decide … I know James Sweeney and others have written some very interesting articles about this in terms of mapping your study, and just, I literally make a list, like week to week, of the things that I want to be focusing on. Right now, I’m focused on one topic, and I’m going to stay in this topic of the next few weeks, I would say, just so I allow my brain to really absorb.
Zac: It sounds like you’re talking about a real active learning style. I know it’s kind of counter to what the general poker population does these days. They’re so immersed in this content on YouTube and articles and everywhere that they kind of passively take that in. They don’t take notes. They don’t, as you say, select specific areas of their game to work on. I mean, can you open up a little bit more as to your personal process and how you go about selecting what you’re going to work on, and then how you go about figuring out what to study, and then finally, how you integrate that study into your game to see the results and maybe fine tune.
Eileen: Yeah, I mean, what’s interesting for me to have started the game so late, I was, to have engaged so late, I mean, I was, been a writer for 30 years so I don’t have a background in chess or … I mean, I played, my family, poker was all over my family, but it was never my life. I’d been a right-brain girl all my life and not a logic person or whatever, however we describe that.
I thought about my learning style and realizing as I would study poker content, what felt right for me. I realized that there are learning styles, and I was thinking about what, for myself, how did I learn in childhood. For myself, personally, learning in childhood for me, there was a lot of, I had a lot of fear and anxiety for a number of reasons.
I met a man who was 75 who had, when he was learning to read as a child, a very nasty stepfather would hit him in the head of he made a mistake. This is a man who took up the game of poker so he could, even at 75, just learn something completely and freely without anxiety.
I would say that as we move toward a very difficult game that I think is not, as you know, the cliché is, you learn poker in an hour and you spend the rest of your life mastering it. I think folks don’t really understand, always understand, and Matt Berkey and others have spoken to this really eloquently. I’m not convinced the vast majority of players really understand how hard this game is.
But that said, if we’re going to go toward it in a serious way, I think we have to figure out what our learning models are and which styles, what our preferred category is. For myself, in terms of the content that I choose, I like a learning protocol where there’s more content. I don’t like learning passively, which I can do. I can study, I can read articles. I’m perfectly capable of that, but I like the contact of learning from a teacher or somebody whose, has that intellectual authority. For myself, I, for example, I have the greatest, I realize the greatest absorption when I do a live webinar with a real teacher and somebody that I can ask questions of.
For me, that’s very, very important, and I tend to learn with less anxiety with that kind of dynamic and have greater retention. I actually took a three-hour webinar few months ago that was really life changing, and then I circled back, and I watched it again. It took me seven hours to take notes on it a second time. I’m not saying everybody should do that or would want to do it, but it begs the question of what the complexity of the material and how much repetition we need to live alongside this data so our brains kind of get it.
I would also say that in terms of absorption, I love, somebody posted to Twitter at one point that they had watched a video that really transformed their game in some kind of advanced strategic way. What they posted to Twitter was they said, “I listened to this video as many times as I needed to until I got it,” and then the guy posted his win rate for his next session.
I love that reminder that the study of the game demands tremendous repetition that I believe that, I don’t have the science on this, that there’s a natural hierarchy of data that our brains absorb as we improve, but there is that kind of immersion in a constant … It’s … I’m not being clear, but the repetition is important, and I’m not sure if I answered all of your question but tell me if I didn’t.
Zac: Oh, no. That’s great. I mean, it’s a tough balance between that repetition of trying out the strategies, the tactics, and figuring out how many new things you want to try. I usually try and advise people who are just starting out, one concept at a time. Certainly, in my learning experience, that’s been the one that bore the most fruits of my labor here is saying, “Okay, I’m going to … ” for example, in the beginning, I said, “I’m never going to limp.” That’s Ed Miller’s advice. I’m going to not limp.
Nowadays, I’ve loosened up. I find places to limp and strategies around that, but just making that one change transformed my entire game, and I had to repeat that, as you said, and eventually I got to the point where I could modify that strategy.
But one of the things that you said was your style is emerging. That really caught my ear because I’ve been interviewing these professional poker players for the podcast. I am not one of those people, so maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about my experience, but these pros had created, really, their own style. They had taken, they built their intellectual bankroll, as you said, but they each had their own unique way of putting together study plans for themselves, of picking what to study.
I guess, can you talk a little bit about how that style emerges and how that can be a goal for people just starting out studying, they can have this beacon in the future that says, “Hey, if I get really good at this studying thing, I can actually develop my own style,” and how style is actually one of the sources of biggest edge you can have in poker.
Eileen: That’s very true. I agree with that wholeheartedly. What was fascinating for me when I first started working with Matt Matros when I was really just a poker fetus, it was remarkable that I met Matt, that he said yes, that he was coaching me. All of it was quite dream-like because I was absolutely at the very beginning of my poker life and knew so little, but he’s the one that mentioned style to me.
Matt has been in the game now, I think at least, maybe close to 16 or 17 years and has been really successful and continues to play and has stayed well with it. The nice intersection for me was that as a fiction writer, style in writing is a big deal as well and only emerges after, if I just woke up today and started to write and train myself to be a creative writer, my style would take years to emerge.
Matt had actually mentioned it very early in our relationship and despite my not having a framework intellectually to absorb some of what he was teaching me some years ago, I never forgot that. I agree with you, and it’s something he also said, Zac, in terms of style giving pro players and elite players an absolute edge.
There was a nice intersection there because style in my creative writing life and also my poker life are real things, and I would say that style in poker is based on accumulated knowledge, and obviously that takes time.
I would also like to make a distinction for listeners between formal learning and table learning. Table learning meaning the learning that we do and the integration that we do in game play. I know for myself, and again, this is not something I, this is … Again, I feel like this isn’t something that is spoken to enough, that there are times that I’ve had too much study time and not enough table time, and then I go to play, and my brain is frozen. I am trying to think about too many things at one time.
At this particular moment in my training, I’m experiencing an inflection point. My knowledge is my confidence, my bluff ratios, my aggression. There’s just tremendous growth right now, but I find that despite all of my formal study habits, when I learn something in the flow of the game, that’s forever. That is what is very precious to me now.
When I come home from sessions, I write up every session, and I have a list of questions that I ask myself to raise to a conscious level what I was doing right and doing wrong. When I say that my style is just emerging, some of that is just how I’m absorbing and integrating the game is just getting faster and faster and just shifting. It’s very, very exciting. I mean, I literally, yesterday, was walking down the street thinking about a hand and thinking about a dynamic I had in a recent game, and it was like this huge bell went off, and I went, oh, right, I get that now.
I think that, I know for myself, I haven’t, I’m not always patient with myself, and I think a lot of players, because we see these big, fancy results, and we see these people winning tournaments or whatever it is that makes us jealous or competitive, but I would say that for myself, it’s been important to just be patient, and all the book learning we do … I’m pretty sure it was Patrick Antonius. It’s either Patrick or Gus Hanson who said they didn’t read a book for the first four years of their poker life. I think it was Patrick, actually, but whomever it was … I think there’s a tremendous amount to learn from books but I think learning in game flow is where we become ourselves as poker players.
I mean, it’s like a kid’s personality that gets formed after years of human experience and impression. Thousands of hours on the felt, and those impressions of logic and how all of those aggregate moments change and form our thinking like in the simplest terms, like water flowing over rocks and making grooves.
Finally, I will say about style, Zac, that I think that what style means is that you’re not obedient to a set of rules, that in live play, especially, at lower stakes, tribal behavior is just rampant. This is something that Ed Miller has written about and others. For myself, it’s exciting. I love watching the renegades, the revolutionaries.
The folks that we, I think in general, the folks that we really admire are generally folks who are taking the rules, learning them, and breaking them. That kind of confidence doesn’t come over night, which is also, I feel like, someone will read about, a new player will read about some fancy poker legwork that some pro did and they try to implement it, and it just fails.
I think that creative line work and innovation and style all have a relationship to one another, and again, does not happen over night and allows one to have a particular identity in the game. Often, when people have a defined style, they are more fear. They are more … There’s a set of expectations, and there’s a kind of visceral, I think, expectation that we can’t really map or know what that player is going to do. That can be very powerful when it’s developed correctly.
Zac: Fantastic. So much great advice to unpack in this podcast. I’m going listen back and take notes myself.
For our listeners who want to get more of your writing and your advice, obviously they can go to Red Chip Poker and read your fantastic member blog, which often tells stories of poker from a female perspective, which is very lacking out there in the poker world. Where else can they learn about you online?
Eileen: My website is suttonstories.com, and there, I’ve linked my Red Chip work, obviously, and I wrote a piece recently for a salon. I’m working on a memoir about my poker life, and salon took a piece from me and some other aspects of my writing life. If folks want to get in touch with me either as poker players or as writers, I love talking the game, I particularly love helping women in the game, folks can follow me on Twitter @pokerforgirls and folks are more than welcome to reach out through my website.