I think I cracked the code, folks.

I think I’ve reduced all of poker strategy to a single concept that, if adhered to, will turn any player into a long-term winner: Identify, embrace and learn from your mistakes.

OK, that is probably not the Holy Grail you had hoped for. It’s obvious, right? Certainly, every player out there who is already winning big knows this by heart. But I am not writing for the big winners, I’m writing for the rest of you: the losers, the break-evens, the small winners. And I implore you, drop what you’re studying, close the online poker client, step away from the table and ask yourself, “What has been my latest and biggest mistake playing poker?”

Just getting to the point of asking ourselves this question can take years in a poker player’s development. The entire poker economy is sustained on the fact that most players vastly overestimate their skill level at the game. And large swaths of recreational players don’t even admit to a single mistake — any loss is due to luck, or to another player’s stupid decision-making. And if a glaring mistake is made, it is quickly swept under the rug as an unavoidable anomaly.

I hope and expect that if you’re reading this, you’re past the point of ignoring your mistakes in poker. But are you embracing them? Are you wrapping your brain around them, putting them at the center of your poker playing experience, looking at them from every angle and becoming intimately familiar with all the details? Are you taking every step forward at the table with one eye on the rearview mirror, your biggest mistake smiling back?

The answer for many of us is “no”. And who could blame you? Most of us play poker to have a good time, and maybe make a buck or two. Dwelling in our mistakes sucks the fun out of the game faster than the blinds gets chopped at $1/$2.

The key is not to dwell in your mistakes but to embrace them.

Even poker players who know they need to study are uncomfortable embracing their mistakes. I field all the emails from our members who are looking to improve specific parts of their game. They tell me what they want to learn, I point them toward content that can help. Do you know how many of them are telling me their biggest mistakes, and asking how to address them? It’s a minority, to be sure. Most have this idea that they need to beef their skill set up, and learn the advanced techniques pro players are using to crush their games.

The truth is, they would be much better off coming to me with their biggest mistake, and plugging that leak before adding any other strategic bells and whistles to their game.

All that said, Strategy in Action isn’t about you, it’s about me, telling the story of my personal journey to beat live $1/$2 no limit hold ‘em. Embracing mistakes is all about seeing every setback as an opportunity to succeed. So let me tell you the story of the biggest bankroll setback I’ve encountered to date, and how I identified and embraced the mistake that will (hopefully) catapult my game forward.

Take Me to The Rivers

The wait list for $1/$2 was 38 players deep at the brand new Rivers Casino in Schenectady, NY. Despite the hour-long wait, I was overjoyed to be playing at a casino only an hour away from my home. Previously, it took me just over 2 hours to reach the Sands casino in Bethlehem, NY.

The poker room was fairly small but nice, with high ceilings, lighting that was neither too bright nor too subdued, friendly floor staff and a good ambiance. There was even a window you could look out of and see the outside, a poker room first for me. The casino was buzzing with activity on its third Saturday open, we almost got into a fight trying to find a parking spot.

I was hanging with my poker buddy Rachael, enjoying a pint of Sculpin IPA that took 20 minutes to order, feeling on top of the world. After a long, recent run of life tilt, things were finally looking up, and I was feeling awesome about being able to hit this casino once a month and having an extra 2 hours to add to my life because of its proximity.

My modus operandi was to hit the tables looking like a maniac, playing aggressive, and then dialing it back to the controlled strategy I had used in the previous months to run up a bankroll approaching $3,000. I had on gold plastic Elvis sunglasses (I never wear sunglasses at the table), a tie-dyed shirt with a death metal band logo, and a faded leather jacket which made me look kind of like a retired rock star.

When I was finally seated at my table, my excitement was curtailed a bit as I looked around to see almost everyone was sitting on a stack over $1,000. How could this be? I didn’t have to wait long to find out, when the dealer told me I had to post $5 to play.

“Wait a minute, did they sit me at a $2/$5 table?,” I asked. The dealer looked annoyed with me. The other players licked their lips. I flagged a floor guy as he passed.

“I was on the $1/$2 list for an hour, can you get me to a $1/$2 table?,” I asked. He was super-polite and said he’d get me to a $1/$2 table ASAP.

While I waited, I figured, what the hell, I’ll play some $2/$5 with my $300 stack. After all, I had severely under-repped my skill level, looking like a crazy person and then advertising to the table that I wasn’t rolled to play $2/$5.

“This would be the sickest angle to shoot, coming to the table pretending I didn’t know it was $2/$5,” I announced to the table.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” another player said, as two others nodded.

They gave me nothing but respect, and I won $40 in a single orbit with no showdowns and only one flop, mostly bluffing to log my first win at $2/$5. The players looked forlorn as the floor staff escorted me to my $1/$2 table.

Then I proceeded to dump of almost 3 buyins — $725 — in just over 3 hours.

I never had so much fun losing $725. And that’s the mistake. I was more occupied with enjoying myself than playing my A-game.

Well, the massive downswing resulted from series of mistakes, but let’s them down break down.

Having Too Much Fun

Playing your A-game in poker is not supposed to be fun.

A lot of pros are going to want to debate me on this. I know for a fact they are having fun playing their A-game.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a pro. If you put in 40 hours a week at this game, if you hone your skills to the point where you’re usually on your A-game, you are going to learn to have fun doing it. You are going to relish every pot you rake in due to your well-developed skills, and every stack-off you dodge by sniffing out the better hand.

But come on, even if you do learn to have fun, there is going to be a huge part of the game that is a grind. I mean, that’s why they call it grinding.

The simple fact is, A-game poker is not the most fun you can have at a poker table.

B-game, C-game, D-game… these are immeasurably more fun at the table. At the cage? Not so much.

This trip, I was oscillating between A-game and D-game because I was having so much fun. I was already in an incredibly good mood. The floor managed to sit me at the same table my poker buddy was at, so we were enjoying each others’ company. The table vas very social, and I was table captain of conversation, telling jokes and shooting the shit with all the other players.

It became obvious this was a pretty stacked table, and in retrospect I should have moved. Half of the players had driven 2+ hours to camp out at what they knew would be a fish frenzy, being that the casino had just opened. In fact, they said as much, telling me all their poker pro friends from miles around had come just to feed.

Also in retrospect, I was feeding right into their plan, being distracted by the social aspects and not focusing on the game. Well played, gentlemen.

Not only was the game socially distracting, but I once again fell into the trap of being ‘creative’, pushing every semi-bluff too far, firing barrels into nuts, and generally misapplying and over-applying aggression. That’s the thing with aggressive poker. If you’re not playing your A-game, aggression is just going to get you in trouble. A-game is required to apply aggressive mechanics profitably. Try to be aggressive and creative to make the game more fun and interesting, and you will pay a hefty price. Like a fortune cookie recently told me, “Change is possible, but you cannot push the river.”

It’s not even worth relating the hands I punted my stacks off with. It’s all too embarrassing. I knew exactly where I had screwed up the second my chips were pushed the opposite direction. I took my last three green chips, wandered over to the roulette wheel, plopped two on black and one on 3rd 12, and watched the little white ball bounce around and mockingly land on double zeroes.

Yeah, I capped off losing almost three buy-ins setting $75 on fire at a table game. But here’s the thing: I was still having fun! I went back to the poker room and railed my poker buddy on the very same table I had just left. I watched them play with my chips. And I honestly didn’t care.

This is the dark side of emotional numbing — you can make enormous mistakes, drop a considerable amount of your bankroll, and still be in a pretty decent mood.

It took days and days of reflection before I finally identified and embraced my mistake, and decided I needed to learn from it if I were going to return to the Rivers. After all, I couldn’t afford another session like that, I’d have to drop down in stakes. Another session like that, and I’d have blown every dollar I made since starting to chronicle my journey. I was already taking a shot as it was.

Identify the Mistake

Here was the good news: My blunders were entirely mindset- and mental game-related. I still had a big skill edge in the game, but I was playing with it dulled by lack of focus. In reviewing all my losses, only one was due to variance, a set-over-set scenario that I managed to battle back from. Outside of that (inside my small sample size), I was losing all my money due to failure to play A-game. When I played my A-game, my results were overwhelmingly profitable.

I’ll pause here and say I don’t think this is uncommon. I think a lot of poker players out there are quite skilled, either through intense study or ass-in-seat experience. The losses come when there’s that lapse in judgement and focus, either through boredom, tilt, distraction, or a combination of all three and other myriad factors. I’ve seen it happen to pros and coaches. We’re only human.

At the same time, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Realistically, I could expect to lose my entire bankroll if I kept making the mistake I was making.

Embrace the Mistake

Just like I wasn’t going to open-raise 7-4 off-suit under any circumstance, I had to set some hard and fast rules to make sure I was playing my A-game. And that meant I had to get really intimate with the factors that was causing me to slip down the alphabet.

I had already identified that life tilt was a succubus for playing my best, and since then I had successfully avoided the tables when I felt distracted by negativity away from the game. But it never occurred to me that the opposite could be true — being super-thrilled with life could obviously put me in a state where I was not to be trusted with a buy-in at a $1/$2 table.

Now, there’s no obvious reason why being happy should dent my A-game as much as being miserable. But upon further reflection, I realized it wasn’t being happy per se that was the problem, it was wanting to celebrate and feel good, and the poker table was a super-expensive place to celebrate the good vibes. I should have gone out dancing, gone to see a band, hung out with friends, or if I absolutely had to play poker, bought into a couple $10 MTTs online.

A-game poker is not a fun time all-around. There is a serious level of concentration and focus, a serious need to mentally prepare and know when that focus is waning, and walk away. There are grindy aspects of folding, folding, folding. There’s the need to observe the table and study it like a hunter in a stand, waiting there all day for the buck to be positioned just right for the kill.

If I wanted to profit from poker, I needed to play my A-game, and to do that, I needed to approach poker as work. I realized that by going to the casino the last couple times with a poker buddy, I was too easily slipping into social poker mode, into hangout mode, and it was feeling less and less like work. The results didn’t lie. I was profiting more when I treated poker like a job. Even though it wasn’t strictly a job. I mean, it’s my job to write about it and work with a company that trains folks to be better poker players, but by no means was I a professional poker player, nor did I ever plan on becoming one.

And that, my friends, was the real crux of the leak here. I was a recreational poker player, but I needed to approach the game like a pro if I wanted to be a long-term profiteer.

This revelation sounds simple on the surface, but it was nothing less of a “eureka” moment for me. After all, I spend every day thinking about how we can get more recreational players into studying at Red Chip Poker. And here was the answer. There are only so many recreational players that want to approach the game as a pro. I think most of us have some part of us that wants to, but very few of us are motivated to hit the tables with the near-100% level of discipline that professional poker players approach the game with. I mean, the dictionary definition of “recreational” is “relating to or denoting activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.” Duh.

I didn’t have to stop being a recreational player altogether. But at the $1/$2 tables, it was time to say goodby to recreational poker, for good. I needed to be a $1/$2 professional, to whatever extent I could given that I only play in a casino once or twice a month.

That’s the challenge I saw when I embraced my mistake. You may see it in your game too. So what to do?

Learn From the Mistake

I recently read a post in the forum from a player who had made a pre-session checklist to review prior to any session. Many professional poker players I have spoken to have similar checklists. I wasn’t the first poker player on the planet to realize not playing my A-game was one of the biggest leaks, if not THE biggest leaks in poker.

I quickly drafted up a mental game checklist of my own, comprised of 3 simple questions. If I answered ‘No’ to any of them, I would not sit down to play $1/$2:

  • Are you free of life tilt?
  • Is there nothing more important or urgent for you to do right now than play poker?
  • Are you ready to play poker for up to 8 hours as a serious job and not recreationally as a hobby, social event or for entertainment? In other words, are you prepared to not have fun playing poker?

It’s that last question that stings when I write it. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I’ve stopped having fun playing poker, or that I want to. It’s just that, like any job you love doing, there are going to be huge parts that are a grind, that are hard work. Studying is hard work. Having pre-flop discipline and folding the vast majority of hands is not fun. That’s just reality. Thinking otherwise is kidding yourself, or playing recreationally. And that’s not what I set out to do here. I set out to profit. To do that, I need to play A-game. And to play A-game, I need to be prepared not to have fun.

Who knows, perhaps there will come a day when I will laugh at this article, when I will have mastered the art of playing professional-grade poker and having fun doing it. But when I’ve talked to professional poker players, it’s clear they’re having fun because they’re playing a game they love for money, while enjoying the freedom of setting their own hours, traveling, and enjoying exciting wins. The huge part of it that’s serious, professional-grade grinding is not cited as part of the fun, but without it, the fun doesn’t exist. Otherwise, it would be a very expensive lifestyle, instead of a career.

I’m not aiming for a professional poker career, but I am aiming for long-term profit. It’s time to become a professional poker player… just a VERY part-time one.

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Showing 7 comments
  • persuadeo

    Congrats on your continuing growth and experience. GL.

    • Zac

      Thanks brother! Looking forward to seeing you in Vegas in a few months.

  • Blayo

    That’s awesome you’re playing in my home town. I’m the guy on the right with the beard and Hawaiian shirt. Also, awesome article.

    • Zac

      Nice, thanks! Obviously we are the two best dressed players in the room 🙂

      I’ll keep an eye out for you next time I’m up.

  • sumoswim

    I’m struggling with the same leak Man.
    Sometimes it seems like i don’t really want to be a true winner at this game.

    • Zac

      Yeah, this is something that I think is actually a pretty big deal in poker among recreational/less frequent players. In a way, it’s the reason why the vast majority of players in the card room are losing — they’re not treating the game like a job (albeit a often fun job with lots of flexibility). The difference between winner and loser seems more and more about how one approaches the game in general.

      For example, I have always been a big winner in my home game, but I have lots of fun and it’s very social. The reason why I’m still a big winner is that I approach the game as strategy, not as gambling. Pretty much everyone else is gambling, or if they are playing a strategy, it’s very basic.

      I am a break-even player online because my focus is much more on strategy, there is no social aspect, and I can be competitive when I play my A game. I would be a winner if I had a greater volume of study or play — I just don’t want that at this point in my life, so I’m happy breaking even and slowly getting better by having a greater volume of hands to analyze.

      Live poker is somewhere in between for me. This month it was all about realizing I need to treat live poker more like my online game, because I can and absolutely have been a winner when I play my A game, and this is because I approach the game differently than 90% of players, who are unstudied. And I’m not trying to be a downer when I say it’s about treating it as a job vs. having fun, it’s just a different kind of fun to be rewarded at the cage with cash vs. at the table with a good time, and I think that’s the key to winning live… delaying the instant gratification of enjoying playing the game in order to enjoy cashing out a winner. That doesn’t mean the game is unenjoyable, just that playing correctly and “professionally” takes priority over enjoying oneself. As I said, I’ve talked to plenty of pros who are really enjoying themselves, but they worked tirelessly and still study intensely to get to the point where they can be professional first, and then enjoy themselves second.

  • Daniel L

    Hey Zac,

    Reading this on a train journey home for work – obviously delighted that you read my checklist thread and want to make one too – and I really like your item about being prepared to not have fun. BTW, since I wrote that checklist post I have avoided one ‘bad idea’ trip to the casino – didn’t even get to filling the checklist out, but just knowing what’s on it made me discount the idea immediately.

    Good luck fighting the good fight! Hopefully meet you at the RCP meetup 2018, if I can plan my time well enough to fly over from the UK.