Good news! Tonight, you’re going to the card room. You’re going to play $1/$2 no-limit hold’em, or $6/$12 fixed limit hold’em, or $4/$8 Omaha high-low with a half-kill. You’re excited. You can’t wait to feel those heavy clay chips in your hand, to hear the chatter of the card room, to see the massive pots shoved in your direction. Your plan: to cash out as a big winner at the end of your session.
That is your plan, right?
Nope. That’s not a plan. It’s not even an objective. Cashing out big is just a hope, and a misguided hope at that.
Of course you want to win. But your plan for tonight should focus on playing well and learning more. And that takes preparation. If you execute your plan well, and if you’re running well, you will win (and that will be sweet). But if you execute your plan and lose, you still win — in terms of reinforcing good habits and nurturing the seeds of future poker capabilities.
Make a List
What do I mean by a “plan”? I’m referring to something more explicit than a general idea (or desire) to win.
I’m talking about a small set of maxims that you write out or type into your phone. And it is critical to write them out somehow. Mere thoughts are too insubstantial. You want your plan to have tangible, concrete steps, and you want your plan to be difficult to ignore.
I write mine out in a small pocket notebook, a new list for a new session, no matter how redundant it may be or seem. I start with truisms: two or three things that I absolutely, positively know, but don’t always remember to do. Things like...
- Look left
- Remember the importance of position
- Don’t bluff a calling station
These ideas are simple to learn but harder to adopt and execute consistently. Execution is where the rubber meets the road, in poker as in everything else. Execution is where ideas turn into actions, and actions count more than ideas at the poker table.
My strategic plan will also include a few seemingly oddball admonitions such as...
- Breathe (an idea that comes from Tommy Angelo’s superb Elements of Poker)
- Get up at least every two rounds stretch my legs
- Quit at midnight, regardless of how many chips I’ve won or lost
Again, many of these these directives are simpler to write down than to do. Midnight comes, for example, and I’m stuck — it’s very hard to quit then. But now when I do, I feel good about my discipline.
And finally, my plan will include some very specific strategic ideas I’ll hope to put into practice, for example...
- Pick one player and put him on hands
- Look for tells from one player (just one!)
- Make some uncharacteristically thin value bets on the river
- Find five hands to think through later (regardless of outcome)
All told, I’ll have six to ten items on my list, a few of which I need hardly be reminded of. I’ll take a look at the plan while I’m waiting for my game, and I will take a look at it again at one of those breaks I have reminded myself to take.
The Benefits of Making a Plan
Here’s why this plan is so important to any player, and particularly to learning players. A strategic plan is an opportunity to reinforce things you’ve learned, to make them so ingrained that you (almost) don’t have to think about them anymore.
For example, by now I’ve more or less mastered the “Look left” idea (another one explained by Angelo that has to do with looking at players acting after you and getting an idea of their intentions before you act). In effect, that item can probably go off my list.
A strategic plan is how you consciously add new tactics to your repertoire. Maybe it’s the check-raise, the stop-and-go, the three-barrel bluff, or making seat-of-the-pants ICM calculations. To understand how strategies work — to achieve a level of unconscious mastery — you have to practice them consciously.
But there are two other benefits of writing up a strategic plan for your next session.
First, it will facilitate your ability to get your mind into the game and its moments. Once I’ve decided, for example, really to observe the player in seat five and actually start to watch him or her, my attention is focused and strengthened, and not just on seat five. The more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more you know. The more you know, the better you’ll play.
And second, having a plan gives you the ability to turn every session into a positive one. I don’t mean you’ll always leave winner. You won’t. But you will be able to generate some positive results from your plan, especially if you look at your plan later that day and grade yourself on your progress.
“I looked left on every hand tonight,” you can tell yourself as you look one last time at your list after the session ends. Or “I had a good read on the player in seat five.” Or even “I made sure to stand at every round and took good, deep breaths.”
These benefits may not be bankable in the delicious way of cold, hard cash. But they are bankable in the long run, and anything positive can and should take the sting out of the monetary loss.
A plan should not be confused with, say, a blueprint, or a schematic, something to be followed slavishly regardless of the circumstance. Your actual strategy for any given hand will depend entirely on what your opponents are doing. But a plan can set your agenda for tonight’s game — and help you turn this session into a set of opportunities for learning.