How Good of a Poker Player Are You?

I caught a very interesting article that was intended to be about business/career goals but I think it applies just as easily to how we advance as poker players. It fits in with what I said the other day about goals and being unable to achieve a goal unless you first set it.

I often find myself in progress ruts. I’ll make it to a certain caliber in my game and then I’m stuck. Sometimes for weeks or even months I’ll go without any real progress. I’ll just keep hammering away and nothing seems to change. I don’t feel I’m playing any better or worse, I’m just playing. Then something will happen. I’ll read a message board post, a blog post, a book, or some planetary alignment will occur that makes me think about the game just a little differently. Reading Ed Miller’s Small Stakes Hold ‘Em was one of those moments. Reading Harrington on Hold ‘Em was another. It’s one of those eureka moments where in a split second you see exactly how every hand you’ve ever played could have been played differently.

Pavila’s post recommends rating yourself on a 1- 10 scale on various self-determined criteria. In poker that might be your overall game, or you pre-flop game, your post-flop aggression, your ability to read the action to put someone on a hand, etc. If you’re a 3 or 4 it’s probably pretty easy to see how you need to progress. If you find yourself with a lot of 7’s, you could be in a lot of trouble.

There’s a tendency for people to accept mediocrity. If you can easily beat the $3/$6 at Commerce (or pick your favorite online or offline casino) it’s not too difficult to stay satisfied with your achievement. It’s far better than most people who play the game and getting to an 8 or 9 would require substantial effort. Perhaps you’ve even taken some stabs at $5/$10 and got crushed so being satisfied with your level 7 status seems to even be justified.

One of the biggest problems, however, may be that in order to get to level 8 or 9 might require going back to level 4. Some of the flaws in your game go undetected at $3/$6 but become painfully obvious at $5/$10 against better opponents. Admitting to yourself that you’ve only memorized starting hand charts without ever really understanding the relative value of hands in various situations may seem like a major, major setback in your progress but in reality it’s essential for you to move on to higher levels.

The other major problem is that you may not actually be a 7. You may be a 7 compared to your friends but how do you rank against Chip Reese or Johnny Chan? Are you really a 7 compared to those guys?

I see this type of mis-ranking a lot in work environments. On a consulting gig, I was helping a CTO and we were ranking staff members on a scale of 1 – 10 on various job skills. He ranked one software engineer as a 10 and I responded that he was a 4 or 5 at best. He was absolutely stunned. He said, “But he’s the best programmer we have,” which was true but I’ve worked with some 10’s and he was no 10. Did he help write the Java language? How many conferences is he asked to speak at as an expert on Java? How many research papers has he written on Java? How many libraries has he written? He sat back and said “If he’s a 4 or 5 then everyone else is only a 1,” seemingly trying to convince me that his entire staff couldn’t all be 1’s. My response was simply, “Thus, the productivity issues you’ve hired me to help you address.” It took a few days for the message to set in but he eventually saw that by realistically assessing the capabilities of his staff he could better align them for their tasks and bring in true experts to fill in the gaps.

Does that apply to you? Do you find yourself thinking that you’re a 7 despite the fact that you’re nowhere near being 70% of the player Chip Reese is? I know I fall into that trap sometimes. It can be depressing to think about how far away you are from truly mastering this game (especially if you’re a winning player) yet it’s absolutely essential to be brutally realistic if you ever hope to improve.

Bill Rini
Bill Rini is currently the Head of Online Poker for WSOP. He has been working in the online poker industry since 2004 and has held management roles at Full Tilt Poker and PartyPoker.