So You Think You Can Play Poker?

Question: What skills are required to be a great poker player?

Annie Duke: To be a great poker player, essentially, you have to have a grasp of math and probabilities. You have to have some sense of game theory, regardless of whether you can actually express it in an academic way; you still have to have some grasp of game theory. You know that you are not playing a single hand that you have to worry about how opponents are going to perceive you in the future, how they are going to react to you in the future. You have to have what we call, ‘a lot of heart’ which is the ability to not only understand what the right play is, but to be able to follow through with it. Which seems like a very trivial point, but it’s probably the biggest point. A lot of times, what happens to people, sort of what separates the good from the great is that the good know the right answer, but they don’t follow through with it because its too scary, or they’re putting too much as risk. They don’t have that confidence that it’s okay because while there might be some variance to the play and you might lose this particular hand, mathematically it was the right choice. Over the long run it will work out.

One of the things that I say to students is that most poker players spend too much time worrying about whether they have the best hand. What great players worry about is whether they can win the hand enough of the time, which is a totally different way to think. That’s what really makes a great poker player is understanding, it’s not about winning right now, it’s about making the right decisions so that you win in the long run. You also have to be, I think, a very good reader of people, or at least a reader of bets and a very good pattern analyzer. That’s kind of all the things that have to do with the poker playing but that’s not what makes you a successful poker player. You have to have those skills and be able to beat the game. You could be anywhere from good to great in order to be a successful player as long as you are better than the game that you are playing. What makes a successful poker player is someone who manages their money really well, who understands what the bankroll requirements are to be sitting in a certain game, how much money you can risk in a certain game, and also who has a lot of control over the emotional aspect of the game, because poker players lose a lot because there’s variance to the game. You don’t win every single hand. Being able to emotionally handle the losses and not allow those to affect your play going forward is actually one of the key components to being a successful player. What I say to people all the time is that, there are lots of players out there who have more talent in their pinky than I have in my whole body for the game, but they are broke and I’m not. You work with the skills that you have, you recognize the games that you should be playing in, you play in games that you are better than rather than vice versa, which would be an ego-driven choice to think that you should be playing against people who are better than you are. And then you manage your money well and you manage your emotions well and that will make you a successful poker player, whether you are only good, or great.

Recorded on September 30, 2009

Annie Duke, winner of the 2004 World Series Tournament of Champions, believes money and emotional management skills set you apart from the competition.

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