Studying that Helps, and Studying that Wastes Your Time


All talk of bros and dweebs aside - if you are reading this, I can fairly safely assume that you like learning about poker theory. You probably don’t mind someone else telling you how you might adjust your game to increase your profits. The terms “polarized”, “perceived range”, and “population tendencies” don’t send you running for the hills screaming about what the nerds have done to an ideally pure and intuitive game. You’re motivated to get better, and you’re willing to put in the work to get to the top, where you can see the most successful high stakes players grinding out such pretty graphs.

All of this is good – very good, in fact. Most of the time, having that kind of determination and willingness to work hard will serve your interests. As much as it can be tempting to look at the best players in the game and only think of them as prodigies with exceptional natural talent (although this also can be true), there are players with just a little less god-given skill who work their asses off to knock the current legends off their perch. Sometimes they succeed and we stop thinking of former top players so highly, sometimes they don’t, and you get someone like Olivier “livb112” Busquet, who has been at the top of the HUSNG world for many years now. Those results do not just come from talent, but also a continuous drive to be the best and an understanding that staying on top of the game means working at it.

OK, you get it, hard work is important. But that’s not what this article is about. You already knew that hard work is important already; that’s why you’re reading this instead of all the other things you could be doing with your time right now. Instead, the point of this article is to warn you about one of the biggest problems people who like to read poker theory often have: Thinking they are becoming a better poker player by studying, but actually are working ineffectively and not improving at all.

Sklansky-Chubukov is a great example of where people run into trouble. It seems like a concept for advanced players – An endgame chart like the one derived from a Nash Equlibrium, except more obscure. This one tells you how to play against your opponent if he has a perfect calling range against your hand (we’ll go into this more in the extensions section of the ebook). This comes across as pretty cool, and like it might be some tool you could use to get an edge on very good players, or maybe something they’re already using to exploit you. However, as it turns out, basically the entire exercise is useless. An opponent who can see your cards is so far removed from the experience of real poker that the charts give very little useful information to good players. In fact, my guess would be that most students who come to me with questions about Chubukov would be better off having never heard of it, and that attempting to learn it has actually lost them money, with no significant payoff if they would have understood it correctly.

That makes for only one small example. I could list many more individual instances of this happening, but I do not want you to miss the big picture by looking at each one on its own and saying “well, I don’t do that, so mersenneary isn’t talking to me”. That’s because I can pretty much guarantee you that you do something in this general category. Almost everybody who spends time studying poker also spends time studying the game in a way that will not help them earn extra money at all, while at the same time believing the opposite.

It is a bit of a crude term, but I’ve always thought of this as “masturbatory learning”. It can often come out of a desire to say the following things:

I’m great. I work hard. I know advanced poker concepts. I deserve better results. I know the theory of the game better than other people do. The more complicated things get, the better I am. I can talk about the details of a situation in exquisite detail, using all of the poker terms people use. I can find the answer to any poker question. I can make myself come across well on an internet poker forum, or when talking about poker with my friends. I’m learning and I’m getting better – I deserve success.

To be clear, there are plenty of other harmless reasons as well – maybe you know that a certain type of studying is not going to help you win more money, but you just like solving poker puzzles and developing your poker mind, even if a specific question is not actually going to have much of an effect on your results. And that’s perfectly fine. I am not trying to tell anybody to not do something you enjoy doing.

All I am saying is that you need to be very careful with assumptions that what you are doing will help you make more money. I always tried to make sure that when I ran statistical analysis or asked a question about a concept, there was a very clear reason for why I was investing the time into doing it, and if I was doing it to become a better poker player, it was because there were very clear implications about practical adjustments I could make depending on what I learned. In academia, you often get scrutinized on the following question when requesting funding for your research: How could your potential findings lead to meaningful changes in your field? Similarly, when thinking about the game from a professional mindset, if the question you are asking does not imply a way to make money from the answer, be careful about whether to use your time asking it.

When I solved for whether to jam A4o over a minraise first hand in a superturbo, either readless or against someone with a certain opening percentage, it was because I knew I could use that information very directly to obtain better results. When I solved for the expectation of openjamming certain hands 12bb deep given certain assumptions, it was to compare that expectation against my results limping or minraising and come to a determination of what would make me more money going forward given how often those spots come up. When I queried my database to see my results raising small pairs out of position 35bb deep or more, it was to see if I could make more money by checking behind. When I started worrying I was playing too many hands out of position, and queried my database to find out, it was because I knew that the results had a high probability of improving my results going forward. That's what happened. After a period of time spent learning about poker, you should be able to identify what you learned on that day and specific instances of what you’ll do differently in the future in common situations.

Lots of poker questions can be good to answer for fun, and it does help develop your poker mind. But for the most part, professionally, your goal should not just be to learn an answer you don’t know. Your goal should be to learn what to do with the answer going forward. If you can’t answer that, maybe that’s the poker puzzle you should start with.

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