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Do poker players lose more money through technical failings or pitfalls in their emotive spectrum?

That particular question popped up in my mind like an irritating blister after reading a Daniel Negreanu blog post: ‘Which Poker Books Should You Buy?

In Negreanu’s view only ‘elite players’ can write the ‘best poker books. But what constitutes the ‘best’? I believe the ‘best poker books’ are the best dependent on the value they offer each particular individual.

So how do you define value?

I believe the important metric for a poker player – albeit a difficult one to measure – is the number of times they play each hand in an optimal manner based on the variables available at that time.

When playing a hand less than optimally, one needs to establish the cause. After giving this some thought, I believe that the cause will either be a technical failing or an emotional one.

With this in mind I reached out to some elite players to ask them if they believe, over a long period, they had lost more money through technical failing or emotional ones.

I started with the man who began this vibrant conversation.

“I think it depends on what level you are as a player,” answered Daniel Negreanu. “There is no question that beginners should make the fundamentals a top priority. For advanced, winning players, I think there is more value in working on the mental game.”

Former World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Champion, Greg Merson, also places more value on the emotional side of the game.

“I believe I have lost more sessions due to emotional control rather than fundamental shortfalls.” Said Merson. “My mental game has been my number one priority the past 3-4 years.”

Timothy Reilly falls into the point that Negreanu was trying to make quite nicely.

“Once I understood poker enough to play the game at a slightly decent amateur level I lost more through not controlling my emotions.” Said Reilly. “I believe it’s what makes the great “great” and the mediocre “mediocre”.  I can think of many times early in my career that I let my emotions get the best of me. I would blow up and tilt off multiple buy-ins.

“Poker is a game of skill, and we widely overlook the skills involved in not let your emotions get the best of you. It’s tough to say which one is more important. If you’re playing on a daily basis, at a professional level, then I believe you probably have a fairly good feel for the technical aspect of the game. I think people should focus more on their emotions on and off the table.”

Patrick Leonard leans somewhere in the middle.

“It’s a tough question.” Said Leonard. “If I knew at 18-21 what I know now I’d be sipping on Pina Coladas on a private island, so technically I lost money because I wasn’t as good as I could be. I think in the big moments my mental game has been good. In the moments, I don’t expect to count, such as the start of a tournament, and especially in live poker, my mental game has cost me more money than my technical game.”

In Daniel Negreanu’s post, he talks about the merits of poker psychology books. In my opinion, Jared Tendler‘s books on the mental game of poker are the best out there. Here is Tendler’s opinion on the technical v emotional question.

“I think the question is a little misleading because you’re grouping all poker players together. If we do that, there’s no question the vast majority of players lose money because of technical leaks. However, if we’re talking about the minority of players who make a living, or who can profitably play even when they’re tilting, then I’d say that mental and emotional leaks are where they lose most of their money.”

The last person I asked to comment was the former November Niner and Bluefire Poker Coach Jason Senti. His response, while meticulous, and lengthy was the perfectly segue into my next point.

“This question is a little bit tricky as it depends a bit on your definition of technical failings. While I believe I have nearly always had an edge in games I have played in; I also believe that I am getting better all the time. As a result, I usually think I wasn’t very good a year ago. Consequently, I always feel like I left a lot of money on the table in the past due to a lack of poker proficiency.

“I also think I have pretty good emotional control when it comes to poker. I don’t play much when tilted, so I haven’t lost a lot of money directly due to emotional issues. I at least don’t have big losing sessions while obviously tilted. The most costly part about tilt for me is that I don’t get in as much volume as I would like when things aren’t going well (in poker or life). I quit playing when I am not in a great mood, so I miss out on a lot of theoretical EV compared to if I were a tilt-less robot who could grind a lot of hours.

“As you get better at poker it becomes increasingly difficult to improve. Unless you are substantially worse than your peers, it usually takes a fair amount of work to increase your technical skills. While I always feel like I should be doing more ‘off the table work’, it is a legitimate possibility that my time would be better spent working on the soft skills related to poker. This includes not only emotional control but also figuring out how to put myself in a position to maintain focus for longer periods of time. That could include sleep, diet, exercise, and even things like bankroll management. I think identifying where your effort should be focused will vary greatly from person to person, but there is likely a lot of value in taking the time regularly to figure out what you should be working on. I don’t consider myself a very efficient worker when it comes to this kind of thing, so I hope it is something I spend more time on.”

Before I approached these masterminds, I had already formed an opinion that the top professionals in the game would increase their EV by learning more about the emotional side of their game. The feedback I received solidifies that belief.

The following sentence, from Senti, encapsulates the thought process that got my cogs whirring in the first place.

“That could include sleep, diet, exercise, and even things like bankroll management.”

Poker is a microcosm of life. I believe to perform at a high level in poker, you need to be performing at a high level in life. Senti also feels it’s important. With that in mind, I believe Negreanu’s categorization of (a) technical poker books, and (b) poker psychology books, needs to be widened to include (c) life improvement books.

Here are 10 books that I believe could improve your life, and at the same time, improve the emotional side of your poker game.

1# The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

One of the finest books I have ever read. Steven Pressfield isn’t only a great writer, he beautifully portrays his views on procrastination in this masterpiece.

He calls the little monster in your mind ‘Resistance’ and it’s the reason that so many of us fail to set goals, let alone realize them. There is no creativity when resistance is in town. It dominates your life. It stymies and controls. It’s a pungent, repulsive virus of stillness and inactivity.

I always give this book to others.

2# Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

So what do you do when you understand that it’s resistance that’s holding you back?

You turn pro.

Pressfield’s follow up piece to War of Art is just as good. Think of the first piece of work as the problem identifier, and this one as the solution.

3# Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy

On the face of it this is a book that promotes veganism. But I include it in this list because I believe it holds a much deeper and powerful lesson than the one about caring for all sentient beings.

Her views on Carnism demonstrate the power of social conditioning, and the control it has over our unconscious thoughts. I believe to become more powerful, you need to become more mindful. That means waking up and taking control of your thoughts and decisions. You cannot do that chained to society’s way of doing things.

Then there is the veganism angle. There are many health benefits to eating a plant-based diet. Health is so important, particularly when we hold such a sedentary career.

4# A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden

A constraint is a limitation. We abhor constraints. They affect our ability to do something. They are the roadblocks in our life. They are nothing but frustration.

Adam Morgan and Mark Baden teach you to love constraints. Instead of complaining about them, embrace them. Make the constraint a thing of beauty, not a restriction, and use it as the whip that will lead to greater ambition and glory.

5# The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

How much money is enough?

I once read in one of Daniel Negreanu’s blog posts that he has more money than he could spend in a lifetime. So what next? What can you do with that money? What is the point of it all?

The most good you can do is a great piece of work focusing on the benefits of Effective Altruism. It’s an often-cited piece of work by the Raising for Effective Giving (REG) charity that run by the likes of Igor Kurganov, Philipp Gruissem and Liv Boeree.

Organizing your life around doing the most good you can do for others seriously chills you out. It brings peace to your life.

6# People Skills by Robert Bolton

I am currently in my second marriage. My first one ended because my ex-wife and I didn’t know how to communicate. I am still screwing up today. Fortunately, my new wife is a superb communicator. She has taught me so much. I am learning all of the time.

One of the greatest books I have read on communication is Robert Bolton’s excellent People Skills. The strength of your relationships will determine the strength of your poker game. If they are strong, then it’s more likely that your game will be strong. If they are falling apart, then you will bring that mess to the table.

Learning how to be better always begins with solid communication.

7# Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

In poker, money is fuel. Your game doesn’t move without it. Money has ruined how many great poker careers? How many people to this day are so deep in makeup they can’t see a way out of it?

Your Money or Your Life is the best book I have ever read on finance. The key to its brilliance is the way it compares everything that you ever purchase with the time that you have on this earth.

“If I buy this, will it add true value to my life?”

It’s such a great question.

One suspects when you are on your death bed you won’t want to stroke the bonnet of your Porsche.

8# The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

There is only one hand.

There is no past.

There is no future.

There is only this one hand.

Old Eckhart isn’t the greatest person when it comes to explaining his methodology. At times, he sounds like the mental institute has just kicked him out. But his theory gets you thinking.

So many of our problems in life don’t even exist. How powerful can that understanding be for your game?

9# The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

I am not a man of religion. This book is heavily laden with religious references. I urge you not to let it put you off. See past the scriptures, and the God talk and the lessons are extremely powerful.

Do you want to be a poker player forever?

What are you going to do with the money and fame?

What happens when poker ends?

These are all questions that can cause an imbalance in your life. Purpose and meaning shifts all of the time. What it is today, might not be what it is tomorrow. But you should always have an understanding of it. It should lead. Everything you do should revolve around it.

10# The Liver Cleanse Diet by Dr Sandra Cabot

I recently played at the World Poker Tour (WPT) National Event in Brussels. It was a great event; Brussels not so much. It was an extremely difficult place to find anything healthy to eat. It’s a problem I have found throughout my time in the poker industry.

This lifestyle gives us a ready-made excuse to eat the wrong things. Our health should be our number one priority, and the protection of the liver forefront in our minds. So many people are unaware of the importance.

The Liver Cleanse Diet (LCD) is an eight-week cleanse that will revolutionize the way you think about food. This change in thinking occurs because your body changes. You are what you eat, and so when you eat more superfoods it’s no surprise that you start to feel a little super.

There are my top 10 non-poker books. Now it’s your turn. What are yours?


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Lee Davy

Life can be viewed as the sum of the parts or the parts themselves. I believe in the holistic view of life, or the sum. When dealing with individual parts you develop whack-a-mole syndrome; each time you clobber one problem with your hammer another one just pops up.