The best poker players in the world tread a calculated path to success, and work constantly to improve their game.
Today we’ll discuss four steps you must take to follow their lead—steps toward becoming a winning player.
Doug Polk contributed to this article
How to Win at Poker
Step 1: Pick a game type and stick to it
Specialization is key to mastering any subject. Consider these players who have made it to the top by specializing in one game type:
- Phil Hellmuth: Focused on playing live MTTs; most WSOP bracelets of all-time; achieved long-term success despite playing an unconventional style.
- Doug Polk: Focused exclusively on Heads-Up No Limit for a number of years; went from the micros to being regarded as the best high stakes HUNL player in the world.
- OtB_RedBaron: Became the most feared player online by focusing on 6-max cash games; has been the most profitable player in that game type for a number of years.
Each of these players devoted time and effort to single game type over a long period of time. Sure, you may see them occasionally splashing around in different games, but it is important to remember that they earned the right to do so and that they never lost focus on their chosen format.
For the rest of us, playing games without a clear edge is something we simply can’t afford to do—we can’t afford to risk our bankroll, and we can’t afford to waste time on a game type we don’t intend to specialize in.
So, pick a game type and stick to it. And don’t be afraid to move down in stakes and play your way up. Everyone who has found long-term success has made that journey.
(Note: Ready to take your poker game to the next level? Learn expert strategies from our world-class team of coaches when you join the Upswing Lab. Learn more now!)
Step 2: Identify and isolate your problems
Before you can solve a problem with your game you need to identify what it is, and an in-depth analysis will almost certainly reveal more than one. In order to do an in-depth analysis of your game, you will need a good sized sample of your own hands to study.
You can start by putting in some hands online at any stakes with tracking software enabled (make sure your chosen site is compatible with tracking software). After you’ve gathered a healthy sample, go through your database and identify spots where your win-rate is bad.
Study the situations you faced carefully, both pre- and post-flop. Find spots where you weren’t certain about what to do. Ask yourself questions like:
- Should I have worked in a bluff, there?
- Should I have folded?
- Did I play that hand well despite the result?
When looking at your stats, is there an area that stands out as particularly bad? If so, look more closely at that area to find out what mistake(s) you are making, and why you’re making them.
Finally, be honest with yourself about why you might be losing. You’ll never move your poker career forward without the courage to face problems with your game.
Step 3: Improve your weaknesses
Once you’ve identified problems with your game it’s time to find ways to fix them. Here are some suggestions:
- Get coaching
Finding coaching is one of the best and most effective ways to improve. A competent coach will have seen the same problems in other players’ games, and will be able to show you the best ways solve them. Note that coaching can be very expensive, however, especially if it’s one-on-one from a well-known instructor.
- Find a training site
Training sites are a great option, as they offer all sorts of resources to help you become a winning player—and usually at a price far cheaper than a one-on-one coach.
If you are a small- or mid-stakes player, one of the best resources out there is the Upswing Poker Lab. The Lab offers numerous hand charts for live, online, and tournament play, with pre-flop ranges included. Additionally, there are tons of videos and learning modules created by top players, covering specific formats.
- Copy better players
Imitating players who are better than you can instantly improve your game. Winning players like Parker “tonkaaaap” Talbot stream almost daily, and many more post valuable content to YouTube and elsewhere (see: Doug Polk for NL, JNandez for PLO).
It has never been easier to see how professionals play the game. Copying what they do, taking notes, and using some of their same hands and bet sizing’s is a great and efficient way to improve your game.
Step 4: Execute
The final step is to put your game to the test.
Play well. Remember: you’re always working on your game. Concentrate on playing well, and pay special attention to spots where you previously made mistakes. Implement your new strategies and stick to them.
Know your ranges. Know the hands you are going to play in each position. If necessary, keep your ranges in front of you when playing online, or on your phone or printed on paper if you’re playing live—it’s crucial to remember what to do with certain hands in certain spots.
Find the best games. Research where to find the best games. Find out where the rake is lowest for your chosen game type. Determine whether you will be playing against good, average, or weak players, and how tight or loose these players are playing. Usually, the looser the game the better it is, no matter the skill level of the players. Use all the information you can get, especially against familiar opponents. Games filled with recreational players who are playing for fun will usually be the best. If you know most of the players in a game are better than you, don’t hesitate to move to another game.
Know your limits. Only play when you feel mentally prepared. Playing tired, or with other things on your mind can cause you to make mistakes. Have the ability to step away from the game when you’re having trouble staying focused.
These 4 Steps + Hard Work = Win at Poker
Becoming a winning player takes dedication and a lot of hard work. But with a plan and the right resources winning consistently is an achievable goal. To recap, here are the four steps to get you started in the in the right direction.
- Pick a game type and stick to it
- Identify and isolate your problems
- Improve your weaknesses
So, what game type are you going to pick for step 1? Let us know in the comments below!
Learn more about the strategy behind poker pros’ successes in Doug Polk’s article How to Play Winning Poker.
Note: Want to turn your poker hobby into your side job? Start crushing your competition with expert strategies when you join the Upswing Lab. Learn more now!
Read more from UpswingPoker based on your game of choice:
- Cash games: Why the Very Best Poker Players Make Decisions at Random
- Tournaments: How to Check-Raise with Short Stacks Like An MTT Boss
- Live poker: 10 Quick Poker Tips That Will Make You a Better Player in 5 Minutes
- All games: These 4 Rules Will Help You Choose the Perfect Bet Size
Grinding live poker is my day job. I also write about poker and sports.