I strongly believe that working on just one area of your game at a time is the best way to improve, but as someone who’s mentored and coached dozens of poker players over the years, this approach has occasionally been frustrating from a writing standpoint.
It’s frustrating because no matter how great my advice is on c-betting, open-raising or any other specific topic, I have to ignore broader advice that I think are most crucial for building a successful poker career.
In my final article for Upswing Poker, I’m going to try to break the mold and share this broad advice I’ve been holding back. I want to discuss four steps that will help you reach your poker goals and unlock maximum ROI.
These are written from the perspective of multi-table tournaments, but they are applicable to any poker variant.
1. Know yourself.
Full disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist or neurologist, and you should never make life decisions based on internet personality tests. Furthermore, I’m going to simplify a few things and make some bold assumptions to make this more understandable.
With that said, I think characterizing your own personality type can be valuable in competitive environments, and especially so for poker. So, if you’ve never done so, take this condensed version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. It takes about 10 minutes. (This test may not be necessary if you have a solid understanding of your personality.)
When you’re done with the test, you’ll see your results expressed as a combination of four letters, such as “INFP,” which stand for a combination of four opposing characteristics. I could probably go on about this test for 200 pages, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll only focus on the first two pairings, which I think are the most applicable to poker:
- Introversion (I) / Extraversion (E)
- Intuition (N) / Sensing (S)
You’ll see your characteristics ranked by percentage, like this (these are my actual results):
- Extravert / Introvert 26% / 74%
- Intuitive / Sensing 80% / 20%
Editor’s note: Don’t put much weight on your personality test results other than for the purposes of this article. A National Academy of Sciences committee reviewed the Myers-Briggs test and concluded that only the I-E scale showed strong validity, while the N-S and T-F scales showed relatively weak validity (see: article).
My guess is that at least 80% of online poker pros are introverts. One could think this simply because playing online poker alone at home in your underwear is something an introvert is likely to do, and thus online poker is a more likely career choice for introverts than for extraverts.
Maybe that’s true. But what’s more interesting is that introverts might actually have a significant genetic edge when it comes to poker:
- There is evidence that suggests introverts have significantly higher activity in the frontal lobes of their brains—the part responsible for learning, problem solving, memory, and decision making—than extraverts.
- There is evidence that suggests that various stimuli take longer to reach introverts’ consciousness. In poker, you don’t want to be subject to stimuli, such as tilt. Extraverts might be more subjectable to unwanted emotional triggers.
- Introverts’ brains contain higher amounts of acetylcholine (see: article), which is a neurotransmitter boosting memory, focus, and learning (perfect traits for long poker sessions). Extraverts react strongly to dopamine, which plays a big role in reward-motivated behavior such as arousal and craving change (which may make some more likely to crave action and rewards).
So, should extraverts give up on their poker dreams? Of course not. In fact, I can think of several players who have crushed high stakes and are probably extraverts. Ryan Fee and Doug Polk come to mind.
I think it’s fair to say that some extraverts could be at a disadvantage when it comes to online poker, but on the other hand they look to be suited just fine for live poker—perhaps they even have an advantage in live games.
I spent ten years trying to crack live poker, and despite finding the quality of competition lower than online, my live results are, in a word, embarrassing. I had already lost more than $100,000 in live tournament buy-ins before giving a single thought to the idea that my brain might not be wired for live poker. I’m too damn introverted for it!
Think about it.
Extraverts gain energy from being around other people. Sitting at a live table is like plugging their inner iPhone into the charger.
Introverts, on the other hand, recharge their inner batteries by being alone, and start to bleed mental energy and brainpower the moment they sit down at a live table.
This is exactly how I feel at the live poker table—I have fun playing, but I also find it incredibly draining. After just one day of playing my brain seems to be total mush, and I want to curl up under the blankets. It’s maybe not surprising, then, that I would often make day two of a live tournament with a nice stack, only to completely collapse after that. If you’re an introvert, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the same.
Now, I’m also not saying that all extraverts should focus on live poker and introverts exclusively online. There are many players who have managed to do well in both, such as Fedor Holz and Dan Colman. But I think it can be valuable to think about how being an introvert or extravert can affect your poker career. The sooner you find what truly suits you, the better.
Let’s move on to the second pairing.
This describes how you gather and interpret new information.
Intuitive people make their decisions based on ideas, sometimes to the point where they disregard facts, and constantly try to break out of the box and find new and innovative ways to do things. Intuitive people tend to question things, seek out reasons for others’ actions, and try to connect the dots.
Sensing people generally rely on solid facts and don’t feel the need to think outside the box. They have their feet firmly on the ground, leaving considerations about why something happens up to others. They are good at dealing with concrete ideas, but leave brainstorming and exploring new possibilities to intuitive people.
What could all this mean for your poker career? Let’s take a moment to consider the fundamentals of poker.
Poker is a game of incomplete information. Ultimately, we make our bets, raises, calls, and folds based on imperfect assumptions. One of the biggest reasons great poker players crush their competition is that they’re good at “reading” their opponents, which basically translates to making (very educated) assumptions.
Great poker players see what an opponent’s play means in the big picture. They connect the dots to understand their opponent’s overall game plan, and use that knowledge to their advantage later on. All this seems to fit well in the intuitive category.
I suspect there are more intuitive thinkers than sensing ones among winning poker players, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a great poker player if you’re the sensing type.
Regardless of the side you lean towards, all it means is that your brain receives and processes new information in a certain way. The key isn’t in trying to change the way you think, which would be futile, but recognizing and understanding how your personality type might influence your poker thinking.
As I mentioned above, I’m 80% intuitive. Looking back at my career, that preference is quite apparent. I’ve always been great at getting inside my opponents’ heads, understanding the motivations behind their actions, reasoning through unusual situations in MTTs, exploitative play, and heads-up play.
And I’ve always been comparatively terrible at the “easiest” parts of poker–the ones that seem to fall more on the sensing side: figuring out push-fold ranges, doing basic poker math, calculating pot odds, GTO play, and so on.
Basically, my entire career has been a ten-year run of reading my opponents well while lacking technical skill. For most of my friends it’s been the opposite. They could recall push/fold charts in their sleep, and the fundamentals come naturally to them. Meanwhile, I still need a calculator to figure out pot odds.
Still, I’ve managed to have a pretty great career. This is all because MTTs are a game of intuitive thinking. Of all poker forms, technical skill matters the least in MTTs. More important is understanding human emotion, and being able to exploit your opponents on that basis (see: 4 Career-Ending Mistakes Tournament Players Make). In other words, instinct usually takes precedence over playing technically sound poker in MTTs.
To summarize, there are three major takeaways from the intuition/sensing pairing that I want to leave you with.
In my experience, some forms of poker are better suited for intuitive people, and vice versa.
Sensing people likely do better at games such as hyper-turbo SNGs and full-ring cash that reward technical skill and sharp fundamentals and have less room for big exploits.
Intuitive people have a better chance to shine in formats that have more room for exploitative, outside-the-box plays such as MTTs, heads-up, and live cash (especially low stakes).
I’ve coached both intuitive and sensing players over the years. Despite putting an equal amount of effort into every coaching session, my ability to help the person has varied dramatically from player to player.
When studying hand histories of intuitive types, I’ve been able to help by pointing out basic fundamental leaks. These players always seem to understand the game flow of MTTs, and their leaks can be both pointed out and fixed pretty easily.
But when I’ve reviewed hand histories with sensing players, I’ve often been absolutely baffled at how poor their results are despite their play. More than once I’ve sent a player their money back, telling them that I couldn’t add much value to their game as they already seemed to be playing technically better than me! All they lacked was intuition, an unquantifiable skill, which I don’t think can be taught in a coaching session. Nor have I ever felt capable or confident enough to even try.
This brings us to the second takeaway: You need to base your study habits on how your brain works. Don’t do what everyone else does—figure out what’s best for you.
Sensing types are usually missing the art of exploitative play, leveraging, and understanding human emotion. These skills are hard to study away from the table. But one way is to watch replays of big WCOOP/SCOOP events.
If you’re a sensing type, you might be quick to judge plays that aren’t exactly orthodox or GTO. But instead of passing judgement, try figuring out why a player is doing what they’re doing, and then think of ways to exploit them.
Phil Hellmuth, for example, isn’t a sensing thinker, yet he’s one of the most successful poker players of all time. His play often seems atrocious, yet he’s managed to have a career most players can only dream about.
Why? Do you think he’s just been lucky for over thirty years? Of course not. Hellmuth has consistently stepped out of the box and exploited his opponents in ways that aren’t easily explained in terms of pot odds, ranges, bet sizes, etc.
Intuitive players, on the other hand, should focus on the study grind. Simulations, push/fold calculations, math, solvers, etc. An intuitive thinker will find studying these topics both more boring and more difficult than a sensing thinker does. Indeed, I’ve always found studying very tedious, but I have no doubt that it’s necessary. Just as sensing players are at a disadvantage against intuitive players when it comes to “feel” play, intuitive players are at a disadvantage when it comes to capitalizing on technical skill.
Obviously, you should study every aspect of poker no matter your personality type. But traditional poker teaching assumes that everyone is cast from the same mold. People are different, and what works for one player often does not work for another.
No coach can help you totally fulfill your potential, because no one else knows you as well as you know yourself. That’s why it’s crucial to take a step back, and consider what approach best suits you.''No coach can help you totally fulfill your potential, because no one else knows you as well as you know yourself. That's why it's crucial to take a step back, and consider what approach best suits you.'' [email protected] in this: https://bit.ly/4-insights Click To Tweet
2. Learn to network effectively.
I was primarily a cash game player from 2007 until late 2009. I started taking MTTs seriously in early 2010, but as soon as I’d broken out of the low stakes I ran into a problem: No one in my native Finland was playing MTTs.
This sounds weird now, as that there are a lot of great Finnish MTT players. But back then everyone played cash. And I needed like-minded players to study MTTs with.
Make poker friends online.
That’s when I joined the 2+2 forums, which were booming at the time. Eight years later, I have nearly 9,000 posts on 2+2, most of them about MTT hands. For a couple years I created new MTT strategy threads under my screen name, “Chuck Bass,” and posted in nearly every hand history thread that was started by someone else.
I soon learned one of the most important skills about posting hands: It’s not about that one big hand. Usually when people post hands, it’s a bustout hand from a big tournament that they want to know they played correctly so that they can sleep at night, a huge bluff they want to brag about, or a once-in-a-lifetime hand with insane action.
Most people don’t bother posting boring hands, or ask questions like, “is this river value bet in an 8BB pot too thin?” or, “is this a good hand to bluff catch with?”, etc. Yet these are the kind of posts you should read and be making.
The more boring a spot is, the more often it occurs, and thus the more important it is to get right. Players who regularly post boring hands are the ones to follow. They’re in it for the long haul, and are trying to do the same thing you are: improve.
During my first couple of months as a daily 2+2 poster, I noted about a dozen screen names who always seemed to have great advice. There was a lot of noise, of course, just like there is now. (It’s the internet, after all. Whenever you post a hand that you’ve misplayed, you’re going to get trolled, flamed, and laughed at. Someone might post a funny GIF about you.) Get used to the noise, but also realize that some of the best free lessons you’ll ever get come packaged as harsh feedback from someone better than you.''Some of the best free lessons you'll ever get in poker come packaged as harsh feedback from someone better than you.'' [email protected] in this article: https://bit.ly/4-insights Click To Tweet
My first year in the 2+2 forums was a good one. I learned a ton, and turned a $5,000 bankroll into almost $100,000 without any particularly big scores. By late 2010, however, I was playing mid- to high-stakes MTTs, and felt I needed to do more than just post hand histories to keep improving.
Start study groups.
While there’s a lot to be learned from posting hands, you can’t become an elite player without doing more than that. So, I decided to start a mid/high stakes study group and sent private messages to around a dozen 2+2 members who I respected, but who weren’t yet high rollers (in fear of getting turned down by some real endbosses).
We started a private Skype group, which weren’t as common as they are today, and quickly added another thirty or so members. We reviewed countless hand histories every day, did video follow-ups, and got to know each other personally. Happily, I’m still friends with a few people from that group, which ceased to exist around 2013.
As for our results, several members of the group absolutely crushed it. I personally won $250,000 in 2011, yet my success was limited compared to some of the other members. One of us ended up winning the WSOP Main Event, and several others went on to win WSOP bracelets and huge online majors.
An amusing side note: I’ve only ever blocked one person on Skype—the guy who won the Main Event. Why did I block him? Because he was constantly private messaging me hand histories, and typing endless monologues about how certain hands should be played. It was too much. After he won the Main Event, all I could do was shrug and conclude that dedication sure does pays off! Feel free to guess in the comments below who it was.
I haven’t been in study groups in a long time, and I haven’t posted much on 2+2, either. This is largely because I’ve taken a lot of time off to focus on life away from poker.
Where are the best forums? Where should you post hands nowadays?
The Upswing Facebook group is probably a good place to start (there’s a public group here and a Lab members only group here). Ultimately, it’s just important to find an active community. If I was still focusing solely on poker, you would certainly find me posting somewhere.
Don’t just watch a training video every now and then. Get out there and network with other players. Not only is it a great way to make friends, networking can be a gateway to entirely different things. An obvious example is cryptocurrencies. Just think of how many poker players found out about Bitcoin in the early days because someone in their study group mentioned it.
Poker players tend to be smart people who succeed in many areas of life, and sometimes the greatest gift poker can give you might have nothing to do with the game itself. Over the years, networking with poker players has not only allowed me to improve as a poker player, but it has also led into some pretty amazing opportunities:
- I met my long-time girlfriend (who is not a poker player!) through someone I originally discussed hands with online.
- I came close to starting a business with some of my poker buddies, and know of many other poker players who went ahead and did it.
- I’ve moved to other parts of the world to live with people I met through poker.
- I’ve had poker friends visit me here in Finland from other countries.
- I’ve even received job offers through poker networking.
Put yourself out there, it’ll be worth it.
Editor’s note: Speaking of job offers, we need more writers now that Miikka is hanging up his hat. If you think you’ve got what it takes, apply here.
3. Become a good heads-up player.
One of the most overlooked aspects of MTTs is the importance of heads-up play.
Looking back on my own career, I’m proud to say:
- I got heads-up five times in live tournaments never lost.
- Out of the twelve times I made it heads-up play in a Sunday major or a big event online, I only lost twice.
- The only time I lost without a deal being made was when I had 7-7 on a flop of 7-5-3 and lost to someone’s A-K.
- I won majors on PokerStars, Full Tilt, iPoker, 888, iPoker, Entraction, MPN, and Everest, and I truly believe it was my sizable edge in the heads-up matches that led to those wins.
I didn’t list all of that to brag—well, maybe a little—but rather to point out something crucial: your heads-up results will have a dramatic impact on your bankroll and the overall success of your poker career. If my heads-up record was reversed—0/5 live, and 2/12 in online majors—one-third of my career profit would vanish into thin air. That’s over three years’ worth of grinding!
There are few tournaments in the world where you could even have a positive ROI if it was guaranteed that you never won the event. Even though practicing heads-up may seem less important than the MTT skills that you need every day, it’s absolutely crucial for your career to have an edge when you get heads-up.
Another reason to practice heads-up is that it’s probably the most difficult format to master. Playing an 80% range against 70% range, for example, is infinitely harder than playing your typical 20% versus 10% range MTT poker.
But guess what? Once you become good at heads-up, any MTT post-flop situation is going to feel like a walk in the park. You’ll also notice how hilariously bad the MTT population is at post-flop play.
It’s noteworthy that when you eventually get heads-up in that big, potentially life-changing event, that the stacks aren’t likely to be very deep. Because of this, I’d recommend mostly practicing by playing heads-up SNGs.
Also, make sure to initially play stakes where the money doesn’t matter to you. Play the lowest buy-in level that you can without losing motivation, and then start from one notch below that. Think of those matches as practice. You’re there to learn, not to make money. The moment you have an emotional reaction to anything that happens in those games is the moment you stop improving (and trust me, there’s nothing more tilt-inducing than HUSNGs).
I don’t think I’ve made much money directly from playing HUSNGs, and I’ve played thousands of them, but boy has playing them made me a lot of money in MTTs.
4. To learn how to play loose, you first need to learn how to play tight.
Of all the poker lessons I’ve ever received from players smarter than me, this is the one I’ll always remember. The year was 2008, and I was just taking my first steps at online poker. I randomly became friendly with someone who was playing high stakes no limit cash, and he mentored me for a while.
Ten years later, I can no longer recall most of the things he taught me, but one thing I do remember has played a large part in whatever success I ended up having later on: To be able to play a LAG style of poker, you must first know how to play a solid TAG game. This is also something I think applies to nearly every area of life.
Editor’s note: LAG stands for Loose-Aggressive and TAG stands for Tight-Aggressive.
For example, let’s say that you want to become the best soccer player possible. Do you think that the way to do that to practice scissor kicks or other fancy moves?
Or maybe you want to become a writer. Should you begin by channeling your inner James Joyce, and try to write a stream of consciousness-type piece using symbols, ambiguities and overtones?
Have you ever wondered why in every movie the hero has to endure immense and tedious training, dedication and self-improvement (think: Rocky) before reaching his or her goals? That’s how it works. There are no shortcuts.https://bit.ly/4-insights''Have you ever wondered why in every movie the hero has to endure immense and tedious training, dedication and self-improvement (think: Rocky) before reaching his or her goals? That’s how it works. There are no shortcuts.'' [email protected] in this: https://bit.ly/4-insights Click To Tweet
In poker we tend to despise those ultra-tight players, and I’ve certainly been guilty of this. We call them “nits” and brag about how we steal their blinds time and again without resistance. It’s certainly true that playing too tight will hurt your profits, but it’s absolutely mandatory to first master a tight style before working on adapting a LAG style.
It’s a lot like building a house. You can’t start with fancy finish work, embellishments and so on. You start by laying that plain, boring foundation. And that is what everything else is built upon. A house built otherwise will break down when the first storm hits it. And trust me, you’ll face a lot of storms in your poker career.
A great example of this would be optimal big blind defense frequency. Let’s look at a very common MTT scenario:
9-Handed Donkament with antes in play. 40BB effective stacks.
What percentage of hands should Hero play back with?
I don’t know if postflop wizards like Doug Polk actually defend 100%, but I’d bet that his defense percentage would be in the nineties, at least. Yours truly, however, typically defends around 65%. For less experienced players, the correct number might even be as low as 40%. Why? Because putting yourself in spots that you’re not comfortable with is dangerous, and can lead to hugely negative results!
A 65th percentile hand in our spot would be something like T6o or 94s. I’m confident that I can profitably defend those. But 93o? I don’t think I can make that work.
Even though I’d be getting the correct odds to defend with much weaker hands than what I’m actually defending, I’m not confident enough in my post-flop ability to try and play back with absolute garbage. There are many ways to make a profit in tournament poker, and defending 93o in the big blind can’t be high on that list.
Now, if I’m one of the best players in the world and absolutely crushing my competition, then, sure, let’s defend with trash hands. But I’m not. And I need to know my limits, and you do too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with defending as tight as 40%, here (T8o, 86s type hands would be the cutoff). Even though folding 60% against a min-raise is both very exploitable and technically a leak, it’s almost certainly the lesser of the evils if you don’t know what you’re doing.
You should figure out a range you’re comfortable defending with, no matter how small that range may be. Then, sharpen your post-flop skills using that range. Once you’ve reached a point where playing with the weakest hands in that range feels easy, congratulations—your house has its foundation.
Add another 5% or so hands and pay special attention to those when you play. Soon you’ll have built the walls of your house, to continue the analogy. Repeat this process. Lay the groundwork, make sure that you’re playing correctly with the hands that matter most, and only then start expanding your ranges.
This same process applies generally, and UpswingPoker’s free opening hand charts are a good place to start. If you don’t feel comfortable opening some of the hands on the charts, just play a tad tighter.
Poker isn’t a game of copying someone else’s strategy, no matter how successful they may be. Again, it’s a game of figuring things out for yourself. Build your game slowly and expand your horizons as you go. You can become a sick LAG later on. In order to win the most money, you first have to learn how to be a solid TAG.
Why I’m leaving poker
Lastly, I want to address the ominous-sounding “last article” comment I made at the beginning of this piece. I’ve been a poker professional my entire adult life—10.5 years, to be precise—but for a variety of reasons I’ve decided I’m done pursuing poker as a career.
There’s nothing dramatic about my decision, and the details are boring, frankly. I’m still a solid winner (~15bb/100) over my last million hands played online, and I don’t consider myself washed-up in any way. Simply put, poker was never my life’s ultimate goal, and I’ve wanted to move for some time. That time has finally come.
While I could keep writing poker articles, I just don’t think that’s a good idea. This is for a few reasons.
First of all, UpswingPoker members deserve the best talent out there, and I would feel like an ass writing strategy while no longer being a professional poker player. Even though I think I could produce good and useful content, it would just feel wrong. The shared experience of striving to be a great poker player would be missing.
Second, I no longer desire to be a “site pro.” I’ve written these articles under my own name, which has led to some three hundred Facebook friend requests, hundreds more private messages asking for advice, staking requests, and all the rest. While I sincerely appreciate everyone reaching out, I’ve lived a very public life (by poker industry standards, anyway) for the last decade. I’ve also been a coach on three different training sites, published two books, been one of the most prolific posters on two different poker forums, and gone on epic Twitter rampages—all under my own name. For a raging introvert like me, this has all been life consuming.
From now on, I no longer want to be Miikka Anttonen, Poker Player/Strategist. Writing strategy and/or coaching would be compromising.
My final wrap-up
So, that’s it from me. I’d like to thank UpswingPoker for providing me with this opportunity. They’ve given me lots of leeway during my stint writing these articles, pretty much accepted every article idea I’ve ever proposed, and been very supportive from day one. This article is a great example of their attitude—I don’t think they were too excited that my farewell piece was going to have 1000 words on internet personality tests, but they had faith in me anyway. I can only hope that I’ve met their expectations.
Editor’s note: You’ve exceeded our expectations, Miikka. It’s been a privilege having you on our team.
But most importantly, I’d like to thank everyone who has read my articles. You all have been absolutely fantastic.
If you want to read more of my poker ramblings (and donate to my retirement fund at the same time), you can buy my book at www.onceagambler.com.