“What separates a decent poker player from a great one?”
I get asked this question often. There are a ton of valid answers, but I think 5 in particular stand out on the journey to poker success.
In this article, I’ll break down the top 5 personality traits that correlate to more success at the table. These are ranked in order of importance; hold tight for number 1!
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Are you surprised intelligence is back at number 5? There is a reason for it.
Given the huge amount of learning resources available to new players in today’s game, it is possible to become a good player without exceptional intelligence.
Countless key strategic concepts are explained in detail all over the internet, particularly in NLHE, which makes improving your game as easy as typing in a Google search.
That said, there is certainly a correlation between intelligence and skill in poker. Many of the most successful players have impressive academic backgrounds: Pratyush Buddiga, Cate Hall and Vanessa Selbst just to name a few.
However, as the rest of this list will show, it takes more than just pure intelligence to rise to the top of the game.
4. Natural Poker Ability
There are a number of players in the poker world who have achieved great success mainly through natural ability. For the most part, this applies to those who came up before the online poker boom like Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson and Stu Unger.
There have also been more recent cases of success in poker through natural ability; Isildur1 (Viktor Blom) notoriously jumped straight into the highest stakes online and seemed to learn through trial and error.
However, in the competitive environment that is poker today, the best players are constantly working on their game. You are likely to fall behind your competition if you aren’t doing the same.
3. Money Management
It may sound obvious, but you must manage your money well in order to make it in poker. You have to treat poker as a business, both in terms of bankroll management and general lifestyle spending.
Unfortunately poker players don’t have the best reputation for being frugal with their money. Tournament players are particularly susceptible to this as they can make life changing money overnight with a single score. Too often, these tournament players go on an ill-advised spending spree and before they know it, their winnings are gone.
Indeed, being sensible with money is crucial if you want longevity in poker.
2. Ability to Deal with Adversity
Losing is a big part of poker. This quote from mental game coach Tommy Angelo has stuck with me since hearing it:
There are going to be times when you make all the right decisions, but still lose. The mark of a great player is staying motivated and even-keeled when the cards aren’t running in your favor.
I went on a $1,700,000 downswing a couple of years back and that downswing actually motivated me to stay focused in spite of the circumstances. It’s easy to feel deflated when your graph is going the wrong way, but that’s the time you need to stay motivated most.
This actually presents an opportunity to gain a notable advantage over the competition. When other players are tilting and playing badly, remaining emotionally stable and bringing your ‘A’ game will keep you on the right track (see: How to Be Smart About Losing Sessions).
Discipline is the most important trait a poker player can possess. It can help you make good folds when frustrated, put in more study time and leave the table when the game isn’t worth playing.
It is no coincidence that extremely disciplined players like Ben Sulsky and Ike Haxton have remained at the top of poker for such a long time. Despite achieving great success, they continued to study the game and develop their strategies.
You can remain disciplined by regularly self-evaluating your actions. Ask yourself if what you are doing is maximizing your opportunity for success.
(Try to remain as objective as possible when self-evaluating.)
The Bonus Trait (Is One You Can’t Control)
There is one other quality that plays a huge role in poker success: luck.
I didn’t include this on the official list because it isn’t within our control, but it is worth a mention as it definitely plays its part.
Luck has varying influence over a poker player’s success depending on what game they play. If you are a tournament player, where there are large fields and top-heavy payout structures, you will need to be lucky in order to win. Skill is obviously important, but luck is a requirement with so much variance.
Even in cash games, where luck plays less of a role, a meteoric rise through the stakes is a lot easier with luck on your side.
It is important to acknowledge this reality; be humble and appreciative of when luck favors you rather than viewing yourself as a poker BEST just because you catch a big score.