The Kunta Kinte of Poker Skills

Self-Control - Poker Discipline

Poker Discipline"There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."
-- AJ Muste

Playing winning poker is a bit like a tree, everything begins at the roots and branches out from there. Unfortunately few players realize this, so when a person identifies a problem, too often they hack away at the branches, instead of going to the roots.

In written storytelling, sometimes writers develop writer's block -- they just can't figure what to do next. Experienced writers though realize that the problem is not right "there" where they are blocked, but at some point earlier in their story. Driving on the Los Angeles freeways, you sometimes run into a traffic jam. However, your problem as a driver is almost always not the jam itself, but one stemming from "roots" of poor route planning, poor monitoring of radio traffic channels, and so on. Poker is very much the same.

Force yourself someday to listen to bad beat stories. Most bad beat stories involve a player making a mistake -- frequently it's checking the flop with the aim to checkraise. While the storyteller's point is the "bad beat", what they should be focusing on the root of the beat, a risky or incorrect play early in the hand.

Listen when someone discusses a flaw in his or her game. If you analyze the flaw objectively, the person's problem is almost always not the apparent, surface flaw. The true problem exists one or two or ten steps earlier in the player's overall game.

Winning players should constantly evaluate their play -- what they do well, what they do merely adequately, what they do below average, and possible ways to improve on all three. One great thing about poker is there are so many variables, so many skills and tactics we can tinker with to attempt to get a better result. But all these stem from one great root.

Some people have called game selection, or table selection, the most important of all poker skills. Find the game most suited to your abilities, play in it, and beat it. Okay, that's important, but even that's trivial compared to the key root of winning poker.

The very most important skill a player needs to manage is not math, it's not reading opponents, it's not good starting hand selection, it's not a solid game plan, it's... self-control!

It doesn't do you any damn good at all if you know you shouldn't play above your bankroll, if you then do; it's no good to know you shouldn't tilt, if you then do; it's no good to know you shouldn't play 72o in Holdem, if you do anyway; it's no good to know your play deteriorates to the point that you are a losing player after nine consecutive hours, if you continue to play after that time; and on and on and on...

Poker isn't just a game of the moment. When you deal with regular opponents, you should be setting the groundwork for many strategic plays minutes, hours and even months before you pull the trigger on them. Likewise, every action you are doing now should be the result of a solid foundation of previous actions. Each step along a ladder that leads you to an action should be taken with self-control and a proper attitude. Play a game or games you are good at, have a well-considered basic strategy, have as a goal that you want to be a winning payer, find a limit you are adequately bankrolled for, play hands with a positive expectation, keep your butt in the seat only so long as you play nearly optimally, select individual games that suit you, don't let one day's poor results allow your emotions to put you on tilt, and so on. With these in place, each individual action you then take will be rooted in a solid, sensible foundation.

All other poker skills, tactics and strategies run through discipline. Every bit of winning strategy and brilliant philosophy must be applied or it's almost worthless. No other knowledge matters if you don't practice self-discipline and use what you know. There is no way to discipline. Discipline is the way.

If you want to be a successful, reasonably happy player, work on your self-control first -- and I mean work on it first every single day. Nothing compares.

More on Self-Control, Poker Ego, the Trinity of Poker and Poker Structure