Before the Battle

Planning and Preparation Before Poker Games

Poker Preparation and Planning"Every battle is won before it is ever fought." -- Sun-tzu

Some poker players just show up. They just show up and take a seat in a game. They just show up when they are dealt a hand; that hand becomes a universe unto itself. They just show up when betting on the turn -- their actions before the flop and on the flop seldom are taken in coordination with their action on the turn as part of a cohesive whole. They seldom think about how they play their current hand will reap rewards or cost them value in the future.

Most poker players seem to look at individual ring game poker hands as complete units. Once a new hand is shuffled, the previous one is dead and forgotten -- unless a bad beat story will be told about it!

I've written about how much of the game of poker takes place away from the table, or at least, away from the actual incidents currently underway. I know players who hold grudges from years ago because somebody raised their blind three times in a row. This grudge affects their play anytime they are in a game with their "enemy". That negative obsession may not turn a player into a loser overall, but it is one battle lost.

The Sun-tzu quote leading this article is famous and makes sense to most people when they think of it in terms of combat. Planning, preparation, fighting on friendly ground, numerical and tactical superiority... all these things can obviously lead to victory before a shot is even fired. Plan on showing up with 1000 soldiers when your opponent only has twelve, and the battle is already won. This is not to say every war is won before it is fought, just that unit of time known as a "battle".

While it is not hard to see the sense in Sun-tzu's comment when thinking of a battle, somehow the basic concept eludes a large number of poker players. While battles are fought on a mega-scale, poker games are similarly complex. There are a ton of tactical little thingees we can do, or not do, in games and hands we play in. And, we are all naturally better at certain things than we are at others. Anyone with any poker talent at all will excel at some things.

I was reminded of this by an email from John P. this week. He wrote: "After having written on so many aspects of poker, have you yet commented that we all of us have varied degrees of talent, whatever the endeavor, and that it is of great importance to know those one or two or three or four or more the gods have granted to us to play poker in a winning way, and that it is best to use them at full throttle leaving the rest to the rest?"

While I can see validity in what John wrote, especially in understanding our own gifts, I don't agree with the conclusion. Full throttle use of our best skills can lead to limited success, but it is in struggling to improve our weaknesses where true ability flowers.

Abraham Lincoln wrote: "Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does not do well. With the former, his heart is in his work; and he will do twice as much of it with less fatigue. The latter performs a little imperfectly, looks at it in disgust, turns from it, and imagines himself exceedingly tired. The little he has done, comes to nothing, for want of finishing."

What we need to attack, before the battle, are those things we do imperfectly. The things we suck at. The things that are hard and tiring. Often these will be very unsexy tasks in general -- and they will be especially unsexy to us! These unsexy things will differ for each of us, because we all excel (and suck) in different ways. But this is where many critical battles are fought. Just because something is annoying or tiring to you doesn't mean that you can turn away from it. If you only bring the equivalent of twelve soldiers to some aspect of the battle, and your opponent has 1000, you are doomed for that aspect of the game.

Battles are not wars, but that is what they add up to. You do not have to win every battle, but when you lose, avoiding slaughter is a good thing.

More of Sun-tzu on The Art of Poker and Poker Structure