Winning, Losing, and/or Learning. Pick Two.

Learning to learn from your mistakes at the tables

Poker is chockfull of bad beats, coolers, and variance. This happens to you, it happens to me, it happens to everyone. I don’t care if your name is Danny Negreanu or Danny Nobody—you will lose hands. Lots and lots of hands.

Separating actual bad play and decisions (that you control) from just the variance of the game (that you can’t control) can be challenging for a new player. But it’s something you need to work on. You can lose and whine, or you can lose and learn. Let me explain…

Most winning players got to be profitable by working on their game. And this means finding leaks, mistakes, and errors they made—and then plugging those leaks. And this process never ends. Even the best players in the world are continually striving to get better. Their leaks are much smaller and nuanced than those of a beginner, but the process is the same: play a session, write down key losing hands, review those hands away from the table, and work on plugging any leaks uncovered.

I’m a very consistent winning player, and yet I still jot down 4-5 hands every single session I played in which I’ve done something wrong. Which means every single session I play, period.

For example, here’s a simple one taken directly from my notes from a tough $100NL online game I was recently in:

“OR AKo MP. LAg V BTN CC. SB, BB F. Cbet Q-7-7r. V C. Cbet 2/3 pot on 3rd 7 T. V tank-Shove. F.”

This (somewhat cryptic) code translates to:

  • I open-raised with an offsuit Ace-King in middle position.
  • A loose-aggressive villain on the button cold calls.
  • •Both small and big blind fold.
  • I continuation bet on a flop of Q-7-7 rainbow.
  • Villain calls again.
  • On turn of third 7, I fire a third barrel equal to 2/3’s the size of the pot.
  • Villain tanks for a while then shoves all-in.
  • I fold.

I lost a modest chunk of my stack on this hand. Folding to the shove was the correct play, but what about the turn cbet I made. Was this OK or not? Uh, no. Was I going to get worse hands to call? Better hands to fold? Probably no and no, so c-betting the second barrel on the turn was, frankly, a spew of money. Check-calling there might have been the better move. Or, even better, just check-folding.

I review lots of these types of hands after every session—sometimes days later—looking for mistakes I made vs. situations in which I got unlucky (or lucky). I do this by imagining it wasn’t me that played the hand, but instead, it was played by a student of mine and I am probing for weaknesses and leaks I want to plug in their game. More often than not I find a few hands I got unlucky with. I also find quite a few where I could have done a few things better and squeezed a little more EV out. Oh, and now and then I find big ugly mistakes I made.

Losing a hand is never fun, especially upon review when you discover that you did something wrong that caused the loss. But this is okay. The secret is to not beat yourself up over the result. You can’t go back in time and take a do-over to correct the mistake– but you can, however, work to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Don’t think of losses caused by mistakes as something you have to suffer or get over; instead, think of them as valuable learning opportunities. There’s gold in them thar postmortems.

Similarly, don’t get a big head with your winning hands either, thinking you are some kind of wonder of the earth just because you took down a big pot. Review those winning hands, too, and look for things you did wrong or could improve upon. I’m sometimes surprised to discover that I won a hand I shouldn’t have even been involved in when I go back over the details. Or that I lost out on extra value by not playing a hand optimally. Or totally misread my opponent. Or…

…well, you get the point. The secret in these review sessions is to be honest with yourself. Review your big wins and losses, fix the mistakes, amplify the positive things you did– and your overall expected value will improve the next time you play.

The Bottom Line: Don’t think in terms of wins and losses. Instead, try to think in terms of wins and learns.


Exceptional Poker — Learn. Master. Crush.

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2 thoughts on “Winning, Losing, and/or Learning. Pick Two.

  1. Brings to mind a comment from a business client: “There have been times in my life when I’ve learned a lot and times when I’ve made a lot of money. But rarely both at the same times.”