Updated on August 22, 2023

What separates the fish from the sharks? 

The weak from the chaff? 
The pros from the … erm potatoes…?

Unsure? Well, let’s take a look a look at a few qualities that set great players apart from the rest of us mere mortals.

Top 5 Skills that Make a Poker Player Stand Out:

1: Adaptability

Poker is unlike most other sports because it is universally accessible at all levels. 

Take a sport like football, tennis, or boxing, for example. Unless you’re a celebrity or win some kind of competition, battling the elite requires an abundance of the following:

  • Natural talent
  • Years of training
  • Lots and lots of luck

For most of us, it’s just not on the table. 

But, in poker, tangling with the best is just a matter of finding a buy-in. This accessibility adds a great deal of David vs Goliath type fairy-tale to the game. 

That said, it leads to huge gulfs in class that are unique to poker.  

But, all sports have skill gaps.

Well, yeah. While there are undeniably skill differences among any sports professionals, these are far smaller than they are in poker.

  • Complete beginners can compete at an elite level if they have the money to enter the game. 

Look at tennis, for example. It would be near impossible for a complete amateur to win a tennis match against a pro. But in poker, a newbie could beat the best in the world if the cards fell in their favour. You see this a decent amount in poker tournaments

This skill gap in poker can make some hands extremely tough to navigate because:

  1. It’s hard to gauge what level someone is playing at by looks alone.
  2. You can find yourself in confusing multi-way pots with a combination of weak and strong players. 

The best players in the world are those that can grade their opponents and adjust to them quickly.

The best players in the world are adaptable.

A GTO approach to poker negates the need to adapt to each individual (since it is balanced). But being able to move away from a GTO style to exploit weaker players can be very lucrative. 

This ability comes in very handy, especially since many weaker players won’t know how to adjust. And they probably aren’t going to be around for the ‘long term’.

They read and adjust to players faster than the rest of us. 

2: Storytelling

Great poker players are fantastic storytellers – and not only bad beat stories either!

Top players tend not to bother with those unless it’s particularly gross, of course. In which case, feel free to tweet about it at #PleaseDontNobodyCares.com.

  • When referring to ‘storytellers’, we mean an elite player’s ability to construct believable betting lines and sizings. This scenario is especially true when bluffing.

In many ways, a story is all a poker hand is: 

  • It has a clear beginning, middle and end.
  • There’s a Hero and Villain.
  • You spend the whole time on a journey whose direction changes dramatically as the story (or hand) progresses.

There might not be any wizards or goblins, but it’s a story, nonetheless. 

Each street marks a new chapter. Like great writers, top players can link these together to form coherent and believable stories.

Smart players are coherent storytellersSmart players are coherent storytellers

And this methodical process isn’t accidental. 

One of the things that separates elite payers from the rest is their awareness of the stories they are telling.  Anyone can try to represent the nuts on a turn or river. 

But an elite player will only do so if it matches the existing narrative of the hand. 

Likewise, great players are able to read other players’ stories too. They will pick off bluffs for fun. And this skill makes them so difficult to combat. 

If you want to bluff a good player, you should evaluate your story first.  

Remember, a poorly constructed bluff is like a novel with a dodgy chapter. 

Smart people aren’t going to buy it! 

3: Obsessive Dedication

As he would tell you himself, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the most naturally gifted football player. Yes, he’s pretty good.

But his status as one of the best (if not the best) is likely the result of his obsessive and determined personality.

  • It results in a relentless work ethic and hyper-competitiveness. 

According to Evra, one of Ronaldo’s teammates at Man United, Ronaldo once lost a game of ping-pong to Rio Ferdinand. Devastated, he bought a table and practised for weeks until he was good enough to beat Ferdinand in a rematch – which he did. 

There are undoubtedly more naturally gifted players who didn’t have the same kind of drive as Ronaldo. So, they failed to reach their full potential as a result. 

Long gone are the days when natural talent could carry you to the top in poker. The games are just too tough these days. Those at the pinnacle are brilliant GTO wizards who have spent countless hours in the lab. 

They are fuelled by Adderall, Redbull, and a raw desire to be the best.  

They run hand simulations at breakfast and review bet sizes with supper. They are the Ronaldos of poker.  

Relentless work ethic and hyper-competitivenessRelentless work ethic and hyper-competitiveness

If you want to be an elite player, you have to be wholly dedicated to being the best. If you’re not, it won’t happen. 

4: Study Smart

Everyone knows that discipline is a critical part of poker success. To a large extent, your success is proportionate to how good you are at fixing your most common leaks. 

When hitting the lab, many players typically dedicate the bulk of their time to the biggest pots of the session. It seems logical as this is where the most money changed hands and where a big mistake can be most expensive. 

  • Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of emotion tied to big pots. 

So, focusing on them also makes studying something typically pretty dull a little more exciting. 

This practice isn't necessarily the best course of action, though.

“Big Pot, Shmig Pots”

A big mistake here can indeed be costly. But, in reality, most big pots are consequences of the following:

  • Poor discipline
  • Coolers
  • Running into the top of someone's range when bluffing

Poor discipline is more of a mental game leak. So, we can't fix it by reviewing hands. We usually know our mistakes are errors when we make them. (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a disciplinary problem). 

Nor can we do much about cooler hands or our opponent rivering the nuts. We’re left tossing chips around like a fast-food kitchen team in a lunchtime flash sale. 

Moreover, the vast majority of hands result in small to medium-sized pots. These are often overlooked during study. But, in reality, the accumulation of habitual mistakes in small pots can quickly outweigh the losses of a few monster pots.

Look at it this way. Drinking two beers a night is more expensive and detrimental to your health than throwing six pints back after a week of sobriety. 

  • But it's the bigger binge and subsequent hangover that probably gets all the attention.

So, How Do I study? 

Great players study smart. They understand the importance of small, common spots and spend a lot of time working on them. 

Although cool and interesting spots are typically more fun to study, they are usually pretty arbitrary. So, the knowledge gained from studying them isn’t going to be useful very often. 

  • This process applies when studying GTO too. It's more beneficial to look for generalised patterns than the nuances of a rare specific spot.

If you want to join the elite, try employing a more "lean Six Sigma" approach to your study.

Focusing on perfecting the most common spots is how good players study.

5: Health and Fitness

As the standard of poker has increased, so too has the image of a typical pro. 
Healthy Lifestyle Boosts Poker SkillsHealthy Lifestyle Boosts Poker Skills

Cliches of the ‘old school’ cowboy/gangster pros have been replaced with a new breed of younger, healthier, number-crunching players. 

Table-side cigars and tumblers of whiskey have been replaced with bags of trail mix and tall glasses of good old H2O.  

And it makes a lot of sense. There’s a tonne of science linking the following with boosts in your overall concentration and energy levels:

  • A healthy diet
  • A consistent sleep pattern
  • A physically fit body

These are like cheat codes in a ‘mind sport’ like poker.

So, it’s no coincidence that most top pros seem to be among the most in shape. 

Granted, the money and freedom available to the elite make both hitting the gym and eating well a lot easier. But it’s a voluntary choice that these players made (probably made before they got to the top).

A healthy lifestyle develops good discipline and consistency skills that naturally assimilate to the tables. And the mental and emotional benefits that come with a healthier lifestyle help you play your A-game for longer. 

This extra endurance helps with the following:

  • Reducing the number of mistakes you make
  • Dealing with tilt more effectively
  • Being alert enough to capitalise on your opponents’ shortfalls. 

These edges can make a massive difference in the competitive world of poker. 

The importance of a healthy lifestyle may seem obvious. But it’s also often overlooked in a sport where you spend most of your time sitting on your derriere. 

  • Improving your overall health can help you get to the next level.

So, there you have it! Five skills that separate the elite from the mediocre. 

We hope they helped, and good luck on your way to the top!

Originally Published on August 6, 2021

Dan O’Callaghan is a professional poker player who got his start in the online poker world as danshreddies. He has racked up over $290K in online earnings.