What better time to discuss the beauty of goals with the European Championship in full swing?

  • Poker goals, that is…
     
  • Not the ‘ball in net’ kind –
     
  • Sorry for the tease.  

Right up there, with bankroll management, hand-reading, and work- ethic, goal setting is a vital component of poker success. 

  • No goals, means, no direction. 

Suddenly you're Alice falling blindly down the Wonderland rabbit hole. Like plummeting to your doom in dark, worm-ridden holes? No? Didn’t think so. 

Goals are a necessary part of success. Bill Copeland’s clever (and timely) football analogy sums this up rather nicely: 

“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.” - Bill Copeland.

But what makes a good goal, and how do you set and achieve them effectively? 

  • Well, in this article, we'll look at both what goals are and how to set them effectively.
     
  • We'll also break down some poker-specific goals and look at how we can achieve them at the tables.

Table of Contents

What Is a Goal?

Setting Your Poker GoalsSetting Your Poker Goals

In its simplest terms, a goal is a desired outcome. Working in either the short or long term, they can be as general as the following – 

  1. "I want to lose weight". 
  2. Or more specific like, “I want to lose 10 kilos by Christmas.”

A good goal is both as challenging and rewarding as it is specific. 

  • "I want to move up to X stake," or “I want to play 30,000 hands in a month" are reasonable, feasible goals.

General goals are okay, but more specific objectives are typically better (which we will look at later). But being too specific can undermine the whole process. 

Compare the following goals:

The latter is far less specific. But it's a way better goal since it’s an ongoing target that is far more plausible.  An even better plan might be something like, “I want to build a strong poker resume over the next five years.”

These factors are part of a famous goal-setting concept attributed to Peter Drucker. 

In it, Drucker suggested that goals should be S.M.A.R.T, or, more precisely – 

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Incidentally, my own goal of marrying Natalie Portman at some point before I die is a perfect example of a SMART goal… Look out, Millepied! I'm playing the long game!

Poker Goal Measurability

Goal setting is excellent, but goals are void without an effective way to monitor them. 

Tracking your progress is pretty easy sometimes – 

  • Wanting to move up to NL50 by Christmas.
  • Or by winning $500 in a month.

These goals are easy to follow, for example. But that's not always the case with more ambiguous goals, especially when we apply them to poker.

 Poker Goals MeasurabilityPoker Goals Measurability

Let’s say you know you make too many undisciplined river calls. You decide that a logical ‘goal’ would be to work on folding rivers more often over the next month. 

  • Intuitively, this seems to make a lot of sense while following the principles of S.M.A.R.T too.

Digging a little deeper, though, you’ll find that there are problems regarding this goal’s measurability within poker.

  • As well as being hard to track without a HUD, exactly how much ‘more’ is correct? Once more? 5% more? 50% more? 
  • Are we going to consider pot size or not? 
  • And how much is too much?! 

Additionally, the nature of poker means that human factors such as confirmation bias or results orientation can skew things further. Both can lead to a biased opinion about how much you’re folding rivers - In reality, it’s easy to recall a couple of times you folded to use as justification for a loose call you want to make. Or completely forget a call was wrong if caught that bluff and the chips come your way on one particular occasion. 

Moreover, without an apt way to monitor your progress, pursuing your goal could result in an over-correction. This situation could cause a different and potentially more destructive change in your overall poker strategy. 

In this example, our concerns about over-calling could easily lead to over-folding

  • So, instead of fixing a problem, you’ve just given it a different outfit! 

So, what does this mean? 

Well, the key takeaway is to ensure that your poker goals are strategically sound. You have to have a practical way to measure them.

Saying “my goal is to fold more on the river” isn’t comprehensive enough. We could achieve this by folding every river, which would clearly be a strategic disaster.

  • In reality, setting vague goals like, ‘I don’t want to call rivers too much,’ is about as helpful as saying ‘I want to play rivers perfectly’.
     
  • It’s a decent idea, but, unfortunately, poker (and life) is way more complicated than just uttering what you want.  

Let’s leave the positive affirmations to the philosophers. They can replace a successful goal-setting formula!

In this example, the player should get a HUD to study their game to identify where they are calling too much. They should also break down ‘calling correctly’ into the relevant steps. We’ll look at this in a minute. 

Poker Goal - Baby Steps

Poker Goals  - Baby StepsPoker Goals  - Baby Steps     

If I said, your goal was to read this article in 10 minutes. Your strategy would be pretty straightforward: Pick it up and begin reading. Simple, right?

But let’s say I’d given you a Russian, Arabic, or High Valerian version (or some other language you don’t already know). You'd now need to learn a new language before you could read the article. 

  • So, your action plan would need to become far more complicated even though your goal hasn’t changed. 

You can read this because you’ve already perfected the skills necessary to do so. Your language skills are life’s fundamentals, as hand reading and poker maths are poker’s. 

  • Until you perfect the basics, you won’t be able to progress to the more advanced stuff.

This advice might seem like common sense, but it’s so tempting to skip steps. 

After all, who wants to sit studying boring pot odd maths when you could be learning how to triple-barrel- bluff like a sexy poker ninja?

Whether it’s arrogance or pride, there’ something disheartening and embarrassing about going back to basics. Nobody wants to be the adult splashing around in a swimming class full of children.

But the truth is, you’ll work a lot harder and progress far more slowly if you try to skip the basics. 

These truths are both the second and fourth principal of S.M.A.R.T. 

Cut the ego, and make sure your goals are attainable and realistic. 

Setting Strong Fundamental Goals

Setting Strong Fundamental GoalsSetting Strong Fundamental Goals

Since the start of lockdown and the closure of the casinos, I found myself in China, teaching English to Chinese toddlers. This experience has been eye-opening. It has hammered home the value of revolving your goals around perfecting the basics.

Since tones are so essential In Chinese, Chinese people rarely end a word with a consonant sound. As a result, children tend to add extra vowels sound to the end of their English consonants. 

  • If this isn’t corrected when the children are learning the consonant sounds at the A-B-C level, it contaminates the rest of their speech. It causes them to pronounce words such as ‘pink’ and ‘foot’ like ‘pink-a’ and ‘foot-a’.  

This mispronunciation is incredibility hard to correct later. But most parents still try to fix it as they go, instead of returning to the ABC level and ironing out the mistakes. 

It’s like juggling and riding a unicycle on a tightrope simultaneously. It’s far more challenging than learning each skill individually, and it’s what clowns do! 

  • This same contamination concept is typically true of poker goals too. 

Let’s look again at the ‘calling rivers too much’ example to illustrate what I mean. 

Achieving the goal of correcting calling frequencies relies on a solid understanding of some basic skills. (More specifically, we are referring to those surrounding pot odds and hand combinations). 

To map it out would look something like this:

Goal: Improve River Calling Frequencies 

Steps:

  1. Learn pot odds and hand combination. 
  2. Study the correct calling frequency theories. 
  3. Analyse your own hands to identify weaknesses. 
  4. Play some hands to practice your theories and improve your skills. 
  5. Evaluate your progress. 
  6. Repeat steps 3-6.

To achieve our goal, we must break it down into a series of more straightforward steps and then follow them in order. 

Remember, however tempting it is to try to skip a step to fast track your progress, it’s detrimental to your overall progress. 

You can only fix your calling frequencies in the example above by gaining a solid grasp of pot-odds and hand reading fundamentals.

Working on your river calling frequencies without solid fundamentals is essentially guessing. And guessing can be awfully expensive at the poker table. 

Setting Effective Poker Goals

When it comes to setting poker goals, you are the key.  A poker coach can help you with strategic direction.

But for the most part, your goals will be centred around the following:

  • Where your game is now
  • Your poker aspirations
  • What else you have going on in your life

Most people tend to avoid broadcasting their weaknesses and insecurities to the world (#instagramfilters). Nobody knows you and your shortfalls better than you. 

Oh, except Derren Brown, that NLP guy, he undoubtedly knows! But he doesn't count because he's magic. Damn it! Get out of my head Derren! 

Anyway, NLP voodoo aside, the point I’m making here is that nobody is in a  better position to set your poker goals than you are. 

So long as you can be honest, realistic, and self-critical, of course. Setting Effective Poker GoalsSetting Effective Poker Goals

Here's the recipe for setting an attainable poker goal:

  1. Decide what your long term ambitions are. 
    1. What do you want to achieve? 
    2. Are you striving for poker domination, a newbie looking to learn the basics for a Friday night homegame?
    3. Or are you a regular player looking to minimise your losses  break even?
       
  2. Where are you now?
    1. Be as honest as you can in assessing your game. It's critical not to big yourself up here.
    2. It’s way better to underestimate your current skill level than to kid yourself you're a better player than you are.

Downplaying your skill-set will help you get off to a great start. You’ll find things a little easier initially, which will do wonders for your confidence and dedication.

Overestimating your ability can leave you with a lot of ground to make up.

This gulf is likely to be demoralising and frustrating, making you far more likely to throw in the towel. 

Or, worse, you may be tempted to ignore holes in your fundamentals that hinder your progress. (Just like my Chinese students’ ‘pink-a' and 'foot-a’).

  1. Figure out what you need to do to get there.
    This step is pretty self-explanatory. Study the appropriate theory relevant to the area you want to improve. Identify your weaknesses and focus areas.
     
  2. Write an action plan to achieve your goal.
    Write realistic and small steps that help you move towards your goal.
     
  3. Make it trackable. 
    Find a way to monitor your progress (win-rates are useful for this, assuming you can get a large enough sample). If you decide to use win-rates, make sure you include ‘understanding variance as an early action step in your plan.
     
  4. Set a time period.
    Set a realistic time period for achieving this goal. 

Remember, when it comes to goals, the following is true – 

  • A losing player actively pursuing the goal of breaking even is in a way better position than an un-driven player who is already a breakeven or small winning player. 

A dedicated player is far more likely to develop a range of good habits that will solidify their fundamentals. These tools will allow them to progress beyond their unmotivated opponent.

Making a plan is the first step to improving.

Since you’ve come this far, I wish you the best in achieving your poker goals!
 

About the Author
By
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.
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