Whether your goal is poker domination or you’re simply a losing player looking to break even, poker skills are the muscles needed to get you there. 

This Top 10 list could help turn a losing record as a poker player into a winning one. 

Here are ten of my top tips to become a more skilled poker player.  Firstly, we’ll start by understanding why you need to learn.

1: Understand Why You Need to Learn

A few years ago, I tried to learn the guitar. I played for about 3 minutes and stopped because the strings had torn the skin off my fingertips. I didn’t pick my guitar up again until a week later when I ‘accidentally’ dropped it downstairs moving home.

My brief guitar career highlighted a simple fact: 

  • Being bad at something sucks. It’s demoralising, frustrating and embarrassing. 

Understand Why You Need to Learn

It’s way worse to be bad at poker than guitar too. Incompetence at the tables can hinder you both mentally and financially. This scenario doesn’t happen with guitar, piano, Jenga, French or whatever else.

And to make matters worse, the learning curve is also different. A one-fingered rendition of ‘Three Blind Mice’ is unlikely to get anyone’s juices flowing. But each attempt is likely to increase your overall skill level. 

This situation isn’t the case with poker. In fact, there’s no guarantee that time spent at the poker tables will improve your ability at all. 

  • It’s easy to tilt and adopt bad habits that make you even worse than ever before. 

There’s no way around it: 

  • Playing with a low skill level is going to cost you money. 
  • If you want to win, you have to study. Simple.

2: Be Honest with Yourself

Whereas it’s totally fine to need to improve, delusion about your own skill level is destructive. Poker is riddled with arrogant players that over-estimate their ability

They blame losing on bad luck, bad card distributions, or their opponents making mistakes. They refuse to take criticism. These players are doomed. 

Be Honest with YourselfBe Honest with Yourself

Self-awareness is one of the more underestimated skills in poker. It takes a great deal of class to acknowledge your own inadequacies and strive for better. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to lie to yourself than it is to commit effort to improving. 

Being able to stay humble and self-aware is a vital component of poker success

Remember, there are two types of low skilled player – 

  1. Firstly, those players who have self-awareness about where and how they need to improve.
  2. Secondly, those who don’t. 

Don’t be the latter. 

3: Select your Games with Care

Just as it’s critical to acknowledge your own ability, it’s vital to understand that of your opponents. Nowhere is this more essential than in game selection.  You should pick a speciality and dedicate yourself to learning the format.  

The richest poker players are those that have the ability to find the best games and master a single variant. 

Select your Games with Care

Game selection is a little easier in cash games than MTTs for the following reasons:

  1. You can choose your table seat.
  2. You can choose your table stake.
  3. Get up and leave whenever you find yourself at a difficult table (even if ego prevents some players from doing so!). 

Strictly speaking, it’s better to have a 10% ROI at $5 stake than a -2% at $50 games. But if you’re playing casually, you might decide that playing a –EV game is worth the thrill of the chase. 

In reality though, you’re going to have more success playing weaker players than you. 

Know your level and stick to it wherever you can. 

4: Keep a Separate Life Roll

Bankroll management is like the pre-flight safety check for a skydiver. Forget, and you’ll be ruined when you splat on the ground! 

  • The thing to remember about poker is that the best players don’t always win

Good winning players can go on losing streaks that last months (even years for some MTT players). 

  • You have to manage your bankroll in a way that can ride the downswings.  
  • Your poker bankroll shouldn’t be your net worth

If you want to play full time, it’s recommended to have at least 6-12 months’ expenses saved in addition to your poker bankroll. 

Use Buy-ins to Manage Your BankrollUse Buy-ins to Manage Your Bankroll

This number might sound excessive. But keeping a separate ‘life roll’ ensures that you won’t ruin your livelihood at the tables. 

  • It can help you play better, too, by desensitising you to the economic swings of the game. You’ll be less results-orientated and make better decisions as a consequence. 

If poker is just a hobby,  you can be more aggressive with your bankroll. But it would be best if you kept it separate from your life roll.

5: Understand Variance

Upswings are the best thing in poker. When they do come around, it can be easy to feel like they’ll never end. But they do. 

  • Variance can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. 

Whereas people are vocal in blaming variance for a downswing, many fail to do so when up-swinging. It’s easy (and comforting) to think you’re winning simply because of your skill level. But it’s critical to stay grounded. 

Treat yourself a little when winning. But understand that an upswing won’t last forever. So, maintain your bankroll discipline and minimise lavish impulsive purchases and high-risk shot-taking. 

Learning to appreciate your upswings will also help you gain a sense of perspective when you’re down-swinging. 

This understanding can make running bad far easier to deal with mentally. 

6: Study When You’re Winning

You should be hitting the lab when winning. Although your upswing is most likely the result of good play, that isn’t necessarily true. 

  • It’s easy to win if you’re running hot. 

Study When You’re Winning

Upswings that are the result of solid play are an excellent opportunity to use as a learning tool. 

  • How has your play differed since down-swinging? 
  • Do you run overaggressive bluffs or fold too much when you’re losing? 

Comparing the differences in your play is a worthwhile way to identify which parts of your strategies are working and which aren’t. 

As a result, you’ll learn how to maximise your upswings and reduce the severity of your downswings.  

7: Listen to Your Instincts

We have little to no control over so many complex and incredible parts about being human – 

  • Our reflexes
  • Our heartbeat
  • Our flight or fight reaction

In the book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, the author talks about human instincts and our innate sense of right and wrong. 

Millions of years of evolution have given us the ability to instinctively know when something doesn’t feel right. This sensation especially kicks in in high-stress situations. 

  • The same instincts come into play when we play poker.

Unfortunately, human nature likes closure: 

  • If we think we’re being cheated on, we look for proof.
  • If we get fired, we want to know why.
  • If we’re watching a horror movie, we need to find out how it ends.

By extension, players subconsciously prefer to call, lose, and find out they were right than fold and never know. 

In the good old days of the ‘Poker After Dark’, Daniel Negreanu was famous for calling when he knew he was beat.

Remember, poker is as much about minimising your losses as maximising your gains.

 So, if your gut is telling you to fold, make a hero call, or give up on an elaborate bluff, it might be a good idea to listen. 

Your subconscious is way more observant than you could ever be. 

  • Great players listen to their gut

8: Improve Your Poker Maths

Understanding the maths of poker is a vital component of winning.  One of the first poker math rules most new players learn is how to work out their odds of improving. 

Count your outs, multiply it by 2 and then again by however many streets you have. So, a flush draw on the flop has 9 ‘outs’, with two cards to come. A pocket pair has 2 outs to improve after the flop. 

  • Flop Flush draw:   (9 outs x 2 streets) x2 = 36%
  • Flop Pocket Pair:  (2 outs x 2 streets) x2 = 8%

Improve Your Poker Maths

This knowledge is a good start, but that is all it is. Although it is sort of accurate, it doesn’t factor in things like the following – 

  • Back door flush draws (4%)
  • Reverse implied odds
  • How often you’ll have to fold the turn (and not get to realise all your equity)
  • Nor does it factor in how to work out your pot odds and weigh the two together. 

Going into poker maths would need an entire article series. But the takeaway here is that you need to work on your poker maths if you want to win. 

There are many articles dealing with poker maths in this magazine. 

But  in the meantime, here are some pot odd cheat references to learn:

  • Vs a pot-sized bet, you have 2:1 odds and need 33% equity. 
  • Half pot: you have 3:1 and need to 25%. 
  • Defending your BB against a min-raise pre ante, you need 22%   

9: Learn How You Tilt 

I learned the importance of tilt management by watching people ruin their bankrolls.  One example that stands out involves a player who won just under 600k Euros, coming second in a tournament. 

He’d been 3-outed for the win a couple of hands before he bust. So, on his way to the cage, he threw 1,000 Euros on blackjack to blow off steam. He was still there an hour later. He was deep in the hole and playing 25k a hand. 

He tilted the lot away. 

Learn How You Tilt

  • Tilt affects everyone differently. 
  • Most people either get frustrated and angry or over-aggressive

Continuing to play is the thing that most people do wrong when they are tilting.

Part of being self-aware is understanding how you tilt and how to recognise the warning signs. Poker is as much about minimising your losses as it is about maximising your gains. 

Playing on tilt is a massive leak. 

So many great players are now working regular jobs that they hate. They couldn’t control their emotions and quit when they were tilting. 

  • Learn how you tilt.
  • Recognize the signs.
  • Quit when you see them. 

10: Keep A Healthy Work-Life Balance

Poker can be addictive, especially when you’re losing. So, it’s essential to maintain a sense of perspective. Your mood shouldn’t be linked to how well you’re running at the tables. 

Success is dependent on finding a healthy work-life balance.

It’s OK to work hard. But be sure that poker doesn’t have a negative impact your physical and social relationships. 

You’ll also make better decisions when your healthy and happy, which will also help you win-rate.

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.