There are different ways of defining what makes a good poker player. To me, success is defined by long-term consistency. The reality is that being able to win at poker over an extended period of time is a rare commodity in the poker world. Over time, players come and go in an endless revolving door. More often than not, the current hot poker player ends up being just a flash in the pan who was on a heater that eventually ends swiftly and cruelly.
Then there are those core poker players that continue to win over an extended period. You see their name crop up again and again over many years. They are able to make a career, whether full time or part time, out of a game that generally chews people up and spits them out with a quickness.
If it is your goal to become one of the few that is able to make it and not only survive but thrive, then there are a few traits and qualities that are almost mandatory to possess to make this even a remote possibility. In fact, if you lack even one of these attributes, your chances of success diminish exponentially. I say this not to scare you, but rather to inspire that hunger inside you that is required to make it. The good news, almost everything required to succeed can be learned and hone with patience and study.
In writing this list, I used my 10+ years of experience as a poker player to narrow it down to a core list of characteristics that are most common among all successful players. If you are able to meet the criteria of every single attribute, then you are almost guaranteed to succeed. Don’t worry if you haven’t mastered each one yet as I will also offer solutions and point you in the right direction toward gaining proficiency in them. Without further delay, let’s get started on what I hope will be the first step in your path toward consistency.
Quality #1: Successful Poker Players Are Mentally Tough
Most people fail at poker because of insurmountable mental weakness that includes not understanding how poker works on a fundamental level. Therefore, when that first huge downswing occurs, they are caught off guard and derailed before they even really get started. The culprit is a lack of understanding that a long-term poker career is actually just a series of upswings and downswings. In fact, the best players know that the best way to deal with downswings is to understand that they are part of the game and plan accordingly.
No one runs exactly their expected value or expected win-rate day in and day out. One day you might run 50bb/100 and the next day -45bb/100. While the -45bb/100 days really are hard to stomach, you are still a 5bb winning player after those two days. We only attach the label “downswing” when several of those losing days come at once over consecutive days. This is when the mind games can start as we get tricked into believing either something is wrong with us or we are just unlucky.
Check out the graph of one of my past months. Notice the general upward trend is made of both winning and losing periods. I have labeled certain points of the graph to show what typical emotions might be like at that time.
If these kinds of emotional swings seem to be your issue, the solution is to actively work on the mental side of poker and not just be variance’s whipping boy. First off, honestly answer this question. Does your daily, weekly, and monthly poker result determine your mood? If so, then you almost certainly have issues with tilt. I find that a good way to mitigate this issue is by distancing yourself from the hand-to-hand and hour-to-hour results. One method that has worked for me is to not look at the cashier during, or even after, your daily sessions. Personally, I used to only look at my cashier on Sunday.
Funny as it may sound, it’s really liberating to remain ignorant of how you did on a particular day. This may seem like an extreme band-aid or weird way to deal with mental issues, so you are going to have to suspend disbelief for a moment. But trust me on this, it works really well for some folks, myself included. No matter how tough I ever thought I mentally was, I was finding that my session to session results would determine how good a mood I was in afterward. That simply wasn’t healthy and fair to my loved ones. Also, I’m almost positive that these emotions made me play sub-optimally as well. That wasn’t fair to my bankroll!
If this sounds like you, then avoiding looking at day-to-day results is probably something you should consider trying. And, if you want to take it one step further, you can use this tactic during sessions. By stacking your tables, or using the stack and tile method, you can avoid seeing the ultimate result on a lot of hands. By remaining semi-ignorant of current results, you can trick your mental state into caring less about short-term outcomes and just move on to another hand on another table and focus on making the most +EV decision you can.
Ultimately, we should strive to get to a point where short-term results don’t bother us in the least. However, this is easier said than done. It’d be nice to be a Vulcan (Star Trek reference) and be able to remain detached and completely logical all of the time, but, unfortunately, we are humans and generally all cerebral train wrecks. Even so, mental nirvana is possible and the first step toward solving the issues is to learn to think long-term and either learn to not worry about short-term results, or stop knowing about them altogether. If successful, you will find you are tilting less and not exacerbating & extending the downswings you endure.
Quality #2: Successful Poker Players Practice Smart Bankroll Management
Our bankroll is the lifeblood of our poker game. If it’s managed poorly, it doesn’t matter how good we are, there’s absolutely 0 chance of success. The most important thing about the money we use to play is that it should seldom even be on our radar. Having even the slightest thought in the back of our minds that going broke is a possibility will subconsciously affect the quality of every single action we make at the poker table.
My advice is to be very deeply bankrolled, making it less likely to ever sustain a downswing that requires moving down. If you are a part-time player, it’s a good idea to keep behind the same amount you have online. For example, if you are a cash game player and have $3,000 online and grind 100NL, you should have $3,000 parked somewhere else, like in a bank account. That way, if you hit a huge downswing and drop down to around $2,000 or so online, you can move $500 from the bank account and lessen the period needed to rebuild. Just make sure you replenish the “emergency fund” once you are able and be sure to bolster it during the good times.
The same method can be used for part-time tournament players. If your average tournament buy-in is $25 and you use the 100 buy-in rule, then you keep $2,500 in your poker account and at least $2,500 in the side account. Every time you get a big score, you decide whether to move up to higher stakes or just replenish both accounts and cash out the difference as income. The exact details are up to you, as long as you always keep enough money behind so that you are free to grind without worrying about risk of ruin.
For those of you who are a full-time pro and poker is your sole source of income, then the requirements are much more substantial. At the absolute minimum, in addition to the side bankroll, I suggest always having at least 6 months of living expenses behind; preferably 1 year or more. You never want your poker downswing to put pressure on real life or force you to change your lifestyle just because the poker gods are kicking your ass lately.
No matter what role poker plays in your life, make sure that you follow a reasonable bankroll management plan and stick to it. When your bankroll drops below the amount required for a level, just move down and grind it back up. The most important thing to do is to not chase losses. Here is a suggested cash game bankroll management plan that has worked for me for years.
The chart is based on a 100 big blind buy-in amount and a 50 buy-in requirement for playing a stake. Here is a downloadable Excel version if you want to adjust the numbers to fit your needs.
Quality #3: Successful Poker Players Are Always a Favorite in the Games They Play
We all know that poker profit comes from the collective mistakes that our opponents make in relation to us. This reciprocality should be the entire reason we play this game in the first place. If we aren’t better than at least a few of the players at our table, then there is no reason we should be sitting there.
Our number one goal in poker, above all else, should be to win money. Otherwise, we might as well choose any number of casino games that are merely games of chance. You’d stand a much better chance of winning money at Blackjack than you will in playing poker against superior players. This fact cannot be overstated.
All winning poker players understand this truth in an intimate way. In fact, the end game of poker is less about the strategy and tactics of the actual hands that you play and more about seeking out weaker competition to play against. This is a cold hard fact and the reality of the situation.
Even so, you need to actively spend time learning about all of the commonalities of losing poker playing styles and have a repertoire of adjustments to make against those specific traits. Then, once able to spot those player types, you will be able to practice more efficient game selection by sitting in the correct seat in relation to them. For example, if you see a maniac seated at a table, you choose a seat directly to his left, if possible. On the other hand, if that same player was a huge nit, you’d sit to his right and steal until the cows come home.
In other words, we create our profit before we even play a hand at the poker table. It all comes down to information, and there is always some edge to be gained if you know where to look. And if that edge doesn’t appear substantial enough, we either don’t sit down or we leave as soon as we figure that out. That is what game selection is all about.
Quality #4: Successful Poker Players Know When Not to Play
Winning players are always watching out for the “C” game and understand the dangers of soft tilt. Soft tilt is anything that can negatively affect our win-rate that does not come directly from a reaction or emotion felt from an unfavorable result at the tables. It is something that is not even on the radar of the vast majority of poker players.
That is because hard tilt is easy to spot since, generally, you feel emotional at the moment and purposefully make bad plays in order to chase losses. On the other hand, soft tilt can creep up on you and eat away at your win-rate almost like background programs slow down your computer. In that regard, it is no less insidious as to how it affects our bottom line. Typically, the main culprit is fatigue. Playing when we are not completely able to mentally focus, makes playing our A game virtually impossible and renders our thought process down to a lower level in terms of deepness of thought. For example, a solid level 4 thinking player might only play level 3, or even level 2, when tired (or even lazy). By the way, here is a YouTube video I did on the 4 levels of thinking in poker in case you are interested.
Beyond raw mental prowess, another thing to go when a good player is not playing optimally is the quality of their table dynamic assessments. As go our reads, so drops our win-rate. It’s no wonder that long downswings happen. Our natural instinct when losing is to play more hours to fight through the “variance.” This approach likely leads to long hours of sub-optimal play, which is the worst thing we can do. While hard tilt can cause dramatic dips in our bankroll, soft tilt is generally the culprit in long and extended losing periods.
So before your next session, honestly assess your mental focus. My advice is that if you don’t feel 100%, don’t load up any tables at all. Go rest or so something to better mentally prepare you for your session. Physical exercise and being fit along with sound nutrition is a great way to better improve our average mental state.
Quality #5: Successful Poker Players Have Balance in Their Life
Even if poker is your main source of income, it should seldom become an obsession that rules over all other aspects of your life. The secret, if you can call it that, to longevity in poker is in having the perspective that it is just a means to an end. In other words, you play poker for a living, not live to play poker.
There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about the game, in fact, it’s one of the keys to success. It’s just important not to set unrealistic expectations for yourself when it comes to your potential level of success. In fact, measuring the entirety of your self-worth around poker or any one thing in your life is a sure road to frustration. There will be bad times and good times, and it’s vital to have other aspects of your life that bring you joy and fulfillment during periods of negative variance.
It could be your family, a separate career, business, or a hobby. The actual who or what is unimportant, what matters is finding a harmony and balance. Think of any really successful person and you will almost always find that they are successful at more than one thing in their life.
If you struggle with balance, I recommend scheduling activities into your day that are non-poker related. If you are into sports, go do that at least 3 days a week for 1 hour at the time. If you have a wife and kids, schedule a few family activities a week, a game night or whatever. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, as long as it brings you happiness that is not derived from poker.
Quality #6: Successful Poker Players Are Studious
Every year it gets harder and harder to win money at poker. Therefore, if you want to remain relevant, you have to constantly improve. As a part of your daily routine, you should invest time into analyzing your game, pouring through stats, and thinking about better ways to beat your opponents. Be honest with yourself and make sure you invest a portion of your bankroll toward coaching. It’s often really helpful to get a second set of eyes on your game since sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.
Additionally, it’s no secret that the better you are, the less awful your downswings will be. Case in point, I once went through an 18-month period where I ran about $20,000 under EV. Even so, I still managed to win money during that period. How did I do it? Not to brag, but I had a 10bb EV win-rate and a 2bb actual win-rate. Ouch, right? All of those early years I spent building a solid foundation along with my consistent daily study had paid off. Imagine if my actual win-rate was 4bb and I ran 8bb under that for the same period. I would have possibly quit, or been down to playing the micros again. I definitely wouldn’t be writing this article!
Quality #7: Successful Poker Players Love the Game
In order to stick with this crazy game for more than just a few years, you have to have a genuine love for poker. Every single time you sit down to play, there has to be a hunger to play and win. You don’t necessarily have to always love the grind, but you should never dread or hate sitting down at the table either.
Of course, even the most fanatical lovers of poker will face a bit of burnout at some point, that’s only natural. That’s why it’s important to have balance in your life. Even so, if you truly love the game, the need to get back into the action will inevitably grow again in the pit of your stomach. Just ask yourself, if you could only play for fun, would you do it? If the answer is an immediate yes, then you qualify as a diehard poker junkie and have what it takes to succeed.
In summary, save for loving the game, every single thing that it takes to excel at poker is a learned skill. Some people are better at certain aspects of the game than others. You might be really good at reading and adjusting to people, but horrible at the math of poker, or vice versa. Even so, if you are willing to work hard enough and have the passion to succeed, the sky is the limit. Perhaps that is the one quality that I failed to mention that trumps them all. And that is, you must always remain driven and can never get lazy. In my opinion, if you are industrious enough to seek out this article, then you almost certainly possess the dedication necessary to succeed.
Here is the video version of this video if you want to check it out.
Jim is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. He has been playing professionally for over 15 years and has helped countless people become winning poker players. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, Jim has helped demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em.