Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Poker Muscles

The last few weeks of poker playing, both online and off, have been a bit on the frustrating side. I haven't been able to put my finger on it, but the feelings of frustration and seeming lack of any progress seemed familiar to me. It took a while, but yesterday at the gym I finally figured out where I've had similar thoughts.


There are many parallels between playing poker and weight training. I've been weight lifting for the better part of 13 years ever since I graduated college and have gone through many of the classic pitfalls involved with physique training. It took time, but mainly through persistence and a willingness to listen to my body, I was able to learn what's best for me and avoid some of the mistakes many others and I would often make.

The human body, in my opinion, is a machine built to adapt to its surroundings. In weight training, if your chest workout consists solely of flat barbell bench presses, you will eventually stop making progress. You need to vary the workout for each body part, working them all from multiple angles. In poker, I think it's beneficial to play different game types. If you're locked into Texas Hold 'em, I believe that you're missing out on learning opportunities that other game types can offer. Even while playing other forms of poker, I believe you will improve your Hold 'em game.

When I first started lifting, I would basically work out with weights as heavy as I could handle. I'd work out three days in a row, take a day off, and then repeat the process. While this worked for a while, those who've had any serious training know your body just can't handle that kind of stress for any length of time. Today, I vary my workouts between heavy, low repetition days and light, higher repetition days. The poker analogy here is varying your intensity level with respect to the stakes you're playing. I don't believe we can be at our best each and every time we sit down at the felt. If you want to "relax" your brain for a bit, sit down at a lower stakes table and enjoy yourself for a bit. Don't worry about not playing your A-game; you're here to absorb the experience without necessarily having complete focus at the table. Sure you'll make some mistakes, but they won't be as costly. You may make some moves you'd not normally make and get a chance to experiment without risking a huge chunk of your bankroll.

There is significant literature written about over-training. This occurs when you've simply worked out too often and haven't given your body a chance to heal. Most people don't realize that gains made through lifting weights occur not while actually working out, but rather during rest, especially sleep. If you're in an over trained state, you will not recuperate quickly enough and your workouts will suffer. As each workout becomes less productive, your gains slow or even halt. In poker, I think that if you play too often, the poker part of your brain becomes over-trained. You cease learning during each session and you start forcing things and making bad decisions. Similarly to lifting, I think that most learning occurs not while we're actually at the tables, but rather when we're analyzing our play offline or discussing certain scenarios with other players. Perhaps even in sleep we improve our poker skills through some form of subconscious learning.

I used to think that if I worked out solidly for a few months, I'd end up looking like a shorter version of Lou Ferrigno. That didn't quite happen. Over time, I learned that for natural lifters like myself, gains wouldn't be measured in weeks or even months, but it would take years of dedication to see any significant results. Patience was paramount. Even going through a sub-par workout shouldn't discourage me, I was still going to reap benefits from it even if I couldn't lift as much as the previous session. In poker, I need to not get so discouraged during losing sessions. I need to realize that each session offers a learning opportunity and I need to take advantage of that. Also, I need to realize I'm not going to become the next Johnny Chan in a matter of weeks or months. While online poker affords the opportunity to learn and advance in a quicker pace than otherwise possible, I'm not going to develop world-class skills any time soon. I need to slow down and realize that just as my body represents the toils of 13 years in the gym, my poker skills really only represent about 1 year of serious play.

There are other gifted poker players out there who can make the jump to the world-class level rather quickly. There are also genetic freaks out there who grow like weeds just by walking inside of a gym. I'm neither one of these people and it's good to eventually realize that. If there is one characteristic that I know I have, it's persistence. So with those thoughts, I've resolved to let my poker skill progress at my natural rate and stop forcing things to happen more quickly than they should.

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