Commentary

The future of poker training

Updated: September 17, 2008, 3:58 PM ET
By BLUFF | Lee Jones

One of the oldest and favorite sayings among poker players is "You gotta pay for your poker lessons somewhere -- it can be at the table, or away from it."

For a long time, there really was no good way to get poker lessons away from the table. Few books were written about poker (one of the main reasons being that it still had a sleazy image among the general public). Nobody was going to sell a zillion copies of a poker book, and the books that were published were just plain awful. I remember finding a gambling book from the '50s in a used bookstore. There was a poker chapter, which included this powerful nugget: "Watch the cards and see which ones seem to appear more often. They may be 'running.'"

Whoa! I never read about that in David Sklansky's "Theory of Poker" or Doyle Brunson's books!

Of course, that all changed when Brunson, Sklansky and a few others wrote accurate, fact-filled books on how to beat poker. In fact, I'll even include my little contribution to the canon: "Winning Low-Limit Hold'em." With the appearance of these books, you no longer had to get your lessons just at the table -- and believe me, the table is by far the most expensive way to get them. For $20 or $30 (or $50, in Doyle's case), you could get a poker education worth hundreds -- thousands -- of dollars.

The game would never be the same. In fact, Doyle has been known to wonder aloud if he made a mistake by giving out all that information in "Super System: A Course in Power Poker" and "Super System II." I'm inclined to think it was no mistake at all -- poker has boomed, and part of the reason is that people can buy books and feel that they're not just giving their money away at the tables. Of course, it takes more than reading a book to be a good poker player. Doyle and his fellow pros have benefited plenty from the influx of newbies -- even the book-trained ones.

The next quantum leap in poker education occurred when Internet access spread to a large percentage of the world's population. Online poker forums became the place where people gathered and discussed strategy and tactics. The granddaddy of them all was rec.gambling.poker (RGP), and I'm proud to say I was participating on it back in the early '90s. Sadly, like most of Usenet, it has descended into Internet oblivion and is now pretty worthless. But other forums such as TwoPlusTwo.com and PocketFives.com have picked up the baton and provide a useful, civil environment in which to discuss poker. Players can post hands they've played and ask, "What would you do here?" A dozen people will quickly reply to say the hand was played fine, or that perhaps there should have been a zig here or a zag there. Of course, some of those opinions are worth what you pay for them, but a lot of intelligent and articulate poker players post in the best forums. The general quality of poker play has certainly improved thanks to these forums, and poker will definitely continue to benefit from them.

So what's next?

In the past two or three years, a vibrant new industry has arisen: poker training via Internet-distributed videos. Up until about 2005 or so, it wasn't really practical to do such a thing. (Most people didn't have the Internet bandwidth to download videos in a reasonable period of time, or the large file sizes of the videos filled up computer disks.) But like all things computational, that's changed recently, and along with it so has the future of poker training.

A book is a fine way to learn to play poker and poker books will continue to thrive and proliferate, but a single video allows the student to watch a top professional play up to a hundred hands. Immediately, the student notices that the pro folds a lot. This in itself will be a revelation for many beginning (and some intermediate) players. When the pro plays a hand, he can say exactly what he's doing and why as the student watches "over his shoulder." This sort of immediate and visual learning is simply incomparable to anything that has come before it.

That's not the only way that poker videos can educate you. The video can be a lecture by a professional player discussing some aspect of the game. It can be a pro reviewing a beginner's (or intermediate player's) actual play and suggesting improvements. It can be a PowerPoint presentation -- a learning format familiar to high school and college students all over the world. It can be a top player doing a thorough analysis of a dozen hands using a hand "replayer."

In short, I expect poker videos to change the face of poker education to the same degree that "Super System" did 30 years ago or rec.gambling.poker did 15 years ago.

I have always had a passion for teaching people about things I love. After being a scuba diver for a decade, I got my certification to teach diving. Nobody teaches scuba diving to get rich -- believe me. You teach diving (at least I did) so you can see students' faces the first time they go beneath the surface of Monterey Bay (Calif.) and are surrounded by an incredible world -- different from anything they've experienced in their lives. I didn't write "Winning Low-Limit Hold'em" to get rich -- again, if you want to get rich by writing a book, your name had better be J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. I wrote it because I wanted to share what I had learned (at great cost) on the green-felt battlefields of California $3/$6 hold 'em games in the early '90s.

You see, for almost five years at PokerStars, I was -- to use a sports analogy -- an umpire. I had the best seat in the house to watch poker battles fought -- in tournaments and cash games, low stakes, high stakes and everything in between. Here's what I saw: All too often, the playing field wasn't level. People would deposit a few dollars, and then virtually donate them to the more-competent players. Over and over again I'd see the e-mails: "The site is rigged"; "You purposely put bad beats on me"; "My A-A always gets beaten," etc. It actually made me sad because these people were sincere. I don't know if they believed that poker is just a game of luck or what. But I wanted to tell them (and occasionally did), "Look -- it's not about bad shuffling or cheating players or anything else. It's that you're not playing the game well."

So I've decided to go into coaching at CardRunners.com. I want to work with people who want to get better at poker. The kind of people who, 15 years ago, were the first ones to read the Internet poker forums or, 25 years ago, were the first ones reading "Super System." I believe that the people who embrace the best new technology for learning poker will be the ones who succeed in this most Darwinian pastime of ours. If you're not studying poker training videos at some Web site to improve your game, rest assured the guy in the No. 3 seat and the lady in the No. 7 are. When they take your money, please don't complain to me.

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