When I was in university, Poker was experiencing a golden era. There were kids all over the internet that made tens of thousands of euros each month, simply by clicking buttons for a few hours a day. And there were dozens of online poker schools springing up in the mid 2000s, building systems based on game theory and combinatorics so that anyone could - with a bit of effort - print money off the internet. As a math major, I was immediately hooked.
To me, however, the most appealing part of the game was not the money involved. It was its sheer complexity that goes far beyond the near-algorithmic calculations required to excel at chess. The element of incomplete information gives poker a strategic and tactical depth that only few games can match.
It took me almost four years to master the game to an extent that led me to the decision to drop out of university and become a full-time poker player. After then playing professionally for almost three years, I quit my active career and continued teaching and coaching other professionals for another four years before I decided to quit poker altogether.
The many average people and the few that stand out
Along this 11-year journey, I have gotten to know only a handful of people that became exceptional players who I admire for their skill until this day. But on the other hand, I’ve seen vast crowds of people that never made it past the amateur stage - and it was not for a lack of trying.
As a trainer and coach, I’ve worked first-hand with more than 150 coachees. Almost all of them have developed a solid level of competence and many became professional players. But only a handful went on to become exceptional, world-class players. What I found is, that there is an elemental conceptual principle that keeps people from becoming exceptional at poker and, as it turns out, at anything. In fact, the underlying principle is so fundamental, that once I’ve discovered it in poker, it suddenly kept showing up in pretty much every area of life ranging from sports to hobbies to business and careers. It’s so ubiquitous, that when you’ve seen it once, you can’t possibly overlook it anymore.
The more complex your chosen field of greatness is, and the more uncertainty and noise you experience, the more important it is for you to understand this principle. Because by not comprehending it, you will almost inevitably get stuck in what will feel like a thick forest in which you walk in circles. And every time you think you’ve found a new approach to successfully navigate out of the forest, you end up on the same, circular, trodden path.
On the other side, once you master this principle, you can intentionally move yourself out of the forest. Towards greatness in whatever topic, skill or area you choose.
Here’s what I found in 11 years of mastering the tricky art of poker
When you are a complete beginner in poker, you are inevitably a losing player. This doesn’t mean you’ll lose every time you play. It means that, over the course of a couple of sessions, you’re practically guaranteed to finish a net loser. In order to become a winning Poker player, the first step is to learn avoiding the biggest mistakes. For this, the first think you learn are rule-based systems. By applying strict, rule-based systems to categorise starting hands and the entire spectrum of the trillions of possibilities in which a poker hand can play out, you can tame the immense complexity of the game. However, the goal of this is not to win against anyone. The goal is to make sure that you avoid getting into any situation, in which you yourself could end up making significant mistakes and losing money. The basic logic is that if you can make sure that you’re not making any severe mistakes, then it’s just a matter of time until your opponents make them. And once that happens, you’re not winning big, but you’re winning consistently.
The manual for mediocricy
The story of how these systems are taught and learned is an excellent illustration for how you can make sure that you limit yourself to become mediocre at something. How you become an excellent sheep with a deep, false inner sense of competence that will make dead sure that you’ll never advance beyond the amateur level.
To better understand the underlying principle at work, I’ll pick one specific skill and examine how it leads to severe overall limitations: Game Theory. It is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts in Poker (and, arguably, in life).
To understand where the concept of Game Theory leads people astray, we’ll dive into some math for just a moment - please bear with me.
In game theory, there is a state called the “Game Theory Optimal”. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a state in which someone plays at their “optimal” best. It simply describes a situation in which no one loses. Actually, the exact definition is more technical, but I’ll spare you the details. The important point is, that the Game Theory Optimal, often called the “GTO”, is a state in which the players reach an equilibrium in which no one loses. But, and here comes the hugely misunderstood catch: no one wins, either.
What makes the GTO so appealing for poker players is, that manoeuvring yourself into situations in which you are basically guaranteed not to lose seems like a sure-fire way to wait for opponents to screw up. And as icing on cake, the calculations to determine how to get to GTO are relatively simple. People that first master this concept quickly begin to love it and apply it broadly, whenever they can.
The early winner's conundrum
The big problem is, that amateurs completely misjudge how much their understanding and the application of GTO helps them. Most think, that by mastering it, they have taken a significant step to become exceptional at poker. However, they’ve barely finished basic training. Even worse, they’ve just wandered into a very, very dark forest with no compass or other means of navigation.
And then, there are the many professionals that have a good understanding of when not to apply GTO, but they still somehow plateaued in their journey. They have achieved a remarkable level of skill of consistency, but cannot seem to ascend any further.
For our purpose of learning how not to get stuck on our way to exceptionalism, let’s have a look at where the amateur’s false belief of competence originates and where professionals hit their personal glass ceiling.
Learning from the best... in vain
The reason for which many people think that GTO is the pinnacle of poker expertise is, that they see professional and exceptional players applying GTO principles all the time. Only occasionally are they deviating from a GTO approach. What the observers completely miss are the three non-observable, underlying methodologies:
For both professionals and exceptional players, GTO is never the “default play”. It is simply a fallback play that they take in a situation once all other possibilities are ruled out. But, quite often, there is no other good option to take, so a GTO play is the least worst option most of the time.
The reason why the options are very often limited is, that professionals play mostly against other professionals that are making life very difficult if they spot a weakness in someone’s game. GTO is one of the easiest ways to eliminate weaknesses in ones own game, so it’s often applied against strong opponents.
Exceptional players never play against other professionals unless they have no other choice. In fact, they only ever play at all if there’s at least one very weak player at the table that they expect to win against by a mile. Because they know that it will be close to impossible to gain an edge over other, competent players.
What we can deduct from all of this is, that, in Poker, there are three fundamental levels of mastery that ultimately determine the level of performance of a player.
Why should you care about the three levels of mastery that will determine whether someone is a great poker player?
Because, at it turns out, the conceptual framework that describes these three levels is almost universal and applies not only to other sports, sciences and art, but also to business.
In order for the framework to make sense, we must first understand:
The three levels of mastery:
Level 1: Skills - the ability to perform certain actions
Level 2: Reasoning - the ability to determine when to apply which skill
Level 3: Context - the ability to identify when and where you should (and should not) engage to apply your reasoning and your skills
The reason this framework is so powerful is, that almost everybody gets stuck either on Level 1 or Level 2.
And there’s good reason for this: Once you understand level 3, your scope for decision-making increases vastly. For a poker player, this can mean questioning whether she sits at the right table in the first place.
But context can be applied even more broadly. This is what happened in the mid 2000s in the chess world. There was a movement of chess grandmasters that questioned, whether their ability to think about a game like chess in a deeply strategic way, was really where their skills were put to the best use (i.e., applied in the best context). And many concluded, that it was not. Because applying the same approach in the poker world yielded disproportionately higher returns. So they switched their context entirely.
A famous example for switching context from the business world was Intel’s pivot from producing memory chips to microprocessors in the 1980s. Intel had relentlessly applied their skills for R&D and process optimisation to develop ever-better memory chips, ever-cheaper. But they were facing increasing competition from Asia. So their leadership team took a step back and questioned, whether they were applying the skills of their high-end workforce in the right context and decided, that they needed to switch context to microprocessors. You may now think, that this seems like a minor correction in the strategy of the company. But it meant a complete turnaround of a $2.6 bn organization. It’s equivalent to Mercedes announcing tomorrow, that they will cease to produce cars by the end of the quarter and will 100% shift their production to bicycles.
So what does all of this mean for you?
Evaluate your context!
You can apply the skills-reasoning-context framework to clearly distinguish between:
Are you good at what you are doing? - Skills
Are you effective at what you are doing? - Reasoning
Does it makes sense for you to be effective and efficient in your - Context?
In order to become exceptional, you need to ask yourself regularly:
Are you in the right team? Are you staffed on the right project? Are you working for the right organization? Are you in the right career?
You need to question where you lead your people:
Are the people that you lead working on the right topics? Are you leading the right people? Or do you need other people? Do you need a cultural change in your team? New rules? Fewer rules? Would there by synergies by collaborating with other teams? With other organizations? Should you be leading this team at all? Or would another team be a better fit?
You need to scrutinise how your organisation operates:
Is your organisation allocating resources to the right priorities? Is it offering the right products and services? Is it operating it the right markets?
Hardly anyone manages to rise above the day-to-day business. But the amount of clarity you gain by truly understanding the framework of skills, reasoning and context can hardly be overstated.
Because it helps you to understand your own, personal limitations better, and hence offers you a chance to improve where you need it most.
Because it helps you to understand the limitations of others, which is an essential skill of every good leader.
And because it gives you a structured approach to figuring out, whether what you are working on on a day-to-day basis makes sense. Whether what your team is working on the right topics and whether your organization is operating in the right markets.
In other words:
Context helps you evaluate the big picture
Context helps you to get unstuck, when you are going a full speed, but you’re speeding towards a dead end. Personally, as a team and as an organization.
The path to exceptionalism is a long series of junctions. Every junction is a decision for where to apply your skills and spend dedicated time to solve challenges. Many of those junctions don’t even feel like conscious decisions, because they aren’t.
Oftentimes, an opportunity comes your way and it’s the only opportunity at hand, so you take it. But with each and every one of those opportunities, you venture on a path that is distinctly different from all the other paths that you could have taken. Every opportunity that you take is a decision to move in a certain direction.
The only question is: in which way do you want to be exceptional?
Would you like to be a renowned expert? An admired leader? A radical innovator? Do you want to build a team or organisation that is a national leader? A global leader? Do you want your team to be known as the people who provide the reliable, unbreakable backbone of your organisation? Or as the changemakers, that drive change? Or is it something entirely different?
You can think of context as a tool that helps you taking a mental step from looking at your current path to looking at all your potential paths from a bird’s-eye perspective. And from that bird’s-eye perspective, you can take the map and pinpoint your area of exceptionalism as your destination. With this, you can determine whether your current path leads to that destination.
It helps you understand whether you need to switch tables like a poker player that realises, that he ended up in a shark tank that provides plenty of opportunity for glorious battles, but little chances to ever come out as a winner.
Master context, and you are well on your way to exceptionalism.
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