Phil wrote this blog a few weeks ago where he gives the advice that long-term pros or those planning on becoming one should, “be playing in tough HU matches all the time.” I think he makes a really interesting point and want to share my thoughts and give another perspective that might help you make use of his advice.
First off, I haven’t met Phil, but what I’ve heard about his reputation in the community fits with how I’ve seen him in his blogs, as a guy who loves the game, talented as hell, works hard and is genuine in his interests to help other players. I’m also not going to talk on the merits of this from an overall ev, earnrate, or other pure poker terms, and I want to focus just on the psychological and learning reasons why tough matches can be great for your game. Also, his advice can apply to anyone who wants to improve, not just pros or aspiring ones, with some more info about why.
When he talks about every nosebleed player playing in a lot of tough matches on their way up, you can say the exact same thing to every sport, or form of competition. To beat the best you have to play against them, bottom line. There are many ways to improve as a player, but until you can actually sit across from a tough opponent and either hold your own or beat them you can’t. Thinking/dreaming that you can before that point is just a goal or an idea that represents you potential. Potential that is real only when you can prove it.
Playing against a tough opponent forces you to step up your game. The pressure to perform can give you just the right amount of challenge and focus to kick you into the zone. THE only way you have a chance is to play your best, and since you’re best is a moving target (see my blog on Finding 110% for more), this is your chance to step beyond what you were previous capable of doing and into what you’ve thought was possible.
You’re able to do that because the pressure fuels your focus to pick up on details of the game that you previously couldn’t see. Your opponent’s action forces you to think in different ways and your deep focus allows you pick up on details you can’t really even explain. One of the most common descriptions of the zone includes being able to be so good that you can’t explain why. Here’s why that is:
As I’ve talked a lot in my videos, and specifically in the “Playing Your ‘A’ Game” series that’s still up on CR, the adult learning model begins with a stage called unconscious incompetence – which basically means you aren’t yet aware of something that you’re really bad at. As it applies to the zone, it also means you aren’t yet aware of something that you’re really good at. In this case the incompetence is in not knowing why you’re so good.
It’s these details that make up the zone. Without them you can still play really well, just not at your absolute best.
How this applies to tough opponents, is that eventually you will figure out what it was in that tough match that made you play so well. Or you’ll figure out more about the details about your tough opponent’s action that made them better than you. In both cases, it’s playing in tough matches that makes you better because you learn what you need to learn to step up your game. It won’t be totally clear right away, but as you review that match, post hands, talk with other players, watch videos, think on your own, do some calculations, review the match again, rinse/repeat, you’ll start to be able to explain those details that you previously couldn’t.
The bottom line is that Phil’s suggestion to play in tough games is something that can benefit any player who wants to improve. I say can because there’s never a one size fits’ all strategy that’s going to work for everyone. So before jumping into this, here are a couple other things that are VERY important to consider:
1) Playing against tough opponents can also mean that any mental game issues, like tilt, confidence, performance anxiety, etc, will become worse when you play. On the one hand that might motivate you to spend more time working on your mental game, it also might be too risky and thus not a good thing to do.
2) Playing against tough opponents, is very similar to a tough workout. Let’s say you hire a personal trainer to push you. The force and effort to get in those last few reps when your body is exhausted is massive because it is when you are working the hardest that you have the most to gain. ONLY if you rest. Muscles worked out in the gym, grow when resting. Think of playing against a tough opponent as a workout.
3) Keeping with the workout analogy, the gains are also only possible when you aren’t pushing yourself TOO hard. If you can only bench press150lbs once, then pushing yourself to lift 200lbs is not only impossible you can also injure yourself trying. In poker that principal also applies to playing tougher games. So don’t just play anyone, play someone who’s going to challenge you to step up, but only a step you have a chance of actually taking.
4) Another of Phil’s points was that you aren’t going to get any better by just playing weak opponents all the time. That’s actually not true; you get better at playing against weak opponents playing against weaker opponents. If I were designing an ideal training regiment – it would include you playing against weak opponents with the same intensity as a tough one so you can also INCREASE how well you can play against weaker players. Since those matches also challenge you to think more deeply, it’s another way to improve, which makes you better overall and thus able to play better against tougher opponents.
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