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The Art of Small Decisions

Posted by Neel Joshi on 2021-06-01 at 4:15 PM
Neel Joshi

Hey everyone,

Sometime last year, Arpit Jain from PokerGuru approached me to write a blog. At the time, I didn’t think I had much worth sharing. However, these last few months, I’ve had some time to reflect on the poker life in general, and today, I’d like to share some of my musings with you.

There’s no denying that poker life can be a great life. As someone very aptly said in a blog, it can be like “a hack in the universe.” You wake up every day to a job you love and travel around the globe. The community is one of the greatest, sharpest, and most resourceful in the world. You can also make good money while you’re at it – the list goes on. The amount of effort it would take to make X amount of money in almost any other mind-sport, or physical sport for that matter, would be much higher than in poker.

But all of this sounds too good to be true. Where’s the catch?

We see everyone from the legend Bencb789 to our very own Mozzie talk about “the process.” What is this process they talk about? The process is nothing but a lot of smaller decisions and routines you accommodate into your daily life and an overall outlook towards how you approach the game.

In my opinion, the skills of a successful poker player go far beyond the skills displayed on the table. The in-game aspects of poker can be learned over time. There are countless resources out there that you can use to improve your theoretical understanding bit by bit. However it is the off-the-table habits, routines, and attitude which differentiate the mediocre players from the OG sickos.

One of the skills of successful poker players is recognizing where the EV really comes from and building their routines and game plan around it. For example, we all know that losing money (and time banks!!) due to internet disconnections isn’t that uncommon, yet many of us haven’t quite gotten around to fixing it. Having a stable internet connection with a backup will probably make you more money in the long term than those triple check-raise bluffs will.

I’ve personally felt that my performance on the felts is heavily affected if I’m not well-rested. To make sure that this does not happen, I need to be disciplined the day before and go to bed on time. This is a conscious decision I need to make, which at that moment has seemingly little monetary value, but this small decision done right over the course of a year will significantly add EV to my game plan.

A successful poker player is one who successfully manages his life. That’s the catch. And that’s where the real crushers nail it. There are a lot of pitfalls that we poker players have to navigate around. Bad sleep schedules, brutal downswings, unhealthy lifestyles, inadequate social life, etc.

If one were to really break down what we poker players do – we make decisions for a living. And in this negative-sum game, we trust that we make better decisions on a daily basis than our competitors and that it’s enough to give us the amazing life I spoke of earlier.

If that is, in fact, the case, it only makes sense that we apply the decision-making skills we learn for and from the game to each and every sphere of our lives. We make so many decisions daily and at least a few major life decisions every year. If every decision taken was just 5% superior, can you imagine the difference it would make over the course of a few years?

Decisions function like compound interest. A good decision today will put you in a better spot for tomorrow. A good habit you form today will yield exponential returns over the years.

A study was done on Novak Djokovic’s career. They tracked a few data points over the course of ten years of his distinguished career as he rose from a top 100 player to world rank 1.

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While the statistics are impressive, things like ranking, prize money, etc aren’t really in his control. What he does control are all the little decisions he needs to make correctly along the way to maximise his success.

A typical point in tennis involves one to three decisions. The decision success rate, as Stephen Duneier calls it, can be a good metric to see how it reflects in the points he wins in his matches.

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Marginally improved decision making, compounded over a vast number of points played across a span of a decade, yields astronomical results.

It’s important to say that it is not just the knowledge of a well-evaluated decision that sparks results but also the execution.

Truth be told, poker can test you at times. You start your session with hope, only to get crushed for hours at a stretch, go back to bed, and wake up the next day with fresh hopes, only to get destroyed again. This can happen for months on end. With time, you get better at managing your emotions, slowly and steadily understanding how EV and variance works. The often ignored reality behind the glory of the game is that playing online MTTs for a living can get lonely at times. Sitting on a chair for hours at a stretch in the wee hours of the night with eyes locked into the screen isn’t quite the flashy lifestyle you would have imagined if you don’t truly, truly love the game.

It takes heart to play poker professionally. To give up the luxury of a secure career and walk this untrodden path, to embrace the variance, to keep showing up day after day after day, to avoid all the negative things waiting to suck you in should you lose awareness for but a single moment – it’s not something everyone can do. This is precisely why I have so much respect for the regs of the community. You don’t need to look much further than these people to find inspiration, and if you’re a reg who’s reading this, you’ll find that inspiration within yourself more often than not.

As a reg, you’re already inspiring many others. And if there’s a fleeting moment where you doubt yourself or feel the impostor syndrome kick in – just remembering your own journey and how far you’ve come is often all it takes to get back in the right mindset again.

To the up and coming generation of MTT players:

In poker, as in many other things, it is crucial to understand that a successful journey will be one with multiple failures. Don’t dwell too hard on these failures, instead use them as learning opportunities and come back stronger the next day. Go to sleep today knowing that in the future, you’re gonna make bad bluffs and even worse hero calls and punt off many a tournament, but as long as you learn from it and keep improving, it’s all part of the process. It won’t always be smooth sailing; there will be setbacks, but if done right, this journey can be an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling one.

With these conceivably being the final few months of the pandemic, let’s hope some fun live tournaments happen this year. And as always, good luck on the felts!

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Vikram Singh
1 year ago

I like reading about stoics as well but they are kind of irrelevant to smaller decisions. Annie Dillard is far better at this stuff, she one wrote “how we spend our day, is of course, how we spend our life” This is anecdotal – ‘attitude which differentiate the mediocre players from the OG sickos.’ Bencb does not even qualify as an OG, mate. I am lean mean fighting tank and had a broken back and lost vision + hearing (right side only) to sepsis post a bacterial infection in Northern Ireland. I can out deadlift Bencb + he is mediocre… Read more »

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