How to Up Your Volume – While Improving Motivation

Staying on pace to hit long-term volume goals need not be a painful slog. I propose one adjustment that will revolutionise your approach. To do so, let me introduce you to Holly…

Volume. Turnover. Grinding. Call it what you like; the reality remains the same. The more Holly plays, the more she earns. Simple, right?

Indeed it is – at least in principle. However, the theory is all well and good, but it doesn’t necessary feel straightforward when Holly’s chips are being pushed towards her opponents for hours on end. It is thoroughly dis-spiriting.

She approached me looking for some advice as she knuckled down for her first year as a professional grinder. Reaching 2x Supernova was her goal– an ambitious, but certainly achievable, target for somebody who grinds the low-mid stakes SNGs.

However, she was being held back by an inability to pace herself.

Drifting Focus

In her determination to get ahead in her Supernova charge, Holly would play until her energy levels were at zero every session. Then when it came to firing up her next session, her motivation would be down, and her focus would drift off after an inordinately short amount of time.

Sometimes, the mere thought of loading up the Pokerstars client would fill her stomach with that awful sinking feeling.

The result? A disillusioned grinder. An all-or-nothing outlook. A tilty disposition. An unprofessional approach. Boom or bust. Repeat.

How could Holly re-model her grinding schedule, so that she would start every day feeling fresh and motivated?

There's a wrong way and a Hemingway

There’s a wrong way and a Hemingway

The New Approach – via Murakami and Hemingway

My advice to Holly was straightforward: in order to reach her goal, she needed to take a leaf out of the book of two literary greats.

Haruki Murakami’s outstanding meditation on running and life What I Talk About When I Talk About Running offers a fascinating insight into his writing method. This is something that he nabbed from an unknown scribbler who went by the name Ernest Hemingway. No, I’d never heard of him either.

‘I stop everyday right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly’ (p.5).

For Murakami and Hemingway, a long-term project like writing a novel required a steady pace and perpetual motivation. They did not want their brain to associate their craft with suffering.

Writing until they fell asleep at the desk was a sure-fire way to decrease motivation for the next day. Indeed, it would feel like a mission just to pick up the pen, after such a draining session. So they would quit, right when it felt like they had a little left in them.

Sound Familiar?

The Murakami method translates to poker beautifully. Ending each session on a high, with a bit of fuel left in the tank, keeps motivation up and dodges that nasty hidden danger ego depletion (the topic of an upcoming blog).

So the first step that I recommend when it comes to hitting long-term poker goals is to actively ignore the popular myth that you should ‘grind until you can grind no more’.

The reality is that playing until you flat-out can’t take any more is likely to hinder your progress. If you are mentally and physically exhausted, then sustaining your motivation across time will become incredibly difficult. In short: the likelihood of burn-out is massively increased.

Nailing Down a Plan

When I asked Holly how many games she could manage in a day, nailing down a plan became easy. She replied ‘225 at the absolute most’. So we knocked about 10% off, settling on 205 per day (which would get her to Supernova x2 comfortably, playing 5 days per week).

This would ensure that she finished every day happy with her volume, but feeling that she was capable of more. That final, painful, stretch from game 206-225 was simply chopped off.

The result? Holly became eager to log in the following day. Poker was no longer something that she associated with exhaustion; every day, she would end her session with something left in the tank and a desire to hit the tables again to keep her Supernova hunt on track.

Here’s the Best Bit

Best of all, her results improved too! No longer were the final 20 games a race to the finish, in order to tick another day off the list. Instead, Holly found herself playing a sharper, more focused A-game for longer.

The Problem with Volume

I sometimes fear that the volume-centric poker outlook is counter-productive. Some coaches and players would have you believe that stopping short of maximum volume every single day is absolutely scandalous. I disagree, and here’s why:

It is terrible to play 500 games daily for a month or two, and then to burn out and start tilting (or even quit!).

On the other hand, the slow-and-steady method has four clear advantages:

a) A more measured pace is less likely to make your brain associate poker with exhaustion, meaning that those I-just-can’t-face-it days are kept at bay,

b) Focus is stronger, and A-game is maintained,

c) Rather than focusing on just…getting…through…..this….never-……ending…….session, which is an extremely short-termist outlook, this approach keeps the grinder focused on the long-term goal of playing the same volume daily. Once the habit is formed, it is easier to adhere to,

d) Motivation is sustained when goals are met. For Holly, playing 205 games every day is a lot more achievable than playing 225 games most days. Therefore, she hits her target more frequently, perpetuating the feel-good and motivation.

Every day is a small victory, as she repeatedly hits her volume goal.

These small adjustments can be the difference between success and failure over the long-term. They have certainly helped Holly develop a strong grinding routine.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me your grinding routine, and perhaps I’ll be able to help you optimise it. And if you think that this article could help people to reach their long-term poker goals, give it a share on Twitter or Facebook and spread the word!

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Reflections on the Great Sport-Betting Experiment – The First Bet

My bets:

Sunderland 0 – 2 Man Utd (picked due to statistical analysis)
Sunderland 1 – 3 Man Utd (picked due to the value of 16/1)
Sunderland vs Man Utd – below 2.5 goals (successful)

Well, just as I wouldn’t have claimed a huge success had Man U scored a second, I’m not too disheartened by the outcome of my first betting challenge. I am happy with the strategy employed in making my selections (based solely on the stats; no credence was given to my pre-existing biases and beliefs about the respective strength of the squads).

For those who haven’t seen my betting strategy videos, I collated and analysed the following stats: recent form (home form for Sunderland, away form for Man U); attacking prowess, defensive strength, and league standing. It became apparent that Sunderland score few and concede few at home, and that Man U almost always win away from home without trouncing the opposition. I settled on 2-0 Man U, which unfortunately did not come to pass, although I am pleased that my analysis yielded a similar outcome to the real one.

Onwards and upwards! I am taking suggestions as to my second betting challenge. Please let me know if there’s an EPL match that you would like for me to analyse and predict.

Many thanks,


A Sport Betting Challenge!

Never one to back down from a good challenge, on Saturday I will make my first sports bet since 2010, and second since 2006. Here are the details:

Can my online poker background and Sport Psychology MSc be utilised in the world of sport betting? Can I successfully analyse the upcoming Man U – Sunderland game, and predict its outcome?

Keep your eye on this page for a short strategy video detailing the challenge I face, and the thought process behind my decision-making.

Participants Wanted for Poker Study: 6-max SNGs

As some of you might be aware, I am currently undertaking a Master’s degree in Sport Psychology. My dissertation is going to be on decision-making in poker. If you meet the following criteria and would be interested in taking part (no fee for participation I’m afraid, but it’s going to be a fun study!) please PM me at Drag the Bar, email, or add me on Skype (search ‘casy151’)

*Winning 6max SNG player with an ROI not more than 5%

*Willing to find an hour or so to undertake the study in the next month

The Ambition Fallacy: Ruining Scottish Football

In football, momentum is critical. Strikers in the goalscoring habit make it look easy, and every chance is a goal waiting to happen. This is generally because on the pitch, those playing ‘in the moment’ are not thinking about the mechanics of what they are doing; they are too busy banging the ball into the net to care.

Making it look so care-free and natural actually requires a perfect storm of contributing factors. Firstly, a trustworthy support network is a must. The coaches who have brought the player through the ranks are usually first on the list. Family and childhood friends are vital too, for no youngster should be defined entirely by their occupation. This is why so many footballers marry and start families at such a young age.

Moving around the country (or the world) in such a stressful occupation can be too much to handle for most young, single, men. Having a reliable support network has two main benefits: it reduces the effects of stress, and, crucially, it results in potentially stressful situations being perceived as less-stressful. With a high stress threshold, a youngster can play without fear.

Promising Young Scott Allan

Promising Young Scott Allan

A promising player who bursts into the first-team, playing as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, has this impact facilitated by the love and support of those around him (keeping the pressure off his shoulders) far more than the clichéd and misleading ‘natural talent’ myth.

In short, this is why making a big move at a young age can stymie a career. A youngster’s agent and the media will perpetuate the lie that it is the player’s talent that is responsible for his career, as if talent is this one, distinct and free-standing attribute that certain people are blessed with.

The reality is far more prosaic, will sell fewer papers, and results in fewer signing-on commissions for the agent. Talent is a construct, propped up support and hard work. Think of talent like it’s the peak of a pyramid, with support and hard work as the bottom corners. Without these two crucial components providing the frame, ‘talent’ is unable to stay at the top.

The agent is focused on his commission, the media are focused on their headlines. Nobody stops to think about what is best for the youngster’s development, the fact that ‘talent’ unsupported is not truly talent: it’s potential. And it will go unfulfilled if the youngster is removed from a comforting, nurturing environment, and deposited into a bigger pond with plenty of bigger fish with better support networks already in place.

A promising teenager is not an adult; no matter their physical dimensions or performances on the park, they are still immature. They require a strong support system and will produce their best performances when they feel loved and pressure-free.

Forget what the press will say; rejecting bigger transfers at a young age is actually the most ambitious decision that a footballer can make. It requires self-awareness and self-assuredness that are traits synonymous with maturity, which is why the youngster is susceptible to making impetuous, career-harming, decisions.

The ability to say ‘the best thing for me right now is not money – after all, I already have more than I need – it is regular first-team football in a place where I am happy and well-supported by those around me. In a couple of years I will be more experienced and more mature, and ready to make a big move that befits my ability’ requires huge ambition. It shows a belief in their own career trajectory, and a respect for the importance of hard work and a reliable support system.

Making a big move at too young an age, away from their familiar surroundings, friends and family, will likely create an imbalance in the pyramid and result in ‘talent’ giving way to ‘potential’. A truly ambitious player sees where their talent can take them, and respects that the factors required to take them there cannot often be artificially manufactured somewhere else.

Of course, the irony is that a player mature enough to make the decision to reject the transfer may well be mature enough to handle the move. But that’s Scottish football; a sport filled with bad advice and short-termist outlooks. If we are not careful, we are going to have an entire generation of burnt-out, disillusioned youngsters too busy following bad advice to remember that this game is supposed to be fun. And where’s the ambition in that?

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Movin’ On Up

As well as being one of my favourite songs of all time (Movin On Up), it makes a pretty good name for September’s blog. A few of my students have found themselves in the enviable position of moving up in stakes recently. They have beaten their usual game for an impressive winrate, and now they’re ready to take a shot on some bigger buy-ins. Here’s the single biggest piece of advice that I gave them:

Blend in the new stakes; don’t jump into those games exclusively.

There are a few good reasons behind moving up in stakes slowly and seamlessly, and those reasons all centre around the individual’s comfort zone.

First and foremost, it can be intimidating to step up to higher limits. Some people become inclined to gamble it up more than usual, almost as if they’re unconsciously trying to get lucky and take the new games by storm. Others nit up, protect their chips to the bubble, and hope to take it from there. Neither strategy is optimal.

The allegory I always use is that of a young footballer. He’s an 18 year old winger and has really been impressing for the Youth Team. His style is fearless; he likes to take defenders on, using his direct running and dangerous crossing to terrorise opponents.

Now the manager selects him for the Senior team. He is ready for his first-team debut. He gets onto the pitch and instead of running at the full-back, he decides to keep it simple and play easy passes to his more experienced team-mates. When he has a chance to shoot at goal, he plays a square ball instead. Now does the manager want to see this from the youngster? He most certainly does not; the youth was selected for his mad skillz, and now he’s playing like a nit! That is not the type of performance that the manager deemed good enough for the big games.

When you move up to bigger games, you must resist the temptation to think about the stakes. Your natural game made you a stand-out at the lower-levels; now take that same skillset and keep doing what you do. Do not modify yourself initially; improvements can be phased in over time, once you have a better feel for the intricacies of the demands of the new level.

The young footballer and his manager believed that he could bring the ruckus to the first-team scene, and my students and I are no different. If I tell them they’re ready to take a shot, then they’re ready to take a shot. However, taking a shot does not encompass making broad adjustments to their natural game. It was their natural game that brought them this opportunity, and it is their natural game that will make the most of it.

The only way to overcome new limit tension is to get comfortable at those limits. The best way to get comfortable at those limits is to avoid attaching added significance to those particular games. If you tend to play 12 tables of $15s, why not try 9 of those and a couple of $30s? When the tables are stacked up, you will not give the $30s extra attention; you will just play your natural game and keep your decision-making consistent.

Or let’s say that, like me, you regularly play the $60 games on Pokerstars. You have beaten them comfortably over a big sample, and you want to start playing the $100s. Your first thought should be to select good, beatable $100 games, and mix them in with your regular $60s.

That way you get a feel for what it takes to beat the $100s without having to make the psychological leap of thinking ‘now I’m a $100s player’. Poker should be about playing in good games, not about stroking your ego by only playing the highest limits you can afford.

In a recent session, I played 40-odd $30 games, 60-odd $60s, a dozen $100s and four $15s. I’d rather have played them all at the $60s and $100s, but those games were often extremely tough and I have no interest in losing money. If a $100 6max game is registering and I see Foreman12, AndyAFC#1, Koovoon, Bigstealer and maybe one fishbowl sitting, should I think ‘well, I’m a $100 player, guess I better register’? Hell no! I think ‘there is no way on earth that I can sit in this game and expect to earn money long-term’, so I check the lobbies at lower limits instead.

So when somebody asks you what games you play at poker, your answer should not be ‘the $100 6max Sit N Gos’. Nope. Your answer should be, simply, ‘the good ones’.

***For more on the subject of Moving Up in Stakes, check out my video with MD261 entitled ‘Soft Eyes: The SNG Outlook’ only at Drag the Bar

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On Patterns

The thing is, patterns don’t exist. Things happen, entirely at random, and we instinctively attempt to rationalise, formulate, and categorise them under the totally arbitrary and misleading title ‘patterns’. Do any of the following sound familiar to you?

‘I was running like dogshit so I quit.’

‘I lost my first five coinflips and I thought ‘uh oh, it’s gonna be one of those sessions!’.’

‘These big combo-draws haven’t been hitting for me recently, so I decided to just fold instead of jamming.’

In poker, the equity of decision-making should exist entirely in a vacuum; or rather, the swings of fortune/misfortune have no bearing on the mathematical correctness of each decision. Just because you are, in fact, running like dogshit, doesn’t mean that you should eschew the mathematically best decision (ie. shoving) in favour of the ‘safer’ option of folding. When that happens, you are letting variance win. You are allowing the totally random will of the Poker Gods to influence you towards making a sub-optimal decision. So much for poker being a skill game!

Just think of how much mental energy and focus you could free if you stop allowing these arbitrary ‘patterns’ to permeate your decision-making. They don’t exist, and yet poker players expend so much focus trying to rationalise them. Let’s take a look at my results over the last ten days:

Day one: + $807
Day two: + $347

This is going so well! I’ve cracked poker! I’m a genius! The poker Gods love me!

Day three: – $1571
Day four: – $528
Day five: – $189

Jesus, I suck. The poker Gods are punishing me. I run so bad. I hate this f game!

Day six: + $1179
Day seven: + $667
Day eight: + $263
Day nine: day off
Day ten: + $138

Cracked it again! Poker is my BITCH!

These ten days yielded an overall win of + $1113. I like to earn money, so this is good news. However, notice how completely arbitrary my means of demarcation are! Had I elected to use a five-day sample rather than ten, I would have been stuck $1134 – rather less impressive. And had I gone for a twenty-day sample, guess what? Back to being a genius again: a win of $1962!

Now, it looks as if my winning and losing days come in streaks. I win for a few days, lose for a few days, win for a few days. There must be something behind that, right?

Well, for me the answer is no. I have a deep-enough understanding of variance by now to recognise that this is just chance, just the swongs of online poker. For the more recreational player who checks his results after every session, is more apt to tilt, and generally allows his confidence to be affected by the short-term swings inherent in the game, then yes, I would agree that he is marginally more likely to book a few winning days in a row while his confidence is high.

However, in my case (and hopefully yours too!), variance plays a miniscule part in my poker life. Some days I run good, some days I run bad. Overall, I run exactly even. If I allow a completely alien factor such as ‘how I’m running’ to inform my decision-making, then I’m losing the poker battle. And making correct decisions is the ONLY consideration at the poker table. It is all that matters.

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Poker and Football

…two of my favourite things. Watching England’s supplicant display against Italy in last week’s European Championship fixture reminded me of Chelsea versus Bayern Munich in the recent Champions League Final. In both encounters, the seemingly weaker side elected to sit back and defend for virtually the entire match with the intention of booking a penalty shoot-out or binking an improbable goal on the break.

As with poker, the margins for success in football are extremely thin. Chelsea managed to hang tight against Bayern, take the game to penalties as befits their pre-match gameplan, and win the battle of nerves against the German megastars. Their manager Roberto di Matteo might not have selected an entertaining route to victory, but by God it was successful. With the trophy in his back pocket, di Matteo’s negative selection policy was vindicated.

Contrast this with the England performance against Italy last week. Similarly spirited displays that offered plenty in guts but little in imagination. With a defensive line that held steadfast even in the face of near-constant Italian domination, England mimicked Chelsea’s doggedness and they too secured the target of a penalty shootout. Had England triumphed (as looked likely before two late misses from Young and Cole in a swongy shootout), then their affable manager Roy Hodgson would have been vindicated a la di Matteo.

So how does this relate to poker? Well it’s pretty simple. In poker, results don’t matter. Decisions and performance are all that a serious poker player will focus their energy on. I have lost count of the times that I have explained to a student why their decision was not a correct one, only for them to shoot back with ‘ah but he folded so it worked’. This type of thinking may be relevant in footballing terms (ie. ‘Chelsea’s defensiveness won them the trophy so it was a good tactical decision’, or ‘England’s gamble to play for penalties didn’t work because they lost’) but it has no place in poker. In football, results are everything. The fact that they played like a fish will be instantly forgotten if they take the trophy home; vindication is in the winning.

When it comes to poker, the result is an often-inconvenient footnote to the decision-making process.


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Doing Nothing

Hi folks,

I’ve been mulling over this blog for a while now, and couldn’t quite work out how to approach it. It’s a tough concept to articulate, and is one that I believe that the vast majority of poker players fail to acknowledge. In fact, I’d go further; most people in life seem to have trouble with it.

At the tables I had an ugly downswing that lasted around six weeks. It was pretty unfortunate and expensive, but there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done about it. I ran an obscene amount below EV in all-in pots, and a disproportionate amount of moves that I made ran into tops of opponents’ ranges.

For a poker player, if you are not familiar with this then you don’t play enough. It’s a reality of the game, and I’m certainly not complaining. In fact, I was able to take a really great positive out of the downswing, and it is the moral of this blog:

Sometimes the hardest thing is doing nothing.

I’m not talking about playing less. I’m not talking about folding more. I’m talking about resisting the urge to make reactionary changes to my game. This took great discipline and confidence in my ability.

I have an ROI of over 8% across all sites; just because my results took a dip did not mean that I had suddenly become a fishbowl at the tables. I had to keep faith in the style (somewhere between TAG and LAG, I guess) that had earned me a lot of money over the last few years. This was not as easy as it sounds.

It is my view that the vast majority of people expend an excessive amount of focus and mental energy on matters that are completely outwith their control. In poker terms, this involves sweating cards, berating fish, and cursing the Poker Gods.

We are egotistical creatures and we want to control everything. When things go against us, we have an urge to adjust our (winning) strategy because we fear that it is no longer profitable. This is not just counter-productive, it is poker suicide.

An obvious example is merely calling or checking back a monster draw because ‘they just haven’t been hitting recently’. In other words, reining in your poker instincts because of some short-term negative variance is going to adversely affect your bankroll.

It is natural to look for a scapegoat, and it is not always easy to keep faith in your decision-making when you can see your bankroll diminish by the day. However, sometimes you have to hold your hands up, say ‘all I can do is ensure that the next decision that I make is the best one possible’, and let the Poker Gods do their worst.

Any significant changes to your game should be implemented from a position of strength, when you are thinking matters through clearly and can handle the swings emotionally. In real life, I have lost count of the amount of people who have had a shitty day at work or whatever and decided that they need to make a radical alteration to their life.

Of course, this is often just venting; we all do it and we all need to do it. However, I can’t help but feel that these decisions should be shelved until an unemotional state of mind can be accomplished.

In other words, when things are going bad, focus on riding it out. Big changes can wait until the downswing – at the tables or in real life – has subsided. Minor adjustments and improvements should always be at the forefront of one’s mind, but the real radical stuff can wait til another day.

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Everything Flows

Hey folks,

I like to swim.  I’m not very good at it, but I do it five times a week and it’s a great way of improving my fitness (hey, I’m an online poker player – exercise is pretty foreign to me). One thing that I’ve been mulling over recently is the concept of being In The Zone.

Every now and then, I get into a great flow where swimming feels completely natural. I glide through the water without fatigue and without even having to think about my technique. This is my swimming A Game.

Most of the time, I need a little break after a dozen or so lengths. My technique starts pretty well but, as I tire, my time deteriorates and I get pretty leggy.  This is my B Game.

And then there are times when I get into the pool, swim five lengths with considerable exertion and then go for a sauna.  I do not want to be in the pool, and the pool does not want me.  Ours is a loveless marriage.  This is my C Game.

Over time, I have noticed that my C Game days have decreased from once a week to once every few weeks.  My A Game days have increased in turn; in any given week I will have at least one of these.  My B Game is my standard, and it has improved dramatically. As I swim more regularly, what is my A Game today will be superceded  by next month’s B Game.  Next month’s C Game will equate to today’s B Game. In other words, improvement is a moving target.  Tommy Angelo calls this ‘improving from the bottom up and from the top up’, and I think he’s bang on the mark with this one.

I did a coaching session this week with a student who plays the 18-Man SNGs on Pokerstars.  He did not play flawlessly; I would say that he played his B Game.  However, his B Game this week is vastly superior to his A Game of three months ago.  Improvement may not be easy to measure in yourself, but hard work ensures that these In Flow A Game moments occur more frequently. And that is a pretty good target to strive for.

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