Poker Winners Are Different by Alan Schoonmaker

by Joseph Harris
on August 17, 2018
10

Minute Read

Most poker players are net losers over time. In fact, only 10% of poker players are profitable over time. If you use this as your criteria for defining “poker winners” versus “poker losers,” it’s clear that poker winners are different.

And that’s a great title for a book which analyzes the attitudes and habits that separate the winners from the losers.

It turns out that winning at poker has to do with doing things that losers aren’t willing to do. Yeah, poker is a complex game, but anyone with reasonable intelligence can figure out the nuts and bolts of winning at poker. Tight play, aggressive play, and the ability to do some simple math are all most people need to start profiting.

But 90% of players don’t have what it takes. I’d suggest that winners have something else going on, and author Alan Schoonmaker agrees.

Better than that, he tries to answer the question of what else is going on with these winners. When you know what that is, maybe you can get the same thing going on.

What Do Winning Poker Players Do?

In his usual succinct style, David Sklansky lists the 4 things highly successful poker players do in the foreword to this book:

  • They learn how to play as well as they can.
  • They play their best all the time.
  • They choose games which offer the highest expected value (EV)—assuming they’re bankrolled well enough for it.
  • They avoid games where their bankroll is too small.

Does that sound obvious?

Sklansky seems to think so, because he mentions that in the next paragraph of the foreword:

“Duh, you might be thinking to yourself, pretty obvious.” Why do things any other way if winning serious money at poker is a high priority for you? And I agree. But I also know that most aspiring poker pros do not always do these things, not only because they are psychologically difficult, but especially since they can sometimes get away without doing them.”

Sklansky also points out some of the things that winning poker players do that are hard:

  • Concentrating
  • Studying
  • Folding almost playable hands
  • Choosing smaller games because they offer better EV

He goes on to explain that the rest of the book offers techniques for overcoming the emotional and psychological pressure to not do what is needed to become a winning poker player.

Poker Winners Are Different Table of Contents

The best history professor I ever had once explained to my class that most people haven’t been taught how to read a nonfiction book. He went on to explain that the first thing you should do when reading a book is to read the table of contents.

In deference to him, I’ve included the table of contents for Poker Winners Are Different below:

PART ONE – Introduction

1- Poker Winners Are Really Different

2- Winners Are More Motivates and Disciplined

3- Winners Make Good Trade-Offs

4- Winners Manage Risks and Information Very Well

PART TWO –  Winners Control Their Focus

Introduction: Winners Control Their Focus

5- Winners Focus on Long-Term Results

6- Winners Focus on the Here and Now

7- Winners Focus on Power

8- Winners Focus on Other People

9- Winners Consider Complexities

PART THREE – Winners Control Their Thought Processes

Introduction: Winners Control Their Thought Process

10- Winners Are Brutally Realistic

11- Winners Think Logically

12- Winners Prepare Thoroughly

13- Winners Concentrate Intensely

14- Winners Probe Efficiently

15- Winners Use Feedback Loops Well

PART FOUR – Winners Control the Information They Transmit

Introduction: Winners Control the Information They Transmit

16- Winners Are Judiciously Deceptive

17- Winners Create the Right Imagines

PART FIVE – Winners Control Their Reactions to Feelings

Introduction: Winners Control Their Reactions to Feelings

18- Winners Accept Poker As It Is

19- Winners Depersonalize Conflicts

PART SIX – Winners Act Decisively

20- Winners Are Selectively Aggressive

21- Winners Push When They Are Winning

22- Winners Adjust Effectively to Changes

23- Winners Pay Their Dues

24- How to Become a Winner

Moving from Loser to Winner According to Poker Winners Are Different

If you’re a poker loser who wants to become a poker winner, you need to admit your faults and weaknesses first. It’s kind of like taking a fearless and thorough moral inventory in a 12 step program. Then you need to understand why you exhibit those faults and weaknesses.

The great thing about Poker Winners Are Different is that it provides a checklist with which to take such an inventory. Along with that checklist, it offers ways out of these traps.

I’ve written before about my own weaknesses as a poker player. I’ve jokingly mentioned that I tell people I’m a break-even player, but the truth is, I’m part of the 90% of poker players who lose consistently. This isn’t because I’m ignorant, either. It’s because I’m undisciplined.

Luckily, most of the poker players I know have at least some of the same faults. I’m not the Lone Ranger.

This all speaks to the mental aspect of poker, and Poker Winners Are Different is one of the best books about the mental game that I’ve read. (I also liked The Tao of Poker, but for different reasons.)

But Poker Winners Are Different Isn’t a Perfect Book

Poker Winners Are Different is excellent, but it’s not flawless. The book focuses more on problems than solutions. Yes, Schoonmaker provides advice for overcoming the weaknesses you might be exhibiting, but he devotes too little time to explaining what you should do instead.

Also, some of the psychological advice reminds me of my own experiences in 12 step programs. There’s a tendency to generalize one’s own experience and assume that everyone with similar problems has those problems for the same reason.

I think most poker players will benefit greatly from reading this book, though. You can buy it on Kindle for just $6 on Amazon, and they’ll deliver it electronically almost instantly.

An Example Problem from the Book

In the introduction, Schoonmaker offers several story problems with situations. The reader’s job is to choose what he’d most likely do in a given situation. In the first appendix, you can find out what a winner would do in that situation and why.

Here’s an example:

You’re playing $2/$5 no limit, and you have $100 in front of you. The dealer gives you pocket aces, and you go all-in. How many players do you want to call you? You get to choose between 1 and 9.

The correct answer is, of course, 9.

But many players—even some who are good—would actually be disappointed with that many callers. After all, with that many callers, you’re much more likely to lose the hand.

If you get heads-up, you’ll win with pocket aces 85% of the time, but once you get 9 other players in the pot with you, your probability of winning drops to 30%.

The difference has to do with the expected value of that situation.

Would you rather win $100 85% of the time, or $900 30% of the time?

The expected value is simple enough. 85% of $100 is $85, compared to 30% of $900, which is $270.

Once you take into account the blinds, your long-term expected value from having 9 callers in that situation is close to triple what it would be if you were heads up.

The Main Differences between Winners and Losers

In a section at the beginning of the book, Schoonmaker lists the major factors that differ between winners and losers. The factors are:

  • Motivation
  • Discipline

Schoonmaker describes winning poker player’s motivation as “an intense desire to win.”

He describes their discipline as “extreme self-control.”

Examples of the behaviors that lead from these 2 traits include:

  • Working harder
  • Studying longer
  • Remaining more alert
  • Avoiding games they can’t beat
  • Attacking more ruthlessly
  • Criticizing themselves more harshly
  • Refusing to yield to their emotions

But there’s one example that’s more important than any other:

Winning poker players insist on always having an edge.

The author does question the compulsive need to win and suggests that some balance is probably better for your mental health. But from the direct perspective of what’s going to be more likely to cause you to win, any attitude or mistake that isn’t optimal subtracts from your chances of being a winning player.

Would you describe yourself as having an “intense” desire to win?

Would you describe yourself as having “extreme” self-control?

If the answer to either of those questions is no, you’re more likely to be one of the 90% of poker players who lose.

He points out that this intense desire to win is a type of competitiveness, and for most poker players, it’s separate from the idea of what that money can buy. Poker is also, by its nature, a game for predators. And in nature, predators prey on the weak. That’s the way of the world, and it’s the way of poker.

Most of the money you win in poker doesn’t come from outsmarting the good players. It comes from taking advantage of the mistakes of the bad players.

Single-mindedness is the order of the day. You have one goal—win money. Other goals at the poker table distract from that, but for a lot of people, it’s a big part of the game. You might feel guilty lying about your hand, or you might enjoy criticizing bad player, and you might want to take it easy on your friends at the table.

But it’s not just about wanting to give up these other motivations. It’s also about being able to give up these other motivations. That’s where the extreme self-discipline comes in.

Disciplined players fold hands even when they want to play them. They attack players they like even though they might feel guilty about it. They never criticize weak players, even though the short-term reward for that is to feel better.

A lot of these behaviors are unpleasant for a lot of poker players. If you have self-discipline, you’re willing to live with that unpleasantness and grow numb to it.

Of course, this is just a tiny sample of the kind of thinking this book offers, but it’s central to the book’s themes.

About Alan Schoonmaker

He’s one of my favorite poker writers, so it would be a shame to not include some additional information about Alan Schoonmaker here.

Besides Poker Winners Are Different, Schoonmake is also the author of:

  • The Psychology of Poker
  • Your Worst Poker Enemy
  • Your Best Poker Friend
  • The Poker Party Is Over: What Will You Do Now?
  • How to Beat Small Poker Games

Schoonmaker has a Ph. D. in industrial psychology from the University of California. He’s taught college, managed companies, and done consulting for huge corporations all over the world. Some of his consulting clients have include Chase Manhattan and General Motors.

He has written and developed intellectual property related to sales as well as poker.

You’ll be more likely to find him at the low stakes tables in a cardroom, as he’s stated a preference for relaxing and people-watching. The players at the lower stakes table make for more interesting observing.

Conclusion

Unless you just have a terrible understanding of the game, the biggest difference between you and winning poker players boils down to self-discipline. It’s important to stick with profitable plays, regardless of how “good” or “bad” it feels to make those plays.

Poker Winners Are Different is possibly the best book on the psychology of winning poker on the market. If you can’t improve your game by reading this book, it probably has more to do with a lack of willingness on your part than any flaws on the part of the book or its author. Denial is a powerful thing, psychologically. (Believe me, I’m writing from experience.)

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