The 7 Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned After Decades of Playing Poker

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Most Important Poker Lessons to Learn

I learned the basics of poker playing Five-Card Draw with my mom. We would just play for plastic chips that had no monetary value. I thought it was the dullest game I’d ever played. At the time, I was a lot more interested in Scrabble or Yahtzee.

But I knew enough to play poker with my teenage buddies. We just played penny ante poker, but when you’re working for $3.35 per hour, penny ante poker still means something.

We’d never heard of Texas holdem then.

When I was a young professional in Dallas, Texas, I started playing serious poker for real money.

And I learned a lot. Fast forward to today, and I’ve got plenty to share with you.
Here are the seven most important lessons I learned playing poker since then:

1 – Don’t Be So Results-Oriented (DBSO)

I used to play poker with a guy whose nickname was “Lobster.” (One of the things I love about poker is the nicknames. Remind me to tell you about “Doctor Tilt” sometime!)

Lobster was good at poker. I met him through one of my college buddies who was also really good at poker. All three of us were good enough to make consistent profits.

I was still new to serious poker, though, and I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Lobster where I was complaining about a bad beat. He said, “DBSRO.”
I said, “What?”

He said, “DBSRO – don’t be so results-oriented.”

The point he was making, and it was an excellent point, is that in poker, you should focus more on taking the right actions than you are on the results of those actions. Poker is a game of chance, and you can make all the right decisions and still lose any individual hand.

Individual hands don’t matter. Your long-term results matter, but the only way to achieve long-term positive results is to focus with insane amounts of attention to making the right decisions in individual situations. Shrug when those individual decisions don’t work out the way you’d hope because in the long run, things will work out.

2 – Never Feel Guilty About Winning a Loser’s Money

I was playing in one of my first underground cardrooms with my aforementioned college buddy, and one of the guys at the poker table couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 years old. Since we were playing in an underground room, the managers weren’t rigorous about checking ID.

After the game, I told Tom that I felt guilty about taking that kid’s money at the table. He obviously had no clue what he was doing at the poker table.

Tom corrected me fast.


He said, “That kid probably got the money to play from his parents. He showed poor judgment with how he played his cards. His parents showed poor judgment giving him the money to play. Our job, as older, more experienced poker players, is to be there to teach that kid and his parents better judgment through their new life experiences.”

And Tom was right. No one forced that teenager to sit down at that poker table with us. No one forced his parents to give him money or provide him with so little supervision that he was able to wind up at a poker table with a couple of old cynics like us.

We were in our late twenties at the time, by the way. (I say that with a wink.)

3 – Getting Great Cards Is Good, But Paying Attention Is Better

I ran into one of my poker acquaintances from Dallas while gambling in Las Vegas once. We were playing at the same no limit table, and the guy’s nickname was “Rock.” His nickname was indicative of his playing style.

He was in early position and raised. I wasn’t paying attention to what he or any of the other players had done. All I knew was that I had AQ offsuit, and it was a playable hand with large cards in it. I went all-in.

Had I been paying attention to the action before me, I would have known that “Rock” had raised from early position. Knowing his playing style, he could have only had three (maybe four) possible hands in that situation:

  • AA
  • KK
  • QQ
  • AK suited

Rock wouldn’t raise from early position with anything less than that.

And what do all those hands have in common?

They all dominate my AQ offsuit.

It turns out he had pocket aces, and I busted out on my first hand. I had to do the walk of shame to the ATM before I could buy back in.

All of which could have been avoided if I’d only been paying attention to the game.

When you’re playing serious poker, ignore the chit chat, ignore the television, and pay attention to what’s going on in every hand.

You should even pay attention to what’s happening in the hands you’re not participating in. You can learn a lot about what kind of players you’re facing at the table. This can inform your later decisions.

Winning when playing poker is made up of lots of small decisions and tiny edges that accumulate over time. You can’t afford to lose even 0.1% of potential expected value just because you want to watch the game on television while you’re playing poker.

4 – Scared Money Really Does Always Lose

I’ve “taken a shot” many times. I’ve also occasionally played with money I couldn’t afford to lose. Here’s the problem with the latter:

Scared money always loses.

When you’re playing with money you can’t afford to lose, you make different decisions that are less than ideal than you would if you were playing with an appropriate poker bankroll.

The solution is simple. Set aside an amount, no matter how small, to be your starting bankroll Vow to never touch that money for anything other than poker.

Then, commit to never buying into a game for more than 5% of your bankroll.

As you improve at poker, your bankroll will grow. As your bankroll gets bigger, you’ll be able to move up in stakes.

And, since you’re buying in for such a small percentage of your bankroll, your money will never be “scared.”

5 – Bad Beats Mean You’re a Good Poker Player

You know which poker players don’t experience bad beats?

Bad poker players.

A bad beat, by definition, means you got your money into the pot when you had the best of it. If you’re putting your money in the pot when you have the best of it consistently, you’ll be a winner in the long run.

It’s impossible to get a bad beat if you didn’t start off with a better hand.
Also, you’re expected to have a bad beat on occasion.

Playing Poker

If you have pocket aces against a full table, go all-in, and everyone else at the table calls you, then you’ll lose the hand two-thirds of the time.

But you’re still making a profitable play, because the one-third of the time you win, you’ll be getting 9 to 1 on your money.

Don’t be discouraged by your bad beats.

Be encouraged by your bad beats.

6 – Underground Poker Games Aren’t Worth It

When I lived in Dallas and played in a lot of underground cardrooms, I had enormous amounts of fun. There was a lot of comradeship and levity.

The problems started happening when the SWAT team started busting through the doors into some of the games.

In my case, I could switch and start driving up to Choctaw or Winstar to play poker in a legal, regulated, safe setting.

It wasn’t worth saving 30 or 45 minutes of windshield time to play poker with the possibility of getting an arrest. Playing in the games was only a misdemeanor, but misdemeanors still come up when they run a background check when you’re applying for a job.

Nope, underground poker is fun but isn’t worth it to me anymore.

7 – Poker in Real Life Isn’t Much Like It Is on Television

If you watch a lot of televised poker and want to try your hand at a game in real life, that’s great.

But keep this in mind—they film hours upon hours of footage and edit that down to an hour-long show to make the game more interesting for television.

In real life, poker is often as dull as watching paint dry.

Occasionally there’s a big hand, and you get an adrenaline rush.

But if you watch poker on television, you’ll probably think that you’ll be in action a lot more often than you would be in real life.

In the real world, if you’re good at poker, you’re folding a lot.


Those are the seven biggest lessons I’ve learned about poker in my couple of decades playing. What kinds of lesson have you learned?

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for since early 2016. ...

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Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry fo ...

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