What makes a Great Poker Player?
Nov 25, 2005  
2005 Jason Kirk  

What makes a great poker player? The question is deceptively simple. The obvious answer is that they win, but taking a look at the question on a deeper level - asking what gives champions their ability to excel where others do not - offers the opportunity to find more revealing (and satisfying) answers.

The fact that there is room enough in the championship ranks for players as diverse as Dan Harrington, Doyle Brunson, Greg Raymer and Stu Ungar tells us that there is no particular style of play that makes winners. Once you reach the world-class level of play, a loose-aggressive player is just as likely to win a given tournament as a tight-aggressive player. Likewise, there's no single personality type that guarantees poker success more than any other. Big talkers like Mike Matusow and deep thinkers like Howard Lederer win all the time. So if these sorts of criteria don't determine greatness, what does? The best players in the world have two things in common: work ethic and a love of the game.

Work Ethic

Simply put, great poker players work harder than others. Work ethic can take many different forms, but it all boils down to a willingness to do whatever is necessary to be great. Old Texas gamblers like Doyle Brunson and T.J. Cloutier were willing to spend long periods of time on the road, traveling thousands of miles to find games. Players like Chris "Jesus" Ferguson with reputations as numbers wizards have spent countless hours thinking about the underlying mathematics of the game. Some players like Ted Forrest have spent long periods of time studying computer simulations, determining ways to play that others might never consider. And many players have spent at least some portion of their lives as poker dealers, studying the flow of the game and the people who play it.

All of the above examples involve poker players doing things that others would consider too boring, or just too time-consuming to tackle themselves. The truth is, these things often are boring and time-consuming. The flip side is that these are the sorts of things that are necessary to fully understand the game. Without a solid work ethic, the greats would never undertake such tasks.

Love of the Game

Everyone knows that it's hard to succeed at something you don't enjoy doing. What can escape some people's notice is something subtly different: in order to excel, you have to truly love what you do. Just having a good time doing something isn't enough to elevate you to excellence. The desire to play poker absolutely has to be an integral part of your make-up if you ever want to be a world-class player. There are a lot of reasons for this. The emotional swings involved in poker for a living are difficult for many people to deal with, and the financial swings are equally difficult to weather. The inevitable extended bad streaks players will run into are not only emotionally difficult, but they can grind the enthusiasm straight out of a player just through the sheer boredom that comes from playing thousands of hands without notching a win. Finally, if you don't truly love the game the chances are that you'll find other activities you'd rather do and spend your time with them instead of logging the many thousands of hours of play that it takes to become world-class.

Plenty of recreational players win tournaments and do well in cash games, but over time most of them burn out or turn their attention to other pursuits when poker no longer holds their interest. The players who are at the tables year after year, posting career winning records and winning accolades from their peers, are those who simply can't live without playing poker. When it comes to long-term greatness, there's no substitute for this burning desire.


You can be a winning player, and possibly even experience success at a high level, without possessing an overwhelming desire to be great. After all, poker is a game that involves luck and some people experience that luck in bursts at just the right time. When it comes down to being a consistent winner over time, though, there's no way around hard work - and the willingness to put in such work can only come from loving the game.

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