Thursday, 26 February 2015
Dara O'K on the best ways to learn.
A friend of mine who owns a gym once told me that he got more new members in January than in the rest of the year. You, like me, probably have friends who tell you their New Year’s resolution is to get in shape. They join a gym, attend a few times and then never darken its doorstep for the rest of the year. My friend went on to say that he hired more staff seasonally to get through this bottleneck, and that if all the New Year’s resolutionbandwagon-riders stayed all year round, he would need more staff overall and would have to charge higher membership fees.
I suspect the same novelty ethic may be true of poker training sites. How many poker players sign up to sites at the start of the New Year, resolving to watch a lot of videos to improve their play? A lot more than are still watching videos come November, I’m betting. So before you fire off an annual subscription to one or more sites, you should probably ask yourself a number of questions:
1. Are you the type of person described above who tends to sign up to new activities which then fade over time? If so, maybe you should take a shorter subscription on a month by month basis, even if this would work out more expensive in the long term if you do stick with it.
2. Are you the type of person who even learns well from instructional videos? In poker terms, some learn best by instruction, some learn by sitting down and working out the maths and strategic concepts for themselves, some learn by talking to other players or reading books or strategy pieces and a lot of others learn simply by trial and error. Most of us can learn in more than one of these ways, but will also be better at some methods than others. It’s important to identify for yourself which categories you hit. I don’t learn well from videos. I watch them too passively, like a movie. I learn much better from reading and discussing my play with other players, as if having to read or talk forces my brain out of the entertainment zone into critical thought.
3. Even if you are someone who stays the course, and learns from visual media, does the training site you sign up to offer the types of videos that you will learn best from?
Most training sites seem to hire instructors almost entirely on the basis of their record as profitable players, which is understandable as anyone would be dubious about learning from someone who is not a decent winning player. In addition to reputation, however, the second marketable asset seems to be entertainment. I suspect a lot of the sites realize the attraction for a lot of recreational players is the chance to watch a top player while they talk entertainingly about their play. But a lot of good players who speak engagingly are terrible teachers. Their videos end up as a collection of random hands during a session they recorded by chance, with badly explained decisions and no conceptual framework.
The acceptance of instructional videos as the default method to learn is unusually common in poker compared to most other areas We don’t train doctors by sending med students a bunch of videos of existing doctors at work: they are required to attend lectures, complete practical examinations and read a lot. Football coaches don’t coach kids by sitting them down to watch videos of Lionel Messi and tell them to do what he does. At their worst, poker videos are simply watching the action while a top player makes rapid-fire decisions in real time and gives shorthand explanations of a thought process that only players at his level will understand. Surely the point of educational videos is to help players not yet at that level to get there?
I don’t want to dismiss the genre entirely (or its close relative, the hand history review): it’s certainly true that some instructors are a lot better at it than others. Espen Sorlie at RunItOnce is very good at explaining his exact thought processes in specific spots and zooming out to the bigger picture. Most others are not so good, however. They give you the tree by tree view of the forest. And even when done as well as possible, the problem remains that you are still essentially watching a series of random unrelated spots that just happened to arise in a particular session.
Some instructors like Andrew Brokos at Tournament Poker Edge do tend to take a much more fruitful approach of introducing a concept, explaining the reasons behind related strategy, and only then moving on to specific examples. This is exactly how good training material in other areas is structured and designed. It may be a lot more fun to watch a top player clicking buttons on a number of tables at once than it is to watch a slideshow, but your goal should be education rather than entertainment.
So by all means, sign up to a training site as part of your New Year resolve to improve. Just make sure that you are getting value for money and that you wouldn’t be better off spending that money on a book. Or a gym membership. Or a subscription to Bluff Europe magazine.