Avoid the Trap of Misapplying New Theory

by Henry Jacobson

Do you ever find that when you learn about new theory through reading, watching a training video or group discussion, that you feel excited and motivated to put it into practice in your next poker session, only to have it blow up in your face?

I’d like to say a little about this potential mental game issue and to do so I’m going to use an analogy from sports. I’ve played a lot of golf and whenever I would work with my coach on swing adjustments, I would always go out for my next round very excited to try out the adjustments I had worked on and that had felt so good during the session. I invariably had a frustrating round.

Because of this, I stopped trying to apply these adjustments during my next round. Instead, I would work on them on the range, think about them and then just let them “appear” during subsequent rounds.

To say more about this, and staying with the golf analogy, let’s say that I worked with my coach on setting my hands higher at the top of my backswing. Let’s also say that during the session I was absolutely striping the ball when I did this and could see that when I made this adjustment correctly, in a controlled environment, the result was positive, resulting in truer ball flight and more distance. While I was doing this, however, I was also aware of how uncomfortable the adjustment felt because it was different from the way I’d been setting my hands at the top of my backswing for pretty much my entire golfing life.

So, I adjusted the way I applied my adjustments…


Instead of immediately jumping into a round of golf or a tournament in which I’d be investing a lot of time and expense and possibly have a sizable wager on, I’d take the adjustment to the practice range. There I’d practice it, visualize it, and think about it until it started to feel integrated with my swing.

Now I know, because I have experience and self-awareness, that although the adjustment had become more comfortable to me, that it still felt somewhat foreign. That said, I’d done my best to get it onboard, and I had to jump into a game sometime.

When I stepped on the first tee, I didn’t think about the adjustment. When I took the club back, I did it in a way that felt comfortable and natural to me. The first couple of holes went well, I was feeling comfortable with my game and my confidence was starting to flow.

A couple of holes later, the confidence was really flowing as I prepared to hit a long fairway iron into the green. It occurred to me that rather than club up to a 4-iron, I would much rather hit a 5-iron over which I had more control. It also occurred to me that if I set my hands higher at the top of my backswing, that the adjustment, executed correctly, would produce an additional 10  yards in length with the 5-iron. I was full of confidence and I liked the approach from a course management perspective, so I pulled the 5-iron from my bag and consciously decided to set my hands higher at the top of my backswing as I’d been practicing it. I ripped the 5-iron 180 yards, which is 10 yards further than I usually hit my 5-iron and ended up hole-high.

What had I done here? I had, following an adequate amount of practice and mental work, selectively introduced the adjustment to my play where it had a high probability of succeeding because my confidence was high, the opportunity made sense, and the reward for successful execution was optimal.

Over time, I would continue to selectively introduce this adjustment to my game, with increasing frequency, until it began to feel second nature.

So, with that in mind, what would be the poker equivalent?

In the poker context, I think we need to assume that we have the discipline not to force new theory into our play just because we got pumped up from a study session. Having established that, the keys would be to sleep on it, and visualize the in-game conditions where we could see ourselves applying the new theory. We should then hold off on attempts to apply the new theory until we find ourselves in a session where things are going well (perhaps we’ve already booked a nice result) and our confidence is high. At that point, we can open ourselves up to identifying opportunities to selectively and optimally apply new theory without forcing it. Selectivity is the key. If it goes well, our confidence will benefit from it, and if it goes badly, it won’t throw our session into a tailspin because we’re already in a positive position for the session and we will know that we took a well considered, selective and stepwise approach to applying the new theory. In either case, we should mark the hand for subsequent review, and build on it from there.


This discussion appeared in Bear Hug Poker’s mental game discussion forum, “MindHug”. MindHug’s mission is to maintain a constant focus on the mental game development of Bear Hug players. Bear Hug Poker coaches work with players on an on-going basis addressing mental game issues and developing the foundation for mental game development through the practice of meditation and mindfulness training. If you are a professional poker player, interested in learning and training in a staking environment that emphasises player development, please submit an application form at http://www.bearhugpoker.com/apply-for-staking/

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