There's no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a successful poker player. A decade or two ago, the recipe was pretty simple: step one, be a person of at least average intelligence, step two, start playing a bunch of poker while learning from your mistakes, step three - profit! It's not exactly that simple anymore.
Poker is becoming more and more competitive with each passing year and players aiming at becoming successful are in need of a new blueprint, that will help them achieve their goal. Seeing as poker shares many similarities with the world of finance (playing cards basically boils down to making lots of small rapid investments into what we believe are profitable opportunities) we might be able to borrow some wisdom from their domain. There's this great quote stating that in order to be successful in money-making business you have to either "be first, be smarter, or cheat". This old idea was oh so brilliantly expressed by the great Jeremy Irons in one of the most underrated movies in the history of modern cinema called "Margin Call" (if you're at least a bit interested in the world of finance or the financial crisis of 2008 you owe it to yourself to watch this one) and it might be insightful enough, to build a modern poker career around it.
We already know how important proper mindset is to a poker player's overall success, and while there are plenty of great paradigms to choose from for those of us who are more philosophically inclined, some poker players might benefit from a more pragmatic approach like the aforementioned tried and true mantra - "be first, be smarter, or cheat".
This is perhaps the simplest way of getting ahead in poker. However, while it is, in fact, very simple it's unfortunately not easy. Let me offer you a few examples. Setting up a PartyPoker account around 2006 wasn't much more difficult than it is now but it was potentially a lot more profitable. Same goes for being one of the first Poker Office or PokerStove users. It's also pretty safe to assume, that many of the first "Super System", "Harrington on Holdem" or "Poker Mindset" readers managed to turn their love for literature into some hard-earned cash. Then they were the first Stox Poker and Cardrunners subscribers, the first players to try to form a study group etc. etc. The poker world is full of opportunities, and while not every one of them is worthwhile, it often pays to be one of the first players to the table.
Unfortunately, it's no longer the year 1979 or 2004 or 2006. It's 2018 and excessive reminiscing about "the good old days" is probably -EV. "Build a time machine and register on PartyPoker circa 2006" is not really an applicable piece of advice. Or is it? The world of profitable poker didn't magically end a decade ago. There are still plenty of new and exciting prospects popping up every other month and it's still possible to gain a significant edge on the opponents, by seizing some of those opportunities earlier than everyone else.
When PokerStars introduced the "Spin & Go" format on their website, most of the hyper-turbo SNG regulars were busy whining on the poker forums that this new format is ruining the games for them by siphoning all of the recreationals. They complained that it's an unprofitable crapshoot with a very high rake (a statement that seemed at least a tiny bit ironic coming from the hyper-turbo SNG crowd). Meanwhile, a small minority of the more industrious regs were busy making calculations confirming that Spin & Go's could, in fact, be profitable and adjusting their strategy to the new and exciting format. It goes without saying that the latter approach proved to be a lot more lucrative in the long run.
The rise of Twitch.tv is another great example. Just a few years back, very few people knew who Jaime Staples or Parker Talbot were. There are countless examples of other Twitch poker streamers who managed to build or redefine their career using this new and exciting medium. Many of them did so mostly by virtue of the fact, that they were one of the first to try.
Perhaps the clearest example of extreme profits for early adopters comes from the world of cryptocurrencies. It might seem like Bitcoin is in a relatively rough place right now - but this is only true for people who were really late to the crypto party. Current bitcoin price of around $7k might look really bad when compared to what was happening near the end of 2017, but let's not forget that you could buy bitcoin for way less than $1k a pop in 2016 and, let's be honest, people who invested in cryptocurrencies two years ago were barely ahead of the curve. Even though the worlds of crypto and poker became a bit more entwined relatively recently, they were always 'good neighbors' seeing as they both operate on the fringes of what's considered 'mainstream'. I first heard about Bitcoin around 2012 from a fellow poker player and while I didn't become a cryptocurrency millionaire, the fact that I randomly came close leads me to believe that poker players were always a bit more likely to become early bitcoin adopters. Bitcoin might be down for the count but it's definitely not out and I have a sneaking suspicion that it will stay with us for years to come.
Lastly, let's talk a bit about being first in the context of a good poker room selection. Perhaps the most current example of great opportunity to enjoy games considerably softer than that offered by the competition is GG Network. Asian poker sites aren't exactly a new thing but they are still a great bet for anyone trying to gain the edge over the opposition. You might not be the first to the party anymore, but swapping your well-known site full of regs for High Stakes or Natural8 is still a relatively easy +EV call to make.
As we've already mentioned 'being first' might be simple but it's not easy. Still, seeing as 'being smart' is neither simple nor easy focusing on the former is most likely your best bet. Outsmarting your opposition might be considered the most 'honest' way of getting ahead in poker but it's also the most difficult. Poker is already a field where only a relatively small minority of players can profit, and rising above that small minority is truly a tall order - especially in the current reality of tough live and online games.
There are two major approaches to increasing your win rate in poker: you can either - as the title of this paragraph suggests - be smarter than your opponents by increasing your skill level, or by avoiding most common mistakes made by other regs. You most likely already have a pretty good idea how to become more skilled at poker. There are tons and tons of learning resources out there. The problem is that your opponents also have access to them and if you're not one of the genetic outliers with a genius IQ level, you'll just have to outwork all of them. Go the extra mile, don't limit yourself to the classic combination of coaching videos and hand reviews. Try some more esoteric forms of poker education like PioSolver or PQL (Poker Query Language). Get intimately familiar with your database and relentless in your quest to plug as many leaks as possible.
You might find the process of identifying and avoiding the major mistakes, made by other regulars at your limit a bit more manageable. Depending on where you are in your poker journey, this can be as simple as avoiding rakeback grinding and mindless multi-tabling. Many regs make the mistake of sticking with big, well-established poker rooms (PokerStars being the prime example) and ignoring poker rooms offering far better deals (like Bet 365, for example). Some of your opponents will neglect their work-life balance, ignore their mental health and performance, or won't bother table selecting. Even if you're not a poker genius, and you can't crush other regs with your superior knowledge of the betting patterns, you can still make a lot of small adjustments that will allow you to get ahead.
If you lived on this planet long enough to be able to play poker legally, you most likely noticed that "cheaters never prosper" isn't exactly as true of a statement as your third-grade teacher assured you it is. It's true that cheaters who get caught often pay a steep price for their transgressions, the problem is that... some of them get away with it. I'm sure there are players out there who used bots or other illegal software aids for the entirety of their poker career and were never forced to face the music. There are collusion rings that never got busted. There are card sharks out there who emerged unscathed from their decades-long live game rampage. The problem with cheating, however, is that we all use mirrors and unless you're a true sociopath, you might pay the aforementioned steep price for cheating even if you never get caught, simply by virtue of the fact that you have to look at your own face every single morning...
There are, however, some tools most poker players have access to, that feel like cheating - due to their effectiveness - but aren't. HUD's and tracking software are perhaps the most obvious example. Same goes for other legal software aids (Table Ninja, Notecaddy etc.). Then there are study groups, private coaching sessions etc. While it's tough to find and maintain a good group of people to learn poker with, trying to advance through limits with the help of few like-minded individuals is so much easier than the alternative, that it almost feels likes cheating - even though it's not even in the moral grey area.
Even though "be first, be smarter, or cheat" isn't exactly the most popular quote in the poker context, it can be a great guideline for your poker career. It often pays to think outside the box and we hope this article managed to prove just that. Poker is an extremely complicated game and we all try to understand it better by following various paradigms attempting to make our favorite game easier to understand.