Top-10 things poker players can learn from runners
By Aaron Todd
Here are the top-10 things that running has taught me about poker.
The only way to get better at something is to do it. In running, that means going out for training runs and logging lots of miles. In poker, it means playing lots of hands. After awhile, the idea of running for 40 minutes, which may have seemed impossible months earlier, seems like a breeze. And while it would have been hard to fold your pocket queens when an ace came on the flop when you first started playing, you'll learn to let it go when you see your opponent get out of his chair to get a closer look at that ace after you've played a few thousand hands.
9. Event selection
When you're training for a race, you need to pick a target distance that is in your wheelhouse. You don't jump right from a 5K to a marathon. You'll probably want to get some 10Ks and half-marathons in first. In poker, you probably don't want to jump right into the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event. Try some low buy-in events at a local casino, or play with friends in a home game. Once you get a sense of the rhythm of a tournament, try some deep-stack events, and work your way up until you find your comfort zone.
8. How to navigate big fields
The half-marathon I ran on Sunday had a field of about 2,000 runners. Unfortunately I got to the starting area a little later than I had planned and ended up more than halfway back in the pack at the starting line. I had to wade through a pretty big crowd before I found myself running with people who were matching my pace. I was almost two miles into the race before I was clear of legs and elbows. During that time, I watched my fellow runners' gaits to figure out when it would be safe to surge by, which pairs of runners I could squeeze through, and which ones it made sense to duck behind for a few strides before pulling out past them to their left. The same dance is essential in the early stages of a poker tournament with a large field. You have to figure out which of your opponents is going to play tight, who the crazy aggressive players are, and which ones you can bet off with a big bluff.
If you start playing tournaments with big fields (or even medium-sized ones), you need to build up your endurance. The same goes for running. A marathon will take anywhere from just over two hours for a world-class runner to more than six hours for some. It's not easy to keep putting one foot in front of the other for that long, and while not as exhausting in an aerobic capacity, sitting at a poker table for 10-12 hours can be just as hard.
6. Maintain focus
When you're running for more than an hour, it's pretty easy to zone out and let up on the gas pedal. Before you know it, you're running a minute a mile slower than you were hoping and that's time that's going to be hard to make up later. In poker, if you've been playing for hours, it can be really easy to miss situations when you should make a value bet or have an opportunity to steal a pot with a well-timed three-bet. Those opportunities to obtain chips aren't coming back, and if you'd kept your focus the whole time you were at the table, you could have had them.
On Sunday I went through the 10-mile point at 1:15:42, an average pace of 7:35/mile. In fact, I ran mile 10 in 6:57. But the 11th mile was a long uphill climb, and it absolutely wrecked me. I ran the last 3.1 miles at 9:05 pace. If I hadn't been facing a steady climb late in the race, I most likely would have been able to maintain a solid 7:30 pace or so to the finish and hit my goal of breaking 1:40. But that's no excuse. I should have known about the incline and been prepared for it. I never should have pushed it so hard in mile 10. I had forgotten about the incline on mile 11, and it cost me.
In poker, you also have to be aware of pacing, especially in tournaments. When do the antes kick in? Do blinds double every level? How long are the levels? How close are you to the money bubble? Keeping all these factors in mind is essential to performing your best.
4. Rest is key
It's important to get a good night's sleep before a race, but taking time to have a real rest day is essential, too. Muscles get tired and need to recover; if you overtrain you're begging for an injury that will set you back months.
And as someone who has played poker for 24 hours straight a few times, trust me, I know what I'm talking about when I say a well-rested player does better than one who is exhausted. And while you're not likely to get a physical injury, you can do a lot of damage to your bankroll if you don't take some time away from the game to refresh yourself and relax.
3. Eat well to perform well
Carbo-loading the night before a race is a time-honored tradition among runners. Eating the right foods before you play poker is also important. Fill up on fatty foods and high-sugar eats and you're likely to be tired and out of focus in less than an hour. Have a nice balanced meal consisting of fruits, vegetables and a small bit of protein and you'll have an edge over the other players at the table.
2. Surround yourself with experts
I was fortunate in high school and college to be surrounded by tremendous athletes and knowledgeable coaches. My coaches and teammates inspired me to do my best every day, at practice and in races. And I learned a lot about training, racing, nutrition and plain old life from these folks. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, they continue to inspire and teach me today.
Poker is no different. Finding mentors and friends who can teach you your strengths, weaknesses and areas where you can improve will make you a better player. I have plenty of these in my life, too, whether they be friends in my home game or professional players who write about strategy, poker and life. Phil Galfond in particular has been doing some great blogging lately.
1. Cross training
The best cross country season I ever had came the summer that I commuted to my job on my bike. It was only 10 miles round trip, but that extra 40 minutes of exercise four or five times a week (I usually drove when it rained) made a big difference in the fall. Sure, I was running, too, but having some more strength in my legs, in addition to reducing some of the pounding inherent in running, prepared me for the racing season more than I ever thought it would.
In the same way, I believe it is essential to play a wide variety of poker games. Sure, no-limit Hold'em is the most popular form of the game. But believe it or not, I think you can learn a lot about Hold'em by playing some Stud. "Cross training" by playing different games can break up the monotony and give you a new perspective.