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Professional Poker Coach Shares the Keys to Success in Q&A Format

Recently I opened up for questions on 2+2 and Reddit Poker about what it's like to be a professional poker player and how to maximize one's chances of success. I created a video answering the top ten questions which can be viewed here:

In addition, below are all the questions and answers on other valuable poker topics:


Q: What is the most important thing to work at in order to be successful playing poker for a living?

A: Managing your money and your emotions effectively. Nobody makes it to the long run if they play beyond their means or they burn out emotionally because they aren't taking proper care of themselves.


Q: List the 5 good habits to incorporate daily or for each session?

A: Record at least 3 hands from every session to learn from later. Exercise before each session. Meditate the night before. Get enough sleep the night before. And eat healthy meals. The mind very much follows the body, and it helps to treat poker the way an athlete treats their sport.


Q: As a professional poker coach, do you value game selection over improving your play?


A: Game selection is always important, but there will be times where the soft games may not run and you still want to get in volume. Improving your play is the way to ensure that you always have a game to play where you feel that you can turn a profit. If you stop studying and your splashy home game dries up, you'll wish you had been improving your play all along.

Q: Most common mistakes/leaks you see people make? How do you think the common recreational player should approach poker? At what level does having some baseline knowledge of GTO become important, both for live and online?

A: The most common mistakes/leaks are in the spots that occur most often, and many of them happen preflop. Often, improving preflop play with less limping and flat-calling is the lowest hanging fruit for many players. Combine that with better bankroll management and managing emotions more effectively at the table, and it is possible to see very quick gains.

GTO knowledge is probably not necessary until live $5/10 NLHE. Prior to that, if it is needed, you are in the wrong $2/5 or $1/3 game. The comparable online stake would be one tenth the dollar amount, so say $0.50/$1 is where GTO knowledge begins to become relevant.


Q: Biggest differences between a good 2/5 player and a good 5/10+ player?

A: Good $2/5 players are able to identify what their hand wants to do and often take exploitative lines to accomplish that. Good $5/10 players think more in terms of ranges and choose lines and bet sizes that maximize EV for their entire range. Structuring in this way helps disguise their hand better, especially against the better hand-readers that they face. Good $5/10 players are more well-versed in theory and also tend to have stronger mental games to handle the bigger swings (not to mention that table etiquette tends to be better at $5/10 as well).


Q: Tips for low stakes 1/3 NL?

A: If you are at the typical 1/3 NL table with many calling stations, push for thin value early and often. Resist the urge to be trappy with your big hands and fast-play them instead to build big pots. In these types of loose, splashy games, bluff less often and find the preflop size that effectively thins the field to 1-2 callers consistently, even if this size is larger than theory would suggest.


Q: I’m a slightly profitable 2/5 reg and take shots at 5/10. What do you think is the key for each level from say 1/2 to 10/25 to be successful?

A: 1/2: Develop strong preflop fundamentals and learn to value bet effectively

2/5: Improve hand reading and learn to find big folds

5/10: Maximize EV for your range with strong theoretical knowledge and better bet sizing

10/25: Master the mental game and understand the limitations of GTO and when to move away from it


Q: What do you do about the infamous winner’s tilt?

A: Be sure that you recognize it as it is happening. It's a slippery slope when you feel invincible and begin opening just a little wider from every position than is profitable. Often, there is an unrecognized emotion that is leaking into the decision making. This type of tilt can prevent an upswing from becoming as large as it otherwise would be.


Q: How do you decide when to end a session?

A: When I'm no longer playing my best or the game is no longer good. Also, if I'm not enjoying myself or would much rather be doing something else, I try to honor that and leave.


Q: Do you make a living off playing or coaching?

A: At the moment, 3/4 from playing and 1/4 from coaching.


Q: How do you identify an underfolded/overbluffed texture or runout?

How would you structure your learning process if you were to go back in time and grind again from the start? How do you adjust your ranges in a live environment where it is expected that more flops are multi-way as compared to online?


A: There are many of these types of textures/runouts. There is really no substitute for experience as some players overbluff boards they perceive to be scary for a caller but underbluff others where the caller's range can be quite strong. Make note of showdowns against your player pool, and you will begin to see patterns of when they always seem to have it and when bluffcatching is profitable.

I would have used the modern technology like GTO Wizard and PioSolver a little sooner, which did not exist in my first couple years of playing. I also would have hired a coach sooner, as the trial and error approach through self-study and play takes longer and can be more expensive as just having a proper guide from the beginning. It's very easy to misinterpret the results and lessons of early sessions until you have a proper framework in place.

Since you expect to be called more often by multiple players in a live environment, offsuit hands go down quite a bit in value. Hands that perform well multiway like suited aces, suited broadway hands, and pocket pairs go up in value. GTO preflop charts break down quite a bit in a live environment and the GTO solutions are very unstable when they require 9 people to be playing at equilibrium. Be prepared to move away from these charts in a live environment where every hand is seeing 4+ people to a flop. Preflop blockers become less important and postflop playability takes precedence.


Q: What kind of bankroll management do you follow for cash games? Online and live.

A: The key question to ask is always: How much could I lose in poker without it affecting my life in any meaningful way in the worst-case scenario? Start with this number, and then work backwards to determine the stakes you should be playing.

I recommend a minimum of 20 buy-ins for live cash games if your stop-loss is 2 buy-ins. If you prefer a stop-loss of 3 buy-ins per session, I recommend 30 buy-ins. It's good to never lose more than 10% of your bankroll in any one given session.

Online poker requires more buyins because of the higher variance, smaller edges, and making decisions without live reads. At a minimum, one should have 50 buy-ins for the stakes they are playing in regularly.

Q: What are the differences between good 1/3 and 2/5 players?

A: 2/5 players can hand-read better and are able to think beyond their own cards more often and find solid folds. 1/3 players tend to be more attached to their own hand strength and are generally less likely to find important folds once their hand strength rises above a certain level (even if their opponent is representing something stronger and is unlikely to be bluffing).

Q: Best books intermediate to advanced NLHE players?

A: Matthew Janda's Applications of NLHE and Ed Miller's Professional No Limit Hold'em good ones for players at the $2/5 level that are moving towards $5/10.


Q: How many pros are there usually at a given 5/10 or 10/25 table?

A: Lately it seems like the pro percentage is growing and the recreational percentage is declining in these games. It has been 4-5 pros at a minimum at most of these tables. The 5/10 and 10/25 player pools have a ton of overlap and the pros tend to play10-25 when it runs and 5-10 to get the remainder of their volume in.


Q: I have so many questions but I’ll try to limit it to a few: What’s the biggest downswing you’ve experienced in terms of buy ins or BB’s? How about upswing? How many hours a week do you usually play? Do you emphasize playing weekends? What strategy advice would you give to yourself when you were starting to take playing more seriously?

1.     A: 9 buy-in downswing live and 15 buy-in downswing online. I have had large upswings where there were a few 5 buy-in downswings in the midst of it, so it depends how you measure it.

2.     I play 30 hours per week and usually play a 1/2 day Friday and a full day Saturday. Weekends are the best games, but finding the right balance with family/friends is important too.

3.     Theory is important, but too much theory will lead you astray. It's important to remember that we are playing against human beings that do not play like solvers. It's better to optimize your play for your specific player pool than to try to play what a solver recommends.


Q: How do you deal with bad beat or tilt?

A: Feel the emotions directly in the body. Drop the mental stories and feel the feelings directly. Use the breath and movement to let those emotions subside. Often the mind clears on its own once the emotions have been tended to.


Q: Can you talk a bit about the logistics of being a pro at these stakes? Are there always public games for you to get action? Are you playing online at all? Tangentially related: how do you handle health insurance, 401k/Roth contributions, tax liability? Even general answers appreciated.


A: On most days throughout the year, $5/10 runs at one or both of the main casinos I play in. $10/25 runs 1-2 times per week when it isn't the summer. I played online for a couple years but believe live poker is a better experience given the current climate of RTA, bots, collusion, etc.

I'm married, so I get health insurance through my wife's company. No 401Ks in poker (I have one through a previous job) but I still make Roth contributions and pay estimated taxes every quarter.


Q: Does stake level = skills? Do you find less bad players up there than at 1$/2$ NLHE?

A: The average player is better as stakes increase. But it's not uncommon to find that the biggest games attract both the best players and the worst players in the room.


Q: Do you play online cash games as well? And if so what would you say are the biggest differences?

A: I'm not playing much online poker these days, but I did extensively for a couple years. The biggest difference is that without access to live reads, online players tend to play a style that is more theory-based and closer to GTO. The preflop aggression levels are substantially higher online with much more 3-betting and 4-betting than in live poker. In general, a given online poker stake is 10 times as difficult as the same live poker stake. So $5/10 live might be comparable in difficulty to $0.50/$1 online.

Q: What would a semi-detailed plan look like for a $1/3 player to improve and build a bankroll to move up stakes?

A: Set aside a minimum of 20 buy-ins in an account separate from your every day finances which is designated for poker specifically. Keep good records and track your progress. Combine sufficient play with study time and hiring a coach that you believe in who can accelerate your learning trajectory. Start shot-taking and moving up in stakes once you have doubled your bankroll but set a firm limit for the shot-take where you will move back to $1/3 if it fails.


Q: What do you think are the the live pro skill sets that have helped you the most to win at the winrates that you currently do? Do you rely a lot on simulations? Do you focus a lot on compiling notes on your player pool and then plan max exploit strategies away from the table? Or do you focus a lot on developing reliable live tells to allow you to adjust your strategies versus various individual villains?

A: I think my study habits and my mental game have always been major strengths, combined with strong math and logical reasoning. A lot of players struggle in at least one of these areas with mental game struggles being the most common. I do run simulations sometimes and have used GTO Wizard and PioSolver. I believe that as important as it is to understand these tools, it's equally important to understand their limitations and to know when to ignore their suggestions completely. Live poker involves so many out-of-book spots where any GTO solution would be highly unstable. It then becomes more important to be fully present in the moment and trust your instincts. I do take notes on players which can include live tells on them as well. Ideally I'm able to come up with strong exploitative strategies at the table right away which can then be fine-tuned away from the table.

Q: Watching some of these comments/answers... I feel like it’s one of the better ones I've seen here. I play quite often and quite a bit, but I’m wondering how it affects your personal life. It’s difficult for me to grind and keep a quality of life. I stopped playing when it was my main source of income a few years ago, based on how it affected my personal life. How do you manage that?

A: Thanks for the kind words and the great question. Finding the right balance is one of the toughest aspects of playing professionally and being a professional poker coach. I stick to a consistent schedule so my wife always knows what to expect. Of course I try to tailor that schedule to when the best games are running, but I make sacrifices too. For example, I usually only play one weekend night because it's important that I make time for family, friends, and other activities. Sure I give up some EV by doing this, but one never makes it to the long run if they aren't taking good care of themself and living a balanced life. Similar to any career, success is important, but if it comes at the expense of other things that you value highly, it often isn't worth it.

If you have a question that was not answered above, or are looking to take your poker game to the next level, contact Joel Wald today at or book a free 30-minute Zoom call to discuss how PTO Poker can help you achieve your poker goals!

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