Poker is a game in which it sometimes pays to be deceptive. That said, poker can itself sometimes be deceptive.
Good players occasionally lose. And bad players win. Poker is a skill game, but there’s a luck element as well that necessarily affects outcomes.
That luck element can also affect players judgment about their own and others’ abilities, fooling them into incorrect evaluations.
As you strive to assess your own poker abilities — and whether or not you are improving at poker — here are six signs to help show that yes, you are getting better.
1. You understand poker fundamentals
When you first were introduced to poker, you might have known about the hand rankings and what it meant when players said “all in.” But eventually, if you were at all serious about learning how to play, you began to pick up poker fundamentals.
You learned about starting hand selection, bet sizing, position, pot odds and the like. Perhaps you didn’t always apply what you were learning as well as you might have, but you at least knew what pot odds were and how to calculate them. And that there was (or should be) a connection between pot odds and decisions about calling or folding.
For tournament players, these fundamentals additionally include understanding the different stages of the tournament and how strategies shift from the early and middle stages to when the tournament approaches the money, after the bubble bursts, and at the final table.
Think about what you know of poker fundamentals right now. Compare that level of knowledge to what you know about those things when you first started. You’ve improved, haven’t you?
2. You recognize your mistakes
Here I’m not simply talking about making a bad call to lose a pot and saying (to yourself or out loud) “I messed that one up!” I’m referring to understanding more specifically how you messed up.
Even more so, I’m referring to recognizing mistakes you have made or are making that don’t necessarily lead to obvious negative consequences.
Take, for instance, the conspicuous mistake of playing too many hands from out of position. Even the best, most talented players tend to lose more when playing from the blinds or against opponents with position on them.
At some point you realize the trouble you are in (again) after limping and calling a raise from under the gun with A♦6♣, flopping top pair, then having to contend with multiple postflop bets from an opponent who may well have you dominated.
3. You correct your mistakes
Of course, it’s one thing to know you’re doing something you shouldn’t. But when it comes to correcting yourself at the poker table, the phrase “easier said than done” readily applies.
After realizing the trouble playing ace-six unsuited from UTG causes you, you eventually reach another point where you stop doing it.
Or perhaps there are other “bad habits” you manage to stop exhibiting, such as playing too passively. Or always suspecting bluffs from players who never make them. Or too often checking your monsters, going for fancy check-raises instead of betting for value like you should.
4. You stop focusing (too much) on results
I always chuckle a little at the mantra “don’t be results oriented.” Again, so much easier said than done.
If you’re human, you’re going to be at least a little results oriented from time to time. Like when you’re running well and enjoy a streak of collecting big pots. Or when you get all in on the flop with an 80-20 edge and watch your opponent backdoor a straight to bust you.
Go ahead and be disappointed. But don’t let that disappointment get in the way of realizing your decisions in the hand were sound. You found a way to get your opponent to put it all in with a 1 in 5 chance of success. When you start focusing on that, that’s a sign of improvement.
5. You keep track of your results
This item might seem to contradict the previous one. But keeping a ledger in which you record how you fared each session is much different from becoming overly affected by losing an all-in in which you are favored. In fact, one benefit of keeping track of your results is a great way to become less results oriented.
Other benefits are obvious. It helps with bankroll management. If you venture into different game types (e.g., NLHE, PLO, mixed games, or cash games and tournaments), keeping records helps show which games are more profitable for you, which in turn can help with game selection.
But most importantly, keeping records helps illustrate the “long term” much more clearly for you. By putting one losing session in a larger context — especially one that shows that session is not disturbing too greatly an overall upward trend — you will automatically stop living or dying with each night of poker.
6. You enjoy poker more and more
I’ll add a caveat here. It is undeniably true that some people continue to enjoy poker long after they stop improving as players. Or even before they ever start improving.
There are those who continue to play poker as just another form of gambling, like roulette or sports betting. For these players, enjoying the game is not necessarily an indicator of improvement.
In order for this “sign” to be meaningful, then, I’m going to say it needs to be preceded by the first five signs. Once you’ve understood poker fundamentals, recognized and are correcting your mistakes, stopped getting undone by a bad result and started keeping track of your sessions, and then realize you are enjoying poker more and more… well, that’s a definitely a strong signal that you are improving as a player.
If studying the game and your own play is not enjoyable to you, you probably aren’t going to spend too much time studying. If you do enjoy the learning, your enjoyment will spill over into the application of that learning at the tables.
And if all of these things are happening, don’t be deceived… you are improving.