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Poker Book Review: Alan Schoonmaker's 'Poker Winners Are Different'

Poker Book Review: Alan Schoonmaker's 'Poker Winners Are Different' 0001

"Many experts estimate that — because of the rake, tips, and other expenses — 85-90 percent of all cardroom and online players are long-term losers." So one reads on the first page of Poker Winners Are Different, the latest from Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, author of four books on industrial psychology (in which he holds a Ph.D.) as well as numerous poker articles and three other books that focus on psychological issues in poker.

What distinguishes that relatively small percentage of poker players who are not losing, particularly those who manage to do better than just eke out a small profit, but win consistently? That's the question Schoonmaker spends the remainder of his book answering, with the result being an insightful catalogue of qualities characterizing both poker winners and losers. Poker Winners Are Different additionally offers a great deal of practical advice for identifying and addressing those areas in one's own psychological makeup in need of attention before one can become part of the small percentage of players who profit over the long term.

It should be noted that Schoonmaker dutifully adds to the above-quoted statement the disclaimer that "no solid data" exists to do more than estimate percentages of winners and losers in poker, although he does cite a source reporting that two online poker sites' managers once revealed only seven and eight percent of their players, respectively, finish the year with a profit. Of course, most poker players know intuitively that assertions about the relative paucity of winners are most likely true. Indeed, anyone who has played poker for even a short amount of time understands that even if players' claims sometimes suggest otherwise, there are many more losers than winners, and among the winners very few who win consistently over the long term.

Schoonmaker sets out with the premise that while players' relative skill levels certainly differ, "in most games the skill differences between players are much smaller than the differences in their motives, discipline, thoughts, reactions to feelings, and decisiveness." One can only improve one's poker skills so much, says Schoonmaker, with one's "natural ability" often determining just how skillful a player one can become. However, one can improve significantly in those other areas of one's behavior and personality that have such a profound effect on one's bottom line at the tables. Thus those are the areas to which Schoonmaker gives the most attention in Poker Winners Are Different.

As is true of Schoonmaker's other books, one finds the author well-versed in ongoing conversations about the many psychological issues he has chosen to tackle. Such an approach most certainly stems from Schoonmaker's academic background, distinguishing his writings from many other poker books with regard to the author's awareness of what others have written. Schoonmaker frequently quotes others' books, articles, or observations (offered in online forums, discussion groups, private emails, and elsewhere) to help support or clarify his many observations. A clear benefit from such a methodology is the way the reader comes away from Poker Winners Are Different not just having learned Schoonmaker's current thoughts regarding these issues, but also with a good idea of what the poker community at large has had to say about them, circa early 2009.

Following an introductory part, Parts 2-5 of the book concentrate on various ways winners successfully "get the best of it" by controlling their focus, their thought processes, the information they transmit, and their reactions to feelings. Part 6, the last, then shifts to consider how winners subsequently "make the most of it" by acting decisively.

The book's chapters separately highlight various qualities possessed by winning players, with chapter titles identifying the distinct qualities discussed within each, e.g., "Winners Focus on Other People," "Winners Are Brutally Realistic," "Winners Prepare Thoroughly," "Winners Depersonalize Conflicts," "Winners Pay Their Dues," and the like. While each chapter helpfully outlines the particular trait exhibited by the winning player (and methods by which one can learn to exhibit the trait more effectively oneself), there also come contrasting sketches of the losing player who lacks the trait being discussed. For example, in the chapter explaining how "Winners Concentrate Intensely," Schoonmaker explains how winning players "rarely think about anything that won't help them win," but also identifies ways losing players often "tune out" or otherwise find it difficult to keep their attention directed toward gathering information needed to play more successfully.

The ongoing contrast between winners and losers recalls other, non-poker texts which similarly function as guidebooks for psychological training or "self-help," especially those books that particularly examine how psychological issues tend to affect one's financial well being. T. Harv Eker's Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, a nationwide bestseller published in 2005, springs to mind. Eker's book includes a list of distinctions between "rich people" and "poor people" — e.g., "Rich people focus on opportunities. Poor people focus on obstacles" — a list that Schoonmaker's dichotomy of winning and losing poker players in some cases uncannily echoes.

As Schoonmaker has done in his previous books, he again here incorporates activities for the reader designed to help one apply the advice he shares. To that end, nearly every chapter (save the last) concludes with questions asking the reader to decide "How Do You Rate?" with regard to the issue just discussed. The reader is invited to record answers to these questions in the final chapter, then to review those answers in order to identify potential problems preventing one from winning. Schoonmaker then offers a multi-step program for addressing those problems one at a time.

Some readers will likely resist doing the exercises and the work of self-assessment. As Schoonmaker himself admits near the end of the book, a friend of his cautioned him as much, telling him "'Most people won't do all the work you recommend.'" To this warning, Schoonmaker has a ready reply: "He is right, but most poker players are losers. And the biggest reason they lose is that they won't pay their dues. If you really want to be one of the few winners, you have to work."

To be honest, I found myself resisting the self-ratings at first, though eventually I realized Schoonmaker was helping me consciously acknowledge certain areas where my motives and discipline did not resemble that of winners. Anyone who reads Poker Winners Are Different and takes its advice seriously — that is, who reads attentively, performs the recommended exercises, and does the work — will surely gain at least some practical benefit or self-insight that can be applied toward the improving of one's game. And, as a result, become "different" from that large percentage of non-winners who don't.

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