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Muhammad Ali on How to Be "The Greatest" Poker Player

Muhammad Ali on How to Be "The Greatest" Poker Player


  • Being a consistent winner in poker depends in large part on what you do when you're not playing.

  • Muhammad Ali well understood the importance of pregame preparation. Do you?

When Muhammad Ali died a couple of weeks ago, there was, inevitably, a profusion of media stories compiling some of his most memorable quotations. The one that was new to me and caught my attention was about how a fight is won or lost not in the ring, but in the preparation.

I tracked down the original, and I think it's worth quoting in its full context, rather than the shortened form in which it's widely circulated. It comes from his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story:

Only four months ago, in Madison Square Garden, I fought [Joe] Frazier for the second time. I won it and evened up my score with him. But before I got in the ring, I'd won it out here on the road. Some people think a Heavyweight Championship fight is decided during the fifteen rounds the two fighters face each other under blazing hot lights, in front of thousands of screaming witnesses, and part of it is. But a prizefight is like a war: the real part is won or lost somewhere far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym and out here on the road long before I dance under those lights.

This reminded me of another oft-repeated sports quotation. It comes from Ed Macauley, a dominant professional basketball player of the 1950s. You'll find it cited with many small variations, probably because he said it countless times as a coach, and not always exactly the same way. But one apparently reliable version is this:

When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.

Now, if you're deeply, astoundingly intuitive, perhaps you can see where I'm going with these two quotations. Being a consistent winner in poker, just as in boxing and basketball, depends in large part on what you do when you're not playing.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help figure out whether or not what you're doing away from the tables is helping or hurting you once you sit down to play — 25 of them, in fact.

How many poker strategy books have you read in the last year? Or if books aren't your preferred way of learning, how much time have you spent studying instructional videos, or meeting with your individual poker coach?

When you pick up magazines in a poker room, do you read and think about the strategy columns and hand histories, or just peruse the news and ads? Do you have and know how to use poker software tools that allow you to run simulations, calculate odds, and answer if-then questions?

Have you been learning a poker variant that isn't what you usually play?

You can find plenty of sound advice about bankroll management in books, magazine articles, and strategy web sites. Are you following the guidelines they lay out, or taking reckless risks?

How's your record-keeping? Is it scrupulously honest and complete, without gaps where you decided a session "doesn't count" for some reason? Can you easily crunch the numbers to see your long-term hourly win rate, and which games, times, and venues are most profitable? Have you reviewed what the records reveal about your weaknesses? If so, what are you doing to turn them into strengths?

Speaking of strength, how's your health? You know that you can't play well if you're trying to fuel your brain with crappy food, or oxygenate it with smoke-clogged lungs, right? Are you getting regular sleep and exercise so as to maximize your endurance for long tournament or cash-game sessions? Are there any problems with your use of alcohol or other recreational drugs, in terms of how they affect your poker game, your health, your personal relationships, your many other commitments, or your judgment?

Of course, we're more than our cognitive and physical selves. How is your emotional stability? If not so great, it's an enormous leak in both your poker game and your life, so what steps are you taking to get that fixed?

How are your closest relationships? Are you supported in your poker endeavors? Does your mind wander to problematic domestic or family situations when you need to be concentrating on the game?

I suppose that question might make it sound as if the most important function of your family is to support or at least not interfere with your poker. That's not my point. Your loved ones should be a billion times more central to your life than poker. My point is only that if there's trouble on the home front, it will almost inevitably spill over into everything else you do, including poker.

What interests do you have outside of poker to keep yourself balanced, rounded, and, well, human? Do you read good books, go to movies and plays, listen to music? Have you been neglecting the hobbies that used to bring you pleasure? Do you give to charities and/or volunteer in local service organizations to support others less fortunate than you? Are you keeping up with local and national politics and public-policy issues so that you can be a contributing citizen?

Preparing to play your best poker means attending to all of these areas. You can't neglect even one of them and expect to prosper. It's hard work, but as Ali noted that's what winning requires — long hours of difficult, disciplined, multi-faceted preparation before you dance under those lights.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.

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