The last couple weeks, in addition to my other duties, I've been developing a library of prominent poker player profiles for one of the sites where I contribute content. As I researched each of the famous poker players, I started to notice some common keys to their success.
Aspiration - Each player had a strong drive to become the best. The particular goal might have been different, but they didn't want to settle for being ordinary. They had strong competitive instincts in many areas of their lives, hating to ever lose.
Example - Scotty Nguyen is the eldest of 13 children, who fled war torn Vietnam, had to stay in a refugee camp for three years, before becoming a dealer and aspiring to poker greatness. One night when he was only 23, he was guest dealing in Lake Tahoe and decided to take on the competition feeling he could beat them all. He ran up his very meager bankroll in 1985 up to $7,000 in that one night. Within months, he had made $1,000,000 and he was playing the biggest live games against Johnny Chan, Puggy Pearson and David Gray.
Perspiration - They were willing to work very hard at learning and perfecting their craft.
Example - John Juanda came from a gambling family in Indonesia, but he only learned poker on his flight over to the US to go to college. A few years later, he was invited to a poker room where he watched some poker and was hooked. He didn't play a single hand that night. Instead, he went home, bought a ton of poker books, devoured them, and returned to play weeks later only after he felt ready come out on top.
Cooperation - Most successful players have had their learning curves greatly accelerated by working with other talented players. They act as a sounding board to determine the optimal ways to play, are there to commiserate when you have done poorly, or there to celebrate with you when your hard work pays off.
Example - An early example would be Doyle Brunson who has discussed his life on the poker road in the 1960's with Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts. Daniel Negreanu, John Juanda, Phil Ivey and Allen Cunningham are one famous example too. They were a group of young, talented and hungry players that worked together on their way up. They traveled together, discussing the struggles and joys of everyday life. As Allen Cunningham put it "We were four guys in our early twenties, we all liked poker, girls and sports, so that's all the common ground you need to start a friendship. Plus, I think from the very first time any of us saw the other play, we all truly respected each other's games. And as long as you don't allow jealousy or envy to get in the way, then all you could do was feed off each other." I see this same dynamic repeated over and over today, especially in the shared poker houses during the WSOP each summer or those traveling the poker circuit.
Differentiation - Just as a business needs to differentiate itself from the competition, so does a poker player. The poker players who have had the greatest success have developed their own styles that differed from the masses of players.
Examples - For Doyle Brunson it was constant aggression scooping up small pots, thus giving him an edge when he played the bigger pots. For Gus Hansen, it was playing so loose and unpredictably that no one could put him on a hand. For Daniel Negreanu it was playing small ball poker, where he could maximize his advantage post flop. For Chris Ferguson, it was applying an advanced mathematical and game theory framework to his play. For the new age players like Isildur1, it is rampant aggression, massive multi-tabling, massive overbets and making your opponent always uncomfortable. All styles must eventually adapt and develop or they will eventually become part of that mainstream of mediocrity.
Application - Intelligent players apply the skills and confidence from other areas of prior excellence when they transition to poker.
Examples - Erik Seidel was an accomplished backgammon professional for eight years before transitioning to poker at the infamous Mayfair Club in New York City. He had played backgammon against Chip Reese, Stu Unger and Puggy Pearson, all of who had suggested he would do well if he played poker. He played poker at the Mayfair club with future bracelet winners Howard Lederer, Jay Heimowitz, Steve Zolotow and Dan Harrington. Another famous example is Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier who spent years in Korea in the top ranks of the StarCraft world before transitioning to a very successful poker career utilizing his talents and pressure packed composure from having played in front of thousands of people in worldwide competitions.
Determination - Most successful players have a drive to succeed despite society frowning on their activity. They persist through hardship and frustrations, both personal and professional.
Example - Jennifer Harman- Traniello snuck into card rooms at 16 and risked expulsion in order to play poker. Her decision to focus on poker estranged her from her father for many years. She battled through a divorce that effectively took her bankroll, and suffered serious family-related kidney issues that killed her mother and required her own two transplants. She never lost her drive or determination to be a top poker player, not as a token woman in a man's world, but as a great player regardless of her sex.
Success in poker is a guarantee for no one. Those that experience it, typically share many if not all of the above qualities I touched upon. I could have used many other worthy poker pros as examples and there are dozens of younger players who will likely join these players, but only after they pass the test of time. As was argued in the nominations for the poker hall of fame nominations this year, longevity should be factored in heavily to separate those that shone brightly for short stretches from those that had the necessary long term Aspiration, Perspiration, Cooperation, Differentiation, Application, and Determination to succeed.