Hand Reviews are something of which we should all probably do more, but how do we make it worthwhile? Some students feel lost when trying to think their way through a past hand without guidance. They worry that they will simply come to the wrong conclusions and confuse themselves more. Let’s explore why it is vital for players of all skill levels to review their own play and how to maximise the gain from doing so.
On the one hand, there is poker theory and on the other hand, there is playing the game. Too much of the former leads to a mass of confused and unusable concepts. This problem is often known as ‘Too Much Information’ (TMI) and is very commonly associated with poker students who binge-watch training videos for hours or read a whole book without taking any notes. The problem with too much time spent on the tables is that it is all too easy to wander off into the abyss of illogical decision-making without sufficient theory to guide you. Getting the division of theory and practice right is a challenging feat, but hand review helps massively in coming closer to the harmonious balance required for success.
Hand review is like a slowed down poker hand without the same levels of emotional or monetary pressure. Taking five minutes to think through a hand and critically evaluate your play creates a nice compromise between the frenzied battle of live play and the infinite detachment of theory. The brain gets to practice vital in-game thought processes in an environment that closely resembles real play, but without the distraction of actually playing. This closes a vital gap between concepts learned and concepts used and makes you more likely to find yourself accessing theory and using it effectively during your next poker session.
Hand review is not about reaching a perfect solution every time. If you could do that, you would no doubt be crushing high-stakes instead of reading this article. Rather, it is an exercise in organising thoughts, and above all else, good practice. Even if you find yourself unsatisfied with your assessment of a hand, you have still worked some new mental muscles and grown stronger in using thought processes that were previously inaccessible to you during a session.
Work through the hand you have chosen to review street by street and, at each of your decision points, ask yourself: ‘Do I like my play here, if so why, and if not what could I have done better?’ Think about how different options are likely to differ in their expected value by assessing what your opponent’s range is like and how he is likely to play it facing different actions by you. Asking ‘what should I do here?’ is pointless until you have answered the question of: ‘what factors are most relevant here?’ If posting in forums, do not seek one-word explanations to give you closure on troublesome hands. Instead, seek a full explanation and ask for further clarification if you do not understand a trainer or peer’s response.
When you called that river bet, you did not know that Villain had a flush and it is only ‘obvious’ to you now because you are using biased information from having seen a showdown. Do not try to explain how you should have known that you were beat, for you should not have known any such thing. Instead, ask yourself: ‘how often do I need to be good to call here?’ ‘What is Villain’s bluffing frequency?’ and ‘how suitable is my hand as a bluff catcher?’ (Does it block any combinations of flushes, or does it beat any of Villain’s value betting hands?)
Pretending that you do not know the results of a hand is very counter-intuitive at first, but it will pay dividends in the long-term. It is your future self you are trying to help here and he or she will not have the psychic information of having seen a showdown which is yet to occur. Practice making decisions with all and only the information you will have next time that you are in a similar spot.
One of the biggest problems facing the aspiring poker player is the trap of temporary learning, where any epiphanies are short-lived, and concepts become distorted over time due to a lack of reinforcement. I urge my students to note down their out of game thought process street by street and compare it to how they were thinking in-game at the time of the hand. Such an analysis can highlight any unjustified assumptions, or confused thoughts that caused mistakes during live-play. Writing down what mistakes occurred in a hand, why you made them at the time, and how you plan on improving your thought process in such spots in the future is the key to reducing the frequency of occurrence of these errors.
Berating yourself for mistakes is a far less effective approach than simply learning to understand the mistake and feeling positive about how you will grow from recognising it. We all make mistakes; countless times in every session that we play. The difference between a future star and someone who is destined to never beat 5NL cash games, is not the number of mistakes they make early on in their career, but how they learn to view them. The less successful player is likely to either ignore the mistake through ego preservation or perhaps be so self-deprecating that he develops a mental-game block surrounding that sort of spot. See each and every mistake as a chance to grow and a step towards your poker goals.
Hand review can be fun, it can be useful, and above all, it can become the most essential part of your weekly poker study. You do need some theory in order to do it well and you certainly need some practice in order to speed up the application of the lessons you learn when reviewing hands. Without hand review, however, theory and practice break down into an unusable mess. Hand review could well be the missing ingredient to your poker diet.