No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.
— Chinese Proverb
A few years from now when someone asks, “Who is the greatest living poker player?” the answer might be a surprise.
It won’t be Doyle Brunson. Not Phil Hellmuth. Not Barry Greenstein. Not Allen Cunningham. Not even Phil Ivey. None of the proper names that would normally come up in any argument about the most skilled poker professional will be correct.
I predict that in just a few years – when the argument is based purely on poker knowledge and raw skill, or what some might call “natural talent” – the greatest poker player alive is very likely to be someone, somewhere out there now who is living in one of the 150 nations where online poker is played. He’s putting in incalculable hours of poker playing, day and night, on his home computer.
While many talented players will continue to win money and fame, the most gifted player will be an obsessively focused young person who puts massive amounts of time into his craft. He’ll likely do this to the detriment of other activities. He won’t have many close personal relationships. He won’t play sports. He won’t be spending his teen years drinking or getting high. He might even be called “anti-social” by those around him (or her, to be fair), but he will ultimately become the most gifted poker player alive.
Most of his table decisions will be made on autopilot and they will invariably be as correct as a card counter playing basic strategy in blackjack. More complex decisions requiring deeper contemplation will always be crafted to extract the maximum expected value out of the situation. He won’t always win, of course; no poker player does. But his decisions will, without fail, always be astute. He will, by his 20th birthday, have played thousands of hours of poker and hundreds of thousands of poker hands. He will have made an immeasurable number of strategic decisions. By age 25, he will have likely played more hands than Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, or Stu Ungar played during their entire lifetimes.
The point here is that nothing prepares one for success like repetition.
Consider the compelling argument made by author Malcolm Gladwell in his current best seller Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell shows us how extraordinary accomplishment is usually the byproduct of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hours of hard work, intense curiosity, and repetition. Indeed, lots of repetition. Yes, intelligence matters a lot in determining success. So does luck. But nothing can match the actual practice of spending incomparable hours perfecting a craft.
In his masterful book (what I consider to be a “must read” if you haven’t picked it up already), Gladwell examines the lives of many successful people, from Bill Gates to The Beatles, in order to prove that the most critical factor in determining success (or failure, by implication) is the commitment of time. Of course, these lives of famous people have been scrutinized in hundreds of accounts. But until Gladwell’s revealing book, I’m not sure that anyone truly understood the degree to which the most successful people in various fields focused on improving themselves and ultimately perfecting their trades.
Right this minute, there are hundreds of players who day in and day out are winning vast sums of money online. They are destined to revolutionize not only how the game is played, but also how it evolves. All of the torchbearers are playing online. Their names are largely unknown to the public except by their cagey screen names at online poker sites and various ranking systems that can be found all over the Internet.
What do they do that’s so different from everyone else? What secret knowledge do they possess which allows them to earn five or ten times the average annual salary of someone working a conventional job? Two words: Time spent. Incredibly, many of these players are in their 20s. Some are even in their teens. They live all around the world and they are hammering online poker games for millions of dollars in earnings. These are dedicated craftsmen (and a few craftswomen) who are the real day-to-day winners in the game of poker. They don’t make headlines. They make millions in profits while many so-called superstars actually earn very little money by actually playing poker.
The recent “Durrr Poker Challenge” may very well represent the passing of a torch to a new generation. A decade ago, it was Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Allen Cunningham, Layne Flack, and others who were labeled as the young guns of poker. Now, those players are in their 30s. Today, it’s players like Tom Dwan and countless other (mostly anonymous) online winners who are ready to kick their elders to the curb. The notion that a 21-year-old poker player could seriously challenge the top names in the game would have been blasphemous if not unthinkable just ten years ago. Now, it’s reality. Even late legend Stu Ungar (the first real wunderkind) did not burst on the poker scene until he was in his mid-20s. Even five years ago, many cash game pros welcomed online players into their games with great anticipation. Times have certainly changed. If the torch has not quite been passed, it has most certainly been lit. That flame in the distance is approaching fast and is going to end up burning a lot of unsuspecting people caught up in the past.
Indeed, the greatest poker player alive (right now) and the person perhaps destined to be the greatest poker player who ever lived is probably sitting somewhere in his basement right now, multi-tabling numerous games, hammering out profit, and most importantly, continuing to improve. He will eventually leave everyone else behind. The bar of excellence once established by the likes of Brunson, Ungar, Ivey, and the rest is about to be set a little higher for everyone, especially the generations to follow.