The Flaw in Your Approach to Poker - And a Better Way to Think!

 photo preachercasy151: Poker coach and player, specialising in the psychology of decision-making. Sport Psychology Masters. www.christykeenan.com
Christy uses his Sport Psychology and poker coaching background to explain way a lot of pros are 'outside in' - when they should be 'inside-out'

The Flaw in Your Approach to Poker – and a Better Way to Think!

Why do you play poker? It is the simplest question, and has the simplest answer. Yet, in years of coaching, I have found it one of the most fundamentally misunderstood concepts.

Not many people actively ask themselves why they play the game to which they have devoted considerable time and effort. And if they do, they invariably come up with the sort of answer that is symptomatic of a flawed approach to the game.

Answers like these:

‘I play poker to win money.’

‘I play poker because it means I can take a day off whenever I choose, not whenever my boss chooses.’

‘I play poker because I am competitive.’

‘I play poker because I don’t want to work a 9-to-5 in an office.’

Do any of these sound familiar? Are you the sort of player that plays poker because the alternative sucks? Are you the sort of player that plays poker because it enables you to beat opponents and feel good about yourself?


If you are, that’s fine. Most good poker players are the same as you. They want to prove something to others, to point to their Sharkscope rankings and say ‘hey, see, I have achieved X, Y, and Z.’ Or to take their parents on holiday with their poker earnings, as if to say ‘look, mum and dad, I’m not a screw-up! This game can make me rich!’

I know I did, when I played full-time. I played poker for all of the reasons mentioned above, and several more besides.

I played poker for every reason, except the only truly valid one. The one valid reason that is at the heart of the great players’ approach to the game.

The great players play poker to become better at playing poker.

It’s so simple, yet so often misunderstood. The game is the goal. Money; fame; admiration: these are consequences, not goals.


I use the term ‘inside-out’ poker, for where the player is motivated to enjoy and improve their game, and the pleasant upside of money and respect may follow naturally. They ensue organically from playing to become better at playing.

However, if these consequences become primary pursuits then it will lead to disillusionment, to self-judgment, and to a fundamental discontent with the nature of the game. Every losing day will feel like a failure. The temptation to check results after every session will persist. Studying will seem like a chore, because you could be grinding some extra volume to boost your ranking. This is ‘outside-in’ poker, where external considerations drive your approach – and it’s the quickest shortcut to disillusionment and burn-out.


Have you ever wondered what makes 82-year old Doyle Brunson leave the house to play high-stakes poker most days? After numerous battles with cancer and the frailty that comes with ageing, he could be forgiven for turning his back on the nocturnal lifestyle and the hassle of the cardroom. He could be forgiven for letting his style go stale and becoming a loser in the nosebleed games of which he is a permanent fixture.

But he doesn’t. Not only does he still play – he still wins. Doyle is the archetype of ‘play the player, not the cards’. He isn’t bound by conventional wisdom and he doesn’t care much for what people think he’s ‘supposed’ to do. He knows, better than anyone, that there are no rules. His style is adaptive, fluid, and innovative. All of the great players share these hallmarks. Doyle plays because he fundamentally loves the game, and he still learns every day. It could be said that playing to get better at playing is what keeps Doyle Brunson young – it is undoubtedly what keeps him a fearsome competitor when countless attention-seeking would-be usurpers have blazed in and burned out over the years.


To the greats of the game, poker is an autotelic pursuit (derived from the Greek words for ‘self’ and ‘goal’.)  The goal of poker is self-contained. It is not ‘outside-in’, where external validation drives motivation, and which ultimately causes burn-out and stress. It is ‘inside-out’, where the challenge of improvement and enjoyment brings long-lasting fulfilment.

The grind, and its inherent connotations, has made many great players fall out of love with the game. These players are resisting poker’s true nature. Leaderboards, parental judgement, money….none of these are poker’s fault. Poker is just a game that you can play, to get better at playing it. And it’s beautiful in its simplicity. The complications are something that that you or other people have added, but they aren’t part of the game’s true nature. Recognise this, and you are taking a giant step towards liberating yourself from the ‘outside-in’ mindset.


Let me know your experience of the downside of the ‘outside-in’ approach. And don’t forget to be a hero and give this blog a share on Facebook and Twitter!

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