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Poker and Your Unconscious Competence


Sky Matsuhashi

on July 6, 2015

Jared Tendler's book, The Mental Game of Poker, discusses a learning theory called the Four Stages of Competence.  This theory was originally developed by Noel Burch in the '70s.  It's a model for how we learn skills and their movement from a base level of Unconscious Incompetence to the highest skill level of Unconscious Competence.  This is where the world's best poker players have developed their skills to.

We are initially unaware of how little we know.  As we recognize what skills we lack, we start to purposefully work on integrating them into our skill set.  This takes concentrated effort at first, until we train on them so much that they become ingrained in us, and we can accomplish them without thinking.


Competence Hierarchy Graphic:  “Competence Hierarchy adapted from Noel Burch by Igor Kokcharov” by Kokcharov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Level 1: Unconscious Incompetence

This is where we all start when learning a new skill.  This is where you don't even know what you don't know: you're new to an activity and are unaware of what you need to learn to develop the skills to excel.  This is like the first time you were dealt a hand of poker.  You looked at solely the strength of your hand and decided whether to bet, call, raise or fold.  You didn't recognize that there's more to the game than the cards you held in your hands.

Level 2: Conscious Incompetence

You're applying some new skills, and you've started learning what you need to do to improve.  In poker, this is where you begin to understand the importance of position, having the initiative, thinking about your opponent's likely holdings (and so many other aspects) and using these to develop a strategy for each hand.  You're not skilled in these areas at all, but at least you understand the importance of them and how acquiring these skills will lead to poker success.

Level 3: Conscious Competence

You now know how to use many of the skills you're working on, but you have to spend lots of concentrated effort on putting them into play.  Ranging opponents, planning ahead and considering your image are all things you can do, but they don't come naturally and it's easy to forget to take these things into account with each hand you play unless you're intently focused on it.

Level 4: Unconscious Competence

This is where we strive to be.  You've had so much practice with your skills that they come naturally.  Gut reactions take over and you have a great ‘feel' for the game.  You don't have to purposefully range opponents, it just happens naturally.  You don't have to count your outs or calculate the price of calling, you automatically see good spots to barrel bluff, to call down w/ second pair, or to fold to river aggression.  This is where your A-game lies, and it's what you've been working so hard and studying/training for.

Training Skills to the Level of Unconscious Competence

Our goal in poker should be to become the best poker players we can be, and it starts with recognizing where our deficits lie and systematically working on eliminating these deficits.  There's a limit to how much we can focus on at any one time, so this is a gradual process that takes a long time to accomplish.  And, in an ever-changing dynamic game like poker, there are always skills to work on, new defenses and offenses to adapt into our play, and new opponents to deal with: so it's a never-ending process.  As Adam Carolla says, if you're going to find any success in life, you've got to love the journey and be willing to do the work necessary.

The first step in this is finding our poker leaks.  Make a list of these leaks, and put them in order of importance so you can tackle one at a time starting with the most relevant.  Right now I have a list of 11 leaks, and here are the top 3:

  1. Tilt control – getting angry and frustrated, resulting in either quitting early or spewing chips
  2. Confidence – feeling like I'm not good enough and can never win, so I don't even play that day
  3. Non-believing and paying off opponents too lightly

Numbers one and two involve the mental game, so that's why I've re-read Jared Tendler's The Mental Game of Poker and am creating these posts.  If I can teach you what I'm learning, I'm more likely to internalize these skills and develop them to the level of Unconscious Competence.

Once we know our leaks, we can work on the specific skills needed to plug these leaks.  This takes dedicated time off-the-felt to study the necessary skills, then time on-the-felt in special FOCUS sessions in which we're intently concentrated on these skills and actively looking for spots to put them into play in the session.  Eventually, the more we actively use the skills we're working on, the quicker they'll become natural parts of our games and get developed to the level of Unconscious Competence.

For working on my #1 leak, tilt control, I'm taking the following steps:

  1. Writing articles based on the mental game and developing it
  2. Actively putting into practice a solid warm-up before each session that helps to put me in the right mindset and keep me there through my sessions
  3. Keep a tilt record of when/why I went on tilt and re-reading sections in Tendler's book that deal with the specified tilt when it occurs

My next post will deal with Jared Tendler's ideas of the Inchworm Concept and Process Model for learning new skills.

Please leave any comments below.

Make your next session the best one yet!


Sky Matsuhashi

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