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#24, Poker and Geeks.

18 Dec

Anyone that knows me understands that I’m a huge basketball fan. They also know I’m a fan of Kobe Bryant.  My other big personal interest is poker. What do these two things have in common? The way the best people in each field approach their craft.

The stories that have always fascinated me about Kobe Bryant have been the strange quirky ones about how he approaches basketball. In a recent column between Malcolm Gladwell (author of Tipping Point and Outliers) and Bill Simmons of ESPN fame Simmons recounted the following story:

“When I visited Nike last month, we toured the development building (in which they customize sneakers for specific athletes), and the guy who ran it told us that Kobe was their favorite client. Why? Because he kept pushing them and pushing them to make the right shoes for him, even flying there for days at a time just to put himself through grueling workouts with sensors all over his body. This past summer, he pushed them to create a special low-top sneaker that also would prevent him from rolling his ankles — which seems incongruous on paper — yet they feel as if they pulled it off. And only because he kept pushing them.”

Think about this for a moment. For all the marketing done on behalf of sneakers giving them the pretense of making you like Michael Jordan how many people actually believe or care if the shoes actually do much to improve your abilities. My initial guess is that most people outside of Nike would give this little thought. I doubt the basketball players themselves even care very much outside of the marketing dollars involved. How else can you explain the lead weighted atrocities that they call baksetball sneakers. In another anecdote there was a NYTimes article probably one of the most interesting pieces about basketball statistics discussing how the Houston Rockets use data to help Shane Battier defend opposing players. In one specific example, how to tackle Kobe Bryant. In many circles people found the article incredibly enlightening about how the new Moneyball mentality can be applied to basketball. For the most part NBA players themselves didn’t find the piece interesting but in the beginning of this season the NYTimes reported:

“And after a New York Times Magazine article last February depicted the Houston Rockets’ Shane Battier’s use of analytical data to guard Bryant, he went to Grover’s assistant, Mike Procopio, and requested the same type of report on the Rockets’ tendencies.”

 Chris Ballard in his recent book called Kobe the equivalent of a Star Wars Geek at Basketball.  It’s this mindset, this geeky aspect that is compelling. To him figuring out Dwyane Wades two step to the rim is like knowing what alien race Yoda is (It’s “Unknown” for those that care) Every little thing matters.

The same exists in poker. As a member of a few poker training sites I’ve gained invaluable knowledge from the videos. Many times however you’ll see players wanting to know the “proper actions” to take in various situations like a how-to guide to play poker. What many people miss as they constantly seek this step by step manual is that this isn’t what’s most importan.  What is most valuable from these videos is listening to the thought process of  how an advanced poker players come to decide which action to take. Learning to bet-bet-overbet bluff is like learning Kobe’s jab-step, one dribble, spin back, pump-fake, step through jumpshot. Sure it’s a useful tool to have in your repertoire but learning that one move isn’t going to make you a very good or great player. In a recent video series I watched two poker pros discuss at length different spots and their thoughts on how to play their hands. For some hands they can spend 10 minutes discussing the merits of the different options and what factors they accounted for. This is the real value in these videos. The thinking, the mindset and the approach these pros have towards their craft is what others should take away. It’s not learning someone elses playbook, but discovering how we go about writing our own playbook. If you ever listen to a poker pro discuss/watch two other high class players in a match you’ll quickly notice how different their appreciation for the game is. You’ll realize that for the most parts these guys are poker geeks. They get excited by the things other players are doing. Sometimes they’ll mention some little detail that at the surface may seem insigificant, a bet size or timing but to them it’s another thing that matters. It matters the same way the sneakers matter to Kobe Bryant.

It’s no different in basketball, poker or any other field. It’s not good enough to be told or shown what to do. In order to have the chance to be the best at anything you have to think every little thing matters. You have to learn the right approach. You have to learn to be a geek.