On a recent trip to visit my sister, I had a night of insomnia. The extra bedroom I was using had a small TV, a DVD player, and some movies, so I decided I might as well pass the time by watching one of them. I picked Taken, a 2008 action movie I had never seen before.
This meant that I finally got to appreciate the context for what has become something of a jokey catch-phrase from the movie — “I have a very particular set of skills” — which isn’t quite an exact quotation, though that doesn’t matter much.
In case you haven’t seen this film, Liam Neeson plays a retired CIA black-ops agent. While his daughter is vacationing in France, she is kidnapped to be sold into sexual slavery. Neeson gets a brief chance to speak by phone to one of the abductors. He says:
"I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Neeson’s threats prove not to be empty ones.
When you sit down at a poker table, what “very particular set of skills” do you bring to the game? We could name many that would be useful, and provide a winning edge. Not everybody will have the same ones.
Although I can no longer remember the exact setting, I remember once seeing Chris Ferguson asked during an interview about the most important quality someone needed to succeed as a poker player. His answer — discipline. He famously proved how he could apply this during his “bankroll challenge,” when he started with no money in an online poker account, playing only free games, and slowly worked that up to $10,000 in real money, following carefully defined rules of bankroll management.
T. J. Cloutier — who finished runner-up to Ferguson in the 2000 World Series of Poker Main Event — cited attentiveness and a detailed memory as among the skills most important for poker success. In interviews he talked about his ability to remember how players played hands years after the fact, crediting that ability with his having always paid close attention. “If a wing fell off a gnat at the end of the table, I’d see it,” he joked.
If I had to pin down what particular skills I bring to the table that give me an edge over other players, I’d name these two:
I’m not in a hurry to win. I have internalized pretty deeply the idea that poker is one long game, and that it’s only the long-term results that matter, not the short-term results. I’m prepared to fold, fold, fold if the good cards aren’t coming. Meanwhile I make plans for how to exploit other players’ weaknesses, and wait as long as necessary for the circumstances to be just right to execute the plan and win all of their chips.
Of course, this trait is more useful in cash games than tournaments, where time is a critical factor, and you are forced to make moves rather than wait for the perfect moment.
2. Analytical ability
Whether by genetics or upbringing and education, I’m just habitually analytical about everything, always thinking and questioning and trying to understand, to uproot inconsistencies and fill voids in my knowledge of how the world works. I find this to be an indispensable tool at the poker table.
When I’m on my game, I’m constantly asking myself an endless series of questions. Why did he bet there? Why so much? What does his little speech there mean? Why does he look nervous? Why did he act so fast? Pulling together a bunch of little pieces of information and considering their implications leads me to a conclusion about what to do that is, thankfully, more often right than wrong.
When I’m off my game, it’s invariably because I’ve decided, consciously or unconsciously, to try to tackle poker without one or both of my main two advantages.
If I play without patience, it’s because I have only a limited amount of time for the game before I have to go do something else. Or maybe I’m just feeling antsy, itching for action, and try to force wins instead of letting them come.
Similarly, my analytical ability can be degraded by sleep deprivation, by playing while I’m preoccupied by some unrelated matter, or by giving in to distractions instead of concentrating on the game.
For me, playing poker without full tanks of patience and analytical ability is like going into gladiatorial combat without a sword and shield. The results aren’t pretty. In those situations, I have no edge over the other players, and whether I win or lose basically depends on how the luck falls. That’s no way to build a bankroll.
What is your “very particular set of skills”? Do you even know? Have you taken time to figure out what gives you an edge in the game? If not, put in some serious reflection on that question before the next time you play.
It could be that your most valuable skills may not be any of those I’ve listed here.
Maybe your best weapon is a complete absence of fear.
Maybe it’s an endurance that allows you to play your A-game for super-long sessions, while your opponents are flagging.
Maybe you’re a mathematical whiz, able to perform complex equity calculations on the fly.
Maybe you have a heightened sensitivity to other players’ subtle physical tells of strength or weakness.
Or maybe you’re an especially social creature, making friends easily, and win extra money because people like you and don’t much mind losing to you.
Whatever your specific advantages, you need to know what they are, how to exploit them to maximum advantage, and how to recognize when they’re not working for you so that you can get out before you get hurt.
If you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you — or at least take all your chips.
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.