Monday, May 1, 2017

10 Years as a Poker Pro: This is What I Have Learned

10 year poker pro this is what I have learned
On a cold morning in April of 2007 I walked into an office building in Vancouver, Canada and told my boss that I was done. I was tired of being overworked and underpaid.

Even though I was a recent college graduate I was working long hours in a small company for a laughably low salary.

But more importantly I was spending all of my energy in life to help build somebody else's dream. To build their company, their business.

I promised myself never again.

I knew that the only way I was ever going to become successful, free and ultimately happy in life is if I found a way to work for myself.

Fortunately I had been playing online poker for awhile by that point. In fact, in the previous year I had rapidly climbed up the lower limits and built a low 5 figure bankroll.

On most days I would come home after working all day, play poker for a few hours online, and make twice what I made all day at my soul sucking job.

I also had about 6 months living expenses saved up in the bank. So the decision to quit my job and become a full time poker pro was actually a pretty simple one in my mind.

My friends (college educated and open minded) were mostly encouraging but I don't think they really understood it still. Game of luck right?

On the other hand, some members of my conservative Christian family actually told me that I was throwing my life away and that I should "go get help" instead.

Yikes. Talk about harsh!

Even though I knew it was just ignorance, these words lit a fire under me to succeed in this game more than anything else on earth. 

Ten year poker pro lessons I have learned

As I type this in April of 2017 I have just surpassed 10 years in this game, much of it as a full time professional poker player. I am known for having some of the highest winnings in the history of online poker at the lower limits.

In recent years I have also developed a large side business teaching the game as a multiple time author, video producer, coach, blogger and freelance writer for some of the biggest poker sites in the world.

And lastly, it was exactly 5 years ago that I made the arguably even crazier decision to sell everything that I own and hop on a 17 hour one way flight from Vancouver to Bangkok, Thailand.

In this article I am going to discuss 10 of the biggest poker and life lessons that I have learned during the past decade as an online poker pro and citizen of the world.


1. Treat Poker Like a Business


One of the first things I had to learn was that if I was ever going to really make it in this game, then I had to stop screwing around.

This meant that I had to stop playing whenever "I feel like it," playing while drinking, tilted, tired and so on.

In short, I had to learn how to approach this game like a professional would. Which really means to treat this game as if I am running a business.

Because as a professional poker player you are essentially the CEO of a small business. You alone are responsible for all decisions. And you alone are also responsible for all of your profits and all of your losses as well.

So I had to develop a "sink or swim" mentality because I knew that nobody was going to be there to hold my hand when things go horribly wrong at the poker tables for weeks or even months on end.

And my bills won't get paid just because I show up like at a regular job either. I simply had to win. I had to succeed. Losing was not an option.

This is the kind of pressure that comes when you turn this game from a hobby into a job. And you can't truly know what it is like until you take the plunge for yourself.

You can either thrive under this kind of pressure or let it bury you. I knew which path I was going to take.

So I got a consistent playing schedule which basically meant every waking moment of my life for the first several years. And I made time for regular study as well.

As they might say, I was completely "all-in" with poker. My entire life revolved around it for years.

I also made sure that I was always ready to play my A-game every time I sat down. This meant regular exercise as well as eating and sleeping right.

But perhaps most important of all, this is also when I learned how to finally deal with some of my tilt problems. Specifically, I learned how to quit when I knew that it just wasn't my day.

Because after all, as a pro I didn't have the luxury to get all frustrated and throw away a bunch of money like most people do.

I had bills to pay.


2. Don't Get Too High And Don't Get Too Low


Being Canadian I am naturally a huge ice hockey fan and I have played the game for most of my life as well.

In order to win the sport's ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, you have to endure a two month long mentally and physically exhausting playoff grind.

A common cliche that you often hear players say is:

"Don't get too high when you win and don't get too low when you lose."

I think this is an incredibly important lesson to learn for poker as well. This is because the nature of the game is that you are on a never-ending rollercoaster.

It doesn't matter if your name is Phil Ivey or Daniel Negreanu, you are going to have losing days, weeks and sometimes even losing months in this crazy game.

But you will also win huge sometimes as well for extended periods. I will never forget when I won my first tournament or hit my first massive heater at the cash game tables for instance.

It is very important that you learn to take it all in stride though. Because neither the huge heaters nor the massive downswings are real.

These are the outliers. They are not normal. You aren't that good and you aren't that bad. This is just variance running it's course.

Don't get too high when the money is falling out of the sky and don't get too low when you can't win a hand to save your life.


3. Always Be Evolving


The game of poker (both online and live) is always changing. When I first started playing 10+ years ago a 3Bet literally meant AA or KK only. Crazy right?

After that came the 3Bet light era. Then came the 4Bet light era.

You were called a "donkey" 10 years ago if you called too much. These days most good players know that calling down wide is actually the correct play versus many highly aggressive regs.

What I learned in 10 years as a professional poker player

You have to constantly evolve in this game and stay on top of the way that it is currently being played in order to succeed.


Here is an example:

Many, many years ago I started experimenting with 8x and 10x preflop raise amounts with my premium hands at the lower limits online.

I noticed that the traditional advice to make it 3x was getting way too many callers. So I went against the advice of everybody at the time and started doing it my way instead.

Nobody seemed to have any clue what I was doing for years. And this strategy helped me create some of the highest winrates ever recorded in these games.

But then very slowly people started figuring it out. Then I also wrote a book which details exactly how and when to do these over-raises.

Suffice it to say, before too long every NL2 and NL5 reg was using my strategy and it therefore became ineffective.

So now I basically never do these over-raises anymore and I also made edits in the book several years ago as well. The times have changed and different preflop raising strategies are now more effective at the micros.

This is a perfect example of why you need to always be evolving.

The great thing about poker though is that there is always a counter to every strategy. If you are constantly on top of the latest trends, or better yet inventing them, then the money will always keep flowing in.

This is why I have been such a big proponent of studying the game in a program like Pokertracker or Hold'em Manager over the years. This is where I am constantly researching my opponents and finding the best strategies to beat them.


4. Information is Key


I was that guy who refused to use a HUD (heads up display) for the longest time. In fact, I played the first 4 million hands of my poker career without using one!

If you play at the micros where there are thousands and thousands of different players and you multi-table at all, it is simply -EV to not have data on them available.

The benefits of using a HUD at the lower stakes online are too numerous to name here. You are simply using the data that you already have to help you make better decisions in real time and therefore increase your win-rate.

You won't have to try and mentally keep track of hundreds or thousands of different players spread across multiple tables and sites anymore.

This is not even to mention the ability to study my own game (and that of my opponents as well). And also to run filters and check the profitability of any play.

This is exactly what I mean when I talk about "studying poker." This is how I have come up with many of the strategies that I have used over the years to crush my opposition at the micros.

If you need help setting up your HUD, the most popular article in the history of my website covers this topic in massive detail. You can even download my custom HUD for free and use it yourself.

You can find it all here.

Bottom line: If you take online poker seriously, information is your friend. Use a HUD.


5. Time Management is Essential


When you first start to truly work for yourself it is an incredible feeling. The world is yours. The freedom seems endless!

But this can be a dangerous thing as well.

When there is suddenly no boss hanging over you telling you what to do, it can become very easy to get lazy, procrastinate and put off getting work done.

If you ever plan to set up your own business (poker or otherwise), then you need to develop a work ethic that comes from within. You need to learn how to act like a professional even when there is nobody there to tell you to.

How to be a professional poker player

Most poker players who I know play every single day. You heard that right: they don't take days off.

After all the games run 24/7, 365. You don't need to stop for some artificial "weekend" like in a regular job. In fact often the best poker games to play in are on the weekends!

I don't exactly play every minute of every day like I used to. Between this website, other projects and traveling my time is much more limited.

But in my first several years cutting my teeth as a pro in this game, I basically did very little else besides play poker. And the biggest key to my work ethic was time management.

The internet is the largest marketplace in human history with opportunities to succeed everywhere online (poker is just one way). Yet most people spend their time watching cat videos on Youtube or arguing about politics on Facebook!

I learned very early on that I had to manage my time better if I was going to succeed in poker.

Things like social media, forums, reddit, youtube and so on are simply not helping me achieve my goals online. Therefore, I place a very low priority on them. I will spend 5 or 10 minutes at the very end of the day on them if I have time.

It is very important that if you are chasing any kind of dream or goal that you learn how to prioritize your time. Focus on taking massive action on the things that actually move the needle towards achieving your goals.


6. No Such Thing as a "Standard Play"


Show me somebody who makes the "standard play" all the time and I will show you a breakeven poker player or a small winner at best.

Elite winners, the people who truly crush the games, don't blindly follow the advice to make X, Y or Z play because...everybody else does it.

Trying to copy the strategy that every other mediocre poker player out there uses is the surest way to get the exact same results as them.

On the contrary, every big winner that I know challenges the conventional wisdom at every opportunity. They are always considering if there is a better way to play each hand.

This doesn't mean that they don't ultimately decide that the conventional wisdom was in fact the right play all along. A lot of the time it actually is!

But they test the validity of each play first in order to know for sure almost like a scientist would.

I have done this for years with in depth database reviews and split testing in Pokertracker. I put every assertion to the test. The raw data over a large sample never lies.

A perfect example of this many years ago that I will never forget was from a well known mid-stakes cash game player on Stars who went by the name "Kelisitaan."

He challenged the common wisdom of the time that your opening raise had to be around 3x (just like I did at the lower stakes).

He played an incredibly LAG style and decided that a mini-raise open (from any position) would actually suit his play style better. I remember him being ridiculed for it and called a fish non-stop.

But once these games were tracked people started to realize that he was actually one of the biggest winners of all-time in them. Clearly his "fishy" strategy was working out pretty well!

Just like in my case, they all started copying his strategy eventually and now the mini-raise open is the new "standard play" in most mid and high stakes cash games.


7. Change Everything


This might sound crazy but one of the best things that I ever did for my poker career was to change everything and move halfway around the world.

The reason why is that nothing forces you to act like a professional faster than being completely on your own in a totally foreign environment.

When success is your only option, you are much more likely to stop making excuses and simply go make it happen. After all it is very, very simple: win or go home.

And when you get used to living in paradise, the latter doesn't seem like such a great idea.

Poker Pros in Thailand
Me recently in Koh Samui, Thailand


Another thing is that there are thousands of other poker and non-poker online professionals out here in a place like Southeast Asia who are in the exact same position.

This makes it much easier to make friends with other highly driven and successful people. When you surround yourself with the right people, this tends to have a positive impact on your results as well.

In fact last year I actually interviewed two friends of mine who I met here in Thailand. Both are highly successful online poker pros. You can find those interviews here and here.

Lastly, playing poker professionally (or even doing business online) removes the need to be in one physical location. All you really need is a laptop and an internet connection.

So assuming you come from a Western country, this means that you can set up shop in any number of countries around the world that have a much lower cost of living and often better weather as well.

When you suddenly only need a fraction of the income to live the exact same quality of life, this makes it a lot easier to make it as a poker player or build your business online.

Example: Renting an apartment in London, England versus Saigon, Vietnam (source)

Making it as as poker pro online poker


8. Invest in Yourself: Travel


There really is so much more to it than just physically changing your surroundings and living cheaper though.

While it might sound cliche to say, one of the best things that I ever did in my life was to leave my tiny little bubble in Vancouver and go see the world.

And yes, the only regret I have is that I did not do it earlier!

Travel is essential in my opinion. It opens up your mind. It is exhilarating. It is scary. It forces you to grow as a person. And it gives you a much broader and deeper perspective on this world that we live in.

If you can fund it through poker or some other online business, awesome. But had I known the benefits of travel at an earlier age, I would have gladly gone into debt to finance it.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page"

       -- St. Augustine

Poker pro travel the world
Working from the highest point in Seoul, South Korea

Professional poker and travel
Boracay, The Philippines aka absolute paradise

Lessons learned in ten years as a poker pro
The ancient ruins of Sukhothai, Thailand


At the end of your life experiences such as travel are what you are truly going to remember. In fact it has been proven again and again that people who spend money on experiences instead of things are a lot happier overall.

I don't travel non-stop like some people do. I need somewhere to call home sometimes. This is why I usually spend at least 6 months a year in Thailand where I have a long term condo, gym membership etc. I also try to make it back "home" to Canada once in awhile to reconnect with family and friends.

But I also make sure to take off and explore some new destinations for at least a few months every year as well. It is always awesome and I never regret it. Already got plans for Australia and New Zealand later this year!

Check out my massive article on poker and travel to find out how I utilize the power of technology, Airbnb and cheap airlines in order to see the world and keep my costs down.

And follow my Instagram to see everywhere I go.


9. Don't Be a Hero: Get the Easy Money


One of the very biggest reasons why I have been able to make it 10 years as a poker pro is this:

I only play in good games.

As a professional poker player my goal at the tables is very clear and unambiguous: make money and pay the bills.

The easiest way to do this (by far) is to consistently play against bad poker players.

These are the players who make huge fundamental mistakes and ultimately give away their money in the long run. They are where the "easy money" is at in this game.

So for this reason I am a huge advocate of game selection.

For starters, I only play at soft poker sites. But furthermore, I also make sure that there is always at least one fish (VPIP = 40%+) in any game that I choose to play in. And once they manage to bust, I am out of there.

Many people choose to ignore this critical skill in today's games and battle it out in tough lineups instead. There is simply no strategy on earth that can allow you to "crush" these games. Your opponents just aren't making enough mistakes for this to ever happen.

To be fair, some people don't want to put in the effort of having money on a bunch of different sites, constantly scouting and moving to different tables, chasing fish around and so on.

They just want to sit down and play. I get that and I totally understand it as well.

As a professional though, I know that I have to be better than that. This approach simply does not cut it if you want to win big in today's games.

Game selection is simply part of the job.


10. Poker's End Boss: Variance


The biggest obstacle that I had to overcome in order to make it as a poker pro was variance. This essentially refers to the endless ups and downs that happen all of the time as long as you choose to play this game.

Getting past basic variance (i.e. getting your "true" results) in poker typically requires months of play or hundreds of thousands of hands.

I have even seen a few cases where somebody ran significantly below or above EV over a million hand sample. Who knows how far the rabbit hole can really go!

Here's the thing:

Playing insane amounts of poker for over a decade now has taught me that completely unbelievably shit will happen in this game and it can continue for days, weeks or even months on end.

Being a professional poker player
In fact, there have been many times in my poker career where I literally just had to suspend all logic and simply trust in the fact that I apparently used to be a winning poker player.

Sometimes I would actually just pin my graphs on the wall or use them as my desktop wallpaper just to remind myself of a previous reality when I used to win at poker.

This game simply won't even seem real at times and you have to be willing to keep getting up again and again and making the same good decisions even when the results continue to be terrible.

Downswings in today's games at the lower limits of 50k, 100k or even 200k hands are not only possible but they are also now completely normal as well.

When 5bb/100 or 10bb/100 is often what is considered the absolute best win-rate possible in many small stakes games these days, this is just the simple math.

There have been countless poker players, even potentially great ones, who have cracked under the mighty pressure of variance. I would be lying if I said that I haven't been close to throwing in the towel completely several times over the years myself.

Overcoming variance (downswings specifically) is without a doubt the hardest psychological hurdle to get past in this game. Variance is truly poker's end boss.

Poker pro for ten years

In no other job that I know of can you show up each day, work hard, do all the right things, and go home with a negative paycheck for sometimes weeks or even months on end.

Sorry to tell you but even after 10 years in this game, I definitely don't have all the answers. I haven't figured it all out.

But I do think that massive amounts of experience playing this game has allowed me to find a bit more perspective in the constant ups and downs.

I am less likely to lose my mind over a few bad beats like some newer players will for instance. Also, I feel like I am much better now at recognizing the signs of tilt and simply quitting before any real damage can be done.

You overcome variance in this game by continuing to make the right decisions again and again and again over a very long period of time.

This is how winning is done. There is no magical way around it.


Final Thoughts


It is difficult to sum up 10 years in this crazy game in a short article. I really could have written another entire book about it.

Poker has taught me so much about life and about people. It has taught me how to grow up and be a man, persevere no matter what and learn how to take criticism in stride.

I never planned to go down this path and I could still easily be somewhere completely different in 10 years from now. But ultimately the decision to pursue this game professionally was a very good one for me overall.

Most importantly it has allowed me to work for myself and create both time and location freedom, two things which I think are more important than anything else on earth.

With all of that said, I do want to make it very clear that this article was only about my personal experience in this game.

Poker is a lot tougher these days than when I first started. And even under the best of conditions most people do not win in this game over the short term, let alone for 10 years.

After all, if being a professional poker player were so easy, everybody would be doing it. The truth is that it is one of the most stressful and demanding jobs that you possibly do at times.

But I am not here to crush anyone's dreams either. If you have a deep passion for this game, and you are ready to put in the work, then there is no reason why you can't achieve your version of success with it.

Whatever your goals are in poker, or online business in general, I wish you all the best. Don't leave your success to chance. Go out there and start making it happen today.

And if you made it this far I just want to say thanks for reading my story. Above all, thank you so much for all of the incredible support and encouragement from my longtime readers on here. I could have never achieved this milestone without you.

Lastly, make sure to pick up a copy of my free poker ebook Massive Profit at the Micros to learn more about my poker story over the last 10 years and the strategies that I use to crush the micros.

*Let me know in the comments below what your journey in poker has been like so far.

**This post took a very long time to write. If you found it helpful or inspiring in any way, please consider giving it a "Like" or a "Tweet" below. Thanks!

10 years as a poker and what I have learned

48 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your life, knowledge and experience. I read all the blogposts, and have been noticing a change in how I perceive the game. How I think about it, and how I have now a new kind of calm that helps me keep a clear head. I only play for fun, but my drive to learn and master is evident :) and you make it easier :)

    Edel

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    1. Glad I could help Edel. Thanks for reading!

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  2. I really enjoyed reading the article. Thank you always!

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  3. Very inspirational Congratulations
    jim

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  4. Nathan, what stakes were you playing for the first 5 years as a pro before you moved to Thailand?
    Thanks.

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    1. Pretty much everywhere at the micros (NL2-NL100). When I first went pro I was playing NL50 and NL100. Then I went through a stage where I decided to just mass table NL2 and NL5 which everyone remembers the most. Then back up to higher stakes again just before moving to Thailand.

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  5. It's encouraging for me to hear you've both succeeded greatly AND struggled mightily with poker. It helps put the accomplishment in perspective for hopeful poker enthusiasts.

    I had a breakthrough day saturday where I lost $$ in a two hour session that I in fact crushed, yet I came away smiling and impressed with my resilience. My poker experience and study allowed me to objectively see the unfortunate variance in my play the way Neo views the Matrix!

    Previously on days I lost money at the tables a cloud of doubt in my ability would cast a shadow on my will to play. I feel like I'm mostly over that.

    You can't know the feeling until you've felt it - and it's close for so many players who are willing to put in the work.

    Thanks for the blog!

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    1. Hey Tim glad I could help! That confidence thing is a real issue that a lot of poker players face. This goes along with point #2 in this article to not get too high with your wins or too low with your losses. It's just variance.

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  6. Ha ha the best advice: TRAVEL and LIVE!

    The honesty and down to earth philosophy of your blog is the reason we keep coming back to read you, Nathan. There are plenty of sources for good poker advice (including you of course), but these "life" advices are the best!

    I've got to travel more, even at my 44's of age...

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    1. Thank you sir, glad you enjoy my articles, thanks for reading!

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  7. Great Post Nathan.
    Personally I took the more conventional route. In 2011, after my first degree and playing a ton of poker I continued studying and got a "good" job which pays ok but the hours are pretty hard. I take poker seriously as a hobby but have been wondering now if I made the right choice 6 years ago. Anyhow, to round off this quarter life crisis the wife and I are playing a move to Kuala Lumpur next year for a change of scenery and to chase the better life! On the off chance I don't get employed I'm seriously considering going with a years living expenses and playing full time to see where it takes me.

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    1. Hey Mike,

      I think you probably made the right choice. As I tried to get across at the end of the article, poker is a tough grind these days. It is by no means the gold rush it once used to be. If you have an education and a decent job lined up it is probably better to take that and just play part time.

      That is awesome that you are heading to KL! Always wanted to make it down there, heard great things. Hope it works out well for you!

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  8. Number 10 is golden. I play like a semi pro. 50-60 hours and 12k hands a month. Whenever my break even and downswing period streches longer than 10k-15k hands, i remember your words about variance.
    I am proud to say, i made it from 25nl to 200nl (Currency TL). My dream is to play 500nl - 1000nl mix. I will make it there some day. Thanks for your wisdom. Thanks to you i get beat up hard, go to bed and wake up to fight another day.

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    1. Great job tolkien and glad I could help!

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  9. Great read as always Nathan , thank you for sharing . Can totally relate to the things you say . Have been playing solely as live cash player for last three years professionally after playing the game for the last 14 years recreationally . Totally understand the points you make about the drive and effort and hard work needed to be successful . I can't always get the hand volumes required compared to an online player but I put in the hours at the tables , rarely taking a day off and choose tables wisely where I am a favourite in the line up . I have had three years of vertical rising graphs and an average win rates between 10-15 bb ph . Keep up the great work you do for us grinders out there .
    Gav

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    1. Nice results Gav and thanks, glad I could help!

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  10. Hey Nathan,
    very nice blog! I'm also professional poker player living in Koh Samui (Bangrak) for 4 months now. Do you have Skype or anything else?
    Cheers, and good luck at the tables, mate! :)

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    1. Thanks! Nice, I was just in Koh Samui on vacation a month ago. I don't really use Skype much anymore but you can send me an email at blackrain79@dragthebar.com

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  11. hi, my name is Paul , i am from Romania,and i would like to congratulate for this amazing article. You make me work hard for my goals. Also i like you travel a lot, hope to come in one day in Romania.

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    1. Thanks Paul glad you liked this article! Hope to visit there one day :)

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  12. 10 years, nice. Keep up da good work/articles..!!

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    1. I've been to 18 countries so far. On a mission to hit 50 in my lifetime. That would be a good take I reckon to see one quarter of the world.

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    2. Nice! That is more than me. Definitely looking to travel a lot more in the coming years though. I like your goal!

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  13. Hope you make it to Melbourne, Australia!

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    1. Definitely, always wanted to go there!

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  14. LinkedIn send me a post and clicking brought me to your article. Thank you for this. I have read it with much pleasure. Being a professional poker playing WOMAN for almost 25 years now, I recognize the ups and downs and ins and outs of the poker world in which men still rule (lol). Just want to say 'hi' to you and best of luck. Hope to find you one day at the pokertable. Belinda Blokker (former Dutch poker champ)

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    1. Thank you Belinda and congratulations on your success, 25 years is amazing!

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  15. Hi!

    First of all thank you for hours of good reading in here!

    What is your thoughts on pokerstars and other sites getting rid of table selection? I know youre spending a lot of time finding fish, and doesnt recommend zoom tables. How will it impact your game in the future?

    All the best
    Christoffer

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    1. Thanks Christoffer,

      Pokerstars has not said that they are getting rid of table selection. Last I heard they are testing some new random seating features with a very small segment of their player pool. So it is just total speculation at this point.

      However I will say this. If a poker site were to completely disallow table selection, I would not play there. Being able to choose my competition is a vital part of my edge as a professional.

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  16. Thanks for sharing the lessons you have learned. I have been struggling without much success to improve my time management and to start treating poker as a business as well.

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    1. Thanks Manuel and I hope they help!

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  17. great article! Thanks for sharing! Wish you future success!

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  18. Great reading man. Keep up the good work.

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  19. Hi!

    Thank you for all good information BR79!!!

    I'm from Canada. To play in thailland on 888 poker, is it easy to play and make deposit and bank withdrawal with the same set up as here in Canada?

    Sorry if my question is "stupid"...

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    1. Hey Eric, no problem glad you enjoyed! Yes, you can play online poker in Thailand on any site. And yes you can also use your Canadian bank to deposit and withdraw just like in Canada.

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  20. Ok Good.

    So maybe the poker site can ask us to prove our thailland address? That's it?

    I bought your book today:)

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    1. Hey Eric,

      I hope you are enjoying my new book! I have never had to show proof of my address in Thailand on any poker sites. But if they ask, you could just scan a utility bill or rental agreement.

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  21. Amazing article Nathan. Thanks for sharing.

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  22. So much wisdom in your article, Nathan! Not just useful, but also a must read for anybody who made their mind to go into poker professionally. You're blessed, helping and motivating people to go for their dreams. Great job, man! Go on this way... I love you, bro!

    I wish you all the best with all my heart!

    Iliya

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Iliya, I really appreciate it! :)

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