The #1 Reason People Fail at Poker (And How to Avoid It)

The biggest reason why some people fail to win at poker

After 10 years in poker now, both playing the game professionally and writing several books about it, I have seen A LOT. I have seen so many people come and go. So many monumental changes in the industry and so on.

But I still occasionally see some of the same names and faces at the poker tables. Some of the same players who I have been battling against in some cases for a decade now. Some of them have even moved up to the highest levels of the game.

What is it that makes these people different? So many other people end up failing to even win at poker at all. Yet there always seems to be a handful of players that you see consistently crushing the cash games and making final tables.

Well there is exactly ONE reason why in my opinion.

Turning Knowledge Into Results: Execution

The #1 reason why most people fail to win at poker in my opinion is not due to a lack of knowledge. In fact, sometimes these days players even at the lowest limits know far too much theory!

The real reason why they cannot produce actual results at the poker tables is because they fail to consistently apply this knowledge in all situations.

They fail to make the correct play when it really matters. And this boils down to one thing:


1. The carrying out or putting into effect of a plan, order, or course of action.

You see poker is an easy game to comment on and give your opinion. Anybody can do it. Everybody seems to be a genius away from the felt.

But there is one crucial difference between all of the armchair experts out there and the very few who actually produce real world results in this game that change bank accounts and lives.

That is, they consistently apply their poker knowledge in the heat of the moment. And they don’t just do it “sorta sometimes if they feel like it” or as long as they are running good.

No, elite players execute and apply their knowledge at the poker tables all of the time, even when things are going horribly, horribly wrong for them.

In fact, as I have discussed before, the real test of a poker player is how they react when they run really, really bad for a long time. This is the exact spot where you can still gain a massive edge even in today's tougher games.

Anybody can play good when all the cards are falling the right way for them. It doesn't take any real skill to play like a pro when you are coolering everyone and avoiding the bad beats.

But most people react very poorly when they hit a bad run of cards, when they can't make hands and the bad beats start to happen again and again and again. They start getting frustrated, make bad calls and sometimes even go on full blown tilt where they are literally just giving their money away.

The very best players though see this moment as a prime opportunity to get ahead of everybody else. They see this as the time when they get to separate themselves from the masses of breakeven and losing poker players by simply reacting better to adversity than they do.

How Do You Execute Your Poker Knowledge All the Time?

So how do the top players actually maintain this mental toughness, control their emotions and make the right play no matter what? Well first and foremost it begins with good preparation.

You have to know what the right play is in order to make it!

So elite players know the value of studying the game properly. And what this really means is studying the right material and then applying it at the poker tables.

They also prepare better for sessions both mentally and physically. So for instance they will never play when:

  • Tired
  • Stressed
  • Depressed
  • Drunk

Also, many of the poker pros who I know take care of themselves better than most people. This means that they choose to eat right and exercise regularly as well.

Not exactly mind blowing stuff though right?

Everybody knows that if you eat right and exercise then you will feel better, sleep better and think better. This will have a direct positive impact on your ability to play your best poker at all times.

But so few actually do it.

The Will to Succeed: Discipline 

And this leads me to my 2nd and even more important reason why the best poker players are able to execute and apply their knowledge in the moment better than others. Discipline.

In a recent Youtube video Doug Polk listed discipline as the #1 trait of the very best poker players. And I agree completely.

If you don't know who this guy is by the way, he is often regarded as one of the top heads up no limit players in the world. He is also one of those players who I was referring to before that I have seen for over a decade now at the tables and played against many times.

So let me just be totally blunt here.

If you suffer from a lack of discipline (that is, doing something that you know is the right thing even when you don't want to do it), then poker is probably not the game for you.

This game doesn’t care about your feelings. It doesn’t care if you have had too many bad beats lately. It doesn’t care if you are feeling frustrated, stressed out or even cursed.

It only rewards those who have the will to push through it and keep making the right play regardless of how they feel.

It also only rewards those who know when to quit if they are on tilt, make the effort to practice good table selection and put in the time studying the game away from the tables.

And all of this boils down to one thing, discipline.

Experience is the Great Equalizer

There is one other thing though that can take you a long way in this game and that is experience. I say it all the time on this blog and elsewhere, there is one common thing that almost all great players share:

They always seems to be at the tables playing poker!

The best poker players that I know have all played millions and millions of hands of poker or logged incredible amounts of hours live.

All of this experience forces you to see the same situations over and over again. For instance, in a small stakes game when you double barrel the turn with your overpair and a tight/passive player raises you, this is almost always going to be the nuts.

Usually even the most stubborn person in the world is eventually going to get the message to start folding here more often.

I know because this is exactly what happened to me. I learned this game almost 100% through trial and error. I had to lose all my money over and over again in spots like this before I finally learned to start folding more often.

Now it is important to point out that playing a maniacal amount of poker hands like I have won’t guarantee that you will become a great poker player. It is a necessary condition of success though in my opinion.

I don’t know any top players who don’t have massive amounts of experience playing this game.

Final Thoughts

The #1 reason why most people fail to win at poker actually has nothing to do with their knowledge of the game. In fact many people know too much these days especially at the lower stakes.

A very simple strategy like the one that I recommend is actually far more effective in most cases.

What most people lack instead is the ability to consistently apply and execute this knowledge in the heat of the moment when it actually matters.

The very best poker players out there, the ones who crush the games, often take care of their mind and bodies better so that they always approach each session ready to play to the very best of their abilities.

They also tend to have incredible work ethic putting in enormous numbers of hands and hours logged at the poker tables.

But the biggest reason why they are able to achieve top results is because they are more disciplined than others. And when you really break it down, discipline is just a bigger will to win than the next guy.

You are either going to make the right plays consistently or you are not. It's totally up to you each and every time you sit down to play poker. Your results in this game will be the direct byproduct of the choice you make here.

Let me know in the comments below what you think holds most people back in poker.

fail at poker


  1. Hi Nathan. I read your blog for over two years but first time leave a comment here.Do you believe that after almost only three hundred thousan hands at nl2 and nl5, those days i was thinking these things you write in this article? perfect timing and i want to thank you and keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks EL Greco I am glad it helped! Believe me I need to remind myself of many of these things sometimes too.

  2. Grats once more Nathan. As i've commented here before, with all the available information out there, the edge lies in the mental aspect of the game, including routine and good habits on and off the table. If someone is determined, will learn the technical part of the game but learning the mental part is smth most of todays regs will never grasp.

  3. Nathan

    I think why a lot of players fail is because of improper bankroll management and tilt. Players playing stakes that their bankroll can't handle. When they lose a big chunk of their roll they get stressed and go on tilt and just spiral out of control. Tilt has crippled bankrolls and ended poker careers.

    1. Yup absolutely I have seen this many times and I struggled with it early on in my poker career as well.

    2. I've been there many times.The best solution to desensitise from the money,is to maintain a a bankroll that actually means little to your financial situation. Otherwise,unless you have the inner discipline of a zen master,poor results and a massive downswing will:1.overstress you,2.overtilt you. The two combined will cloud your judjement about table selection,hand selection,villain dependent plays etc and pave the road to busto!

  4. Just saw Doug's youtube clip and then read this! Man this article is so on point! Discipline is the hardest thing for me because I don't have time to play much because of work etc. so I played tired often. I'm focusing most on trying to play my A game mostly. I say mostly because I am not trying to get rich playing NL10 but practice til i go live Full time. Living in NY cant play Full Time online since it is still considered illegal. (BOL accepts NY players still)

    Anyways one of the best articles I have read about poker no doubt! You wrote exactly what I have been thinking the past few weeks! What I would need to do consistantly to become a successful player. Meaning winning money and surviving. For guys dreaming of playing poker pro save this article!

    1. Thanks Paul glad this article hit home for you!

  5. I meant I saw the Youtube clip a few days before and was thinking about what you wrote pretty much exactly the same before even reading your article! I am really happy that I am thinking about the game the exact same way as someone whose been successful and made millions! I know I am improving. :) Now time to improve that dicipline!

  6. Wondering how you come up with an article I just needed everytime. Im a live player, but your contents greatly helped me. Thanks as always.

    1. Haha happy I could help! My article choice is usually pretty random. Often inspired by an email I get or a blog comment.

  7. this is spot on. Luckily, while I am not doing this yet, I do get more and more disciplined, I feel like. And sometimes I just realize that I am playing shitty right now, so I definitely am self-aware. But this is really something that I need to work on. And it actually sometimes doesn't feel that bad to have a losing session, but also feeling like you played decent and could've lost more.

    But it kind of fits, since Im generally trying to become more disciplined in my life in general right now, less procrastinating and all. Thanks for the article!

    1. Nobody is a perfect poker player, I still struggle with this stuff sometimes also. When I write articles like this one I am partly speaking to myself. Glad I could help!

  8. Great read and great advice BlackRain79 thanks much love . . . -D1G1TALFOX

  9. Discipline is underrated! Was playing yesterday and i tilted when someone 3bet me after a long wait for a good hand. Patience is key.

  10. Hi Nathan,
    What % of players do you think are long term winners in poker ?
    Would I be wrong buy guessing in the 10 to 15% range ?
    Keep in mind I am not talking about people who can earn a living.
    I am taking about people who are at least good enough to supplement an exsisting income.

    1. I think maybe as much as 30% are winners in the long run. But only 10%-15% make a significant amount that actually matters.

  11. is this bb/100 calc right ? money won 5000 divided by hands 29000 = .17
    divided by bb (which is 2 for a 1/2 game) .17 times by 2 = 08.5
    means this played is about plus 1.7bb/100 ?

    1. think i answered my own question
      money won divided by hands then times 100 and divide by bb
      so here its bb/100 = 8.5.....pretty sure that is right

  12. Hey guys IF I had 70k games at 1/3 nl with bb/100 of 13
    5k games at 2/5nl with bb/100 of 17 how would you figure out the bb/100
    for all
    75k games combined ?
    ps can you even combine the two ?

    I am thinking 70k vs 5k games is 14 times more games at 1/3
    so 14 times 3bb
    and 1 time 5bb is equal to 47 bb divided by 15 = average bb of 3.13
    so if i won
    27k dollars it would be 27k divided by 75k hands = 36 which is then divided by 3.13
    bb/100 of 11.5 is that right ?

    P,S, if the above is even correct ? would describe 11.5 as soild ? maybe crushing ?

    1. I would calculate it this way:

      (70*13 + 5*17) / 75 = 13.27

      which makes sense because you have much more hands with a WR of 13 and just added a few hands with a higher WR


  13. Nathan, I want to thank you very much for all the knowledge you give us through the blog! you are the man! You and your trajectory are a great inspiration to me! Greetings from a Brazilian fan.

    1. Thank you very much Ivair, glad I could help!