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Articles - Alan Schoonmaker

Taking Notes - Part 2
by Alan Schoonmaker

In Part I, I said that taking notes can be very helpful, but that most people don’t take any, and hardly anyone takes enough of them. Hopefully, it convinced you to take more notes. Now, let’s discuss what kind of information you should seek and the way you should record it.

Because memories are so fallible, you should take detailed, immediate notes on at least four subjects:

• Your results

• Your play

• Any hand you want to remember or analyze

• Every opponent you expect to encounter repeatedly

Your Results

Many people think they get better results than they really do. You can avoid this problem by immediately recording every chip you buy. If you don’t, you will certainly delude yourself about your results. You occasionally will think you bought two racks of chips and won one because you ended up with three. You can easily forget (partly because you want to do so) the half a rack you bought when you were getting short-stacked. Once in a while, you will forget how many racks you bought. Over time, those small “forgotten” amounts will add up to real money, and it will distort your beliefs about how well you’re doing.

In fact, some people have insisted that they have been cheated online primarily because they have never kept accurate records. They believed that they were winning players only because they “forgot” how many chips they had bought. Since websites keep extremely accurate and undeniable records, they suddenly saw the truth: They were losers. Because they could not accept that truth, they insisted that they had been cheated.

Your Own Play

You, I, and nearly every other player overestimate our skill. To reduce this problem, you should constantly monitor your own play. How well are you playing now?

Pay particular attention to any changes. Every time your play improves or deteriorates, try to learn why it happened. For example, if you find that you’ve missed a couple of value bets on the river, try to determine why you did it and write down your conclusions. If your reads have been unusually accurate, ask yourself why and write down your answers. Your goal should be to understand how conditions affect your play so that you can improve three critical decisions:

• Should you stay or go?

• Should you change seats or tables?

• What kinds of games should you select in the future?

For example, my notes show that my play deteriorates when I can see the television or am in slow-moving games with lots of conversation. I get so distracted or annoyed that I don’t play my best. Seeing this pattern helps me to make better choices of games and seats.

My notes also show that I play poorly when I’m hungry, tired, or irritable. You may think that you don’t need notes to make such judgments, but many people ignore these obvious distractions. For example, do you know how well you play when you’re tired or angry? Has this information caused you to go home earlier than you had originally planned? If the answer to either question is, “No,” you’re costing yourself money, perhaps a lot of it.

Any Hand You Want to Remember or Analyze

General evaluations of your play are helpful, but you should get much more specific. You can’t improve any skill without practice and feedback, and poker feedback is notoriously unreliable. You can misplay a hand, catch a miracle card, and win a huge pot. Conversely, you can play a hand perfectly and lose to a two-outer or because you were always behind.

Since luck has such huge effects on your short-term results, you must focus your attention on the only thing you can control: your own decisions. How well did you play various hands?

When I play a hand well or badly, I write what happened on an index card and rate my play from excellent to idiotic. I do it immediately and record as many details as possible. What kind of game was it? Who made every bet? What kind of players were they? Why did I bet, raise, and so on? Why do I think my play was excellent, very good, good, questionable, poor, very poor, or idiotic? I don’t like admitting it, but I’ve made my share of very poor and even idiotic plays, and so have you.

However, because I take such specific notes, I reduce the chances of making certain mistakes repeatedly. If you don’t take similar notes, you will keep making the same mistakes.

In addition, since I write notes on so many hands, I have solid data to assess my own strengths and weaknesses and improve my game. Instead of vaguely wondering, “Maybe I should be tighter, or more aggressive, or bluff more often,” I know what I’ve done well and badly, how often I’ve made various mistakes, how my play has changed over time, and many other facts about my own play.

In Part III, I will discuss ways to analyze this information, but you can’t make a good analysis of bad data. The computer people have a wonderful expression, “GIGO” (garbage in, garbage out). If your data is garbage, your conclusions must be garbage. One reason that so many players overestimate their abilities is that they have never collected solid data for evaluating their play.

Every Opponent You Expect to Encounter Repeatedly

Las Vegas games contain both locals and tourists. Since I play against thousands of tourists per year, I take only cursory and temporary notes on them. I throw them away as soon as the game is over. But I make and keep detailed notes on most locals. I know how they usually play and how their game changes when they are tired, drinking, winning, losing, and so on.

I also know how their play has changed over time. For example, some locals have slowly shifted from being loose-passive to tight-aggressive. Because I date some notes, I can see how they have improved and adjust my strategy. Without notes, I might continue to use the strategy that fit their earlier play, but not the way they play now.

I also record all tells and telegraphs. Mike Caro wrote a great book on this subject, but it contains only general principles. I want to know more than how people generally act. What does it mean when a specific player moves his right hand toward his chips, or holds his cards this way or that? The only way I can answer those questions is to watch and take notes. If I do it carefully, I can slowly learn how to read many people’s signals.

Some players have great intuition. They can look at a player and just feel he is bluffing or has the nuts. I wish I had that gift, but I don’t. I therefore must work very hard to compensate, but it pays off. Poker is a game of information management. If I have written notes about you, and you have only a vague impression of how I play, I have a huge edge. The best way to reduce that edge is to take your own notes.

Using Online Tools

If you play online frequently, you should seriously consider buying Poker Tracker and/or Poker-Spy. I don’t have enough information or computer expertise to say which one is better, but both seem excellent to me. They automatically take much more complete notes than you could take, and they summarize and put the information into easily used formats.

Since they deal only with statistics, you still should take notes about specific hands, your own mental state, the effects of conditions, and so on. Statistics are very valuable, but you must try to understand why and when you and others take certain actions.

Final Remarks

When I was a student, I learned a painful truth: Good notes are worthless if they aren’t used well. Some of the most meticulous note-takers got poor grades because they didn’t understand the difference between taking notes, understanding the instructor, and applying the information.

They did well on multiple-choice tests, but never really understood the class. In poker, we don’t have multiple-choice exams. We have to get good information and then apply it well during the heat of battle. My next column will discuss ways to use our notes to increase our edge.


If you would like to learn more about yourself and other players, you can order Dr. Schoonmaker’s book, The Psychology of Poker.

Go to part III of "Taking Notes".


[Special thanks to for sharing this article]