Perhaps there is no more influential book in the world of poker than Doyle Brunson's Super System. Many players, both young and old, swear by the book as it continues to shape the game today. But back when it was first published in 1979 the poker landscape was far different than what it is today and few, even Texas Dolly himself, could predict where the game was headed. In retrospect Brunson has expressed some amount of regret in writing the book often stating that it has probably cost him more money on the tables than what he was paid to write it. In addition, he has said in more than a few interviews that he has had to change his playing style due to the fact that so many players have read his book. Modern coaches and authors are in quite the different context than Bruson as the game has exploded many times over throughout the world. Given that an icon such as Doyle Brunson has already admitted that his book has worsened the poker ecology for both himself and other players, it has to be asked why current coaches offer insight into a game where there is a limited supply of equity to go around?
Although I have never been a coach nor do I ever hope to put myself in the same league as Doyle, I found myself in a similar situation a few years back when running a poker room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had a local player base that can largely be considered recreational, with money to spare that did not mind giving a lot of action. Foreign players would sometimes find the game through various online forums, but it was not a widely known phenomenon in the grand scope of the poker world. Ask a random player in any Western country and I doubt that most would have known that one of the best $5-$10 PLO games existed in this humble third world country. But the room was getting on in years and had started to decline. Thus the job that the room's owner charged me with was to grow the player base and increase it's revenue. Towards this end I started a social media campaign unlike any before and while the room had always had a Facebook page, I started an advertising blitz that would ensure that many more eyes would come to see the room. With discounted hotel rooms and free meals also being offered, word quickly got around and we were able to draw players from neighboring countries and beyond. My boss was certainly pleased with the results, but I would come to discover that not everyone was happy with my efforts. Many of the foreign players who had occupied our tables for years would have preferred to keep the room a secret and did not want to face tougher competition in the form of players from Western nations that were very familiar with the game.
Although I fought it at the time, in retrospect I have to admit that the reasoning was sound. Given the nature of my advertising and the fact that I am a foreigner myself, it was not as if I was growing the local player base. The number of local and recreational players I had mentioned previously was largely stagnant, while the base from abroad was growing. Thus it could be interpreted that a larger group of players were now fighting over a smaller amount of resources. My answer to this at the time was simple; not all players are winning ones and in fact the majority are not. Therefore it can be argued that I was bringing in just as many losing players as winning ones, if not more. In essence the advertising efforts were creating a new equity source from which the remaining winning players can draw from. It could be that current poker coaches and authors have a similar mentality, namely that in the end their efforts will not worsen the poker ecology as there will always be more losing players than winning ones and that their coaching will not affect this to any considerable degree. If this is indeed their thought process, there are several issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, given the claims of most coaching sites in terms of how they can help the average poker player, there is then a dissonance between what they are selling and what they know to be the most likely result. But on the flip side if any coaching site is successful and can back up their claims of creating winning poker players, they are then worsening the ecosystem of the game and further reducing the resources available for it to grow. I recently saw a YouTube video from such a site where they were reviewing hands using various Artificial Intelligence (AI) software and solvers to analyze different strategies. It is very unlikely that such videos would be appealing to the general public and in fact can have the opposite effect. Poker is a shrinking game and we have long since passed the days of the boom. These sites and books reach out to a very niche audience within the existing player base and if successful worsen the game while not attracting any new players at the same time.
Of course another possibility is that these sites are basically a complete scam, that they cannot in any way back up their claims of creating winning players and are largely run by those who either never won in the game or at the very least cannot continue to do so. I remember a post on the 2+2 forums several years back critiquing one such coach, who was offering training packages starting at over $1,000. But with some research the forum community was able to discover that he had not been a winning player online for the past 4 years, although he did have some notoriety in the years prior. Poker is a shrinking game and if a player such as myself can read the writing on the wall it stands to reason so can these players that tout themselves as coaches. We have all heard the phrase, those who can do and those who cannot teach. One can readily see how this sort of thinking applies not only in poker but also in closely related fields such as sports betting. Social media is littered with those who tout themselves as sports betting gurus, who promise their clients untold riches if one can simply pay for their picks and consulting services. There is an exhaustive list of why all of these gurus are complete scammers, too many to delve into in this short article. But for those who speak truthfully on this topic they all reiterate the same point; why would anyone who consistently wins give away their secrets when it adversely and directly affects their own livelihood for the worse. The same can be said for coaching in poker as resources in the form of losing players' money is not an unlimited one. Simply put, to coach players to become winners creates competition and makes no logical sense if this game were truly their sole source of income.
All of this is before we even address the issue of cost. In my previous analogy of sports betting, the cost comes in the form of what is known as vigorish (or vig). The truth is that even your average sports fan can come close to having 50% winning results. But what prevents them from being actual winners is the vig, the commission that the sports book takes from the bettor for placing the bet. So in reality to make a wager to win $100 one would have to make it for $110 ($100 + 10% vig) and that is the difference that makes most bettors losers. The vig in the world of poker coaches comes in the form of the cost of procuring such advice and insights into the game. As I see it there are two basic models at work in this industry, the first using charging a monthly subscription that seeks to cast a wide net and the other a more personal approach in which the coach only accepts a handful of applicants but charges much more. In the former model one could argue that price is not a significant issue as it does not appear to be prohibitive. But one has to wonder about the quality of such material when it is so mass produced to attract as big of an audience as possible. In the end it may very well be true that you get what you pay for. The latter model may be more attractive to many as it takes a more personal approach and one can receive training from the actual coach and not just a series of videos from partners and associates. But in these cases the prices are much higher, often ranging well into the thousands. As poker coaching can be somewhat of an ongoing process that does not end with one lesson, the costs can quickly add up. The fact is that poker players already have a vig in the form of rake that most regulars pay into the tens of thousands each year. To have to add to this total the cost of coaching does not make much sense in that the most likely outcome would not overcome the total cost.
I do not mean to denigrate all coaching sites as I personally know those who are sincere in their motivations and actually helpful when it comes to their students. But I find a general contradiction in reasoning and philosophy when it comes to the issue of coaching that most have not been able to address. In the worst case scenario a coach may just be a complete scammer. But even in the minority that is the best case scenario, affective coaches are worsening the poker ecology for both themselves and every one else. One model that I have seen employed that comes the closest to addressing every issue is the staking model. In this practice coaches take on a handful of students to go through the entire course material, but in the end will take the few best ones and stake them into real cash games to split the profits at a predetermined ratio. In this way everyone gets a chance to pay for and review the material once, but then those who will benefit from it the most can continue the relationship and mutually profit from it along with their instructor. In this manner cost is no longer an issue as what the student pays is derived from his winnings. And while this in of itself can be considered a cost, it can be considered offset by the fact that the client's buy-ins are provided by the instructor. For the coach this method can provide verification for prospective clients that they are still keeping up with the game, demonstrating real world results if not from themselves then from those that they mentor. It also demonstrates that the coach's primary income is still derived from the felt and not the instruction itself.
In its conclusion the issue of poker coaching creates too many philosophical issues that cannot stand to sound reasoning. The old adage of "if it's too good to be true it probably is" applies here as so many poker coaches cannot possibly do for their students what they claim. And in the best case scenarios where they actually are helping, they end up making the poker world a worst place. But philosophical issues are often impossible to solve and thus the point of this article should be to address the consumer side of things as there will always be a market for this service as long as poker is still a thing. To those coaches who are of good intent and repute I would advise to follow a model of complete transparency. Those that code may already be familiar with Github, a repository where one can share their programming code for the community to view and even edit. I do not see why the poker coaching world could not follow a similar model by providing the results of their students in order to provide for the community real world demonstrations of their service. In this way coaches can limit the number of students, thus minimizing their impact on the ecology, and avoid the boiler room type of coaching videos that have a limited impact even at their best. And even if some players were to choose not to employ these types of services, such can at least provide real proof and inspiration that it is at least possible that one can improve their game and become winners in poker. In the end, the results will often be what makes for the best marketing tool for those in the coaching world.