What you see at the tables is only a fraction of the story. Great poker players do a lot of work away from the felt too. Note-taking is one of most fundamental methods of study and review. It's amazing how often poker players under-utilize this amazing tactic.
The note taking process in poker is one of those things in life that tends to be overcomplicated, like trying to lose weight. The real secret is less not more. No matter how many fitness fads and gurus try to take a piece of the pie, losing weight boils down to burning more calories than you ingest. Now, of course there’s a little more to it than that - like making those ingested calories as whole and clean as possible - but not much. This isn't to say everyone drops weight using the same approach, but the end result is the same.
Same goes for taking notes at the tables. There is no one way that is going to work best across the board, but there is one way that's going to work best for you - and I guarantee this method is going to be founded in these fundamental strategies.
If you want to learn some more interesting facts about note-taking studies, check out this Freakonomics podcast.
7 Steps to Becoming a Poker Note-Taking Powerhouse
1. Keep it Short.
Not only does poker software give you limited room for notes, but taking too many notes isn't going to serve you well when you really need that intel. You need to mine for the sweet stuff - the valuable information that's going to going to help you make profitable decisions.
2. Honour Your System.
I want to build on what I mentioned earlier: you have to develop your best system. Everyone is unique and there is no definitive ‘right’ note-taking system. The only wrong way to take notes is not to take them at all. As long as you are gathering the info and profiling opponents to get more data on them that will help you make more lucrative calls at the table, you're doing something right.
Now, don't get me wrong: your system is not going to be running at peak performance out of the gates. At first it's going to be slow and sloppy, but as it develops, you will have a nice, abbreviated, short-cut system that you can use to your advantage. A lot of information can be relayed in a few words.
3. Don't Note the Ordinary.
A painter or a poet might disagree with me here, but when it comes to note-taking in poker, there is no need to record ordinary occurrences. Standard plays, like raising pocket aces under-the-gun, is nothing to write home about and doesn't warrant occupying valuable note space.
You need to record the unusual: something a player does that other players don't do. Whether it's good or bad doesn't matter; all that matters is that it's different. That's what makes it noteworthy. Next time that player makes that specific play, it won't come as unexpected. You'll have a note on them, and you'll know how to proceed.
For example, if someone check-raises a lot as the pre-flop 3-bettor, that's something that's pretty good to know. Most of time when someone 3-bets then checks the flop, you’d think they're giving up, so you'd bet and take the pot, but if you know your opponent check-raises a lot in that spot, it's going to save you a lot of money and frustration.
4. Create Abbreviations.
Part of being efficient with your note-taking system involves coming up with abbreviations. They don't have to make sense to anyone but you, so as long as you know what they mean, that's all that matters. Just remember you need to take advantage of the space you have, and the space you have is super limited.
Example: if an opponent raises from the cut off, your abbreviation could be RCO. The button can be 'B’, and the blinds can be 'SB' (small blind) and 'BB' (big blind). The first abbreviations you should come up with are ones for common actions like check, raise, call, check-raise, fold, float - you get the picture. This is where your abbreviation vocabulary is going to begin.
5. Relevancy is King.
Include as much relevant information as possible. This includes things like:
- Limits of the game. Example, if you play a $1 tournament with a person and they pop up again in a $100 tournament, the fact that they played that $1 event is extremely telling about their approach to the game. You can begin to get a picture of how they roll.
- Stage of the tournament. Again, this is especially relevant in tournament play, where people will play differently at the start of the event than at the end.
- # of big blinds. This is another crucial factor in determining and predicting player behaviour. After all, an opponent won’t play the same with 8 big blinds and as they will with 50 big blinds.
- Position of players, # of players in the hand. This is applicable to cash games and tournaments. We know that players will play differently under-the-gun than they will on the button, and we know players will act differently when there are more players in the pot (i.e. people are going to play heads-up pots differently than 4 or 5-way pots).
- Actions taken by players in the hand. Take down what action proceeds the key action in the hand; for example, bluffing the river. What led to them doing that? Is it spot where it is an obvious bluff? A line suicide bluff? Were they up against a tough opponent they felt they needed to bluff, or a weak opponent? Taking notes is not just about recording your interaction with opponents, but also noting opponents’ relevant interactions with each other.
- Size of bets. There's a big difference between someone min-betting three streets and someone full-betting three streets, right? Right. Take it down.
- Dynamic, if any. Take note of dynamic between you and an opponent, and an opponent and someone else. Sometimes a play can look erratic, like a player taking pocket 8s all-in pre-flop, but if we have a dynamic where an opponent had been 3-betting or 4-betting that player 20 times in the last 30 minutes, then it might be justified that the person goes in with pocket 8s. Think of dynamic as the context in which these plays are happening. If you just record that the player got it in with 8s, then you may misjudge how they will act up against you, in a different context, with a different dynamic.
6. Review Your Notes.
As much as you can - if possible once a week - go through the notes you have on players and review them. Change them if need be. Add to them. Maybe you wrote a note that took up a lot of space and you can shrink it down. Maybe something you thought was relevant at the time is not relevant anymore because as you grow and learn as a player, the behaviour has become more standard. Don’t be afraid to evolve.
It is also worthwhile to time stamp/date your notes and mention what tourney you were playing in. (Play is different in a Sunday Million than in a $1 Turbo Re-buy, right?)
7. Go Deep, When Helpful.
While I've been encouraging you to record as much relevancy as possible in as few characters, if you feel like writing a pile on a particular opponent you play often, then go for it. You can take more detailed notes in Poker Tracker - which offers a lot more space and allows you to get even more out of your study sessions. As long as you are running HUD while playing, you can access those notes (and theirs is a bigger canvas than the poker client).
You can also choose to save your notes in a file named for the opponent, and even though you won't have it pop up while playing, you can still go back to it later and get an even clearer picture of how that person plays so you can take advantage of them and exploit their weaknesses.
Note: Speaking of weaknesses, just because a player busts out, doesn't mean you can't take a note. You can go back through the hand history to do this. There are a lot of players who buy and bust frequently, and these are the players who are easy money for you. If you can note when these players like to give away their money, you'll know where to be when it's up for grabs.
It pays to do your homework. In a game of imperfect information, extra knowledge isn’t the only thing ...it’s almost everything.
Remember, the more information you have in a note, the more telling that note is going to be down the road, so don't be vague. In tournaments, you may not see an opponent for two months down the road, and if the note you took on them is cryptic, it's useless to you. It's a fine balance, and one you'll only master with practice, but you've got to include as much of pertinent info as possible, without taking up too much space.
Note taking is all about telling a story, so days or weeks or months down the road, you can go back to that note and put yourself right back in that situation. You don't want to be guessing what you meant. You want to know for sure, and be able to harness the power of that information to your benefit.
That’s how I take notes, and I'm not going to say starting the process isn't daunting, cause it is, but as long as you’re getting intel down, you're headed in the right direction. It's a process. Respect it.
You’re already ahead of the game.
Every time you get info from a note you've made that tells you something about a player, you're making money other people are not making because unlike the dude just sitting there and clicking and not taking anything down, you're building up a database of information - a wealth of information - that's going to pay off down the road, exponentially. What’s more, as you move up limits and play with better competition, this info and your ability to play your A-game longer will represent where all your profit comes from. Cha-ching!
Have any mad note taking techniques you want to share? A question you want to ask? Put it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Steven Lilley | Flickr