A recent Freakonomics podcast episode covered the topic of incrementalism. Though there was never a mention of applying the ideas discussed to poker, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels and obvious applications to the game we love. Incrementalism is something I’ve done a substantial amount of reading on and given a lot of thought, especially in terms of learning, and specifically in improving my poker game. I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you today in addition to discussing the great content on Freakonomics.
Incrementalism and Kaizen
This idea of incrementalism has been a kind of touchstone for me my whole adult life. I first started thinking about it after hearing the Japanese term kaizen, which loosely translates to “continuous and incremental improvement.” At the time I heard about kaizen, it had become a popular concept among athletes. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Phil Jackson were all basing their strategies, study, and practice around this idea of kaizen, of incremental improvement. It seemed to be working out pretty well for them, so I figured it might be something I should look into as well. Since then, everything I’ve pursued in life has been centered around this idea of incrementalism. I became so obsessed with this idea that I eventually had the symbol for kaizen tattooed on my forearm so I would be reminded of it every day and continue to apply it to almost everything I did (by the way, if you want the rest of your life to be annoying, get a tattoo in a foreign language on your body. That way, long after you’ve grown utterly tired of it, people will constantly ask you about. Also, make sure it becomes a total cliché, like getting Japanese symbols did, so you can achieve maximum annoyance).
Dr. Cardner does a great job of describing the concept of kaizen in her book, Peak Poker Performance:
Taking small actions is at the heart of kaizen. Maurer [Dr. Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life] makes the case that you are most likely to accrue successes if you take actions that are so small that they almost seem silly. Let’s say you want to go to bed earlier. A kaizen strategy would be to go to bed one minute earlier each night. He says these systems work because they trick your brain into thinking “this change is so tiny that it’s no big deal.” You might be thinking that such small steps will get you nowhere fast, but once you get your system going, change can end up being pretty rapid. The first step is rarely the last. To get into action on any task simply ask: what will be my first small step.
In Praise Of Incrementalism
On a recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast titled, In Praise of Incrementalism, the host, Steven Dubner, put forth the thesis that we’ve been trained by our culture to constantly look for magic bullet solutions, but throughout history, most progress has been through small, incremental gains. Dubner uses the example of the Civil Rights Movement.
When it comes to civil rights, most people hope for, and even expect, overnight solutions. They see people hurting and, understandably, want change immediately. And when that change doesn’t come, they’re outraged. But historically, the great strides in civil rights have happened incrementally. That’s because truly massive improvements and effecting real change takes hard work done day by day. Take school desegregation for example. Though those working on behalf of students’ civil rights may have wanted to change the system overnight, it was a long slow process that was needed to bring about the desired change. First, state law schools, after a long battle, finally desegregated. Once that happened, state colleges realized the absurdity of being segregated while state law schools were not. Then eventually this began trickling down to the high school and elementary schools. This is an oversimplification of course, but the point is that desegregation didn’t happen overnight but incrementally.
Team Sky & Team GB
In one of the segments on the incrementalism episode of Freakonomics, Dubner talked about a British cycling coach named David Brailsford who had completely transformed Britain into a cycling powerhouse. He had exceeded all expectations in both the Tour de France and the Olympics. If you’re guessing he used incrementalism to do it, you’re right. If you guessed something else. . . come on, pay attention!
Brailsford developed an incrementalist system he called “marginal gains,” in which he went through every aspect of his team’s performance, training, and lifestyle. No aspect was too small to be thoroughly investigated and taken apart to determine the most optimal way of doing things. And when he says no aspect was too small, he meant it.
Brailsford’s method was to collect a ton of data to analyze in order to maximize performance and training so that minor tweaks and changes could be made. Though they might seem insignificant at the time, all of these tweaks and changes, once combined, would profoundly affect performance in the long run. The plan was to increase improvement by 1% in every facet of every single endeavor. Some of these changes included:
- Analyzing how tires were changed and looking for ways to shave off even milliseconds while not sacrificing quality
- Gradually improving nutrition
- Finding the best, most effective massage oil
- Bringing in a doctor to figure out the best hand washing practices to reduce illness in the team and included discouraging riders from shaking hands while in training or during competitions to discourage passing of germs.
Some of the changes Brailsford instituted were much more dramatic and involved. For example, Brailsford realized that during the Tour de France, riders were having to sleep in a different hotel every night, which was, at times, having an effect on some of the riders’ comfort and sleeping patterns. Plus, hotels aren’t exactly sterile environments, so there was always the fear of getting sick because the previous occupant had a cold or flu and the room wasn’t cleaned thoroughly. So Brailsford made the bold decision to create an advance team whose sole job was to prep rooms thoroughly before the riders arrived. This advance team would go to each riders room and thoroughly clean it, including vacuuming under beds and wiping down all surfaces, remote controls, faucet taps and shower heads, with antibacterial ointments. Then they replaced the hotel mattresses with the riders personal mattresses so they could get a consistent good night’s sleep regardless of what hotel they were in.
So the idea is clear from the above detail. Brailsford would break down not only performance but every single thing that could possibly affect performance, no matter how small, into its component parts, map them out completely, then try to discover ways to progress in each area. Brailsford conceded that none of these individually would win you a gold medal or the Tour de France, but taken all together they contribute.
Brailsford adds that creating these marginal gains are not the only component of his success. All of these marginal gains also rely on a baseline hunger for accomplishment, an ability to recognize the sacrifice and hard work that will be required of you for success. Brailsford called this the “hunger index.” It was this combination of hunger for accomplishment and willingness to sacrifice and work hard for even tiny gains that led to the incredible successes of the British cycling teams.
How To Apply These Concepts To Poker
Readers of this blog know that one of my all time favorite books is Thomas M. Sterner’s The Practicing Mind. Sterner recently came out with a follow-up to that book titled, Fully Engaged. In it he writes:
. . . We begin at a place we will call ‘no skill.’ Moving along the path of mastery is like moving along a time line representing ‘increments of skill expansion.’ I call it this because anything past ‘no skill’ is some level of skill. If you start with nothing, anything you add to that becomes something. Most of the time mastering a skill is not a place that you get to; it is an ever-expanding awareness and understanding of what is possible in the skill itself and of how to execute it more effortlessly.
Incrementalism is one of those concepts that is easy to understand, but can sometimes be difficult to practice and maintain. I don’t know about you, but I want to move up in stakes now. I want to make a full time living as a pro now. But I also want to be great. Not the greatest. But as great as I can be while still feeling satisfied in all the other aspects of life that are important to me. Great for me. So I have to constantly remind myself that great players are not made overnight. It takes time. So in this sense, that is, maintaining patience over a long period, incrementalism can be incredibly challenging. Luckily, incrementalism makes up for this by being incredibly simple in its daily practices. When utilizing a system of incrementalism, you can make tasks so tiny and simple that they almost don’t even seem like tasks at all.
This is how I successfully created my meditation practice. It may not seem like it, but sitting silently and attempting to stay focused, for even just a few minutes can be really difficult. When beginning a meditation practice, sitting down for ten or fifteen minutes can be incredibly difficult for most people, myself included. At first, being so enthusiastic, I tried to sit for fifteen minutes. It was a catastrophe. I just couldn’t concentrate for that long. After a few failed attempts, I just began to assume I wasn’t cut out for meditation and I quit. Not too much time later, I decided that I really wanted to have a meditation practice in my life and decided to take an incremental approach. I knew from previous attempts that I couldn’t sit for 15 minutes, but I knew that I could easily sit for one minute. So I started where I was and not where I wanted to be. I decided I would sit for one minute on the first day and add a minute each day until I had reached an amount of meditation time I felt comfortable with. Within a month I was sitting consistently 20 to 30 minutes a day! Because I did it incrementally, it never felt like a strain. I was only adding one minute. How hard could one more minute be?
I’ve been adding this to my poker study and practice as well. It can be hard for me to find the time during the day to sit down and watch an entire video, especially with the extensive notes and self-quizzes I create while watching strategy videos. But I can definitely find five minutes. Getting started really is often the most difficult part. Once I get started, I usually find 5 minutes turns into ten or twenty.
I don’t have to sit down and read an entire chapter in a book I’m studying. It’s perfectly okay to read just a page or two. And sometimes it’s more effective. An entire chapter’s worth of information can be overwhelming, but a couple of pages can easily be digested and pondered throughout the day. I find that these smaller chunks of information actually stick with me and I understand them on a deeper level than when I consume larger amounts of information. Christian Soto, in a recent Red Chip Poker podcast, mentioned one of the ways he studies that I think fits nicely into this kind of bare bones, incremental approach to learning. He said that he would lay out flops one by one, seeing how they worked with his range and developing a strategy for each board/range in longhand. I love that. When starting out practicing like this, you could start by just doing one or two flops and as you build momentum you can do a few more hands each day. It wouldn’t take long practicing like this before you became a monster at reading boards and developing ranges.
When confronting a new topic of study, for example hand reading, creating a preflop or 3-betting range, bluffing, I try to break the topic down into its smallest component parts. Then I try to break that part down to its smallest components. Then I take each of those parts and try to learn them thoroughly, one at a time. You’d be surprised how much you learn and how well you retain the information using this method. Dr. Cardner wrote in Peak Poker Performance, “Focus on incremental gains and your results will come sooner than you can imagine. Marginal gains over a long period of time lead to extraordinary gains.”
So I challenge you to try and find ways to implement an incremental approach to something you’ve had trouble starting. Have you been struggling to start exercising, reading or studying more, meditating, cleaning out the garage? Whatever it is, try to do it for just 5 minutes, or even just one minute. Then do it again the next day, or even improve on your time, maybe adding another minute or two. You’ll soon find that you’re getting much more accomplished, more consistently and with less effort, than you did in previous failed attempts.