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What Poker Players Can Learn from Tennis Players

By Randy Ray in Poker
| September 27, 2020 1:56 am PDT
Poker Players Can Learn from Winning Tennis Players

Mentally and emotionally, poker and tennis have a lot in common.

In fact, some of poker’s greatest players were tennis players.

And there’s no doubt that their experience with that sport has helped them in many ways at the felt.

Most of us will never know what it’s like, though. But at least we can use the traits of winning tennis players as a source of inspiration.

David Ferrer’s Grit

The recently retired Ferrer never won a Grand Slam title.

In spite of this, he was the most consummate example of how far a dedicated professional can go.

Tennis analysts are unanimous in pointing out that he wasn’t that naturally talented. But he more than made up for it with his grit.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines this word as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals“.

Hence, as she observes, people who have grit are the most likely to succeed in the long run. This becomes evident when we take a look at Ferrer’s evolution over the years.

He was once #3 of the world, behind only Nadal and Djokovic, which is an amazing feat by itself. But the most impressive thing about it is that he got there at 31.

C’mon. We gotta take our hats off to this guy.

Especially those of us who want to play poker professionally.

The ups and downs of the game can be too much for one to bear. Unless, of course, that person also develops his/her grit.

And, for that, it’s also helpful to develop what is called a growth mindset.

But we’ll get there towards the end of this article.

John Isner Maximizing His Talents

Let’s make something clear: nowadays, no tennis player goes too far without being at least decent in most fundamentals.

Some decades ago, things were a little different. When playing in hard courts, many would do well by being great at pretty much only serving and volleying.

This may not be the case anymore (or at least not as often). But having a great serve and/or volley still makes quite a difference in those courts.

Just ask John Isner.

At 6’7″, he’s one of the tallest players in the history of tennis. Not coincidentally, he’s also one of the best servers of all time.

You probably wouldn’t pick him to go too far in clay tournaments, though.

Being such a tall guy is usually a hindrance when playing in slower courts. But it sure helps him a lot in hitting one ace after another in fast courts.

In poker, we observe something like this when we consider all of its different variants.

If you’re great at math, for example, Omaha might be the perfect game for you. If, on the other hand, you’re more into the psychology of the game, you could try 2-7 single draw.

Whatever your case may be, it’s important to find a game where you have an edge. And then, to explore that edge to the best of your ability.

Because, in poker, you want all the help that you can get.

(As long as you’re not cheating, of course.)

Novak Djokovic’s Commitment to Being the Best

When I think of Djokovic, I think of something I’ve read recently.

It wasn’t said by him, but by football legend Cristiano Ronaldo.

According to Cristiano, 70% of his time is devoted to being a great football player.

As astounding as it is, that percentage might be even higher for Djokovic. In the Serbian’s life, not only everything, but everyone is supportive of his main goal.

Which is, for sure, to be the best tennis player ever.

For both Cristiano and Djokovic, success isn’t simply a matter of showing up.

That’s important. But other things are required if you want to break all records possible.

You must practice relentlessly. You must be diligent about your nutrition and your sleep. You must surround yourself with people who want you to succeed.

That’s a lot of things to do if you want to be at the top for years.

You may or may not be willing to do everything that it takes to be a great poker player.

But you can never allow yourself to think that whatever you do with your body, heart and mind won’t have an effect on your game.

Roger Federer’s Out-of-Box Thinking

Many consider Federer to be the greatest tennis player ever.

I’m not so sure, because I don’t know that much about tennis. But even a guy like me can see that Federer is the most technically gifted of them all.

This made it easier for him to become great at most fundamentals early on.

Consequently, no one’s at a better spot when it comes to knowing how and when to “break the rules”.

Simply put, Federer does things that no one has ever done. Not only because of his skills but also because of his courage to make those plays.

The best example of this has to be the famous SABR: Sneak Attack By Roger.

This tactic refers to the many times since 2015 when he’s received his opponent’s 2nd serve closer to the net. It isn’t against the rules by any means. But most tennis players would never dream of doing it.

Doesn’t that happen in poker, also?

There’s always that play which is considered the “right one”. And it’s usually a good thing to know what that is.

But if you always do the “right” play, your game becomes too predictable.

Especially in no limit, it’s important to be kind of crazy sometimes.

And it’s important to not care too much whether people will judge you for that.

Because they most likely will.

Rafael Nadal’s Killer Instinct

Nadal is, without a doubt, the best clay player in the history of tennis.

And a big reason for his success is his killer instinct.

Great players usually concede few opportunities for their opponents to win a match.

But that’s one half of the picture.

The other half is that they also seize the opportunities they’re giving better.

This second point is of especial importance when 2 great players face each other.

Because both will concede few opportunities, that match’s going to be decided at the smallest details.

So, to stand out a player must:

  • Be aware of the moments when his opponent is more fragile
  • Have the physical and the technical capacities to perform what he believes is the best play
  • Be bold to go for the kill.

No other player has those 3 qualities in such abundance as Nadal.

(Not coincidentally, he has a great head-to-head record against almost everyone.)

In poker, this situation happens more frequently in no-limit games.

In some circumstances, you know that you might be able to make most (or all) of your opponent’s chips go your way.

But if you don’t seize that opportunity when it does arise, you may not have that great of a chance anytime soon.

John McEnroe and the Dangers of a Fixed Mindset

Earlier in this text, I mentioned the concept of a growth mindset.

According to Angela Duckworth, this is intimately related to grit.

But what’s a growth mindset about, really?

Psychologist Carol Dweck was once quoted as saying the following when comparing it to what she calls a fixed mindset.

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. […] In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. […]”

And here’s what Dweck says about John McEnroe in her book Mindset.

“John McEnroe had a fixed mindset: He believed talent was all. He did not love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfill his potential.”

McEnroe won nothing less than 7 Grand Slam titles.

He was also considered the best player of the world in 1981, 1983 and 1984.

Yet, he’s even more remembered for his bad temper.

In poker, we find one such example in a guy like Phil Hellmuth.

Helmet himself doesn’t seem too offended when people say that he’s the John McEnroe of poker.

Maybe because it’s good for TV. But is it good for his game?

I doubt it.

It’s evident that his lack of self-regulation has cost him a lot of money over the years.

Sure, he might have made more than the lost with all the endorsements he’s gotten.

But wouldn’t it’d be great if he did something to be remembered as a great poker player above anything else?


A tennis player’s career is much shorter than that of a poker player.

Still, the latter is under the same need for constant improvement as the former.

To remember that is the best way to develop the habit of learning something from everyone.

Because, at the end of the day, both tennis players and poker players will only have themselves to blame for any of their shortcomings.

Regardless of that bad call from the referee, or that bad beat from some guy holding King-10 offsuit.



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