Peter Hallberg
World Backgammon Champion 2004

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October 2010

Deliberate practice

Oct 18th by Peter Hallberg

I've spent a lot of time practicing chess, backgammon and
poker over the years. Now I finally understand
why I only got good at backgammon!

Continued from 'The Master Plan'.

To make you understand how important I think my new understanding of learning is, I need to take you back in time and meet me when I was a kid.

The early years
The story started back in grammar school. I was very good with numbers but I really couldn't get the idea of letters and words. Of course this resulted in an overly interest for science subjects such as math, physics and chemistry. At 5th grade I was unable to read books at 2nd grade level and I really didn't care. Hey, what was I supposed to do? A kid taking responsibility for his own education... no way.

When we started to have subjects such as English and German I fell even more behind. It's kind of hard to learn foreign languages when you're struggling with your native language. My spoken language were really good but those darn letters. As an adult I can't help to think why nobody at school never picked up on this. Maybe because I was doing well in general and I was kind of good getting out of written assignments along with just denying to read aloud. To hell with my grades. Who needs them anyway?

At the age of 16 I started high school and at the time I had learned to read danish very slow and my spelling skills were below average. Never learned a word of German even though I had it for 3 years. My level of English were well below average but I understood some of it. The science subjects were very easy and bored me for many years.

Why is all this important? At this point my understanding was that I had a talent for numbers and I obviously didn't have it for language. I had no way to know how wrong I was, really!

The teenage years
Through high school I spent maybe 2-3 hours every day playing chess. That's a lot of hours over a period of three years. Still I sucked big time compared to many of the other kid who played chess and worked as hard as I did on it. But why?

I had participated in an IQ test administered by Mensa and I did very well. The only catch was that the test had a maximum and couldn't place you higher than in the top 5%, which is also great of course. I really don't want to get into a discussion of weather IQ tests are useful or not and what they can or can't tell you. Let us go with that I did really well on that test. How could it be that I still couldn't keep up with the other kids with less IQ and same work effort?

The university years
Right after I graduated from high school I started attending math at the University of Copenhagen. Yay! A dream come true. Now I could make my potential flourish and become the greatest mathematician in the world. Okay, maybe not exactly like that but I still thought math was the way. This was the first time I got some real life clues to that talent and IQ is not that important as you would believe. There were three groups of math students.
1) The extremely talented/high IQ students
2) The talented/high IQ students
3) The fairly talented/above average IQ students
Group one and three did well and okay. A really high percentage of group two dropped out. I was in that group and I dropped out eventually (after many years never to finish).

Why did group three make it? Looking back it's kind of obvious. They were used to study and work with the subjects they were given. They had a good work ethic and combined with an above average IQ they had the appropriate tools to make it. Today I know I didn't make it because I was a lazy and expected success to be handed to the people with high IQ in the academic world. I certainly know better now.

You might think that if this is true I should have become good at chess because I did put in the hours and hard work. Don't worry. I'll get back to that later.

Another problem I encountered was that all the books were in English. That sucked when I hardly knew the language. I learned it the hard way. Looked up every single word in the dictionary and spent countless hours trying to make sense of the books. To my big surprise I caught on pretty fast and after six month there were no need for the dictionary anymore. This time hard work paid off.

My spoken English could be alot better but I learned it through playing World of Warcraft. I was on teamspeak (skype for gamers) talking to players from all over Europe every day while playing WoW. Talking for 3-4 hours every day for a year where it is rather important that people can understand you will indeed make you better.

At the early university years I gave up on chess and took on backgammon instead. Liked it better because of the luck element and the fact that you could play it for money. Totally opposite chess I got good at backgammon very fast. That was a surprise to me but who cares about that when it suddenly is a fact. I never gave it much thought until now.

After 5 years of having a normal job as a UNIX system administrator I decided to give it a go and finish my master in Computer Science. I changed major a couple of times without success during my time at the university. The plan was to take the last two years of my education over a four year period, working half time to support myself. It worked out perfectly for two years. I passed all my courses with good to excellent grades. What had changed? It was simple. Work hard on the assignments and read the books and prepare for the exams. That's it.

The early poker years
Due to some changes at the university made by the government I decided to end my study prematurely not achieving my masters degree. I decided I had to do something totally different. The choice landed on poker. It was possible to make much more money from poker than backgammon and I obviously had a talent for games with variance... I thought.

After almost two years of full time hard work at poker I still suck. Well maybe I don't suck but I'm not making enough money at NL200 5-max to support myself. Where did the talent go? Suddenly all the bad memories from learning chess came back to me. There had to be an explanation.

The eureka moment
I read 'Talent Is Overrated' by Geoff Colvin and it was the last piece of the puzzle. Basically what it says is that excellent achievements comes from extensive deliberate practice. Let me explain.

It is good to have talent but it is not enough to make you achieve at the highest levels. What in fact all excellent achievers do have in common is that they have done huge amount of practice before they got to where they are now. None of them woke up and were excellent swimmers or had an idea that would revolutionize an entire area.

The key point is that deliberate practice and practice are two different things. Most none high achievers do practice but they don't do it effectively enough to become great. They miss the deliberate part of it.

What is deliberate practice? Simply put it is a training situation you can evaluate and repeat many times. You have access to a coach that can do an external evaluation of your performance and guide you in the right direction and give you feedback on your work. You are constantly put in situations that are just outside your comfort zone to make you evolve and progress. Deliberate practice hurts. That what makes it so hard and that's why most people wont do it.

Now, looking back at my chess days. I was playing a lot and I was playing with better players most of the time. Good. What I was missing was a trainer to tell me what exactly to practice to become better and give feedback on my games.

During the first year of my backgammon career I had access to extremely good players who would train me and tell me exactly what to do to push myself and get better. I got all the feedback I needed and any doubts I had would be wiped away by my coaches. I did the work myself but my coaches made it effective.

The reason why I had success during my last two year period at the university was that I simply just did the work I was told to. The education system is very intune with the thoughts of deliberate practice.

Getting better at English falls beautifully within the concept. I had myself as trainer and the feedback end constant evaluation came from understanding my textbooks and having my fellow WoW players understand me.

Poker for the rest of 2010
I've been playing a lot of poker, reading books discussing hands with friends. That's just not enough. I haven't spend enough time analyzing hands in depths where I put up ranges on each street and make calculations on different line. I also spent most of the time playing in games dictated by my bankroll more than my skill level.

I want to apply the deliberate practice concept on my poker game but I need to have a more concrete plan.

To commit myself to this project I will put up some goals that are easily verifiable. I have divided my goals into subgroups.

Coaching and feedback
Luckily I have a lot of good players sitting around me at the poker office and I will watch them play and identify spots where they take lines I would never have thought of. These lines will be the my subjects of learning. To get feedback I can just ask those people if I identified and put the ideas correctly into actual play.

When I play

  • Never play more tables than I can handle. Have enough tables to be able to still think and analyze. At the moment that limit is exactly 3 tables. If I have to practice using new concepts and new lines I need to have enough time to identify the spots where they apply.

  • When I'm feeling tilted sit out. I'm not learning anything when tilted anyway.

How much practice

  • 400 hands a day for 25 days a month. It doesn't seem like much but it's very important to have time to do the analysis of hands which is at the heart of the deliberate practice idea. It's even more important than to make money here and now. Could very easily add up to four hours of intensive work with poker a day.

  • Identify and analyze at least one spot every day that belongs to a non standard line.

  • Read three chapters in Easy Game 2 each week. When the book is done start over.

Processing the new knowledge
I will find some of the interesting hands and make posts on Coinflip with my thoughts. By doing this in written form I force myself to have all the arguments thought through which is easy to skip when you only report back to yourself. This way you will be a part of my personal coaching team and provide me with questions, feedback and insight.

Let's go!


The master plan

Oct 5th by Peter Hallberg

Managing life is way harder that you would
normally think. Nevertheless we all do
it everyday and most of the time
we end up pretty okay

Continued from 'My vacation is over'.

Having a week where I was supposed to do nothing, was not something I was looking forward to. In fact it turned out to be exactly what I needed. In my everyday life I have a lot to do. So much that I never stop up and give myself the time, to take a step back and look at the big picture. Of course I tried, but the nagging urge to get back to work, was enough to make me lose track of my major goals. Still I'm doing pretty okay but that is not good enough if I could do much better.

On the most general level I want to be happy and live a life with no worries and be able to do the things I want to. Great, who doesn't? Even though this seems like saying absolutely nothing there's a lot of concrete ideas and goals hidden underneath.

A closer look
Let's take a closer look at some of the keywords/phrases from my 'life mantra': 'happy', 'no worries' and 'things I want'.

What would make me happy in the most general sense of the word? I believe it would have to be to have no worries and be able to do the things I want!

Now, 'no worries' is a little bit harder. I don't mind being committed to different projects that would involve some kind of worrying, but that falls into a category of self imposed worries, which is alright. I don't want to worry about my health, economy, bad relationships of any kind, but those are really hard things to remove from your life.

What things do I want? By things I don't mean material stuff. Of course a nice house, a nice car, maybe a little boat wouldn't hurt, but that is beside the point here. I want freedom, to be successful, make achievements and have the possibility to be able to enjoy it.

Connection to everyday life
Still my goals are a little bit vague but let's try to make a connection to my everyday life.

Work! At this very moment you are reading something I created as a part of my work. I spend a week a month writing blogs and creating and running projects with Coinflip and Bet24. The rest of the time is devoted to poker activities. I feel my current situation is as close to ideal, as I realistically can hope to achieve. I have very flexible hours and I really enjoy to be creative and plan things. This certainly satisfy the freedom aspect and some of the achievement aspect too. Playing poker is a way to try to become economical independent and still have the freedom to spend my time as I see fit (more on that later). As long as I can remember I got quite a lot of my drive from the urge to compete. No matter whether I fail or triumph I want to do better next time. To me, to be able to compete is a very big part of being happy.

Relationships! The most important relationship I have is to my wife. We have been together for more than 11 years now and she is a part of me that I never want to be without. She gives me comfort, care, support and much more, but most importantly she understands me and knows me better than anybody else and she loves me for who I am. I think it is very important to have someone or somebody to share your happiness with, to make it perfect. She stands for most of the 'be happy' part.

Life is to short to have bad relationships and I mean that in the most general sense. Why spend time on people that annoys the shit out of you? Why not just pass the time with people you really like and care for. I'm sure everybody (including myself) at some point have been in a position where they knew that the people they were involved with weren't worth the effort. I try my best to only have people in my life that really matters to me. There are many great people I've met through my life I wish I had more time to still be in contact with, but as the years pass by it's getting harder and harder to keep the relations going.

Health! Well, this is a tricky one. I have to admit that at the age of 37 I've been experiencing that my body is getting older for some years now. Let's be honest and say that I've been pretty stupid and kept ignoring that fact as if I could do nothing about it. On a normal day I sit in a chair most of the time. When I get home I don't have the energy to work out or do something like running or even taking a walk in the park. Intellectually I understand that if I started working out I would have even more energy to be physically active. Just recently I managed to get out of the hole and start running. Really fast it became a lot easier to do everything. Even play poker! I have more energy. I'm more happy. I feel motivated to go out and try to achieve something. See, that's positive reinforcement!

Looking ahead
To fit it all into the master plan I just need to become economical independent. It all seems to come down to performing as good as possible playing poker. Sounds trivial but it's not. If it was we would have a ton of people playing poker at a very high level, which is not the case today. It's not that I haven't tried to become as good as possible up until now, but I recently realized that I have been working on my game the wrong way.

In my next blog I'll go into the specifics of what to do and why I believe it's going to work.

Continued here.

:: Backgammon ::

* Dansk Bg Forbund (DK) 

* eXtreme Gammon

* Bg World Championship

* DBgF on Facebook (DK)


:: Poker ::

* Pokernyhederne (DK)

* (DK)

* Texaspoker (DK)

* PokerHistory


:: Chess ::

* Dansk Skak Union (DK)

* ChessBomb

* K41 (DK)

* ChessTempo