What makes you better than your opponents?
If you'd asked me this just two years ago it would have caught me off guard. Too often we get caught up in finding and correcting mistakes, forgetting to identify what has been successful for us. What are you best at? Can you point to the parts of the game where you are overperforming? Do you know how you are creating an edge?
Edges don't simply arrive in your account balance because of someone else's bad play. Early in my poker career, this was a mental game leak of mine. I thought because I could spot clear mistakes across the table, I was winning money in the long run. That I deserved to win because clearly, they were playing worse. But I never considered how those "mistakes" matched up against my game plan in that spot. Was there value hidden in their strategy at parts of the game tree I hadn't studied closely? We must be careful to only identify a mistake when we know exactly in what way we're profiting from it.
Professional athletes, even the most elite, are not aiming to be the best at every facet of their sport. There is too much to be great at. Consider this description of Serena Williams's playing style, from her Wikipedia page:
"Williams is primarily a baseline player, and her game is built around taking immediate control of rallies with her powerful and consistent serve, return of serve, and forceful groundstrokes from both her forehand and backhand swings. Williams's forehand is considered to be among the most powerful shots in the women's game, as is her double-handed backhand. Williams strikes her backhand groundstroke using an open stance, and uses the same open stance for her forehand. Williams's aggressive play, a "high risk" style, is balanced in part by her serve, which most say is the greatest in women's tennis history."
Here we see specifically laid out the approach that makes Serena so successful on the court. She and her team recognize that her athletic abilities are best utilized with a strategy built around baseline play and powerful serves. During practices, you can bet that Serena is working on her net play - her opponents won't be so kind as to give her deep baseline shots every point - but during a match, she's playing shots that allow her to stay at the baseline more often than not. Does this mean that all tennis players should prioritize strength training and practice baseline shots until they can be the next Serena Williams? Definitely not. Different players bring different skill sets to the table. They should design a unique gameplan that highlights and emphasizes what they excel in.
What does this look like for a poker professional? Should you really develop a "playing style" when there is a theoretically correct way to play? Absolutely yes! Specifically, in no-limit Hold'em, there are countless ways to execute your strategy. Are you using a polarized or a linear continuation betting approach on flops? Both can be successful, and extremely close in theoretical EV, but the polarized approach will have you checking behind more often. Who will benefit from playing more checks on the flop, you or your opponent? You have the option preflop to play with limps or manipulate your raise sizes. To play 3bet or fold against a raise, or to play a mix of cold calls. The goal should be to take yourself down parts of the game tree that you know better than anyone else (and do so in a way that doesn't sacrifice EV). Take the time to reflect on whether you are putting yourself in the best position to win, given your unique skill set and theoretical knowledge.
Once you outline your strengths as a player, you paint a clearer picture of your weaknesses. Going through this process clarifies the parts of your game that need work and, importantly, the parts that don't. Too often players are spending the majority of their time studying what they already know when the priority should be to shore up weaknesses and, eventually, develop new strengths. I'll be detailing how to approach studying in another post, but I want to reiterate how important it is to analyze your game honestly before diving into your studies. Take the time to evaluate yourself as a player and you will be able to execute your gameplan with confidence.