Science writer and poker player Alex O’Brien found herself high in the mountains and out of her comfort zone. That’s when she learned the most about failure and victory.
On a September mountain morning, the sun slowly rose over the Austrian Alps and announced a new day. Inside, Fedor Holz did much the same.
“It’s called Grindhouse, not Sleephouse!’ he shouted, whilst knocking on everybody’s bedroom doors.
It’s one of many great memories I have from my alpine poker study retreat, the Grindhouse. I am here to tell you about a few more, including the one on how I got into the Grindhouse in the first place.
Two months earlier, on the night before the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, my husband tried to encourage me via text from London.
“Remember you did a half Ironman on no sleep, in the rain, and with worse jet lag. You have power in your memory,” he wrote.
Nervousness and jet lag had put up a relentless fight and I was losing the battle for sleep. I had come to Vegas to play the Main but made the rookie error of not accounting for jet lag. There was no flexibility. The following morning was the last of the Day 1 flights. I had to play. Could the power of memory help me pull through yet again?
As a former triathlete I had faith in my physical endurance. I was less confident in my cognitive recall under intense sleep deprivation. This was a problem. Poker is a highly cerebral game.
A whole row of scientific studies have shown how important sleep is to cognitive performance. Sleep can improve retention and recall by between 20 to 40 percent –that’s a big edge you are giving away before you even take your place at the table, let alone look down on any cards. I knew I was in trouble.
What I remember from the final moments at the WSOP was my desperate attempt to pull myself together. My body was tense and aching with tiredness, my mind unable to brush off the hits from a few early bad beats. I was spiralling deeper and deeper into a mental abyss. The end came mercilessly via another bad beat. Outside the tournament hall, tears carved down my face like burning lava leaving a trail of ashes of a burnt dream.
Not in the least.
I love poker. It’s highly complex. It forces you to think laterally. It trains you to seek adjustments. It commands you never to be complacent. It constantly challenges you. This type of feedback fills a competitive person like me with passion. But this wasn’t the only reason busting the Main hit so hard.
It felt brutal because of the importance I had placed on this event. I don’t play often, let alone regularly. I’m a science writer. Poker isn’t my main gig. But I wanted to do well because my six-year old girl back home had snuck a letter into my suitcase with a drawing of mommy winning and wearing a crown. That’s what I call pressure.
Doing well became even more important to me because I believed I needed a win to legitimise The Truth Detective – my upcoming non-fiction science book on the benefits of thinking like a poker player. Then there was the media attention, which over the past months had created a spotlight from which a poor performance couldn’t escape. The truth was that for months I had been trying and failing to snag a big win.
Back in my hotel room with only crushing disappointment and self-doubt for company, an email appeared on my phone screen.
“Last day for Grindhouse application,” read the message from Pokercode, my study community.
Give up or step up?
Ten days of pure poker study with some of the world’s best coaches set in the glorious Austrian Alps. I was sure this was a message from the poker gods reminding me of my own mantra: “When we fail, we don’t give up. We step up!”
The odds of making it in weren’t exactly in my favour, though.
When I looked at past Grindhouses, it seemed they were geared toward people who had made the jump to full time play, already banked some serious winnings, and now wanted to transition up in their game.
I, on the other hand, am a full-time science writer, play intermittently at best, and have relatively modest poker earnings. What’s more I have no aspirations of becoming a full-time poker pro.
My chances of being accepted were slim at best, I thought. That didn’t stop me wanting in. I wanted to become a better player, and a poker bootcamp sounded perfect. There were only a few hours before the deadline. I needed to figure out quickly how to convince head coach Fedor Holz to pick me.
What I lacked in entry criteria I made up in bucket loads of passion for the game. To prove this, I called upon people who I believed Fedor would recognise, and I hoped, trust. Within minutes of my SOS messages, Gillian Epp, David Lappin, Xuan Liu, Jennifer Shahade, and Ian Simpson had all recorded a testimonial. Off the application went.
Alas, it wasn’t enough.
A few days later, I was told my application hadn’t been successful. This didn’t surprise me, but it was still disappointing. A couple of weeks after that, I found out live in front of hundreds of people watching online that Fedor Holz is a rascal. He told me that I had made it into the Grindhouse after all!
Shocked by surprise, I was overwhelmed with emotion.
Remembering that moment will always put a smile on my face. It’s memory I won’t ever forget.
The learning starts now
Learning and memory are intrinsically linked. And solid blocks of poker memories were what I hoped for. I was thrilled to find out that the learning process began immediately the moment all Grindhouse members were announced.
As part of the prep, we all received a long questionnaire calling for details of poker career, skills, and goals. The coaches reviewed our poker stats, results, play routines, and study method. They assessed our understanding of various strategies and game structures. They then tailored individual pre-Grindhouse daily homework for each of us. (My tasks were designed to improve my pre-flop stats to consistently hit at least 95 percent accuracy with no blunders.)
There were eight of us in total. From furthest away: Bhushan, a paragliding pilot and former engineer turned poker pro from India. Charlie a computer engineering student and YouTuber from Taiwan. From Malta, we had Greg, a polish poker pro, streamer and coach. Travelling in from cities across Austria were Samuel, a former entrepreneur, Sigi, a former lawyer, Fabian, and Tobias. The latter two discovered poker when they were 15 and 16 respectively and have been playing ever since.
In terms of experience, I was the weakest in the group. I was also the only woman (something I’m well used to from the poker tables). This – all our coaches made clear – didn’t matter. We were at differing stages in our poker careers and were chosen because we shared a common goal: to study hard and improve significantly. United in our mission, we would support one another to rise together. We became a team the moment we set foot in the house.
Perched 1400 meters high, the house overlooked a valley of luscious green meadows nestled in-between majestic mountain ranges. Up here it was as if all hectic everyday noise had been swallowed up, leaving only the sound of the wind and the gentle ring of cowbells. Walking trails flanked by dense forest lay within a couple of minutes of the house.
We could see from the schedule that the location was chosen intentionally. Several activities were planned to get us to switch off our workstations, leave behind the sims, and instead spend time out in nature – always as a group, as a team. We’d be hiking one day, mountain e-biking 2000 metres up to a peak on another, or simply prepping for a day’s study with a meditation session.
Turning us into next level poker players wasn’t just about getting us to do drills for hours on end, thinking critically about our thought processes, or reviewing hands together. It was also about making sure our minds and bodies got the rest needed to maximise our learning.
As evidenced by my jet-lagged performance during the Main Event, the quality of our sleep has a big impact on our brains. Sleep matters. A meta-analysis published in 2021 by researchers at the University of London that analysed sleep studies conducted between 1970 and 2020 suggests that sleep supports learning and memory in two ways: It prepares the brain for learning over the next day, and it helps strengthen new memories by reactivating the connections between the neurons you activated during the previous day.
In the mornings, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and cooked breakfast called from the kitchen. If there was an MVP in the house, it was Mudi. The Lebanese former fitness instructor turned nutritionist and chef made sure we didn’t skip meals and ate healthily. The smell of oven-baked pretzel rolls will always take me straight back to those mornings in the Grindhouse.
I am sure you, too, have a certain memory that is instantly triggered by a specific smell – we know now it’s the result of our brain’s anatomy, although it wasn’t fully understood until 2004.
This complex process was decoded by two researchers who identified the genes – around a thousand of them! – that control odor receptors. The discovery earned Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004.
Memory is complex and we still don’t really understand how the brain stores new memories. Most theories propose that memory storage depends on synapses, the tiny gaps between braincells. When the brain learns, it changes, creating new connections between braincells. Practice strengthens these connections. The stronger these connections get, the faster the messages (nerve impulses) get transmitted, making them more efficient. Repeated practice was exactly what the coaches in the Grindhouse had in mind for us.
Learning how to learn
Our daily study routines included hours at our workstation doing drills: a hundred hands at a time. Over and over until we hit at least 90-95 percent accuracy at completing each of the drills and no longer made big mistakes. It took me ages to get through just one set. While the other guys were able to focus on four tables at once, I could barely manage two. If it was possible to hide it before, now the difference in skill was splashed all over the screen.
During the first Sunday Grind session, the rest of the team cruised through 12+ tables at a time while I was getting vertigo on just two. I didn’t do any better in the group challenges in which we competed against each other. There, too, I consistently came in last. It felt like everyone else was already fluent in a language that I was only just beginning to learn. But learn I did – and not just from our coaches.
Being set up on one long table meant that we could ask each other questions and bounce off thought processes with ease. Sometimes we’d be huddled over just one screen with a coach buried amongst us discussing a specific spot for hours. Oftentimes, I would just observe and listen. Which is where I was introduced to a number of new kinds of software and taught how to use them to look for and analyse data.
I also was shown how to use hotkeys (yes, I know, shocking!) and took plenty of notes on how to set up for a session. This reminded me of my endurance race prep: meditation, food, hydration, warm up drills, and gear check. Post session was also similar: reviewing performance, looking at the data, and seeing where we didn’t perform well, and why. I learnt a lot from my teammates. Most importantly, I started to learn how to learn.
By the following Sunday, I began prepping with some warmup drills on GTO Wizard, filled in a spreadsheet of all the tournaments I wanted to play, setting alarms for when I wanted to join them, went for a run, and came back ready to crush it on the online tables. Did I win loads?
Yes, but not money.
My actual big win: I was playing on FIVE tables and sailing through it. Only a few days prior I was struggling and could not possibly imagine ever being able to play on more than two, let alone having fun with it. I had made giant leaps in just one week.
A memory of gratitude
It is hard to describe the moment when I realised this. The emotion was pure joy and triggered memories from my childhood. Like the time I jumped into the pool with no floaties or cycled down the road for the first time without training wheels. These are strong memories, and the emotions attached to them help keep them fresh in my mind.
Memories aren’t all created equal. There is substantial scientific evidence that shows emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately, and for longer periods of time than neutral events.
As I write this a month after the Grindhouse back at home in my study, I recall some of the strongest memories: sitting by the fire, sipping tea, listening to hilarious stories from Matthias Eibbinger. New dad Steffen Sontheimer making a surprise 20-hour visit. Fedor tirelessly coaching from the moment he woke, starting with whoever was at their workstation to discuss any and all of our questions – often for hours at a time. Bhushan deceiving us all in the most spectacular fashion during an epic game of Werewolf. Charlie spontaneously breaking into dance moves anytime anywhere because Sigi would raise the roof with his awesome tunes. Samuel and Fabian clashing with Fedor and I in a tightly fought brain & hand chess game. Tobias gifting us with the ultimate Grindhouse3 codeword, which we all learnt to say in Chinese from Charlie. Greg sharing a few nifty tips on GTO Wizard, making me so happy about this new knowledge I didn’t ask if I could hug him. My happiness was just too uncontrollable.
Gratitude is indeed what I feel today.
I have experienced the positive power of a supportive team. I have learnt how to study effectively. In the process, I have been reminded that the road to success is one of persistence and endurance.
Most importantly, I have been able to show my daughter that we don’t always win in life and that this is okay. The key is to learn from your mistakes and to find the people who can support, encourage and help you achieve your goals and dreams…and people with whom you can make the best kind of memories.
Poker photos by pokerphotoarchive.com
Grindhouse photos provided by PokerCode.com.