The mental game of poker is by far the most important concept to master in poker. Poker is an extremely competitive game about making difficult decisions under unfavorable circumstances. Nobody can play their A game 100% of the time, but the goal is to be able to do so as often as possible. In order to do that, we must not let outside factors affect our mental state because we want to keep it as simple as possible. This guide will teach you how to maintain your optimal competitive mind state in order to play the most profitable poker as often as possible.
Pre Game - Identifying Optimal Mental State
When you are going to play poker, you should think about how you prepare for a sports match or music recital. It is “go time” and you need to be mentally prepared to handle everything. Everybody is different and you need to find out what state works for you.
Some players need to pump themselves up to be ready to handle the mental battle. Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks for example is always amped up. On the other hand, Kobe Bryant displays more of a mode I like to call the silent killer. He is calm, but also alert and ready to destroy you with his superior decision making. I take more of the Kobe approach. I’ve found that this mode has been the most successful for me in poker as well as tennis because when I get too amped I play too aggressive and become bluff happy, giving away easy points in tennis and making -ev bluffs.
Having a pre game guide is very helpful. I have this readily in hand to remind myself that the mental game is over half the battle. Granted, you are not always able to be in the perfect conditions, it is crucial to be flexible and adaptable to your surroundings. Many athletes have rituals such as specific meals or warm up techniques. It’s not about being superstitious here, but more about consistency and rhythm. Perfect practice and perfect preparation makes perfect.
The final part of feeling mentally fit is being physically fit. You can’t be playing poker all of the time, and staying in shape should definitely be your top priority. Poker is about the long run. Trust me, it’s much easier to put in volume when you’re in shape than when you are fat.
To me, these are the key things you are trying to reinforce when preparing to play poker.
- Nobody deserves anything. You are not always going to get positive feedback in poker. You can do everything right and still lose. Focus on the decision, not the result. THIS IS VERY HARD
- Constantly being aware of your opponent’s tendencies and perceived mind state while continuously reinforcing your own. Being aware of your own mind state is crucial so we know when we should quit or take a break.
- Working out your bankroll/stop loss. During the game, you should not be thinking about the money or your results. If losing in this game will cause you to not be able to pay the rent you are playing too high and will not be able to make proper decisions. You’re going to be wrong sometimes and must be able to withstand the variance of a failed bluff or incorrect river call.
- Physical Fitness - staying in shape is crucial for long grueling sessions and general life balance
In Game - Managing Tilt
Tilt is generally caused by a reaction to a result of a hand, series of hands, or other outside distractions such as but not limited to other players at the table, significant others, chat boxes, or sports games you are watching. To me, the cause of the tilt doesn’t matter. Identifying it is nice, but what you really want to do is focus all your energy on resetting yourself to your optimal mind state and do whatever it takes to keep yourself there.
Types of Tilt
- Losing Tilt
This is the tilt caused by losing a hand to a bad beat or a series of hands. Losing a series of hands to the same opponent can be frustrating. We must be able to overcome this mental detriment and continue to make the best decisions. Instead of loathing and obsessing about your misfortune, you need to use it to regain your optimal mindset. Remeber. Nobody deserves anything. Confidence is great in poker, but entitlement can be catastrophic as it will cause us to not objectively think about each hand. Cards are blind and nobody can control what comes. Beyond that, entitlement will also cause you more tilt because nobody can win all the time. Being humble in that regard will help you handle the downswings as well as play better through them.
- Winning Tilt
Most people are familiar with the losing form of tilt, but many neglect that they also tilt when they win. For me, this is more of an issue than losing tilt. When I lose, I am determined to make the best decisions and make back my losses. However, when I win, sometimes you can become too confident, optimistic, and bluff happy. You think everything you do will work and every draw you have will hit. This is an extremely dangerous way to think as it may cause you to make many -ev speculative plays.
- Distraction Tilt/Life Tilt
This is the form of tilt that is completely unrelated to poker that may affect your game. This can be a variety of things such as having a rough day at work, your favorite team losing, your significant other being a handful, etc. Realizing that real life situations affect your game is crucial. Only you can determine if you are fit to play based on these circumstances. However, for me if I am sad or mad about something, I try not to play unless I do not think that losing will affect me or I get myself into the state where I am just focused about poker. Sometimes poker is therapeutic. EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT. Awareness is key.
Solutions to tilt
Before we get into anything about solutions, I want to emphasize the importance of awareness of your mental state. Your friends or opponents may feel that you are unfit to play, but only you can leave the table or computer. It’s on you to know when to quit.
The first thing we need to understand is that tilt is internal. Yes, external factors have caused us to feel emotional distress. Focus on the things that you can control and your reaction to external causes is something you can control. For example, Phil Hellmuth will constantly scream and shout after losing a bad hand. For many amateurs this is a ridiculous sign of tilt and a sure sign that you should target him. Phil may be a little different though because while he does get tilted, he generally has it together and it may be an act. He IS a world class player. On the other hand, a different Phil has a different approach. Have you ever seen Phil Ivey bemoan his bad luck after a hand. Imagine how that makes you feel when you see a player take a horrendous beat and not give a flying f*ck… It’s extremely intimidating.
Now let me get into the solution. I equate Phil Hellmuth’s antics to slamming your racquet on the ground in tennis. My coach once told me that if he ever saw me slamming my racquet I’d better break it. You must be thinking… WHAT? Well his logic is this: If you control yourself you don't get the satisfaction of relieving that negative energy because you are compromising with your angry self on what you actually want to do - which is to break that racquet. Obviously, if every time I got angry I broke my racquet that would be quite an expensive way to deal with your tilt. We are human, sometimes we need to do something that is destructive to become productive. However, we can also channel that destructive energy. When I’m at home, I give out a loud yell or do a bunch of pushups, box the air, or jump around. For me, physical activity as a punishment is a great way to stay in shape. Whatever you do, make sure you let out all of your negative energy. Do not half throw your racquet. Slam it through the ground and release that tension. figuratively.
Post Game - Rest, Review, Reset
An important part that is often overlooked is the post game. After a long session it’s difficult to do a great review. It’s ok to take some time after but you should definitely go through hands or situations that you had tough spots with. I strongly encourage you to be using software such as holdem manager or poker tracker. It makes the review process so much easier as you can easily share hands and retrieve hand histories. If you need to you can have a notepad out to take whatever notes you want during the session.
Sit down and actually do the math on some of the plays you made in your session. Understanding the math has allowed me to be way more confident in sticky situations.
Well, that's it for now. Sorry for the long post. I hope you enjoyed a snippet from my poker journal that I wrote in 2014.