Perspective. The mind is a powerful tool when used effectively. The right belief or perspective is powerful enough to influence your ability to reach the zone, even while playing heads-up against Phil Ivey. (Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll win.) The battle for success in poker is as much about a player’s belief about their skill as it is about their actual skill. When players overestimate their skill level, they not only tend to play in games that are less profitable, they also reduce their chances of playing in the zone. Believing they have more skill than is actually true also underestimates the degree of challenge posed by their competition. This lowers their energy level, and as a result, they lose focus, stop looking for small edges, and don’t think through hands. The opposite is true as well. When skilled poker players underestimate their skill, they can feel anxious or overwhelmed against inferior competition. This can cause an excessive increase in energy that could have been avoided with a more accurate perspective of their game.

As you can see, having the right energy level is not as simple as just being well rested. The more you study the influence these five factors have on your energy, the easier it will be to find your own ideal level. Later in the chapter, you will be given advice on how to simplify this process.


For many players, the most recognizable feature of playing in the zone is the ability to just know the correct decision. This hunch, gut instinct, sixth sense, or soul read allows them to make some pretty amazing plays. What’s the explanation for this? How do you just know your opponent

is bluffing? Where does that knowledge come from? Are you highly skilled, or psychic? The answers to these questions center around uncon- scious learning. When you’re in the zone, you gain access to unconscious knowledge, and this accounts for the dramatic increase in the quality of your decision making.

Unconscious learning. Since unconscious learning is by definition unconscious, you may be wondering how it’s possible to know that it exists. The proof comes from an interesting study called the Iowa Gambling Task4, which aimed to better understand the role of emotion in decision making. In the experiment, participants were given a fake bankroll of $2,000 and presented with four virtual decks of cards, face down, on a computer screen. Each time they selected a card, they would either win or lose money based on the value of the card. Their goal was to win as much money as possible. Dollar values were both large and small ($100 and $50) and positive and negative. What the participants were not told was that the decks were stacked. Two decks were “good” in that they contained more positive values, and the other two decks were “bad” because participants lost money when mainly choosing cards from them. The good decks were of lower value, e.g., +$50, -$10, and the bad decks were of higher value, e.g., +$100, -$80.

Participants were wired up to a machine that measured their “antici- patory SCR level,” which is a measure of unconscious stress reactions. When stressed, the body secretes micro amounts of sweat through the fin- gertips. This is what the researchers used to identify when the body was experiencing stress, even when participants weren’t feeling it consciously. The research showed that, on average, participants began showing a greater stress reaction when reaching for a bad deck after selecting only 10 cards. (See the chart on the next page.) Curious if this stress reaction was registered consciously, researchers asked participants if they had developed a strategy to maximize profit. This was a ridiculous question at the time. The participants had no idea that their bodies had begun to recognize a difference between the four decks; their minds were still blind to this early stage of pattern recognition.

Participants continued picking cards, and as they did, the gap between the anticipatory SCR levels for the good and bad decks widened. This effect continued throughout the rest of the study, which consisted of 90 more card selections. However, something changed around the 50th card selection. At that point, when researchers asked if they had found a way to maximize profit, participants reported having a feeling or a hunch, but they couldn’t explain themselves. It was as though the knowledge about how to beat the game was on the tip of their tongue. Finally, after around the 80th card selection, the light bulb turned on—they could explain the difference between the good and bad decks. What started as a small, unconscious difference in stress reactions grew into a hunch, and eventu- ally turned into conscious recognition.

Anticipatory SCR level for the good and bad decks

The Iowa Gambling Task proves that there is constant data collection and pattern recognition happening below the level of our awareness. The zone makes this knowledge accessible and usable. The ideal level of

energy previously described maximizes the brain’s ability to pull this data to the surface and use it to make extraordinarily high-level decisions.

The next step is to actually become aware of this data and eventually be able to apply it in your sessions. In order to do this, you first need to understand the process this data goes through in order to become fully learned and consistently accessible to you. The Zone Learning Model (ZLM) outlines the four stages of this process.

Level 1: Intangible Competence. You know what’s right, but can’t explain why it’s right. In other words, you’re blind to the reason you performed so well. In a vacuum, the move might even look like a mistake, but you have such a strong hunch that you just go with it. The real reason you called or folded could be due to your opponent’s prior action, a physical tell, a timing tell, a bet-sizing tell, the momentum of the game, G-Bucks, table image, table position, metagame, range balancing, or something entirely new. You know there are so many factors that can go into making a poker decision, but this decision is one you simply can’t explain. The knowledge you have at this level is composed of the same unconscious data that was highlighted by the Iowa Gambling Task.

Level 2: Conceptual Competence. After an “aha moment” or looking closely at decisions made while playing in the zone, you now realize why you knew what was right. You’ve become aware of a skill or concept that will take your game to a new level; however, you haven’t gained enough experience yet to consciously apply it on a regular basis. When you reach this level of knowledge, you’ve gathered up enough unconscious data and are at the same stage the participants of the Iowa Gambling Task were in after picking up the 80th card. There are two ways to reach this level: develop original concepts or learn them from other players. Doyle Brunson, and other innovators, conceptual- ized parts of the game such as the importance of table position

after years of experience and reflection. The alternative method is to learn from others by watching videos, reading articles, and working with a coach.

Level 3: Conscious Competence. This stage is exactly the same as it is in the Adult Learning Model (ALM)5. You have done sufficient work to understand the concept and can now apply it on a regular basis, even when not in the zone. You still have to do it consciously though—it isn’t yet second nature.

Level 4: Unconscious Competence. This is the final stage of both the ALM and the ZLM. Knowledge about the concept is now so well learned that it’s automatic at all times, even when you’re tilted or exhausted.

Consistent access to new Intangible Competence is necessary to reach the zone. In order to gain that access, you must regularly convert Intangible Com- petence into Conceptual Competence. The reality is it can take weeks, months, or longer for you to become conscious of these complex patterns in poker. The A-game journal is a tool that simplifies and accelerates that process.

A-game journal. In the A-game journal you’re gathering notes about the peak of your game. Here are some ideas for how to get the most from this tool:


  • After every instance that you play in the zone, take exhaustive notes about your experience. Some of what you write about will make sense right away, and other things may be tougher to explain. You can also talk this out with other players, just be sure to write down notes after your conversation. Recording video or audio notes can work as well.
  • Focus on hands where you had a strong intuition or made a spon- taneous move that worked, and try to explain why they were correct. These are likely to be the toughest hands to explain, but it’s important that you try. Don’t edit, censor, or force your thoughts, just write (or talk). You’re too early in the process to know exactly what is right and what can provide any insight. Trying to force an answer can lead you to arrive at an incorrect conclusion. If you’re unable to make sense of your notes, revisit them in the future, and try again to explain what you saw in the hand. You may still be unable to conceptualize why your play was correct, but each time, you will inch your way closer.
  • While playing, you may have clear thoughts about why your deci- sion was correct, but then you forget just a few minutes later. Consider quickly writing down your thoughts without analyzing them any fur- ther until after the session. You’re trying to balance continuing to play in the zone with capturing high-level data about your game. If you divert your focus too much, you could end up falling out of the zone.
  • This process can’t be forced. Like the participants in the Iowa Gambling Task, you may struggle to explain this unconscious knowl- edge that you know had a role in your decisions. That’s okay—strug- gling is expected. Merely attempting to access this knowledge will prove to be helpful in digesting some of the accumulated data.
  • Record any insights that you have while watching a training video, talking with other players, or at random times.
  • The A-game journal becomes a record of your exploration of the highest levels of your game. Revisit it after you have new ideas, play in the zone, or develop insight after watching a poker video. Over time, as you continue to think, gather more experience, and learn about these areas of your game, you will be able to trans- form a hunch into Conceptual Competence.
  • The work you put into the A-game journal may not immediately bear fruit. But, as you continually revisit it, you’ll steadily get closer to creating new insight, or Conceptual Competence. If you’re already aware of the concept, having learned about it from a video or another player, the A-game journal will help you develop an even higher level of comprehension. The process is a bit like a baby learning to walk. They can’t be forced; they can only be encouraged. Encouragement in the A-game journal comes in the form of regular attention, attempted explanation, repetition, trial and error, and gathering ideas from other sources.

The A-game journal is not only a great tool for keeping your mind clear so you can consistently get into the zone, it also helps you learn at the high- est level of your game. There is no one perfect way to use the A-game journal, but the more you work with it, the more you’ll discover which methods work best for you.

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