FOCUS IS AN integral part of playing poker, as it is what allows a player to collect a range of data about a particular hand, opponent, or game dynamic. The stronger their focus, the more accurately and precisely that data can inform their decisions.

When poker players think of an ideal level of focus, they might conjure up the scene from Rounders where Mike McDermott innocently walks in on the Judge’s home game. He’s just there to drop off some papers to his professor, but gets drawn in to conversing with the guys around the poker table. Despite having walked in while the hand is in progress, Mike is able to quickly deduce that, “in this collection of great legal minds, there isn’t a single card player.” After a scan of the table, he manages to cor- rectly read everyone’s exact hands:

“Okay. Well, you were looking for that third three, but you forgot that Professor Green folded it on Fourth Street, and now you’re representing that you have it. The D.A. made his two pair, but he knows they’re no good. Judge Kaplan was trying to squeeze out a diamond flush, but he came up short, and Mr. Eisen is futilely hoping that his queens are gonna stand up. So, like I said, the Dean’s bet is $20.”(1)

(1) Cohen, B. (Producer), & Dahl, J. (Director). (1998). Rounders. [Motion Picture]. United States: Miramax Films. Spanky Pictures.

It’s an inspiring, entertaining, and completely unrealistic portrayal of poker. Still, many poker players dream of how amazing it would be to intuitively know every detail of a hand. They assume the top play- ers in the world have this level of focus, and believe it would allow them to dominate the game as well. However, they fail to recognize the connection between their level of focus and their ability to read their opponents. When they lose a hand, they don’t see how distractibility, boredom, or lack of focus prevented them from picking up information that could have led to a different outcome. In other words, they have a black-and-white perspective when it comes to a hand—either they have the right knowledge or they don’t. They underestimate the value of attaining a high level of focus and instead, attribute their losses to things out of their control.

Improving Focus

While you’re playing poker, you want to try and avoid expending too much energy on maintaining your focus and fighting off distractions. Ideally, being focused should come effortlessly. When you reach that point, mental space is freed up and you can dig deeper into the action.

Focus can be broken down into two parts: attention and concentration. People often use these terms synonymously with focus, but there is an important distinction. Attention is the direction of your focus determined by your goals, needs, motives, interests, priorities, and values. Concentration is the amount of focus you have, which is ultimately determined by your level of energy. If these subtle differences are unclear, think about the way in which people talk about focus. When someone says, “pay atten- tion,” they’re telling you where to focus. When they say, “concentrate,” they’re telling you to increase your level of focus. This distinction is impor- tant because it illustrates the two ways of improving focus—give it better direction and increase the amount of it.

Improving focus employs a method you’ve become very familiar with: assessing your range. Answering the following questions will help you to

analyze the varying levels of your focus while playing live and online, and when studying or working on your game.

  • What are the factors that lead to your ideal level of focus?
  • How long does that ideal level of focus last and what’s the first sign that you’ve lost it?
  • What causes you to lose focus?
  • How frequently do you lose focus during a session?
  • How long does it take for you to notice that you’ve lost focus, and once you do, how long does it take to get refocused?
  • When is your focus typically at its worst?
  • When distracted by thoughts, what are you typically thinking about?
  • Do you tend to have poorer focus at the beginning, middle, or end of a session?
  • How well do you handle being card dead?
  • How do sleep, diet, and exercise affect the quality of your focus?

Some of these questions measure focus quantitatively, such as length of time spent distracted and frequency of distractions. Tracking these statistics can provide a more precise impression of the quality of your focus, including any problems. Plus, it can help you to set goals and track progress. For example, if you find that you’re averaging ten distractions in a three-hour session, you can set a goal to reduce it to seven. Sure, you’d prefer to not have any distractions, but expecting that to happen right away is unrealistic. In addition, you can aim to increase the speed with which you recognize a distraction and the amount of time it takes you to get refocused. Keeping track of these real-time statistics can be a distraction in itself, so find a way to take them quickly and without diverting any focus from your game.

Once you have a strong idea of the range that exists, you can inject logic, goals, or inspiration to improve your focus at the table or while studying.

Since goals contribute to the direction of your focus, reminding yourself of what they are can accelerate the process of getting refocused. If you are lacking concentration, inject inspiration from a song, movie quote, or picture of your dream house to give you an immediate boost of energy. Just remember that this strategy only provides temporary progress. In order to make your improvements permanent, you must train the correction to your focus problem and/or resolve any mental game problems connected to it.

Here are some other general ways to improve focus:

  • Change gears. In poker, “shifting gears” describes a player’s abil- ity to change how they’re playing against a specific opponent. The same strategy can be used to improve your level of focus, especially when playing live. Think of focus as similar to shifting gears in a car. When you’re involved in a hand, consider your focus to be in 5th gear. When you’re not in a hand, you can shift into 3rd gear to save energy since you don’t need to be picking up on every single detail at the table. As long as you remain in the flow of the action, uncon- scious data is constantly accumulating and can be used to inform your decisions the next time you’re involved in a hand.
  • Listen to music. When attempting to optimize their focus, play- ers often wonder whether or not they should listen to music while playing. The answer is, it depends. There are no hard rules around listening to music. A player might benefit from it when they’re slightly unfocused, but that same player might find it distracting while play- ing their A-game or when they’re feeling tired. The best thing to do is experiment to find out if and when music can be beneficial, and if it is, what type of music works best for you. • Meditate. Many players are skeptical about meditation, but recent research has shown that it can increase a person’s ability to discern fine detail and allow them to sustain focus for longer periods of time. (2)

(2) Maclean, K.A., et al. 2010. Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. Psychological Science. 21(6): 829-839.

  • Minimize distractions. Before you start to play, there are a number of easy ways to improve your focus, or at least prevent major focus issues. They are predominantly environmental: closing down Skype and web browsers, putting your phone on silent, and getting food before you play. Often the biggest focus killers are the easiest ones to preempt and manage before playing a hand.
  • Exercise. Many poker players have quite a sedentary lifestyle. Recent research has shown low-intensity exercise can increase energy levels in sedentary young adults by up to 20%. If you’re lacking enough energy to sustain long periods of focus, consider adding exercise to your regular routine.3
  • Increase mental endurance. Mental endurance is trained the same way as physical endurance—by pushing yourself. When you fight to maintain focus at times you would typically lose it, you increase mental endurance. This is similar to training your body to run faster or farther. As you do this consistently, your mind is able to sustain higher levels of focus for longer periods of time. This topic is covered in more detail in Chapter 8.
  • Set and adjust goals. The most focused poker players tend to be the ones with clear and precise goals. One of the simplest ways to improve focus, without having to constantly be thinking about it, is to set better goals or fix conflicting goals. This will get your attention pointed in the right direction and increase your level of concentration.
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