Mental Discipline

General guidelines

We have seen that having a passion to improve is vital. Similarly, having a strong body and/or mind is also important. But mental dis‐ cipline is perhaps the important trait in poker since when someone loses they actually lose their own money. This is quite a severe shock in contrast to what happens in other pursuits when someone fails. In an athletic or sporting event if someone messes up they lose, but the losses aren’t penalized. That is the key – in most other com‐ petitive pursuits the loser is not actually penalized, instead the per‐ son’s skill level stagnates in their activity.

But in poker when you mess up you lose your money. This is not stagnating, but going backwards, and it is a very bad result. This tends to affect the mind even more and the consequence can be fur‐ ther losses, which can and do break people emotionally and finan‐ cially. Things are different in, say, soccer. If an aspiring college ath‐ lete does badly he doesn’t go broke and his body won’t self destruct. He may be disappointed but he won’t go crazy. He’ll stay in the same spot and not lose anything. He’ll later either resume his march forward or quit the sport.

In poker, players often make informal rules to protect themselves from these negative penalties – to make it more of a safe activity like soccer so they can’t really lose too much. With these rules they can then face the normal swings of variance, but those swings become expected. They might appear negative on the outside, but someone who understands will realize that they aren’t too bad and are just part of the game. Absorbing these normal swings in variance is es‐ sential in order to gain in the long run in poker. In many activities consistent negative results would make it obvious that a person should concentrate their efforts elsewhere. However, in poker it is much more confusing because of unreliable feedback. This is why there are “rules” people make up to protect themselves.

When a person loses money following these rules (and everyone sets up their own based on whatever works best for them), they are re‐ garded as normal business losses that are expected and not a prob‐ lem. For instance if someone has a bankroll of $100,000 and tries playing $25/$50 NLHE, that is completely reasonable providing that if they lose $15,000 they then drop back down to their regular game of $10/$25. Or if I am playing an opponent and he busts me for a buy‐in and I realize he is better than me and stop that is also fine (of course it is better if I realize that sooner and quit). Those are normal unavoidable expenses of doing things like trying to improve in poker and make more money.

What is unacceptable though is when someone has $20,000 to their name, their only job is poker and they are playing $25/$50 NLHE. That is ridiculously unprofessional and such a person has little chance of success as they have no mental discipline. They probably know they shouldn’t play that game but most likely they were los‐ ing earlier on and began chasing their losses. You need to be able to control your head, how you think and what you do when you play poker or you will go backward and maybe even end up on the street.

The rules that most people follow are discussed below and relate to issues of moving up in stakes, bankroll management and so on. But for now just know that you need the mental discipline to follow the guidelines you set for yourself, in order to allow yourself to play the best poker you can for as long you can.

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