While you’re in the zone, it can be easy to assume that it will last forever. You’re so caught up in how well you’re playing, you don’t even consider the possibility that it could end. However, the zone is not a self-perpetuat- ing state. While you may not be affected by major mental game issues, don’t blind yourself to the reality that even the mentally toughest players in the world are susceptible to the problems outlined below. Note that the more severe the problems are, the more they may limit your ability to reach the zone.
Mental Game Issues
Being in the zone doesn’t provide immunity from the mental game issues lurking beneath the surface. While in the zone, you’re able to quickly disarm triggers that may cause tilt, fear, or overconfidence. As they con- tinue to mount, though, the weight becomes too difficult for your mind to handle and you fall out of the zone. If you have already read TMGP, you’re familiar with the most common mental game issues in poker. If you haven’t, the following questions can help you identify any problems you may have in one of the four major areas of the mental game. (If you end
up answering yes to many of the questions below and are struggling to get into the zone consistently, you may need to tackle these issues using the comprehensive strategies in TMGP.)
Tilt. Tilting is far and away the most common mental game issue in poker. You may never have suffered from full-blown monkey tilt, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still have a problem with tilt. Do you:
- Feel that poker is unfair or that you’re cursed by the poker gods?
- Become very critical of yourself if you make even a slight mistake?
- Quit sessions early to avoid tilting?
- Hate losing to bad players?
- Look to avenge losses to a player you play against frequently?
- Have trouble understanding how terrible players can walk away with your money?
- Break a stop-loss or jump up in stakes when you’re down money?
- Want to always win money and have trouble quitting? Fear. Since tilt tends to be the most prominent mental game issue in
poker, players tend not to recognize signs of fear. Do you:
- Constantly overthink decisions at the table and have difficulty shutting your mind off when away from the table?
- Drop down in stakes during a bad run?
- Play much lower stakes than you are rolled for, or avoid good games at higher stakes?
- Avoid games with tough regulars, even when there are plenty of softer players at the table?
- Quit a session early to protect a win?
- Rush to make decisions without any obvious reason?
- Always opt for lower-variance decisions?
Motivation. Lacking enough motivation is a major problem in poker. Do you:
- Always look for external challenges like prop bets to motivate you to play?
- Avoid playing unless you feel at your best?
- Burn out from playing too much without a break?
- Constantly procrastinate instead of playing or studying?
- Not play enough during a bad or a good run of cards? Confidence. Having too little confidence is as big of a problem as hav- ing too much. Do you:
- Lose trust in your decision making and go against your gut?
- Dismiss advice from good players?
- Think you’re not making progress and feel down about your abil- ity to succeed in the long term?
- Think your dream of playing nosebleeds is so close that you decide to play outside your bankroll?
- Become embarrassed when you have to drop down in stakes?
- Feel like you can beat anyone? Accumulated emotion. Accumulated emotion is a hidden resource hog, sucking up the energy and mental space you need to play at your peak. When issues such as tilt, fear, and a lack of confidence accumu- late over weeks, months, and even years, they become an internal force that limits peak performance. Accumulated emotion—or emotional bag- gage, as it’s often called—can cause even mild-mannered people to lose control at the poker table. When triggered by a certain event, such as a bad beat, mistake, or big pot, accumulated emotion instantly overwhelms your ability to think and remain in control. Consequently, your range stays very wide because without the ability to think, progress at the back end of your range moves very slowly. The more emotion you accumulate, the wider your range will be, and the tougher it will be to resolve. Solving
the mental game issues that are causing your accumulated emotion is paramount, but in the short term, it is equally important to have a solid cool-down process to prevent future accumulation.
Some amount of your mental energy is burned up with every decision you make at the poker table—tough or easy. Therefore, if you play long enough, at some point you will fall out of the zone simply because you have depleted your energy. When you notice that you’ve started to feel tired, it’s a great time to push through and attempt to play in the zone a little longer. This builds mental endurance, so that over time you’ll be able to play longer and endure more tough decisions before fatigue sets in.
“MOST PEOPLE NEVER RUN FAR ENOUGH ON THEIR FIRST WIND TO FIND OUT THEY’VE GOT A SECOND.”
—WILLIAM JAMES, PHILOSOPHER
Burning energy inefficiently can also cause fatigue. Overexcitement and overconfidence can make it hard to stay in the zone. You have a finite amount of energy with which to play, so don’t waste it.
I MUST LEARN TO BE IN GREATER CONTROL OF MY ENERGY. LIKE A RUNNER HAS THE ABILITY TO CHANGE SPEEDS, I NEED TO LEARN
HOW TO DO THE SAME THING MENTALLY.
Some players are unable to stay in the zone for long periods of time because their range is too wide. They often play in the zone for a chunk of time at the start of their session or tournament—maybe 45 to 75 min- utes—and then their game rapidly deteriorates. It’s as though they’ve hit a wall and have no idea what happened. If this is a common occurrence, the odds are low that it’s caused by a severe problem. The more likely cause is that the gap between their A-game and C-game is too wide. This gap causes them to have to burn so much energy to play in the zone that there isn’t much left in the tank to play there for long. The reason they are burning so much energy is they have an excessive amount of knowledge that has yet to be mastered. In order for them to play in the zone, they have to burn energy thinking about all of the information in their range. The narrower a player’s range, the less information their mind has to analyze and the less energy they have to expend.
You can narrow the width of your range by focusing on improving your current C-game. During this time, try not to focus on learning anything new until you can play in the zone longer.
IF I WANT TO PLAY HIGH-QUALITY POKER FOR A LONG TIME, I HAVE TO DO THE WORK. PLAYING IN THE ZONE IS EARNED,
When too much data accumulates, it slows down the mind and prevents you from remaining in the zone. This concept is called bloated brain because it’s similar to how your body reacts when you overeat. After a big meal, your body feels tired and has to work extra hard to digest all of the food you just ate. When your mind becomes bloated with an excess of data, you’re no longer able to access your highest levels of knowledge. This issue is subtle and hard for players to identify. They feel tired and assume that it’s just the natural consequence of playing a lot. However, if they do a proper cool-down and feel less tired, bloated brain—rather than fatigue—emerges as the real problem.
The solution to bloated brain is twofold and needs to happen both dur- ing and after play. During play, take pit stops, just as high-performance race cars do in order to keep running at peak levels throughout a race.
During these breaks, you can reduce some of this accumulation by tak- ing notes, meditating, doing some deep breathing, or taking a walk. For online players hesitant to sit out—you don’t need to. Mentally taking a step back for as little as 30 seconds can have a positive impact. The idea of a pit stop is all about taking away mental stimulation for a moment and allowing what has already accumulated to be absorbed. In the long term, schedule pit stops ahead of time so that you don’t have to take unexpected breaks. In tournaments, these are already scheduled, but in cash games, consider setting an alarm as a reminder to take a break. Ideally, the timing of that alarm is set based on the amount of time it typi- cally takes you to start feeling tired. You should study your game first to determine your own patterns and then set the alarm accordingly.
Completing a proper cool-down is the second part of the solution. Accumulated data is similar to accumulated tilt, where tilt from the day before carries over to the next session and makes it more likely that you’ll tilt again. If accumulated data is not dealt with at the end of your session, it too will carry over, and your mind will fill up more quickly the next time you play. The solution to this is to have a solid cool-down routine that helps you to digest that data. The additional benefit of this is that sepa- rating from poker will be easier and you won’t continue grinding on the action well after you finish playing.
TAKING REGULAR BREAKS KEEPS ME PLAYING AT A HIGH LEVEL AND IS HOW I WILL BE MOST PROFITABLE OVER THE LONG TERM.
Thoughts of the Past and Future
A surefire way to kick yourself out of the zone is to suddenly start thinking about something in the past or future. You’re chip leader deep in a tour- nament and you start dreaming about what you’ll do with the first-place money. You lose an all-in with AA against JJ, and automatically your mind fixates on the big downswing that happened right after you lost that exact hand a few months ago. Other examples of these thoughts include:
- Wondering what it would be like to crush a higher limit.
- Assuming you’re going to win a heads-up match that you’re dominating.
- Fixating on whether you were outplayed in a recent hand. No matter what the specific thoughts are, thinking about either the past or future means you’re focusing on things that are irrelevant in the moment. It’s a waste of valuable mental space and energy. Plus, these thoughts decrease the quality of your decision making because you’re unable to absorb as much unconscious data. It can be a bit complicated to elimi- nate these thoughts, as they’re often unconscious reactions that you can’t immediately control. Trying to force yourself to remain in the present won’t be effective. You have to identify and resolve the underlying flaws caus- ing these reactions in order to truly plant yourself in the present action at the table. Start by answering these questions:
Do you wish you could change the past?
Do you wish you could know the future?
If the answer is yes to either, why do you want power you cannot have?
What have you not yet learned from the past that could be con- tributing to your need to know the future?
Becoming distracted by thoughts of the future can originate from both fear and from the anticipation of something happening, whether good or bad. If you’re up a bunch of money in a cash game, you might become worried that you’ll lose it back. This could be a result of sensing that you are tired, but feeling like you have to keep playing. Predicting that you will lose offers you a more legitimate excuse to quit than just feeling tired. When you have chip lead deep in a tournament, you may start focusing on what you’ll do with the first-place money. This could be connected to your need for the money, respect from your family, and vindication for past injustices. These underlying issues could be causing you to feel an immense amount of pressure, and imagining the money in your hands relieves some of the weight.
Once you’ve identified the reason(s) for your fixation on the past and/ or future, you can compose a strong injecting logic statement that allows you to be more in control, both mentally and tactically. Just remember that defusing the underlying trigger takes a lot of repetition. Be prepared to use it until your mind can automatically remain focused even when those past triggers are lurking.
MY IDEAL FUTURE WON’T BECOME A REALITY IF I DON’T CONCENTRATE ON WHAT I HAVE CONTROL OF IN THE PRESENT.
THE PAST IS OVER AND NO MATTER HOW MUCH I THINK ABOUT IT, I CAN’T CHANGE IT. I CAN ONLY CONTROL WHAT I DO NEXT.
Becoming overly aware of the fact that you are playing in the zone can actually cause you to fall out of it. Playing in the zone means you’re play- ing at a very high level. Sometimes you’re playing at a level beyond what you’re typically capable of, so you become excited and start to fixate on it. This causes your mind to focus more on your performance and not as much on continuing to perform. These kinds of higher-level thoughts about your game should only happen after you’re done playing, so try using an injecting logic statement to keep you focused. After the session, allow yourself to acknowledge and feel confident about your new level of play. Then, the next time you play at that level, you won’t be caught off guard and can avoid losing focus.
IF I’M FOCUSED ON HOW WELL I’M PLAYING, I’M WASTING FOCUS THAT’S NEEDED TO KEEP ME PLAYING WELL. CELEBRATE AFTERWARDS, STAY FOCUSED NOW.
Lack of Challenge
Playing in the zone can make the game feel easy. Dominating a tourna- ment, running over a cash game table, or crushing a heads-up opponent is of course what you want to happen, but it comes with a potential cost. When poker is too easy, the lack of challenge causes your energy level to drop. Consequently, you lose interest, become easily distracted, and start playing a default ABC game. If you really are crushing your games, the solution is to set higher goals. If you are winning comfortably at 3 BB/100, aim to win 4 BB/100. If you are crushing over eight tables, try to add two more. If you have the bankroll to do it, take some shots at bigger games.
Some players with this issue may also have problems distinguishing the quality of their play from their results. They place too much emphasis on the good results and not enough on how well they actually played. They need to learn the ability to crush when already crushing, instead of play- ing down to their opponent’s level.
I WANT TO LEARN HOW TO DOMINATE WHEN I’M ALREADY DOMINATING.
Change in Table Dynamics
Players sometimes expect that a change in table dynamics should have no effect on the quality of their play. The reality is that moving to a new table, making a final table, having a new player join their table, taking a long dinner break, or changing formats in mixed games all have the potential to throw off their game. Instead of expecting to always remain in the flow of the action, do the following:
- Accept the reality that the change has affected you, and give your- self the time and space to work back into the flow of the action.
- Learn why this change in table dynamics affects your game using the mental hand history on page 81. That way you can minimize it in the future.
I CAN’T CONTROL ALL ASPECTS OF THE GAME. I HAVE TO TAKE WHAT THE GAME GIVES ME, ADJUST, AND STEADILY CLIMB MY WAY BACK INTO THE FLOW OF THE ACTION AND THE ZONE.