The Mental Game

The mental side of poker is an often overlooked aspect of a player’s overall game plan. Without focus, clarity, and mental toughness, our ability and skill can never meet its full potential. Not only do we have to master our emotions, we must also have the correct perspective on the game in a holistic sense.

We must learn to play each poker hand completely in the present, without distraction. Any outside factor that pulls brain cells away from the poker you are playing will result in less than your A+ game and almost certainly hurt your win-rate. To be at the top of your mental game, you need to be able to focus and not feel any emotion during your sessions.

Focus is something almost anyone can master fairly easily. The problem is that we all live in a world full of distractions. Television, text messaging, and any number of commotions bombard us constantly throughout the day. Therefore, you must make a conscious effort to remove any outside stimulithatcoulddetractfromyourplayatthetables. Mysuggestionisthatyoupreemptanypossible distraction and set aside time each day specifically for poker. Turn off the cell phone, the television, and all background programs on your computer. For the entire session, it should only be you and your poker opponents.

Emotional control is a bit more challenging. To play optimally, one must have a complete indifference to any outcome that happens in the short term. You have to be an impartial analyst in all situations encountered during play and must make the best decision possible at all times with no regard to the immediate outcome. It takes a mastery of emotions as well as complete objective thought when it comes to decision making. That is why we must always think about the long term in all decisions we make at the poker table. If we play according to a game plan based on the villain’s ranges and tendencies, then we should never be surprised or emotionally affected by a short-term result.

Let Go Of Your Ego

Ego has been the downfall of many poker players. It can make an unskilled player think he doesn’t need to improve his game, because he already knows more than the “idiots” he is playing against. Inevitably, this leads to wild emotional swings during play.

If you have followed Poker for some time, I’m sure you’ve seen this on television. Every year, we see fields full of egomaniacs at the World Series Of Poker. Yet typically, year in and year out, it’s the most emotionally centered players who make it through to the final table and on to victory.

So, if you naturally have a big ego and feel pride in your own poker game, my best advice to you right now is to get over yourself! Open your eyes and see that you are a flawed human being with both strengths and weaknesses. The sooner you do, the faster you can start working on your weaknesses and playing toward your strengths. A great irony in poker is that the players who lack confidence in their games or think they “suck” at poker are the ones that work their butts off to try to improve. These are the players who, for the most part, dominate today’s poker world.

Believe In Yourself

While ego can keep you from living up to your potential, a lack of faith that you can become a top poker player can be to your detriment as well. There is a fine line you have to walk between believing in what you are doing and allowing self-doubt, variance, and fear of the unknown ruin your poker career before it really gets off the ground. As you learn the game and become more and more familiar with advanced concepts, do not be too hard on yourself if your results are less than spectacular. It takes a long time to become fluent in developing a plan for hands that you play. At first, you will make a lot of bad decisions, but in time through introspection you will begin to attune yourself to the correct decision-making processes necessary to succeed.

Remember that poker is the most complicated game in the world, and just like other games, no one becomes a master overnight. My advice is to stick to a basic strategy at first and then slowly add more advanced plays to your repertoire. Work on enhancing one thing at the time, and once you have a fairly good grasp on a particular concept, move on to something else. Then go back to what you were working on before and so on and so forth. In short, become a student of the game.

Ignore The Naysayers

You will run into a lot of negativity while you learn poker, which can hurt your self-confidence as a player. Society in general tends to look down upon poker players. It has gotten quite a bit better in recent years, but overall there is still a stigma against playing poker and especially in pursuing it as a career.

My advice is never downplay what you do during interactions with non-poker players. Speak of your poker play as if it was a normal job. Do not shy away from fielding questions about it, and be sure to explain it in a way that non-poker players can understand. Many people do not know that poker is a game of skill and may think you are just a foolish gambler who needs a 12-step program. Make sure you let them know otherwise.


Variance is the difference between short-term results and what your long-term expectation is. For poker players, it is an ugly word. However, if you understand and accept that variance is part of poker, things will be a great deal less painful during the downswings. You will also better appreciate times when you are “running good.”

A downswing is a period of time when negative variance causes your bankroll to trend downward considerably more and much longer than would normally be expected given your win-rate. It is inevitable that you will face a downswing. All poker players have downswings. It’s how a person reacts to these fluctuations that separate the good players from the mediocre.

Occasionally, luck will win over the short term. Sometimes you will seem to go hours, days, even weeks with seemingly awful luck. Nevertheless, skill will always win in the end if we play enough hands to get to the long term. As a winning player, the long-term is your friend. If you play sound winning poker, over time your opponents’ mistakes will steadily add money to your bankroll. After all is said and done, that is what poker is about, making fewer mistakes than your opponents and profiting as a result.

The easiest way to get through the “bad times” is to understand that your poker career is really just one long session. Seldom do we have periods over the short term where our graph moves steadily upward at our long-term win-rate. In other words, all long-term graphs are really just a bunch of downswings and upswings.

To put things into perspective, anything under 1 million hands should be considered short term. In fact, players can (and often do) have wild fluctuations in one direction or another from their “true” win-rate over 100,000 or even 500,000 hands. You can be a solid winning player and have a painful 100k break-even or losing stretch. You can outplay your competition for weeks at a time and still losemoney. Itmayseemunfair,butladyluckintheshorttermcanbeverycruel.

I am not telling you this to scare you. I am simply providing you with the mental preparation necessary to succeed as a professional poker player. As long as you know what you are getting into, then you will not be caught off guard and as easily fall victim to an ugly four-letter word called tilt.

I find that the best way to overcome the bad times is to have balance in your life. If you put too much of your self-worth into your poker results, not only will other aspects of your life suffer when you hit a downswing, so will your emotional well being. You need to make sure that you continue to treat poker as a game and nothing more, even if it becomes your career.

This graph illustrates the results that someone with a 4bb/100 win rate might expect over ten samples of 100,000 hands when variance is taken into account. Notice that breaking even or even losing money is not out of the realm of possibility for even strong players.

Each graph line represents a potential 100k hand sample

Handling Variance

Ifyouplaylongenough,eventuallyyouwillgoonasoulcrushingdownswing. Youwillexperience bad sessions, bad weeks, and even bad months. Variance is inevitable. Every player in the world of all skill levels will endure extended periods of time where they are “running bad” or losing. The good news is, there are things you can do to buffer your game against downswings.

1. Follow your bankroll management plan.
It is designed to make going broke impossible and is your first line of defense against variance. A player should always have a specified number of buy-ins for the level he plays. Depending on your level of skill, you can play with as little as 30 or as many as 200 buy-ins. You can of course play with less while building a bankroll, but once you settle in on a particular stake to specialize in, you should always err on the side of more buy-ins in your working bankroll.

2. Make sure you are not straying from your winning strategy.

If you are losing for an extended period of time, try getting back to the fundamentals. For a few days spend more time studying the game rather than playing it. Reread this book and simplify your game. Review every hand in every session for a while and make sure you are not making fundamental mistakes.

Are you becoming too passive? Are you firing that 2nd barrel when it appears profitable? Are you tryingforthinvalueagainstfishontheriver? Areyoucheck-callinginspotsyoushouldbebet- folding? Make sure you are keeping initiative in almost every hand you play. Check your red line; if it is plummeting downward, you are probably being a calling station. Make sure every dime you put into a pot is with purpose, and keep up the aggression.

3. Make sure you are not auto-piloting. Areyoufeelingrushedduringsessionsortimingoutfrequently? Youmaybeplayingtoomanytables at once. The only way to sustain a multi-faceted sound strategy is to make sure you have ample time during your sessions to evaluate every situation you find yourself in. You will miss many profitable opportunities if you are trying to get in too many hands and playing like a robot. For a time, try decreasing the number of tables you are playing and focus more on each and every decision.

4. Set up a stop loss.

If you drop more than five buy-ins quickly in a session, sit out on all tables and go do something else. Only when you feel calm and centered should you return to the game and try again.

5. Take some extended time off.

Take a day, a week, or even a month off, completely away from the game. Sometimes getting away and recharging your mind is the most +EV thing you can do. Come back fresh and ready to play sound, fundamental poker, and start beating the game again.

6. Spend extra time working on the mental game.

You will find that your downswing might not have been nearly as bad if you had not tilted and spewed off a couple of extra buy-ins in frustration. If you cannot play your A or B+ game, then do not play at all.

7. Focus on EV earnings.

Many times a big downswing will simply be due to running bad and losing a bunch of coin flips in a row or having players hit miracle rivers over and over as you value bet them into oblivion. For a time, try not to pay attention to how you are doing and only look at EV earnings during sessions. Do not look at actual winnings until the day is over. You may be surprised how this can help calm your mind while you play.

8. Find Balance

Remember to keep perspective on your poker career. Try not to put too much value on yourself as a person based on your poker results. The best way to do this is to be sure you are not just a poker player. Try to make sure that you always have multiple things going on in your life. That way, if your poker results go south for a while, you will not be as negatively affected, because there are numerous other positive things going on for you that will keep your spirits bolstered.

Previous post Managing Your Poker Career
Next post Understanding And Avoiding Tilt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *