Long stints at the poker table can be a thrilling and rewarding pursuit. But like any activity if you do it for long stretches of time without leaving it alone, poker can come with a hidden toll. We’re not talking about a losing session or hit to your bankroll, but the emotional impact of playing poker for a serious length of time. Whether you’ve registered for a full tournament schedule online for fourteen days straight, or are gearing up to face the biggest stretch of days at the live felt of the year in Las Vegas, preparing for this test of mental strength can only be +EV.
The Cost of Competition
We all love the cut and thrust of competitive poker, but the cumulative effect of hand after hand of trying to better your opponent or opponents is that your mind experiences a build-up of pressure. Trying to outdo another human being at anything is stressful, whether there is the release of victory or the tinge of defeat after the event. This is perhaps never truer than in poker, where the next competition comes in the next hand.
Despite knowing your own strengths and perceiving others’ weaknesses, we very rarely identify out own weaknesses in the area of the mind. What causes us to tilt? What makes us angry, upset or frustrated at the poker table? These are all emotions which weigh heavier and heavier on our minds as we play, and it is vital to refresh yourself, not just physically by taking breaks, days off and time out from the game, but mentally. Allowing yourself to full relax, to forget about every hand and revel in a period free from self-analysis is vital if you want to stay emotionally balanced.
We’ve delved deeply into Tilt and how to stop yourself being affected by it in a separate article on the partypoker blog, but it is always worth keeping in mind the perils of succumbing to this perennial threat to your emotional well-being at the felt.
Tilt is a negative mindset that you go into when you lose a hand, miss value, fold to a bluff, get your own bluff called or a myriad of other hand-to-hand reasons you need a cool head. Poker may be the greatest card game on Earth and the most fun you can have outside of a well-sprung mattress, but it can also be terribly frustrating. Poker players are by their record of success, highly logical, mathematically superior and bred to win. By their nature, however, they are emotionally fragile, often rebellious to conformity and creative to the point of being asked to script the next Eurovision Song Contest. Tilt will get us all, but it’s vital that you realize never to let it control how your behave or act in a poker hand. If it does, follow our measures to escape it, but look at the reasons why you let yourself down. If you can find a way not to, then you will have conquered a mountain of the poker mind.
One of the most frequent boasts of a poker player is how patient they are. But patience extends beyond waiting for premium hands to commit your stack. Patience in poker can be applied to a dozen other crucial points of play, such as allowing two opponents who are likely to take each other out to clash and not get involved until they have done so. Patience can be waiting for the right table to open so that you play the game you are best at instead of just sitting down to play because you feel restless. Poker is a long game, whether you are sat down in a hyper-blinds heads-up game or taking on thousands of players in a massive guaranteed Powerfest Main Event.
Having the ability to wait before doing something we want to do in life, be it buying that widescreen TV for the Euros or shove all-in when 15 big blinds deep and in a marginal spot, is difficult. But while discipline without company may seem like about as much fun as a Pyramid-themed after-party hosted by Howard Lederer, it is a crucial facet of any top poker pro. Retain the ability to wait and you shall be rewarded. Count to ten before reading the next tip. Or not…if you don’t have the patience!
Know Your Foe
We are often most emotionally affected at the poker table or away from it by other people. People are a constant bother in life, aren’t they? The human race would cope perfectly well without others at times, you might feel. Just us? Try being three-bet four hands in a row by the same loose-aggressive luckbox on the bubble.
Coping with the emotional swings of company may sound like something you can just tune out with a flick of your sunglasses over your eyes or popping in your headphones, but the reality is there’s no escaping other players, and the best thing you can do to combat any potential emotionally-scarring friction is to understand others.
From player-types to personalities, we are masters of our own domain when we have knowledge. Just as that is true for hos to play in mid-position, it is equally true when it comes to understanding our fellow poker hopeful. Get inside the mind of others and you’ll find it easier to balance the mood in your own. At the very least, you’ll have information itself, which translates into power at the poker table.
Climb the Levels
Poker is often said to be a game of levels. While the hopeful amateur has the same basic chance of winning a poker hand, he or she doesn’t have the same likelihood because of a few factors, chief amongst which is understanding that levels exist in the game. You may be taking on Chris Moorman or your local pub’s annual gambler spending their Christmas bonus after consuming their bodyweight in bourbon. You should treat each opponent with the same respect of course, but you shouldn’t play the same way against them.
Understanding the level of poker that you play at will really help you keep a level head and your emotions in check. Think about it; if you were to sit down in a Super High Roller with an entry fee of $100,000 right now with the top eight players in the world, how comfortable would you feel? Personally, we’d be ordering eight shots of Schnapps for the table and a tall drink of calm-down for ourselves in the hope that the level of our opponents drops. Likewise, if we were at a table where no-one knows the rules of the game and we know the basics of how to c-bet, bluff or barrel, then we’d be aware of our superiority to Aunt Maggie and that we’re about to take her pension money.
At most tables, buy-ins suggest that you’re likely to playing across much closer levels than us and poor Aunt Maggie (she can’t even riffle). Make sure that you are aware of your own standing, and who you should be targeting in certain spots, of course, but be sure to process in your mind a level of respect for those who are playing a more advanced game. Doing so frees you up to learn from them, and eventually join them. Failure to do so will eventually mean that players below catch up to your own level and instead of you taking their pension money, they just made you gamble away your new Christmas sweater, darn it.
Manage Your Ego
Here’s a newsflash – everyone’s ego may need stroking at times, but we have probably never lived in such a cosseted world when it comes to poker. Articles, podcasts, statistics, analysis, rankings, interviews, videos and tips are everywhere, and if you read enough aspirational material, anyone can believe that they’re the next Phil Ivey.
But here’s the scoop – sometimes you lose because you made a mistake. Sometimes you are the worst player and it costs you. There will be a table you sit at in your poker lifetime – even after reading this article – where you are the mark.
Retaining confidence is key in poker, but so too is humility, for there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance just as there is a gnat’s shadow between the sting of pain and the agony of defeat. Poker is still a long game, and no win or loss constitutes a final result. Keeping a level head means balancing your emotions, accepting that you are never the top dog, and nor are you the lowest plankton. You are like every poker player and human – emotionally fragile unless you build up the reserves to cope with all that poker has to deal you.
Spend time investing in the mental side of poker, and your wellbeing at the table will be mirrored by that away from the felt too. That can only be good for your game.