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The Mental Game of Poker

In poker, skill comes from two areas: preparation and execution. To some, the execution component might be perplexing; what’s so difficult about pushing some chips around a table? If you know the right play, why wouldn’t you make it? This is where mental qualities like discipline, composure, and courage come in. Here’s what you need to know about the mental game of poker.

What causes tilt?

“Tilt” is the poker term for emotionally fueled poor play. The etymology of the word comes from pinball players physically tilting the table in frustration, only to lose to a “tilt” penalty. Poker tilt often stems from losing in an unexpected or seemingly unfair fashion, though different people experience tilt from and in different ways.

Usually, tilt boils down to cognitive dissonance. If a rude player goes on a winning streak, you might feel that they don’t deserve it. Losing a string of hands you were favored in can feel like the world is out to get you. Even winning unexpectedly can lead you to think you’re on borrowed chips and alter your play negatively. 

Poor play as a result of tilt can manifest in a variety of ways. A common response is to play looser and more recklessly. Some players become less aware of tells they may be giving off and less perceptive of others at the table. I know that when I start to feel hot in the face, I play faster and more impulsively. Nobody wants to play tilted, yet once something gets under your skin it can be hard to think clearly.

The mental coaching market

Mental coaching is sought out for all sorts of reasons, from controlling tilt to combatting a fear of failure to finding motivation amidst burnout. Coaches act as a friend to vent to, a trainer to guide your cognitive workouts, and a guru to give you the perspective to see long-term amidst a series of bad beats. 

The title of “sports psychologist” must be backed up by an undergraduate degree in psychology, an MSc and often a Ph.D. Professional mental coaches put in decades perfecting their craft so that they can provide value to traders, poker players, golfers, or any others in a competitive field. While some players doubt the benefits of mental coaching, conquering mental blocks with methods rooted in academic research can pay dividends.

Mental coaching in poker is usually reserved for high-stakes players for whom small increases in win-rate pay for the time of qualified coaches. Dr. Tricia Cardner is one such coach who has been helping players control their emotions. She emphasizes mental exercises that not just strengthen your tolerance of bad luck in poker, but also improve focus, confidence, and motivation. Taking a page out of her book, we recommend the following:

What you can do to stay in the zone

Breathing, meditating, or taking a completely logical/mathematical approach to the game are all great for the sanity of any poker player. And when the fun stops, it’s not a bad idea to just quit for the day. But here are a few methods to help you play your absolute A-game:

Visualization

One technique top poker players borrowed from professional athletes is to visualize what they will do with certain hands before they even look at their cards. This helps players combat emotional attachment to their hands and think about strategies holistically. 

Visualization can also let you see possibilities later in the hand that informs strategy right now. Take a flop of 6-3-2 when you have 76: it may not seem like your hand is very vulnerable, so a small bet would be fine. However, when you picture what your opponent could hold, you quickly realize that they must have either a pair, a straight draw, or cards higher than a 6. For this reason, you might want to bet bigger now to protect your hand, as it can be difficult to proceed as additional community cards are brought.

Taking walks

A simple but powerful tool to combat distractions or negative emotions is to take a walk. Poker’s not going anywhere, getting the blood flowing and finding a change of scenery may be all you need to recalibrate your focus. Walks are most effective in a cash game when you’re about to pay the big blind or on a break at a tournament so you don’t incur any penalty for spending time away from the table.

Sleep, nutrition, and other preventative measures

Peak poker performance comes from keeping your mind in the best shape possible. Brain experts suggest consistent quality sleep, a diet of superfoods like fatty fish and leafy greens, and a low-stress personal life will help you get the most out of your mind. 

Oftentimes it’s too late to play your best game when you’re dehydrated, over-caffeinated, or frustrated by something non-poker-related. If you plan ahead and get into a healthy routine, you’ll find yourself more patient and in-tune with your surroundings at the table. 

Lean on your support system

Sometimes the difference between uncertainty and peace of mind is a conversation with respected poker peers. PokerPower connects women interested in learning the game of poker through community lessons. In a game that teaches us to master emotions and level up our decision-making, we’re all in it together. Join us to strengthen your mental game and harness the power of poker.

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