Poker strategy: It’s all in your head

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Poker is all about the cards, the people and the math, but it also involves what is broadly called poker psychology. How does Phil Ivey make it through 6,400 people to the final table? Sure he’s a pro’s pro and has all the skills, but why him and not any of the other pros? He knows every fundamental part of the game, but what separated him from the rest of the well-known pros at the 2009 World Series of Poker was his intense level of concentration and mental control.

This is the kind of mental control that leads to peak performance that every person can learn. He came to work. He and the other eight at the final table kept their heads in the game. Anyone can learn to do the same.

Poker psychology is the most advanced aspect of learning for the poker player — pro or recreational. This is also the area over which a player has the most control. A player can know the odds but not control them; suckouts are not in a player’s control; a bad beat … well, every player has bad-beat stories. So, let’s cut to the chase: The only real control players have in a poker game is control of themselves. They can’t control the variance; they can sometimes read or even influence others, but it’s hard to control them, and the math is the math.

It therefore seems obvious that one of the best ways for a player to improve his game is to improve himself. He has to think, “What can I do to get into the zone?” Every athlete knows this. A basketball player can’t miss a free throw, a golfer can’t miss a putt, a poker player can’t miss an opportunity (knowing when to raise, bluff or make a move) when he’s “in the zone.” This is all helped by mental control. It doesn’t come by accident.

How many times have NBA players bounced the ball before shooting a free throw? It’s because many of them are visualizing the shot. It’s the same when a golfer tries to read the green; it’s not only for shot accuracy, but to calm down.

Borrowing from sports psychology, a poker player can learn to determine his level of performance to control the outcome. Using these techniques will allow you to play your best game.

Sports psychology works with all performers and uses a variety of techniques and training methods to improve performance. Every pro team has a sports psychologist; most elite college teams use sports psychology to enhance performance. It’s about reaching an optimal level of stress vs. calm, about visualizing focus, flow and imagery.
Poker players can practice with a specific performance goal in mind and visualize how the situation will go. By focusing on themselves and what’s going on inside instead of the extraneous “noise,” a player will able to perform consistently better than those who rely on luck.

The catch is that it takes some work.

The major areas on which to focus are relaxing, attuning, managing distraught periods, imaging, creating a winning internal headset, goal-setting and performing at a player’s peak.

This is about achieving peak performance. It’s about playing the best a player can. The other factors are what determine winning, so all a player can do is improve oneself.
Some techniques will only be discussed in general terms and will need consultation or variation specific to a player’s needs.

Peak performance means keeping in mental and physical shape. A player should only play when he’s feeling good. He shouldn’t play when experiencing anxiety or depression. He shouldn’t play to get away from a fight at home or at work. He shouldn’t play after an emotional trauma. Unless — and there is always an unless — it might be helpful to his game or the situation.

Recently a poker player came home from a family vacation to find his dog had deteriorated and needed to be euthanized. He needed the distraction and decided to play in a low buy-in tournament instead of his usual cash game. He was able to control his investment, use a game he loves as a distraction, be around an environment he enjoys and was able to interact. He busted after two hours of play, but felt much better — and it didn’t impact his poker stake, his game image or his sense of self.

Peak performance also means taking the time to give yourself the best chance of success. Some players never sit at a table until they “take a lap.” This is the process of getting used to and surveying the room, putting oneself in the right frame of mind to play poker and, more important, to win at poker.

Players come to the poker room from work, from home, from other activities and they should get used the environment before playing. One of the best ways to do this is to not sign up the minute you get there, but to walk around the room. Let your senses attune to this environment. As an added benefit you might find a particularly weak table to join.

Once a player gets his head into the game, he can sign up and sit down and play his best. Future columns will provide tips on peak performance and examples from real play.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email him at editor@anteupmagazine.com