Train yourself to relax at the poker table

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By Dr. Stephen Bloomfield

How important is keeping your head in the game and your game in the moment? I recently played in a Summer Sizzler tournament at the Orange Park Kennel Club and busted out early. Two of us had ace-king suited, but unfortunately three of us were all-in on the flop. The Q-J offsuit flopped a straight with a board of A-K-10. OK, a doomed hand. So, I sat in on a juicy $2-$2 no-limit hold’em table, but I can’t stop thinking about that hand. I ignore my own advice and learn a valuable lesson as I get felted.

Playing poker at your peak involves achieving a state of relaxed activation and keeping your head in the game (and in the moment). Relaxed activation is the basis of mental control and involves commitment to your game.

Though it sounds simple, it requires work. But, if you put in this work you should see positive results. Telling someone to relax when they’re stressed or tilting is, at best, paradoxical and usually ineffective; it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, if someone can achieve a state of relaxed activation, he simply can’t be stressed. This is the no-tilt zone. These states cannot co-exist.

The use of relaxation techniques can help players at all levels perform better. It’s well-known that peak performance is a product of maximum effort, stress-free activation and concentration. This form of mental control can be learned with practice.

Relaxation and concentration are keys to peak performance, but you don’t want to be so relaxed you can’t focus. It’s essential to reach a balanced state of activation and relaxation. This is not the kind of relaxation where you’re chilling at the beach or dozing while watching television. It’s when someone is in the zone.

Have you ever watched Chris “Jesus” Ferguson play a tournament? He takes time each hand to focus. Also, because he does the same thing every time, he doesn’t give off any tells. Watch Tiger Woods get ready to putt: activate relaxation. Each of these peak performers attempts to achieve a state of relaxed activation to focus every time he has to perform.

This sort of relaxation is a calm and peaceful state of mind, free of distraction, but one in which you’re in the right frame of mind to act appropriately and decisively to win. Your state of mind is one in which you can focus on the task and not be thrown off by minor problems, distractions or setbacks.

Being in a state of relaxed activation allows you to use your people-reading skills, your math knowledge and your fundamental poker skills. Some people like to block out distractions with headphones. For some this works well, for others it means vital information is being missed. Part of the game is to gather as much information as possible. You can listen to music that motivates and focuses you while blocking out excess noise. This noise, however, can be valuable to the calm, relaxed and trained listener. I advise using headphones only when you need them.

Being calm and relaxed helps you avoid the dreaded tilt. “Semi-tilt” is probably worse than a full-blown tilt. Most players understand the tilt advice of getting up, walking around and taking a few minutes off when they’re tilting. But the small tilts, the ones when you should’ve won but you slow-played and let the other guy catch up on the river, these could be the worst situations because they just build up and make us play badly: playing more marginal hands out of position, calling when we should be raising, etc. This is the time when all of our fundamental skills, our strategy, our tactics, our ability to read and realistically play the probabilities go by the wayside and we donk off our money … and then we arrive at full tilt.

How can you avoid this? Learn to identify it and have the tools to deal with it. But there is a catch: Work! Learn how to relax and use that relaxation at the table. This is done by practicing relaxation techniques. There are plenty of books, relaxation tapes or professionals to help you. Commit to this regimen and allow 15 minutes a day to this process. Try it for a month and keep track of how you’re doing.

Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Find a comfortable chair and set an alarm or timer. Sit upright, place your hands on your knees and your feet firmly on the ground. Breathe in through your nose as you count to three. Hold the breath as you count and exhale as you relax; repeat. Do this for five minutes, three times a day. Once you’ve trained yourself to relax using this technique you’ll be ready to use it at the table. If you play a bad hand, make a mistake or get distracted, you can immediately close your eyes, breathe in through your nose, hold it, breath out and get back into a the right frame of mind to play at your peak. You will have trained your mind and body to relax, and when you breathe like this, your body and mind respond quickly to these cues. If you’re concerned about tells, make this part of your routine.

If things get worse, leave the table and do a couple of minutes of practiced breathing exercises to get your head back in the game. A poker player I was consulting told me he would use a bathroom stall to do his breathing when he needed to because he had ultimate privacy.

Once you practice enough usually only a breath or two will create a relaxed and activated state of mind. There are more advanced techniques that include muscle relaxation, guided imagery and visualizations. These take more work and usually need a personal consultation.

If you use the techniques of my September column (go to anteupmagazine.com) along with this one, you can start to achieve your peak performance by keeping your head in the game.

— 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