Get into your poker comfort zone by getting out of it

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Recently, I listened to a clip online from poker legend Doyle Brunson, who advised playing poker within your comfort zone. Then I read other articles that suggested breaking out of my comfort zone if I wanted to become more advanced.

We seem to spend most of our adult lives trying to be successful and comfortable, but how does the average poker player achieve this with contradictory advice?

First, find your comfort zone. It’s the state in which you operate in a stress-neutral condition to deliver a steady level of performance usually without the sense of risk.

For a poker player this means playing in a game that feels good, where you can manage the variance, regularly meet your goals and control the stress and risk. But for those who want to perform at their peak, more is needed. Peak performers …

• Operate in a state of optimal stress, not one free of stress.
• Deliver at an enhanced level, always improving, meeting the next goal.
• Take sensible risks.
• Expand their comfort zone, wrapping themselves around the next level.
• Always keep their head in the game.

Your comfort zone defines the type of game you choose, the stakes, the style and how you assess your opponents. But expanding your comfort zone is a good way to advance in poker and play at your peak.

The best way to do this is to get to know yourself a little better, by understanding your general personality and the way you play, which is key to peak performance.

Are you normally tight or loose? Aggressive or passive? Passive players don’t raise or bet much, but they call a lot. Aggressive players bet and raise a lot. If you’re loose you tend to play a lot of hands and pursue draws. Tight players don’t play many hands and tend to like draws. Weak players give up easily. Tough players don’t give up at all.

You also have your sense of risk tolerance and it’s important to know what this is. You don’t want to play in a game where you can’t take the risk of losing your stake, yet we want to play in game that offers enough risk for the anticipated return.

Comfort zones define whether you prefer online or brick-and-mortar poker. Some online players who were “gamers” have turned to poker because of the initial success or fun. They may treat poker as they would a game. What does this mean? Less concern about money, more concern about action. That’s why we see online stars play poor hands hard. This gamer mentality can lead to success, but it takes having that comfort zone. This person is different than the poker-room regular who’s content playing smaller stakes in a tighter zone and with much less fluctuation. He still wins, though his winnings are smaller.
You can become a peak performer by expanding your comfort zone and embracing the new zone, only to expand it again and again.

The easiest ways to expand your comfort zone are to try different styles and different games:

• Play a live game if you’re an online player and vice-versa.
• If you play cash, enter a tournament.
• Limit players should shift to no-limit.
• No-limit players should try Omaha.
• Play at a different venue or for different stakes.
• Try loosening up or tightening up.
• Try aggression if you’re passive.
• If you’re quiet then talk more, etc.

If after a short time you start feeling comfortable and start doing well consistently, you are there.

To expand your comfort zone you have to be able to shift your play and, by playing differently, get your opponent out of his comfort zone. If you can get an opponent unwillingly or unknowingly out of his comfort zone, he will make mistakes, giving you the upper hand.

The advantage of understanding comfort zones is you can better control your game and use your knowledge to get a read on your opponents and yourself. Ideally you want to expand your comfort zone, either incrementally or by leaps and bounds, and get players out of their comfort zones.

And, as always, keep 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