In poker, if it feels alien that’s OK

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By Dr. Stephen Bloomfield

Recently I was coaching an avid recreational poker player on his game and thought I shocked him.

We had done a lot of work; he’d set his goals, practiced relaxed activation, worked on comfort-zone issues, read a bunch of books and wanted to step up. He was getting antsy despite meeting his goals and progressing. He was watching High Stakes Poker, listening to the Ante Up PokerCast, reading Ante Up Magazine and, of course, watching the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour reruns and wanted to “really move up.”

He wanted to know the real secret to the inner game of poker. I told him he had to figure out what gets him into the zone and then I casually told him he had to “grok” the table and the game. He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and I guess I was. So I explained “grokking” is from a sci-fi book by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, and that it’s the key to the inner game.

According to Wikipedia, to grok (pronounced grahk) something is to understand it so well that it’s fully absorbed into oneself. In Heinlein’s 1961 novel the word is Martian and literally means to drink, but metaphorically means to take it all in, to understand fully, or to be at one with. Today, grok sometimes is used to include acceptance as well as comprehension — to “dig” or appreciate as well as to know.

As one character from Heinlein’s novel says: Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed — to merge, blend, intermarry or lose identity in a group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy and science — and it means as little to us (because we are from Earth) as color means to a blind man.

Now, almost 50 years after its creation, I want to introduce you to this concept. Soon when folks ask how come you did so well, you’ll say, “I grokked the table.”

Boiled down it means to understand something intuitively, fully and totally. It’s akin to the feeling of being in the zone. It’s more than a hunch, almost a sixth sense.

“But, Doc,” you say, “you don’t believe in intuition; this all sounds like magical thinking.” Yes, you’ve learned your lessons well. I don’t believe in magical thinking. I always tell students to keep their head in the game and to work at and be patient in their game.
For those of us who aren’t Martians (which I imagine is most, if not all of you), grokking doesn’t just happen. It’s not some form of ESP. It’s the outcome of a good deal of work and is the end product of all the coaching I’ve given you. It’s when everything starts making sense and your mind is clear. It’s when you’re ready to dominate.

It happens when you have the technical knowledge and skills; when you know the math, have a sense of tells and patterns, are in the right mind-set and have embraced your comfort zone. Basically it’s when everything just makes sense.

You’re in a state of relaxed activation, you have moved up and are in your new comfort zone; you can’t tilt and you are playing well and consistently working on your goals. You’re in the zone. You know when to fold trip 10s to a straightening flop; you know when to push and when to fold when that ace magnet hits the flop and you have pocket kings. You know when you’re being bluffed and when you have the best hand.

This kind of intuition happens when you’ve played enough hands of poker at enough levels with enough people that you don’t have to think anymore. You don’t have to look for tells or obsess over betting patterns, etc.

Of course we’d all like to be intuitive. Just sit down and grok everything. We want to know our opponents’ range of hands, we want to identify his pattern of play and we want to feel like we just can’t miss. We’ve worked on the technical skills, the people skills and the skills necessary to develop peak performance. And, boom, you’re grokking the table. Most people, in their regular work, develop this skill after years of experience and facing a wide range of unexpected problems. Ask an elite professional player and he’ll say he became a success after 20 years or 10,000 hands of practice. There’s no substitute for putting in the work.

Don’t be sucked into thinking you can grok the table before you have practiced all of these skills and they’ve become second nature. Once that happens, watch out for suckouts. Engaging in magical thinking more likely than not will get you felted. Practice, patience, persistence, perfecting your skills, peaceful play, accurate perception and a passion for the game will lead to peak performance.

When this happens you need to take advantage. It’s rare and doesn’t happen every time you play. Remember the feeling and what you did to lead up to the moment when you were able to grok the table.

 — 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 questions for him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.