The psychology of poker can be used at (and away from) the table as a training tool.
At the table we look for tells, styles of play, personality, deception and bluffs. We use psychologically sound techniques to avoid tilt. We read patterns of play and we establish a table image. We use psychology to achieve peak performance.
To achieve peak performance during a game, we work on ourselves away from the table. We try to enhance our peak performance by reading books, articles, Ante Up, talk to others, watch poker shows and listen to podcasts.
Peak performance has to do with how you can improve yourself to improve your game. When I write about this I am applying the principles of sports psychology to poker. These principles begin with activation and relaxation of body and mind. It all starts with learning to breathe properly. For example, if you want to avoid tilt, learn to breathe through it: First practice and then use it at the table.
Acclimating to your situation is another good technique. I use the “take a lap” technique when you enter a brick-and-mortar poker room. This also can be applied to online play. Having the right frame of mind helps in setting the most appropriate goals and working toward achieving them. Leaving your problems and turmoil away from the table will always help.
Once you’ve mastered these techniques you’ll want to start using guided imagery to create the right mind-set. This is a technique that uses visualizations. Elite and recreational athletes have used these principles to improve their games; almost all elite college players, world-class athletes and professional sports teams use these principles of sports psychology.
There are hundreds of papers in sports psychology literature that promote the idea of using mental practice to enhance performance and achieve peak performance. It all can be boiled down to mentally rehearsing and using imagery of yourself performing successfully.
Visualization can be thought of as creating a mental picture of what you want to happen or how you want to feel.
Now don’t think you can control the cards through mental imagery or visualization. I’ve tried for years to visualize pocket aces and a flop of A-A-x. There’s no such thing as magical thinking. Rule 1 in poker is you can’t control the cards. Rule 2 is try to control everything else.
Visualization should become part of your “training” regimen if you want to achieve peak performance.
Here are the basics:
• Sit in a comfortable chair, at a time you won’t be interrupted; set a timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes.
• Place your feet squarely and firmly on the ground and your hands on your knees.
• Close your eyes, breath in through your nose for a count of three, hold the breath for a count of two and exhale while thinking “relax.”
• Create a convincing picture of a successful poker experience or imagine one you desire; you can picture a previous successful session, hand or experience or you can create a picture of how you’d like to see it happen.
• Focus on breathing and if you get distracted go back to breathing by counting.
• Keep positive thoughts.
• Try to use all of your senses.
Imagine yourself succeeding; playing right, raising, folding calling, bluffing, etc.
Do this daily. When you get to the poker room, take a couple of minutes in your car, breathe and visualize a successful session; create a positive and winning attitude. Before you turn on your computer try the same thing.
There is no “perfect” way to practice mental imagery but sometimes a coach can help. Visualize a past poker session where you were in the zone or a future one where you picture yourself doing everything right and you feel great, a session where you grok the table.
We think this works because it trains the neural patterns in your brain, almost as if you had physically performed the action. It is like programming your brain the way you would a computer. Imagery can be used to prepare for an upcoming competition, accelerate your learning process, replay a past success to lock it in or to practice handling difficult situations.
Poker players often listen to iPods and other devices at the table. This serves many purposes. It helps some concentrate by blocking out noise and conversation; it also allows you to create a positive and relaxed attitude about the game while giving you an unobtrusive way of visualizing and using guided imagery. The use of iPods, etc., gives you an edge that other activities don’t; no one will question why you’re using headphones.
Some folks make music mixes to create a guided imagery or visualization. This is pretty hard to do by yourself, but I am going to give you a pretty easy one to try. The great thing about poker is that lots of folks listen to iPods, etc., at the table. It’s not unusual for a poker player to be wearing headphones. You can be listening to your own success tape.
Record over some music some motivational phrases; some folks will like soothing music others something such as Eye of the Tiger; record one self-help message or a couple.
Here are some suggestions:
• I know how to play great poker.
• I know how to succeed at playing poker.
• I can read other players.
• I am relaxed and in the zone.
• I will win more hands because I will play right.
• I feel great and am in the zone.
Imagery and visualization techniques will help you 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 questions for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.