You can prevent choking in poker with practice



Everyone has heard, seen or experienced choking … in competition that is. It looks like simply falling apart at a crucial time.

Some think it has to do with pressure; others think it might have to do with circumstance (lights and cameras of a televised event). Some believe choking is the result of just plain giving up, like saying the competition is too strong; others offer too much stress, not enough preparation and lack of mental toughness as reasons.

Is choking an inevitable part of competition? If you’re competing, can you expect to choke at some time? And, most important, will you choke at the poker table?

First we need to define our terms. I went online to look at this issue and it seems every sports expert has a list of the 10 worst chokes of all time. Make yours up and see if it fits what I’m describing. Brett Favre in his last game this year is my favorite.

Choking comes in two forms in poker: the actual choke (total destruction) and what I have called the gag (sub-optimal play).

The good news is choking is not an inevitable part of poker. Of course it still sucks when it happens. Choking is not a bad beat or tilt. It is the failure to win because of your error. It’s like a complete breakdown of your game. Gagging is sub-optimal performance for a session or several sessions, something everyone experiences.

The earliest use of the term “choking” I can find may have once referred to tests given to women condemned as witches. They were given the communion wafer and if the woman choked, not an unusual occurrence given the stress of being called a witch, and failed to swallow the wafer, she often was sentenced to death.

A great article titled A Re-examination of Choking in Sport in the European Journal of Sport Science said choking is indicated by “a significant/catastrophic drop in performance; and is marked by the level of performance declining dramatically from expected/normal standards. A moderate under-performance is not considered a choke.”

It says there’s a critical moment that occurs when the competition is considered important where you’re striving for success and you can’t perform the way you should. I would add the event has to have a lot at stake, whether it’s money, prestige or ego. There’s always an extreme stress response: not tilt, but feeling unable to cope with the pressure of the situation.

Individual and personal traits are important in preventing and predicting a choke. A competitor needs to develop mental toughness and self-confidence, needs to engage in functional thinking and keep a balance between poker and life.

A question you should ask yourself if you’re gagging or choking is: Will this matter in five, 10 or 20 years?

Everyone can expect occasional sub-optimal performance sessions but not everyone has to experience the devastation of choking.

Learn to identify your gagging or choking response and react in a positive way.
If you’re at a cash game it’s pretty easy. Leave. In a tournament you may have to do something else: Take a lap around the room, intentionally miss a rotation or do some deep breathing.

Psychology might be able to help you avoid the dreaded choke and even sub-optimal performance or the gag. Prior preparation and practice is the key. Following the sports psychology techniques I give you every month will help.

Here are some rules to follow, which will be helpful not only in gag/choke moments, but in general as well:

• Avoid negative self-talking. When you’re playing badly take a break and start using positive self-talk. Negative self-talk results in self-fulfilling prophecies.
• If you feel intimidated, admit it; select a better game, ask yourself if you’re playing over your head, ask yourself if you’re being outplayed.
• Don’t over-focus on the basics. The best way to ruin a golf swing is to think about the mechanics as you’re making the swing. In poker, folks often have sub-par sessions after reading a new book or taking some coaching. This is normal; you focus too much on details that should be natural.
• Remember, in cash games you’re more in control than you might think. You’re never glued to your seat. Get up, move, change tables, take a nap, walk it off.
• If you are tensing up use activate relaxation and deep breathing.
• Use imagery before to the competition to review strategy and technique.
• Use the “SMART” technique to set realistic and attainable goals. If you aren’t familiar with this read my December 2009 column at
• Get some coaching.

A couple of months ago I wrote about four kinds of “A” games. Achieving peak performance in poker involves: purpose, patience, practice, preparation, persistence, perception, passion and pleasure. More to come on these P’s in coming months. Follow these techniques to 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 editor@anteup

Ante Up Magazine

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