Why don’t poker players prepare mentally?

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Since my last column focused on preparing for a tournament I figured it would be a good idea to talk to some professional players about the topic. In June I went to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker’s senior event, and as it turns out, most pros are playing constantly so there’s little special preparation for any specific tournament.

So I changed my plans and interviewed lots of players. And what did I discover? Our competitive arena is way behind the curve in terms of preparing for a grueling competition. My guess is as poker gets more organized, so will the players. Many folks just show up, plop down their entry fee and play. At my first table, several folks didn’t know we started with 3,000 chips.

I was stunned people who know the key to winning is to minimize variance don’t take the best opportunity to do so by mentally preparing for a tournament. Think about it: The area you have most control over is you. Why not spend the most time on you, on doing things that will enhance your ability to perform at your peak?

More serious players make mistakes and try to figure out how to correct those mistakes. The small number of players in every competitive endeavor that want to achieve their peak work at it. In poker we have to reduce chance and variance. Obviously we can’t control the cards or the one-outer that beats us on the river. But we have to look at what got us there. How do we handle this setback?

Poker can be seen as a card game played by people or a people game played with cards. I will take the latter. What I come away with is that if someone wants to perform at his peak, he has to work at it, but that many people don’t.

If you’re striving to play perfect poker or striving to achieve peak performance in your poker game or if you’re just playing, you need to be willing to put in the work to get there. These are very different ways of approaching poker.

It’s essential to remember you can’t play perfect poker since you can’t control the cards and you sure can’t control the villains. You can control your play and you can account for the cards and your opponents. If you’re not interested in peak performance or don’t want to put in the work, then you can still have fun. If you want to achieve peak performance you have to put in more work (and also still have fun).

Achieving peak performance in poker involves: purpose, patience; practice; preparation; persistence; perception; patterns; passion; pleasure.

I think my preparation helped me. After talking to many at the WSOP I’m convinced folks could improve their games with mental preparation, but most just want a quick fix like a mantra or a pill to take that will perfect their game and get them to the next level. This is not the way to go. Develop a purpose by defining why you play and the rest will fall into place. Be patient and play your game. You need to practice, you need to prepare and you need persistence. You need to sharpen your perceptions and learn to identify patterns. If you’re going to achieve you need a passion for the game and the game should be pleasurable.

Here’s my story: The event started with 3,200 runners and 3,000 chips. With about 18,000 left on Day 2, I looked down at 9-9 on the button. It was folded to me. I made it 5K to go and the small and big blinds called; I was surprised. I just wanted to take down the blinds and antes. The flop came uncoordinated and low. My 9-9 would be top pair. Small blind and big blind checked, I pushed all-in; I really wanted to take in a pot that would double me up. Small blind folded, big blind called and had me covered by only a minimum amount, with 8-8. He spiked a set on the river. I busted out, just short of cashing.

So, I gave myself a break. I blew off some time and the next day played in a deepstack tournament and did well. I did take some time to analyze my play. I made a decision; it turned out I got my money in right and then lost. It’s possible I could’ve played passively and made the money. To do this I would’ve had to count on a lot of other people making mistakes. I decided to control my destiny, as best as I could.

Though my goal was to cash, I decided to play “right.” I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if I had not made that play would I have sneaked into the money by hoping enough players busted out before me? Ultimately I decided my goal was not to play perfectly but to play to my peak. I attempted to account for all the variables and had to accept that a two-outer on the river is one of those I can’t account for, but have to accept.

I had kept a journal as I got ready for the senior event and was satisfied with my preparation. I avoided tilt by realizing I got my chips in good; I couldn’t control the river; in this situation I win most of the time. I assessed my preparation and goal-setting. I made two new goals and treated this as a learning experience. Playing poker is a lifetime experience and I can’t get too tied to one hand or one tournament. I decided if I want to achieve in this kind of event I need to play more deep-stacked tournaments. I need to accept there are no guarantees in poker; there are no “I deserved to win,” or “this is not fair.”

I think I did a pretty good job of preparing for the tournament and keeping my head in the game and hope you do as well.

— 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.