In poker, you must practice, practice, practice

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Over the past few columns I’ve explored purpose, patience and preparation when it comes to your peak performance. Now let’s focus on practice, persistence, patterns, passion and pleasure.

Every important venture needs practice. Too bad we don’t have a readymade driving range or batting cage, or maybe we do; low-stakes games, small-buy-in tournaments, free play and micro-stakes Internet play can function as practice for higher stakes.
We practice not to become perfect but to achieve peak performance.

Recently I watched a poker show where one of the Internet players made an off-hand remark to a top live pro cash player about how many hands he might play in a month and how many an Internet player might play in a week.

The Internet has changed the way poker is being played. Playing 10,000 hands used to be a lifetime of experience, now it’s an instant in online play. How does this all translate? Will the Internet players hold up to hard-crusted live cash players? Are live-only players dinosaurs? The advice from psychology is practice what you play. Practice playing poker and peak performance procedures.

You can really only practice well by playing seriously every time you play. Good players rethink their good and bad hands and run through their leaks. A word of caution: Research has shown there’s often a diminishing return right after something new is learned. New material needs time to sink in and become part of your repertoire before it creates an obvious payoff.

Be persistent. It has been said you can only judge your poker play over a lifetime, that a hand or a session doesn’t matter. Persistence is the only thing that overcomes luck and variance. A run of dead cards means you have to be better attuned to your game and not make stupid mistakes. Variance will even out, so skill will take over.

Your perceptions are key. When you’re in the zone you perceive what’s going on accurately, your reads are good and you hide tells.

Patterns are more easily identifiable than tells. I feel almost blasphemous in writing this, but tells are not all they’re cracked up to be. I spent years learning body language, non-verbal cues and the rest. A story from graduate school: One of the gurus of non-verbal behavior met with a select group of us in our doctoral program. He spent the day demonstrating and lecturing about body language and non-verbal behavior and how to make sense of it all.

At dinner that night he was pontificating (or so it seemed), took a sip of some expensive red wine and said, “Here is the most important thing I can teach you.” He said whenever we were doing family therapy and the father rubbed his nose it meant the intervention we just tried was not being accepted, that the father was brushing it off. Wow, we thought, if we could just learn to read people like he does we would have this knocked. He paused, took a long swig of his expensive red wine and said, “EXCEPT if his nose itches.”

So, yes there are tells and yes some can read tells accurately, but my advice is to concentrate on patterns of play. Unless you’re really going to study non-verbal body language and study your opponent I contend that following the patterns of play will be more profitable. Except if you happen to pick up an absolute tell.

If you don’t have a passion for poker, play it recreationally. For goodness’ sake, like a tablemate said recently, “This game sucks, I would rather be working.” If you can develop a passion for this work, it won’t be work. That is true about all work.

And finally, take some pleasure from poker, whether it’s the competition, winning, learning or hanging with the guys. Without pleasure and passion why play this confounding game?
The P’s of poker are just a short hand to let you remember what’s important; each one requires effort, time and execution.

Remember the “mantra” I gave when I started this series: I will develop my poker purpose by defining why I play and accept the pluses and minuses of this decision. Once I accept who I am and why I play the rest will fall into place. I will learn to be patient and play my game. I will practice and prepare to the extent necessary to reach my goals. I will be persistent. I will sharpen my perceptions and learn to identify patterns. I have a passion for the game equal to the reason I play poker and the game is pleasurable.

And above all 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@anteupmagazine.com.