Self-control is key to hitting your poker peak



You play poker; you’re competitive and you want to perform at your peak. This is as true for the avid recreational player as it is for the elite professional. You know there are things you can control and things you can’t.

The best advice is to work on self-control. You can enhance your skills and talent by studying the math of the game and tracking hands.

You want to know your comfort zone and when to move out of it. You can manage your money. And you can train your mind to perform at your peak.

You must add mental skills to your technical skills to achieve peak performance.
Some people bring exceptional skills to the game while others bring an exceptional work ethic.

Developing your strengths and eliminating or minimizing your leaks is the most productive time you can spend; everything else will come.

But you have to know yourself and your game. Don’t dwell on the negative; learn from it, and accentuate the positive. Work to gain confidence. Assess your decision-making and not the outcome. Did you make the right decision at the right time with as much information as was available?

Assess your leaks and be honest with yourself. Don’t attribute your wins to skill when there might’ve been a good element of chance and don’t attribute losses to bad beats when there were alternatives. The correct decisions are situational. The best you can do is weigh the possibilities, assess your opponent and make a decision. If it was a good decision, losing or winning the hand is less important, though it doesn’t feel that way.

In a recent run in tournaments I was busted with pocket pairs only to run into bigger pocket pairs. Is this just a doomed hand or could I have played differently. When I pushed with a short or medium stack and lost, I have to assess my play and replay the hand to see if I could’ve done something differently. Did I put my opponent on a range of possible hands? Did I account for stack size? Did I weigh fold equity? For some the tendency when getting busted with decent hands is to say I’ll never again play pocket nines or A-Q offsuit. There’s never a never in poker, if we believe the decision-making process is situational.
Improving play involves learning the best situational decision-making tools and learning to set effective goals, dealing with bad beats, staying cool under pressure, enjoying your experience, etc. Whether you’re tired, distracted, on tilt or whatever, you need to learn how to focus and refocus or you need to leave the table.

The best advice from sports psychology is to develop a short statement you can say to yourself to refocus your attention and concentration. Ryan Hedstrom at Manchester College developed some guidelines to developing what have been called “cue” statements. A cue statement can be a word, short phrase or longer mantra. Stay focused, play right and dominate are all examples. Or it could be a question you ask at a critical moment. “If I were playing at my best how would I handle this situation?”

The statement should be positive, no criticism. It should be short and to the point.
“Keep your head in the game,” is mine. It triggers a set of mental reactions that allows me to refocus and concentrate and attend to the decisions I have to make. It’s my short cut to a host of practice and exercises I’ve worked on away from the table.

Practice saying your statement and visualizing the outcome. You need to find a quiet place, no distractions and do some breathing, relaxation and visualizations. At first set a five-minute time; then go longer.

When you practice first take a deep cleansing breath; breathe in through you nose and hold it a few seconds. Exhale through your mouth and mentally say your word or statement. Picture yourself at the table focused, fully attentive and concentrating. Visualize all the sights and sounds. Picture yourself playing at your best; making the best decisions you can make.

This is called guided imagery and involves all the senses. It is a total body experience using a mental activity and has been shown to be able to make a powerful impact. When practiced regularly away the table and used when needed at the table it creates the built-in capacity to work on many levels and creates encoded messages to your mind, brain and body to achieve a desired state. Do it again and again.

Practice this and use it at the table. When you lose focus or just suffered a bad beat, take a minute (at the table or away) and take a deep cleansing breath through your nose for a three count. Hold it for a three count and exhale for a three count saying your word, question or statement. Do it again if necessary.

Your brain will kick in you’ll be able 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

Ante Up Magazine

Ante Up Magazine