We’ve all experienced it.
No, I’m not talking about a six-figure score. I’m talking about that brief moment after the last bet goes into a massive pot, and we feel like our hand is best.
That moment where we table our hand, and an overwhelming feeling of utter confidence and pride rushes over us. All that’s left is for the dealer to push the pot our way.
But then it happens. Your opponent shows you the real winning hand, something far outside of the range you put him on at every street. The dealer begins to ship him the pot. He smirks at you as he stacks the chips, your chips. And your pride turns into shock, disbelief and anger. If you’re like most poker players, you’re first instinct in that moment is to channel the great Phil Hellmuth.
You want to rip into your opponent, to tell him how bad he is, and how much better you are. You know it’s unsportsmanlike, but you have an ego, and in a game that’s as complex as poker, a game in which we all experience that emotional roller-coaster ride called “variance,” our egos constantly are being tested.
Since I began playing poker seriously about five years ago, I’ve played against all kinds of people: professionals, amateurs, casual players, newbies, drunkards, businessmen with money to burn, degenerate gamblers … the list goes on. All of them, just like everyone else who doesn’t play this emotionally brutal game, have an ego.
Besides skill, however, there’s one crucial difference that separates the people in that list. Professional players (and some long-term winning amateurs) possess something their competitors don’t: emotional discipline.
The emotionally disciplined player has the ability to absorb a loss with total nonchalance. They have developed an ability to transfer feelings of shock, disbelief and anger after losing a big pot (or, on a macro level, a large downswing) into something constructive and, eventually, productive. They see losses as an opportunity to learn, to improve at the game and to analyze their game and then make adjustments based on what they deduce from losing situations.
Most important: They control their emotions rather than letting their emotions control them.
If you want to experience long-term success in poker, any serious, winning player will tell you there’s something to be said about the importance of developing the ability to detach yourself from the financial aspect of wins and losses (variance) that occur hand to hand, session to session, and year to year. Every successful player, from your hometown garbage man who grinds his local $1-$2 game to all the young, uber-genius Internet phenoms, owes part of his success to emotional discipline.
Of course, maintaining a calm demeanor at the poker table has other, less obvious benefits. You take wins and losses like an adult, and everybody appreciates a good sportsman at the poker table. But the same is true for the other end of the spectrum. Nobody likes to play against an emo player. After all, the poker world has enough Phil Hellmuths.
— Brent White is a journalist, writer, editor and poker player who lives in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @brentwhite.