There’s no golden rule and no single path to achieving peak performance. There’s a process and it’s work. First you need to place yourself on the continuum that poker has to offer, from the once-in-a-while recreational player to the avid and regular recreational player; from a grinder who supplements real-life income to a full-time grinding pro; a circuit rider; or whatever. We all follow the same stages of development. Get on and off the train wherever you want the ride to take you.
The first stage of development in any competitive endeavor is skill acquisition. In poker this includes learning how to play, learning how to play well, applying game theory, applying math analysis and getting a read and using it. This is just the first step.
If you’re not willing to learn these skills, then accept that you’ll be relying more on luck than on skill. Initial skill development only takes us part way though. Skill development can be frustrating.
We play against less-skilled players that suck out and we get frustrated that ‘”they don’t know how to play,” but they do play and have the right and privilege to play, so develop the skill in playing against all kinds of players.
Once a person develops skills, they sometimes think they deserve to win, but as I said, skill acquisition is only the first step to peak performance. This may be enough for some players. Recreational poker players, like recreational golfers, are often satisfied with an afternoon of enjoyable play that doesn’t cost too much and has some social aspect. This social aspect can be deceiving, though, and often at the poker table we sometimes mistake single-serving friends (see Fight Club) for enduring friendships.
There are plenty of skill acquisition venues: magazines (Ante Up); books; practice; tutoring. Decide how far you want to go with this and it should define your game.
The next step is learning to use this skill-set effectively and to perform well. Once you have developed the skills necessary to play the game, you have to execute. Good decisions based on your reads, the math and your comfort are the keys here. The skills are continued learning and fixing leaks.
Now you can learn to apply your skill set under pressure and in adverse conditions. Pressure is continual. How do you take this skill-set and apply it in adverse conditions? When it is late, when you’re tired and fatigued, hungry, moody, feeling stressed, tilt; when you’re doing everything correctly and you lose. This becomes the mental game, the head game, a program for developing this part of your game in future columns. These basic skills will keep your head in the game for peak performance.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.