It’s been said in so many ways that poker is an easy game to learn and a hard game to master. One of the hardest things to learn is how to cope with things such as tilt, mistakes, suckouts and stress. Poker is a game of skill with significant elements of chance. Mental mistakes and chance create stress. You might be able to control mental mistakes but chance affects variance and the ups and downs of success. You can increase your skill and you can learn to deal with the variance, but even then you have yourself to deal with.
How you handle chance and variance are essential factors in your game, at every level of play. There is a famous Phil Hellmuth quote that if it weren’t for luck, he would win every hand. Luck does play a part in this game. Getting lucky and avoiding bad luck are necessary elements, which you can’t control. But how you cope with luck will help your game and is something you can control.
Say you get heads-up in the late stage of a tournament and have an open-ended straight-flush draw with two over cards to the flop. The short stack in early position goes all-in for 7K; the prohibitive big stack calls; you have about 17K. Your all-in is about a pot-size bet; your call leaves you pretty short. So you push and it gets to the big stack, who goes into the tank and finally says: “Call, do you have a flush draw?” He has 2-4 in your suit. You turn over your cards and the table figures you win. Ah, but wait, the short stack has two pair and turns a full house, then no more cards come in your suit and the river is a four. Not even the side pot is yours, and you bust.
How do you handle it? Outwardly you say nice hand. Inwardly, you wonder how in the world you could have missed everything: a straight, a flush or even a higher pair to take the side pot and stay alive.
You can go to cash games and play on semi-tilt. Just remember your perceptions are affected by your mood and feelings. It’s probably better to process what just happened and how you’re coping than to move on to another game. You made the correct play and the cards didn’t come; that is the good luck/bad luck aspect of poker.
You have to recognize how bad luck affects you emotionally and in terms of coping skills. Sometimes a new game is the answer; sometimes time away is the answer; and sometimes engaging in a different pleasurable activity is the answer. Two coping strategies can be used to help you understand yourself in regards to handling variance and luck: approach coping and avoidance coping.
Approach coping is an attempt to resolve the problem, and avoidance coping is an attempt to reduce the importance of the problem or disengagement from attempts to solve the problem.
Approach coping would have you think things such as, “I tried to understand exactly what happened” and “I tried to accept it as part of the game,” while examples of avoidance coping strategies are blocking these thoughts and letting go of the mistake or “failure.”
Both strategies can work. Practice both. Learn to use what works for you and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.