Another look at mental toughness in poker

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To be a really good poker player, you have to be skilled. You have to be dedicated. You have to be mentally tough. With that in mind, here is a continuation of my mental toughness column from last issue since I think it’s one of the most overlooked aspects of preparation to peak performance in poker.

To be mentally tough, you need a high level of intrinsic motivation, meaning you must be motivated to play and not just motivated by a winning session. Extrinsic motivation is what keeps people gambling. It’s intermittent reinforcement. The slot machine is the perfect intermittent reinforcement device. It allows you win just enough times to want to come back and has nothing to do with what you do. This kind of reinforcement is considered the most powerful. It’s how we train animals.

In poker, this kind of reinforcement is what gets folks to call or bet with 9-2 offsuit. Sometimes they win, but over time they lose. That “sometimes” win keeps them going.

You need intrinsic motivation; it has to be internal. And you need to be able to reject mental and emotional demons such as stress, loss of focus and fear of losing. For some people, the fear of losing is the driving force; this isn’t productive internal motivation.

To be mentally tough, you need patience. You need a plan. You need goal-setting. You need the ability to withstand fluctuations. You need to know how to deal with tilt.

With practice and work, you can develop the skills necessary to develop internal motivation. First, be realistic about why you play. Are you a recreational player who doesn’t care about “spending” one or two buy-ins a week? Are you the person who’s competitive and poker is the last bastion of competitive you can actively engage? Do you enjoy playing and winning? Are you trying to grind out a supplement to your living? Are you trying to grind out a living? Do you see yourself as a poker professional? Do you see yourself moving up in the professional ranks? Answers to these questions will dictate how much time you spend on developing the mental toughness to succeed at your level.

Some tips: Keep a manageable poker bankroll; do what you can to bring your “A” game, be rested, exercise, etc. Play at the right level. Develop realistic goals that are doable in your life. Get some consultation. Talk to poker friends about your game. Visualize accomplishing your goals. Have a strategy to deal with fluctuations, variance and tilt. Keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.