In poker, you only can control yourself

August 30, 2010, Chris  

When it comes to psychology and poker, one of the first things to settle for yourself is why you play poker. Are you striving to play perfect poker or striving to achieve peak performance? These are different ways to approach poker. One is realistic and achievable and one is a fantasy.

If you think you can play perfect poker you’re thinking you can control the cards and your opponents. You can’t.

You can control your play, your preparation and you can account for the cards and your opponents, but you can never control them.

River suckouts are inevitable; your flopped straight will get flushed; the flush you turned will get sunk by a river boat; you will flop a set to lose to a higher set and sometimes your opponent will play just the way you hoped and spike a one-outer on the river.

You must accept these as part of the game and once you do you can focus on playing to YOUR peak performance.

So, how do you achieve peak performance? First, you understand your limits, or leaks, and then the limits of the game and once you have a feel for this you have to decide why you play.

Achieving peak performance in poker involves: purpose; patience; practice; preparation; persistence; perception; patterns; passion; and pleasure.

The first step is to memorize this paragraph:

I will develop my poker purpose by defining why I play and accept the pluses and minuses of this decision. Once I accept who I am and why I play the rest will fall into place. I will learn to be patient and play my game. I will practice and prepare to the extent necessary to reach my goals. I will be persistent. I will sharpen my perceptions and learn to identify patterns. I have a passion for the game equal to the reason I play poker and poker is pleasurable.

PURPOSE: Knowing why you are playing is akin to knowing who you are. Once you get a handle on why you are playing and feel OK about it the rest really falls into place. How much time you spend preparing, studying talking, reading are all related to why you play.

Is it the competition or the money, and can the two be separated?

Is it a sequential process? Do you say, “Today I’m an avid recreational player and I want to become a professional player,” or do you say one thing, but really mean another?

Remember, poker is the most egalitarian and democratic competition in the world. You can play at the same table as the elites if you have the buy-in. Try that in most other competitions and you won’t have a chance. Poker is a pure meritocracy. No bosses, no promotions, no coaches or managers.

Once you get comfortable with whom you are, you will play better, you will feel better and you will get more pleasure from the game.

I have read so many articles and books that denigrate recreational players and it’s all bull. When was the last time Tiger put down recreational golfers or even club pros? Don’t listen to them. This is just intimidation and is meant to scare you.

If you’re comfortable being a weekend warrior and can plan a good game of poker, no problem. Don’t let the grinding pro or the daily regular intimate you.

DEFINE YOUR POKER IDENTITY: Some folks are (or want to be) elite players; some grind it out every day; and some play for enjoyment. There’s nothing wrong with any purpose you decide. However, purpose drives decision-making, game selection, stakes, practice and preparation. You don’t train like an Olympic athlete if you play recreationally; you train to make your recreation better.

My interviews revealed some interesting reasons why people play poker:

• To make money from poker as a pro, semi-pro or to supplement their income
• Intellectual challenge: It’s the last bastion of competition they can engage in freely
• Social aspects: There’s no upper limit of achievement; they just want to have fun; it is the most egalitarian form of activity.
Thinking about these statements might help you figure out why you play:
• I play because of the competitive nature of the game. I love to compete and especially to win.
• I play because I like to gamble and can afford it. I see it as a form of entertainment.
• I play because it helps me forget about the more stressful aspects of my life (work, school, my marriage, the kids, etc.) and then I can get back to problem-solving.
• I play because my friends all play and it’s what they talk about. I want to be a part of that and I enjoy the give-and-take at the tables.
• I play because I watch it on television and it doesn’t look that hard. I can imagine being at a WPT or WSOP final table one day.
• I play to win money.

The reason to define purpose is developing a successful plan. You don’t need a map if you don’t know where you are going. For now keep your head in the game and watch for upcoming articles on the P’s of poker.

— 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 editor@anteupmagazine.com.