Managing your emotions is one of the hardest things about playing poker. The human mind is just not designed to deal with things like variance and without any adjustments we seem to always have the wrong instinctive reaction to the situations we are facing in the game.
When we’re stuck we want to keep playing to win back our losses. When we’re winning we want to quit because we’re afraid of losing it back. Of course we play infinitely worse when we’re losing than when we’re winning but our mind doesn’t seem to care.
The same applies to tilt. Even though we’re well aware that losing hands due to variance is part of the game, we still have completely irrational reactions when it actually happens.
Training our minds to the point where we can stay calm and make rational decisions even after losing multiple buy-ins takes time and hard work. Many players ignore this part of poker and focus only on improving their technical game. Consistently working on the mental game will not only give you an edge over those players but also allow you to face extended downswings without putting your fist through the wall.
There are countless things you can do to improve your mindset towards poker. Here are 5 tips you can use to improve your mental game today:
1. Write About your Problems
This one helped me overcome my issues with tilt more than anything else. It may feel weird at first but trust me, it works.
Think about a problem you have with poker. For example you might be going on tilt because you get angry at yourself when you make a mistake in a big pot.
Write down the problem as detailed as possible. Think about why you behave the way you do. You might tilt after making a mistake because maybe you think that it’s the sign of a bad player.
Try to find out why it’s illogical to think that way and how it’s damaging your long-term success. In the case of mistakes it makes no sense to get angry over them because they are part of the learning process. You have to appreciate mistakes as opportunities and learn from them so you can make a better decision when that situation comes up again.
Finally try to come up with the best way to handle this problem in the future. Next time you make a mistake, just mark the hand and then analyze it when you’re done with the session.
This exercise is not too different from what you’re doing in your head all the time. If you’re human then you’re likely constantly thinking about what you’re doing wrong and why, and how you can fix it. If you think long enough about something, you usually figure it out and move on to the next problem.
What writing does is just speed this process up. You could also talk to someone else about it, the important thing is that you actually put the problem into words. By articulating your problem you will get much deeper to its core.
When trying to find a solution you can use books, blogs or any other resource you can think of. You can also go to a site like Quora or talk to people on a forum. Just try to figure out as much as you can about where your mental flaws are and write everything down along with actionable steps to take going forward.
Like I said, it may feel weird at first but it’s a very effective way to help you dig deeper and get to the bottom of your mental issues. If you continually write about any problems you’re experiencing you will not only improve your mental game, you will also stop your mind from racing all the time trying to find answers to a lot of questions.
2. Learn About the Power of Meditation
To me, meditation and poker are a perfect combination. Poker is an insanely stressful pursuit and most of us are constantly second-guessing ourselves about every little thing we do wrong.
The problem with poker is that the more we are distracted, the worse we play. When we play we should only focus on the things that happen at the table. Anything that doesn’t benefit our decision making process in a hand has no place in our minds. We should be calm, collected and thinking clearly no matter how emotionally disturbing the events in the current session have been.
Meditation is a great tool to help with all of that. It’s designed to still the mind and stop it from constantly searching for answers to the questions we haven’t answered yet. It takes a lot of work away from the table but eventually you will find that meditating for 15 – 30 minutes every day will have incredible improvements on your mindset, and not just in terms of poker. Regular meditation will make you calmer and more balanced and just improve the quality of your life in general.
The great thing about meditation in combination with poker is that you can use it actively at the table. Whenever you face something that upsets you, you can focus on your breathing or apply any other technique you are working with and bring the focus back to your body. It’s hard at first but with enough practice you can let go of bad beats and other stressful events a lot easier than before.
It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explain meditation. The most common practice is sitting up straight with your feet shoulder width apart and placed firmly on the floor. Your body should be relaxed and your back straight to facilitate deep breathing.
Once you’re in position bring all your focus to your breathing and try to let go of any thoughts that enter your mind. You can focus on the flow of the air as you breathe in and out or on parts of your body like your chest and stomach as they rise and fall with every breath.
Like I said, at first it will be hard and you will get frustrated when thoughts keep entering your mind. Try not to get frustrated with yourself, that’s completely normal. Don’t try to do it perfectly, just look at meditation as one lifelong practice session.
Before you can use meditation efficiently while playing you need to practice away from the table for some time. But once you know how to slow down your mind it’s an incredible way of stopping tilt in its tracks as soon as you see its first signs.
You can find more information about the different meditation techniques here.
3. Develop a Warm Up Routine
Playing great poker requires us to perform at a high level mentally. Getting to this level takes energy and motivation.
When you start a session by just turning on your computer and loading up a bunch of tables, you will usually need 5 – 10 minutes to get into the flow of the action. The problem is that in those 10 minutes you will often face difficult decisions. If you’re unlucky, you might start off a session with a couple of really tricky hands spread across multiple tables at the same time. Without warming up first, your mind will not be prepared for making good decisions and you are very likely to make mistakes which might tilt you and influence the rest of your session or even force you to quit.
There are a few things you can do to warm up but the essential thing is that you prepare your mind for making high-level decisions from the first hand you are dealt at the table.
The best way to reach the zone before playing is by motivating yourself. You can write down your goals, watch an inspiring scene from a movie (Rounders, anyone?) or do any other thing you can think of that will make you want to go and play great poker.
Try to get fired up about poker as much as you can and you will see that your concentration on the game will increase dramatically. When you notice yourself getting bored during the session, try to think of whatever motivated you at the start and use it to bring your energy back up.
Another great tip is to start with fewer tables than you normally play and then add more once you feel like you’re in the zone. That way you can start a session nice and easy and then increase the intensity once you’re ready.
You have to recognize how overwhelming it can be to face multiple tough decisions simultaneously, even when you’re in the zone. Facing that situation when your mind is not focused on poker is a recipe for disaster. All of the best players on earth are aware of the power of warming up and they all have learned to never start a session cold. Whatever you do to get yourself in the zone, try to be as eager to play great poker as you can and go out there and crush it.
4. Understand Variance
Whether good or bad, variance has the tendency to take us off our A-game. As much as we train ourselves not to pay attention to bad beats and cold decks, we still get influenced by our short-term results. The problem is that the short run sometimes really isn’t that short at all.
You will often hear that you should play at least 20,000 hands at a given stake in order to know if you’re a consistent winner. I think that number is way too low. Unless you’re playing in extremely soft games and expect to have a long-term win-rate of over 8bb/100, you can easily play 20k hands and find yourself losing money despite the fact that you are playing profitable poker.
When your expected win-rate is as low as 2 bb/100, these downswings can even go on for 100k hands or longer. The general rule is that the higher your skill is in relation to that of your opponents, the lower your variance will be. The problem is that if we really are crushing our opponents consistently at a limit, we usually move up. This way we are really never winning at a high rate for very long.
When you feel you’re struggling in a game and you consistently make mistakes, you will face longer downswings. That’s just the nature of variance and it is completely logical.
That is why I always advise anybody to have at least 40 buy-ins for the stake they are playing, especially if they’re still learning the game. That’s my absolute minimum and I don’t move up in stakes until I have over 50 buy-ins for the next level.
Most players will experience 10 buy-in downswings on a regular basis. 20 buy-in downswings are less frequent but still something that you are guaranteed to experience occasionally if you play poker for a long time. And sometimes you will just keep losing for weeks or even months on end and find yourself stuck 30 buy-ins from where you started.
Variance is a harsh reality and the sooner you understand that it’s a mathematical certainty that you will go on a lengthy downswing, the better you can prepare yourself for when it happens. When you know that you might lose 20 or 30 buy-ins at some point in the future, I think it’s not hard to see why you want to start with a bankroll that is much bigger than that.
Having at least 50 buy-ins for whatever game you are playing will give you great piece of mind. That should always be one of your chief aims in poker and being more conservative with your bankroll management is the best way to achieve that.
5. Eliminate Result-Oriented Thinking
After understanding how much variance influences our results in any session it should be clear that it’s completely pointless to pay attention to our short-term results. Even a few weeks of poker in a row don’t produce enough volume to give a clear picture of our skill (unless you’re a truly sick grinder that pumps out hundreds of thousands of hands each month).
Yet even after learning about the nature of variance we find ourselves wanting to check our results to see if we’re doing well. The reason for this is that the human mind is trained to constantly evaluate our performance to see if there is room for improvement. We have learned that in poker the measure of our skill is the amount of money we win or lose, so we use our results as a benchmark. While this is a good measure of how we’re performing after a few hundred thousand hands, using our results to evaluate our play is not only meaningless but almost always harmful.
When we find ourselves winning we get cocky and our ego tells us that because we’re winning so easily, we can push the envelope and play more hands. And of course we all know how damaging a lengthy downswing can be to our game. We lose confidence in our decisions and shy away from making the mathematically correct plays out of fear of losing even more.
If you’ve tried in the past to ignore your results you may have found it very hard to do so. The better solution is to shift the focus away from the money and towards the quality of your decisions and to how well you’re improving at whatever concept you’re currently learning.
Whenever you start a session, you should think about one specific thing you are trying to improve right now. Instead of paying attention to money won or lost, try to focus on all the spots where that thing comes up and how well you handled them. If you’re not happy with your performance, mark the hand and analyze it later. Thinking about poker in this way will go great lengths to reduce your potential for tilting and also allow you to improve more consistently.
If you have problems with tilt or any other mental aspect of poker, hopefully these tips will help you improve. Things like mediation take time and work until you see noticeable effects. But other things like writing about your problems or warming up before you play can show incredible effects right from the start.
Whatever you choose to do to improve your mental game, remember that it will get easier with practice. Just try to stay calm and take it one step at a time. You will find that eventually all of the things that have tilted you in the past barely even upset you anymore.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to overcome tilt, you can check out this great article from Nathan “BlackRain79” Williams about tilt at the micro stakes.