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Are You Really Mentally Prepared for Your Next Game?

Prepare mentally, or don't play

by Roy West |  Published: Jun 11, 2008

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Hi. Come on in. I ordered us a big platter of beef and chicken kabobs -- and baklava for dessert. Dig in.

"If I don't have time to prepare mentally, I don't have time to play." That's just one of Roy's Rules, by which I guide my play in our beloved game of poker. I came up with this rule several years ago after hearing an interview with a former NBA great whose name escapes me at the moment. He was asked about a basketball player's declining years of playing and what was the first thing to go. He said, "I've heard it's the legs, but I think it's the mind. When I could no longer get myself mentally psyched up for a game, I knew that I was done with it. I think that mental preparation is the key."

Think of what mental preparation must be worth in the mental game of poker, if it's the key to a grueling physical game like professional basketball.

Most poker players can't be bothered with, or most likely have never thought about, mental preparation. They come to the game directly from the activity in which they were previously involved. Their minds are still largely occupied in that area -- especially with any problems left unresolved. This diverts their concentration from the present activity of poker.

Poker is a game that is best played with full concentration, observation, and alertness. The idea then is to clear your mind of its previous activity and bring it around to thinking about poker. This is a game of strategy -- and variations upon strategy. You want your mind to be free to roam through all of the poker information it possesses, unoccupied by the problems of another area of your life.

For my personal mental preparation, I first do several minutes of meditation. Then, I quietly think specifically about poker to get the wheels turning in that direction. I might read an article in Card Player, or review a poker conversation with a player whom I respect.

In my car, I'll think about poker situations that could develop, and how I would deal with them. The bottom line is this: When I'm playing poker, I should be thinking poker.

My mental prep doesn't stop when I've arrived at the poker room. The last thing that I want to do now is get into a conversation on a subject other than poker. I'm going to keep my mind attuned to the business at hand, which is playing the game to the best of my ability.

After getting my name on the list, I'll try to watch the game that I'm about to enter. I want to see how these people play. That gives me an edge when I do enter the game. But if I spend my pregame time in idle chitchat, I'll have taken my mind away from poker, negating all of that mental prep, and will be lacking the valuable information that I now possess about my opponents. And as I stress to my students, since poker is a game of people, I want to know as much as I can about the people against whom I'll be playing.

You can study, read all of the books, and take all of the lessons, but if you sit down in a game without being mentally ready, you're giving up an edge to someone who is ready.

I'm not implying that a player can't be a winner without doing this pregame mental footwork. That's not so. Obviously, there are players who win but do no mental preparation. To them, I say this: If you're winning without mental prep, you will, in all probability, do even better by devoting a few minutes before each playing session to entering the game in a high state of mental preparedness -- mental toughness.

One well-known player puts on his stereo headphones and listens to soft, non-melodic music while talking to himself about what a solid, skillful player he is. Conversely, a woman I know cranks up her stereo and gives the speakers a workout with stirring march music while giving herself a loud pep talk just prior to leaving for the cardroom. (I'm glad I don't live next to her.) She's preparing to win -- and win she does.

Some players use hypnosis, having a professional hypnotist give them post-hypnotic suggestions about their poker playing.

I'm not saying that any of this is a substitute for skill, knowledge, and strategy, but it can be a valuable addition for those who choose to use it.

Being mentally ready includes not playing if your mind is foggy from lack of sleep, from booze, or from drugs -- legal or illegal. Don't play if you are emotionally upset. Resolve your emotional issues and then come to the poker table. Don't play if there is something else that you'd rather be (or should be) doing. Go and do what must be done, and then play.

So, our rallying cry at this point is: "If we don't have time to prepare mentally, we don't have time to play."

There are probably as many ways of preparing to play as there are players who prepare. So, what do you do to prepare to play?

All of this mental activity has tired me, and I require repose. Take the rest of the kabobs for your breakfast and kill the light on your way out.

Roy West, poker author and teacher, continues giving his successful poker lessons in Las Vegas for tourists and locals. Ladies are welcome. Get Roy's toll-free 800 number from his ad on Page 134.