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Peak Performance Poker

Preparing your mind and body to play your best poker

by Matthew Hilger |  Published: Aug 20, 2010


Daniel NegreanuThe days of smoke-filled rooms, whiskey, cheeseburgers, and late nights are gone. I think the new-school poker players — the ones who are dominating the games today — are players who look very different. They’re younger, leaner, and more focused on improving their physical and mental health — and they’re crushing the games.
Daniel Negreanu

For the newly released poker book Peak Performance Poker: Revolutionizing the Way You View the Game, author Travis Steffen interviewed a lot of top pros, and the preceding quote from Daniel Negreanu basically sums up in a couple of sentences what the book is all about. As someone who has always struggled with my weight and energy levels, I was quite excited when Travis approached me about the concept for this book. This was exactly the type of poker book that I had been wanting to read, and now I was in a position to have my company publish it.

Peak Performance Poker is about preparing your mind and your body to play the best poker that you can possibly play, and to play that way at all times. For those who have read the book The Poker Mindset, I like to say that Peak Performance Poker is for your body like The Poker Mindset is for your mind.

The goal of any competitor is to compete to the best of his ability at all times. Before embarking on writing this book, Travis reviewed a study on the psychological contributions to success in elite kickboxing. In it, the athletes talk about the intense concentration they experience when they perform at their very best. This is the mental performance state that they try to attain at all times when fighting.

This mental performance state is called flow. Flow is an optimal psychological state that’s characterized by a degree of concentration so focused that you are totally absorbed in the activity you’re performing. It’s the state of mind for which all elite competitors strive, because it gives them a significant edge in competition. Poker is no different.

To achieve flow, everything must come together at the same time. You can’t be at your best if you are tired, out of shape, bloated from a heavy meal, fatigued from the wrong food and drink choices, or burdened by psychological roadblocks. There are five main building blocks for preparing your body and mind to perform at their best: nutrition, fitness, sports psychology, goal setting, and time management.

Sure, we all know that good food will help us lose weight, but have you ever thought about the impact that food has on your cognitive abilities, memory, alertness, energy levels, and stamina? What you eat, how much you eat, how often you eat, and when you eat can all impact your ability to perform at your peak. Every year during the World Series of Poker, I am amazed at how many players are eating baby-back ribs, steak, hamburgers, and French fries during dinner breaks. Do they really expect to perform at their best past midnight after eating such a meal?

In terms of fitness, we all know that exercising will help us lose weight. You ought to know that exercise generally just makes you feel better. In regard to its impact on your game, improved fitness will increase your stamina at the table, increase your ability to focus, improve your body’s working memory, improve your mood, and maybe most important of all, decrease your stress levels, which can help you avoid tilt. And just as important as exercise is to your overall fitness, rest and recovery are essential to performing at your peak. In fact, although a workout is recommended on “game day,” it is best not to overly fatigue your body before a long session.

When I first saw one of the other topics in the book, time management, I was somewhat skeptical. I’ve read a lot of time-management books before and have found them useful, but I wasn’t sure that this topic belonged in a poker book. After reading the chapter, I realized that I was completely wrong. In fact, I would venture to say that if anyone ever did a study of the most successful people in a variety of careers, whether it be sports, business, medicine, or engineering, he probably would find that a very high percentage of those people are managing their time effectively — and if they’re not, they could be achieving even more. It only makes sense.

To get to where you want to be, you need to be using every hour of every day effectively. I suspect that many poker players are truly lacking in this particular area. Most poker players are focused on putting in the hours playing, and I think many are good at that, but what about working on your game away from the tables? One of the main things that I remember from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to put first things first. Sure, professional players need to put in the hours, but they are doing themselves a disservice if those playing hours come at the expense of their fitness routine and time working on their game away from the tables.

One of the great things about the impact of fitness and diet on your performance is that you can start tomorrow and achieve immediate results. In fact, even if you are a fat slob, there are things that you can do five days, two days, or even one day in advance of a big poker tournament or poker session that will help you to have better energy than otherwise. Throughout the book, Travis discusses “Game Day” strategies to help you prepare your body and mind to give you the best chance of achieving “flow” when it really counts. If you are going to play a big tournament, think about the things that you do the day before and the morning of a tournament; are they conducive to performing at your best?

The point of this column is to motivate you. I’ve lost 20 pounds. Yes, I know that my overall health and well-being should be enough motivation, but this book provides a more global perspective of how diet and fitness can impact everything we do on a daily basis to give us that extra little push. And maybe even more important, the book told me how to do things the right way. Sometimes our motivation is fine, but if we are unknowingly doing the wrong things, we aren’t getting to where we need to be. I hope that this column gives you a little different perspective to help you look at poker in a different way, and will truly revolutionize the way you view the game. Spade Suit

Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books.” Peak Performance Poker, by Travis Steffen, is the company’s eighth publication, and it’s available at Amazon and