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Playing Poker Well is a Process

Train your brain

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Feb 18, 2011


Knowing how to play poker well doesn’t mean that you will play poker well. Emotions negatively affect many players, conceivably including you. What many fail to realize is that you also must train your mind to play well.
You need to discipline your mind to automatically apply poker concepts that are related to the current situation in a game. If you automatically and unthinkingly apply basic concepts, you can use more of your mental energy for strategic issues, such as adjusting to specific players. Your decisions will then become more accurate, which will bring home the money.
Let’s start with a simple example of this process: learning the alphabet as a child. At first, you had to consciously think through the spelling whenever you wrote a word. Now, you can write a sentence without consciously thinking about spelling. Your brain automatically and subconsciously processes the spelling. It’s the same with many other tasks, such as driving a car. Since you don’t have to think about spelling or driving, your mind is free to focus on other things, such as what to say or the best route to take. Your brain learns how to do a task, and then over time and through repetition, you acquire the ability to accomplish the task subconsciously. You need to train your mind to apply this process to poker. When tasks like figuring the odds and computing hand ranges become as automatic as spelling a simple word, your mind can focus on other poker concerns.
Some players have no clue about what they don’t know. They don’t even know that essential knowledge exists. They perceive the game on such a simplistic knowledge level that they can’t win. Because poker is a complicated game, these players must first learn how little they know.
Some players just lack the poker experience necessary to comprehend the game correctly, and will improve over time. Others are just in denial; they know that they lose but don’t know why, and don’t want to know. They won’t admit their deficiencies to themselves or anyone else. They blame luck, the dealers, the seat, the deck, or anyone or anything other than themselves.
In order to improve, you need to recognize what you don’t know or cannot compute, and then work on learning it. That’s the foundation. You will know that you lack essential knowledge, and can work on acquiring it.
Some knowledge can be obtained from books, while some can be obtained only from experience. That said, in order to learn from experience, you need to focus on learning. Ask yourself questions about the game as you play; do it consistently, and concentrate. Your mind will improve in terms of both knowledge and concentration ability.
In time, as your knowledge and mental abilities improve, you will find yourself understanding and applying higher-level poker strategies. But that will take a high level of concentration. As your concentration improves, your brain will learn how to perform poker tasks without you consciously having to think about them. You will be able to compute odds, analyze hand ranges, and apply poker concepts without consciously thinking about them. You will become more subconsciously competent.
Then, you can focus your thinking on a higher plane: your opponents’ thinking, emotions, and so on. Once you have trained your mind to function at this level, you’ll play some impressive poker.
If you want to become a good poker player, you must come to terms with where your game currently is, comprehend
what it will take to get it to the next level, and work on getting it there.
All of us, even the brightest, are lacking in some areas of knowledge. Learn what knowledge you need in order to become a good player, then go out and get it! Buy the books and read them more than once; invest the time, energy, and focus required to become a good player.
Apply that knowledge and think about how it plays when you utilize it. You will then slowly learn poker’s subtleties. Over time, the knowledge that you have obtained will be processed automatically, enabling you to focus on the subtleties. You will perceive how your game is growing and that your decisions are becoming more accurate in any given situation.
The more automatic your basic thought processes are, the better your conscious thinking will become. Thoughts that previously never occurred to you will pop into your mind as your brain is freed up from the tasks of processing the fundamentals. This is the level of play you are striving for. When you train your brain properly, you’ll be amazed at how much information it can process.
It’s not easy to discipline your mind to play poker on this level, but you’ve done it many times before with other tasks. You can drive a car without consciously thinking about much, and you can spell and even write sentences without consciously focusing on spelling. Create the same mental capabilities with the basics of poker; train your brain to process poker information at a higher level. I know that it’s much more complicated than spelling, but the rewards are great. You’ll find yourself winning much more often, and winning is a lot of fun. ♠

Roy Cooke played poker professionally for 16 years prior to becoming a successful Las Vegas real-estate broker/salesman in 1989. Should you wish to get any information about real-estate matters — including purchase, sale, or mortgage — his office number is (702) 396-6575, and his e-mail address is His website is You also may find him on Facebook.