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Head Games: Know Thyself. Vital Questions to Ask Yourself to Go Beyond Inertia in Your Game

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jul 01, 2013


The Pros: Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, Vanessa Rousso

The Poker Shrink: Jared Tendler

Craig Tapscott: What are your poker goals in the short term and long term? And how do you go about defining them for yourself.

Phil Hellmuth: My poker goals are high. I want to win at least 24 WSOP bracelets (13 so far), and six WPT championships (no WPTs yet, but I have five Hall of Fame poker tournament watches, including the main event). Some bracelets and events are more valuable to me than others as goals: First, win the WSOP main event again; second, win the WSOP $50,000 Players Championship (second in 2011); third, win the WPT Championship event (seventh and 16th so far); fourth, win the WSOP Europe main event again (won it in 2012); fifth, win the deuce-to-seven no-limit bracelet (was second twice!); sixth, win the NBC Heads-Up Championships again (first in 2005, second in 2013). In 2013 I have been working on my pot-limit Omaha game, my heads up no-limit game, and my stud-eight-or-better game, and I expect deep runs in these games at the WSOP this year.

Daniel Negreanu: My short term goal for 2013 is to get the best results possible based on the cards I’m dealt by focusing on making the best decisions available to me every hand. In the long term, my goal is to reach the top ten of the Global Poker Index Rankings.

Vanessa Rousso: Poker is my profession, so my long term goals naturally revolve around that fact. So, it is my primary aim to be financially profitable, year in and year out, in terms of my poker play by itself. In order to make a profit in a long run game, you have to put in the numbers. I learned this lesson last year when I took some time off to pursue my other interests and did not play as many tournaments as I normally do. So, currently I am focusing on playing as much as possible. Thus, my short term goals for 2013 are simply not to get distracted away from the table or to give in to mental laziness. Basically I need to force myself to put in the time and the numbers at the poker table because I know that if I do this, then the results will come. At the same time, making a mark for myself, among not only female poker players but poker players generally, is also something that is important to me. One of the ways I have accomplished that in the past is by being a branding innovator — looking for out-of-the-box sponsorship opportunities where other poker players had not thought to look (for example, my sponsorships with Go Daddy and Monster energy drink). I plan to continue this into the future and utilize my success as a professional poker player to further bridge the gap to mainstream America. Along these lines, at the moment I am currently working on a book of life lessons learned at the poker table.

Jared Tendler: When you know exactly what you want to achieve, your motivation increases. Think about the times in poker, or in life, when you’ve been really inspired or motivated. You felt that way because you knew exactly what you wanted. Having that extra energy doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful, but without it, you’re almost assured to not be. Many poker players don’t bother setting goals because variance makes it difficult to control the outcome in the short term. However, that shouldn’t stop you. Sure, you can’t control short-term results connected to money or winning, but setting goals like these helps you decide what you need to do in order to achieve them. For example, if your goal is to build a bankroll to comfortably be able to play $5-$10 no-limit hold’em, you may need to: increase focus at the end of your sessions, develop a warm-up routine that prepares you to correct common tactical mistakes, and learn how to trust your gut more. Knowing what you want to accomplish in poker helps you define a plan for how you’ll get there. Otherwise, you’re gambling with your goals.

Craig Tapscott: What are the inner mental game problems preventing or severely limiting your ability to accomplish your goals?

Phil Hellmuth: The first thing I try to do is leave ego at the door, as ego can be a great destroyer. When I am too egotistical, then there are several negative consequences: First, I am not myself and act too cocky and look bad to my family, friends, and fans; Second, I lose some focus because I think that I am better than I am; and finally, too much ego can cause me to neglect my special abilities (reading people, having the heart to make the right plays, and the ability to learn new tactics and strategies). I like to lead a clean life with sky high ethics, morals, honesty, charitableness, and honor. This fuels winning. When confronted with winning a big event, I say, “Why not me?” Whereas some players may not feel that they “deserve to win” and sabotage themselves.

Daniel Negreanu: The biggest issue is distraction. Combining friendly table chat with being focused on every single hand dealt is difficult. Too much friendly banter and my focus may suffer. Not enough friendly banter and I’m not being the kind of poker ambassador I want to be, nor am I gaining as much information about my opponents as I could. I don’t use my phone at the table during play, only on breaks, so that’s not an issue for me. Often people will ask me a question when I’m focused in on a hand I’m not involved in, so I’m left with the choice to break my concentration on the hand, or ignore the person asking the question.

Vanessa Rousso: Even though I am a highly logical person, I find that dealing with my own emotions is one of my most consistent obstacles to success at the poker table. Playing poker day in and day out, you become accustomed to dealing with bad beats, bad luck, other people playing badly, and all of the things you can’t control. On the other hand, as you improve in skill, you begin to expect more and more from yourself and it can get increasingly difficult to deal with the occasional but inevitable self-imposed negative outcomes you will encounter at the table. This is because among the things you definitely can control at the table are your own actions… and therefore, when you don’t act to the best of your own ability, it is very frustrating to deal with after the fact. Ultimately, managing my emotions on and off the table and learning to execute effectively in the face of stress, tilt, and distraction, are things I am always working to improve as I become a more evolved poker player, and indeed, human.

Jared Tendler: The mental game will never be more important than your tactical skill. However, what good is it to spend hundreds of hours trying to play better, only to tilt off several buy-ins or a chance at title? Eliminating your worst poker decisions is where the mental game provides its most value. Think how much your worst mistakes cost you? Did you realize that most of them were caused by mental game problems? If you don’t fix these problems, all the tactical skill in the world won’t make a bit of difference. Since there’s a lot of confusion within the poker world about the mental game, here’s a quick overview of the four major areas of mental game to help you recognize the problems standing between you and your goal(s):
TILT: This is far and away the most common problem in poker; however, players often define tilt as any time they’re playing less than their best. This definition is far too broad, because if you want a good solution you need a good definition of the problem. Based on thousands of hours coaching and talking with players, it became clear to me that over 80 percent of the time that players are talking about tilt, they’re referring to being angry. That’s why in my program tilt is defined only as bad play caused only by anger. There are many reasons to be angry in poker, and it’s important you figure out specifically why you’re angry. For example, running bad, revenge, hating to lose, mistakes, entitlement, or feeling cursed.

FEAR: In a poker world that thinks every cause of bad play is tilt, players have a difficult time recognizing how anxiety, nerves, or fear causes their decision making to suffer. Here are few of the common signs: constantly overthinking decisions, mind going blank in big pots, feeling rushed for no apparent reason, avoiding higher variance plays you know are right, and feeling overwhelmed against better players. Just remember, you don’t have to experience fear in an intense way to have it affect your game.

MOTIVATION: Without the right level of motivation, your energy level can be too high or too low to focus well. Many players know this, but what they often don’t know is that the quality of their goals determines their level of motivation. If you want to have solid motivation, start by setting quality goals.

CONFIDENCE: Confidence is essential to playing at your best, but many players don’t realize that having too much confidence is just as big of a problem as having too little. Being overconfident can cause you to become too aggressive, play in games where you don’t have an edge, or ignore advice from better players. On the other hand, not trusting your gut, getting down about your game during a downswing, or being embarrassed about dropping down in stakes can indicate you’re lacking confidence. Finding that ideal middle ground is hard, but it’s necessary.

No matter what mental game issues affect your game, fixing them can’t happen instantly. It takes work, just like improving it does to your game tactically. ♠