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Head Games: How Can You Be More Prepared for Success at the Table?

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jan 07, 2015


The Pros: Ryan Riess, Adam Levy, and Jared Tendler

Craig Tapscott: More than ever, poker players are treating the game like sport. So, what do you do to prepare yourself to play your best? Please go into detail as to your mental, physical, and even meditative preparations you may have.

Ryan Riess: It is very important to be well-prepared when traveling and playing poker tournaments around the world. I try to always get a good night’s sleep before the tournament. It can be really easy to not get much sleep while traveling, but if you are not fully rested, you may get tired and not play your best. One more thing, don’t party all night. Get some sleep so you can grind in the morning. And don’t forget to have breakfast when you wake up. It is a really important meal that a lot of poker players skip.

Adam Levy: I definitely have taken more notice to the mental side of the game in recent years. I think it’s a part of getting older and the game getting tougher. When I was younger, I would be a bit stubborn about how many tables I could play and how often I would play. I would say, “Well, this guy can play 20 tables and does it seven days a week, why can’t I?” But you can’t compare yourself to other people; you need to go at your own pace. I know some elite players that refuse to play more than four tables online at once. Once I came to terms with this, my results took a turn for the better. It is still an incredibly mentally taxing game, which makes it important to be physically sound. 

Another thing I do is play a lot of basketball. But I actually found in the days where I played for two or three hours, my poker game would take a hit, but if I played for less than that, it would help me. So there’s definitely a fine line between just the right amount and too much physical activity for me. There are so many small nuances to the mental side. Just being able to decide whether you are mentally sound to play a tourney or not is an ability in and of itself and probably has cost me a bit of money over the years, as I hate sitting on the sidelines.

Jared Tendler: When I started working with poker players over seven years ago, many of them laughed at the idea of a warm-up or preparing to play. While a lot has changed since then, there are still many players who won’t even consider it. I think that’s mainly due to players not realizing how just a couple minutes can help them play better and, in turn, make more money. Playing at a high level for long sessions isn’t easy, especially when you’re trying to apply new poker or mental tactics at the table. Preparing to play simply makes it easier to play at a high level and easier to apply what you’re learning. If you spend five or ten minutes preparing to play, and, in turn, you play 5-10 percent better on average throughout the session or tournament, the time you spent in preparation could be the most profitable minutes you spend in the entire day.

You’ll hear from some great players about how they prepare, but remember, they’ve been doing this for a long time. Don’t expect to immediately find the perfect way of preparing. Here are some examples of things you can do to get yourself ready to play at a high level. First, and I believe most importantly, is to review your goals for the session or tournament. This focuses your mind on what you’re trying to accomplish and makes it easier to stay motivated and avoid boredom or distractions. Next, review the corrections to common technical or mental mistakes. This quick review will make it more likely for you to play correctly or think correctly at a time when it matters most. You can also review a few hand histories related to these mistakes. Lastly, take a few deep breaths, focusing on your goals and how you’ll achieve them. Then go play.

Craig Tapscott: Preparation doesn’t guarantee success, of course. What are things that are most likely to take you out of that ideal state of mind and how do you counteract them?

Ryan Riess: This may sound like a small thing, but I need my phone to be charged. I am usually on it all day and, if I forget to charge it, it throws me off. It is the simple things, like getting very little sleep the night before that can take you out of the right mindset, and if you fail to do one or more of them, the potentially long poker day can feel a lot longer. I also try to keep all of my thoughts positive at the table. That is very important to me. Throughout a long day of poker, many unfortunate things are going to happen, so I do my best to focus my energy on the good things going on rather than the bad. 

While at the table, there should be nothing distracting you from playing poker. The only thing that could throw you off your ‘A’ game is a previous hand which, in most cases, you lost. That is when it becomes really important not to dwell on a hand from the past. The best way to deal with it is to learn from it, move on, and to try not to make the same mistake in the future.

Adam Levy: Sometimes a simple conversation at the table can get me sidetracked. This is why I always have headphones on me. If I think I’m playing badly, not focused enough, or possibly tilting, I will immediately listen to some music to refocus myself. Also, when someone stares at me, it can make me uncomfortable, so I bring sunglasses now, which I used to do years ago, but stopped for a bit. It feels like it gives me an invisible veil, another barrier for my opponent to get through if they want to try to pick something up. It helps me be in my own mode when playing. If someone wants to stare me down for ten minutes, go right ahead, I’ve got my glasses on. 

Jared Tendler: Fortunately, players will fall out of an ideal state of mind for predictable reasons and in predictable patterns. That doesn’t mean that every player knows what the reasons are or what their pattern looks like, but it does mean they can figure it out with close examination. Why is this so important? Playing perfect poker over large samples is impossible. You are guaranteed to have times when your game is off, the key is not keeping that from happening, it’s minimizing how much your game slips when it does occur. The only way you can do that is by recognizing the early signs that your game has slipped and by understanding the cause of that slippage. That means studying your game. You already study your opponent’s tendencies in how they play; now you need to apply that same process to yourself and understand why and how your game falls off track. The most common reasons are: anger (tilt), fear, loss of motivation, too much or too little confidence, boredom, distraction, and not trusting your gut.

Once you’ve identified what’s causing your game to drop, use this four-step process to help you get back on track:

Recognition. You must be able to identify, in real time, the earliest sign of this problem, otherwise you will have very little chance of stopping it.

Deep breaths. This is not a kumbaya kind of thing; it’s simply to create separation in your mind from the problem and the solution in step three.

Inject logic. This is a fancy way of saying “thinking,” but it’s a thought or phrase that you write down ahead of time and say to yourself to get your mind back on track. For example, if you’re angry over a bad beat say, “Bad beats are a part of poker, I can’t control when I win, I can only control how profitably I play.”

Strategic reminder. Getting mentally shaken can make your common mistakes more likely to happen. To prevent this, remind yourself of how to correct them so you’re less likely to make them.

These simple strategies have been proven to work with thousands of poker players; the key is getting the details right for you. ♠

Ryan Riess won the 2013 World Series of Poker main event for $8,361,000. He graduated from Michigan State University with a Hospitality degree. In 2012, Reiss took second place at the WSOP Circuit main event in Hammond, Indiana for $239,063. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanRiess1.

Adam Levy has been playing professionally for over a decade. He recently won a 2014 World Championship of Online Poker event and has more than $4 million in online earnings as well as $2.3 million in live earnings. The highlight of his career came when he final tabled a €1,000 side event at European Poker Tour Monte Carlo while final tabling a Spring Championship of Online Poker-mid event online simultaneously. He went on to place third and first respectively for a combined $110,000. 

Jared Tendler, MS is a mental game coach for more than 350 poker players, including some of the best players in the world. He is the author of the bestselling books, The Mental Game of Poker 1 and 2. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @jaredtendler and visit his website: