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Head Games: How Best to Survive Long Days and The Mental and Physical Fatigue Of An Extended Tournament Series

With Kevin Schulz, Chris Tryba, and Jesse Wilke

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Mar 18, 2015

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Craig Tapscott: Whether you are playing many days in a row at a live poker series on the road or online at home during a two-week series, how do you personally maintain the mental and emotional balance and focus to make good decisions? 

Kevin Schulz: The mental game is an area that I’ve worked very hard on over the past couple of years. At the higher stakes, I think that this is an area that is one of the most important and often most overlooked. So to address this side of my game, I recently hired mental game coach Jared Tendler to work with me.

One of the biggest things so far that has helped me is keeping a journal. I write down some of my goals before each session and then I come back to them after I’m done playing. I’ll try to assess what I did well and not so well. But, more importantly, I try to take some time to figure out why I reacted the way I did in certain situations, because once I realize why something happened then I can begin to work on improving that aspect of my game. Before my session, I really like to write down things that might be bothering me in my life. By doing so I can tell myself that I’ll have plenty of time to work on those things after I’m done playing, but for now the most important thing I can do is put all my effort into playing. I already know that being a successful poker player is going to help me accomplish any other life goals. Mental skills are just like any other skill, the more you practice the better you are.  

It is oftentimes hard to stay on top of my mental game while I am playing a lot of days in a row. It’s normal for me to get tired. During these times, I rely on the work I had put in to prepare for an event to get me through to the end. It’s the preparation that really gives you an edge. It is not rational to think that I’ll be able to play my “A” game during the entire series. But I feel that since I’ve spent lots of time away from the table analyzing my mental game, I have learned to quickly figure out when I am not playing my best game. And rather than try to fight it, I just acknowledge that I’m not at my best and make adjustments to my play, for me that means tightening up my ranges and not trying to do too much.  

Besides my journal, I try to exercise before every session, if possible. I find it much easier to relax if I have exercised beforehand and I notice my brain works considerably better if my body is healthy.

Chris Tryba: Sleep! For sure sleep is first on my list, especially the older I get. If I’m well rested, the other important things, like diet and exercise, are less important. Sleeping arrangements are what I base a lot of my travel around. When I am well rested I am able to play focused, and longer, especially as a series progresses.  

Next on my list would be diet and exercise. Every year at this time, I undergo a juice cleanse and a fast in preparation for the World Series of Poker in Vegas. I lose a ton of weight, but more importantly, I purge my system of a lot of the garbage I’ve been shoveling down my gullet for ten months. By the time end of May rolls around, I’m feeling fantastic and more than ready to play my best.

Jesse Wilke: I think it’s important not to take winning for granted or to expect success. Many players feel that they are entitled to win or succeed based on their perception that they play superior poker to their opponents.  Even if they are correct that they do play significantly better, if superior play always won and there was no variance in results, the game would not exist as we know it; the fish have to win sometime.

Nothing in poker is promised, and often you will encounter situations where you will play great and lose anyway or play poorly but manage to find a win. So, it’s important to focus on the process of playing poker and your decision making, rather than the results.

For all of the many tournaments where I have ended a day with the chip lead or a huge stack, I always feel the most proud of days where it seems like nearly everything goes wrong, but I make it through the day based on scraping enough chips together through tough play and correct reads. If you focus on the results, past mistakes, or bad beats, rather than the hand that is in progress, you will make more mistakes than if you try and ignore what has happened and make the best decision in the moment.  The time for reflecting on mistakes is after you are done playing, not during. No matter what has happened so far in the tournament, the only hand that matters is the hand you’re currently playing.  

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the ways you take care of your body during this kind of stretch of intense poker play?

Kevin Schulz: These days when you look around at the top players playing the $100,000 buy-in events, there are very few overweight players. This is not a coincidence. From the players I’ve talked to, it is pretty much common knowledge that taking care of your body is one of the biggest edges available to them.

It can be very hard to take care of your body while playing a big online series and especially when travelling. When I travel, I’ve been trying to find places on AirBnB instead of staying in hotels. It’s nice to have a place with a kitchen. I can at least have a healthy breakfast and I can get away from the casino for a little bit. Sometimes, like in the Bahamas, it’s hard to find places like that and it sucks having to spend $20 or more a day at hotels to use the gym. Even though hotel gyms are expensive, it’s still one area that I’m okay to spend money on because I think it pays for itself by a great deal. You can also get a really good workout in at a hotel room doing body weight stuff or yoga, if you don’t want to spend the money on a gym.

Before Black Friday I was overweight and I went through kind of a life change where I realized how much better I felt and how much more energy I had when I made healthier choices. I had a lot of tilt issues and was generally lazy about improving; once I started to exercise and eat healthier I was able to control my emotions much better.  

During the week that I won the PCA Main Event, I was either in the gym, or out enjoying the water slides every morning before I played. I think it really paid huge dividends as we got later into the tournament; I was able to focus and stay relaxed in such a high-stress environment. I really believe that it was a very significant edge for me.

Chris Tryba: As I mentioned previously, the preparation for the summer in Vegas is key. During the WSOP, I swim, and mildly watch what I eat.  Unfortunately, my track record once the WSOP is over has been piss poor and certainly something I can work on in the future.

The older I get, the harder it is to stay motivated to exercise and eat healthier. It is far easier to eat anything I want, get fat, and remain lazy. And to be honest, that’s never a great recipe for ongoing success at the tables. This year, I’m planning on a mid-year cleanse and a fast with the hopes it will keep me on track.

Jesse Wilke: I’ve lost 105 pounds in the last 20 months by working out and dieting, dropping from 345 pounds to 240 (I’m 6’1”, for perspective). The improvement this has made to my game, especially on long tournament days, is enormous. There is an element of physical fatigue when you play for 12 to 14 hours straight where, if you are not eating well, didn’t get enough sleep, or are not physically fit, that rears its head as you enter the second half of the day.

In many ways, live poker can be an endurance competition. This is even truer when you’re at a long series and stringing multiple extended days of play together in a row. The most important thing you can do to stay physically and mentally present is to get a good night’s sleep. Nothing will cause mental and physical fatigue quicker than trying to operate on four hours of sleep. 

Also, I try and get to the tournament site a day early to adjust for the time zone and the new environment I am sleeping in. I like to take a melatonin sleep aid with me as well. I don’t always need it to fall asleep, but it can be priceless when I do.

Finally, try and do something a little physical before you start playing. Personally, I like to get a full workout in the hotel gym a couple of hours before I play or simply go for a stroll outside or a brisk walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes. It can help to get some of that nervous energy out, and lets you concentrate on the day’s play better.

Finally, eat your big meal before you start playing, and eat something light on dinner break as a “booster.” If I eat something heavy at dinner, I will find myself nodding off a bit, so I try and stick to a lighter calorie dinner, usually protein and veggies. I also avoid eating a lot of sugar or anything with a lot of processed carbohydrates. ♠

Kevin Schulz won the 2015 EPT PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $1.4 million. Before he fell in love with poker, Kevin won a gold medal in singles and a silver medal in doubles at the 2004 AAU Junior Olympic games in the sport of table tennis. Schulz has more than $2.1 million in live and online career cashes.

Chris Tryba won a WSOP gold bracelet in the 2012 $2,500 mixed hold’em limit/no-limit event. He has also won two WSOP Circuit rings. Tryba has more than $1.5 million in live career cashes.

Jesse Wilke is a 32 year old professional poker player and poker coach for both live and online play. He recently won the WSOP Circuit main event in Lake Tahoe. He can be found on twitter @bbkpoker.