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Head Games: Know How to Train Your Mind and Emotions to Withstand the Variance of Tournament Poker

With Anthony Zinno, Jeff Madsen, and Quentin Lecomte

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jan 20, 2016


Anthony ZinnoCraig Tapscott: Variance and downswings will hit every poker player at one time or another. Can you please share a few times you have crashed and burned and how you recovered to be a better player?

Anthony Zinno: One of my most painful memories was a May 2012 WSOP Circuit stop at Harrah’s New Orleans. I had been selling action for other Circuit events prior to this, and did pretty well such that I only needed a min-cash or so in order to qualify and win a free seat into the $10,000 National Championship. So, I went down there with full confidence that, with about ten events to play, I’d easily make a decent run in a few, and my investor came on board.

About midway through the series, I hadn’t cashed in anything despite putting my best efforts in. I was doing everything as correctly as I could assess: getting decent sleep, starting on time, and focusing. But, I was seeing zero positive results, and this began to take a toll on my physical and mental well-being. I felt sluggish, and my confidence was dropping. Knowing that discipline is key, I kept my head up and continued to play my best, but ended up with zero cashes out of about ten events. My investor was angry with me, and I couldn’t help but feel as though I had done something wrong, so I felt like a total failure. Having no cashes there, I remained just-shy of the points required to earn the $10,000 seat.

This dropped my confidence such that I doubted my abilities to be a professional tournament player. But, I knew that the variance of tournaments dictated the possibility of this type of downswing, and thought a lot about whether I had played my A-game. I analyzed each of my bust-out hands and so on. Upon realizing that my bad run was mainly due to running poorly, I reacquired my confidence and learned the lesson that this will happen sometimes, and I’ll have zero control over it. This lesson was key for future downswings because I was better prepared for the financial and emotional dips that will occur, no matter how well I play sometimes.

Jeff MadsenJeff Madsen: I have faced downswings in my career multiple times, and I think the key thing is to have a good long-term perspective on the situation. Realize that it doesn’t help to blame it on variance; you can always improve as a player and, although I think everyone will tend to lose a big chunk of their bankroll at some point in their career, the variance can be overcome by really hard work and discipline. 

I started playing professionally in 2006 when I was 21, and I would say that the year or two after that was likely my biggest downswing; I had the most money to burn and my game wasn’t fine-tuned yet. My confidence started out high, but once I starting losing and getting into my own head about it, things began to go in the wrong direction. 

Mentally it’s hard to immediately flip flop and start playing solid and patient once you go on your first big losing streak, and it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The answer to this is the discipline training that you should be absorbing through many hours of work at the table. You have to be comfortable with a gradual comeback, making a little bit of money here and there; making gradual improvements to your game. With some people, the results of hard work aren’t seen right away, and it can be easy for a downswing of any kind to affect a player’s mental and physical well being. Train your mind, get tough enough to handle the downswings, and experience enough to see the big picture when it comes to your gradual progress in the game.

Quentin Lecomte: The most important thing for me is staying positive. This word does not mean much by itself, but I think that it’s something most poker players are not aware enough about.

When I lived through my first long live bad run, I had this stupid habit with my friends. When we were going to a tournament we were always saying stupid sentences like, “See you at the bar in three hours,” or, “It does not matter if I play well, my tournament will be over at the first all-in and call.” It was ironic. I was still trying to play my best game, but my mind obviously was not 100 percent positive.

One day I was part of the rail of a friend during the final table of a big tournament in France and, during the dinner break, he started telling me that he was very tired and that the win would be very difficult to get. I told him to think only about the positive, that he was going to win. At the end of the tournament, he won and came to tell me that my small advice helped a lot.

At this point, I realized how stupid I was not to apply it to myself every day. From then on, I started to have a much better philosophy towards the game. When I am running bad, instead of thinking about my downswing, I try to always find something positive to focus on, such as the good things I have done. This is actually harder; because, of course you are naturally going to think about the hands you played badly. It can look stupid, but every ten minutes I was telling myself, “this is your tournament to win”, and I really think that it helps me.

Craig Tapscott: Going on tilt and letting a bad beat or bad decision adversely affect you at the table can ruin your chances of going deep or even cashing. What are some of the ways you deal with the emotional swings of poker?

Anthony Zinno: I remember times in the past where I’d be playing a tournament, and then I’d lose a good chunk of my stack to a bad beat, or a bluff, or cooler, or something, and it would greatly affect my play for the rest of the tournament. Then the “gambling mentality” would kick in: I’d feel as though I needed to earn those lost chips back as soon as possible. This mentality (and emotional downswing) is destructive and one of the key causes for many downward spirals that I’ve experienced or witnessed.

Mathematically, we can’t “rush” our ability to acquire chips in poker tournaments. We have to patiently wait for the correct spots, and make the best play possible given the specific situation. If we feel a sudden desire to win chips immediately, it’s similar to a blackjack player who begins pressing bets (betting more than they had planned to, and leaving their comfort zone) in a desperate attempt to get back to even. They lose sight of the fact that the odds are against them, and that this will likely result in further losses.

So, how did I learn to conquer this bad behavior? There was a point that I realized that I should be able to “mentally reset” myself at times in tournaments in order to realize: even though things had just gone south, I could still play solid poker and find proper opportunities to chip back up. Anything that happened in the past (like, a hand played incorrectly or a bad beat), should still be mentally noted and used as beneficial information. However, the “mental reset” becomes key, in order to prevent ourselves from chasing action (for example, making frustrated, incorrect, or unnecessary decisions).

Jeff Madsen: The mental toughness I’ve gained has come from making many, many mistakes. Most of them I see as inevitable; mistakes that were key learning tools because I hadn’t thought strategically deep enough and wasn’t experienced enough to understand why they were mistakes. These are the kind of thoughts that each player will naturally have as they improve in the first few years of their career, and they are healthy stepping stones on a path to a more fine tuned game.

On the other hand, emotional mistakes are much more tricky and elusive to improve in the beginning, especially if your personality and natural demeanor may lend itself to “blow-ups” and general mental errors. The learning process of poker takes such a long time to get to a professional level that during the process, it’s inevitable that most players will find themselves in emotional situations at the table over and over again.  Whether it be tilt from a bad beat, going to war with a particular player unnecessarily, being distracted from the table because of something else in your life, or any other impulsive moment, you must remember to be very present and regulate a calm state of being as best you can. 

This means that the moment an emotional moment arises, be the observer of the emotion, but don’t let it overcome you. Easier said than done, but at least train yourself to catch your brain and bring it back to a calm, reasonable state so you can make clearheaded decisions more often. My advice—meditate!

Quentin Lecomte: The first thing I realized about myself, but also other people, is that after losing a big hand, many players will play the very next hand(s). It is easy to understand. You lost some chips and you want to get them back, so you have to be involved. But I’m always quite shocked when I see someone playing the very next hand for many reasons, as it can reveal a lot of information to your opponents.

First, your opponent is going to assume you have a range way more wide than usual because you might be on tilt. Then it also means you can’t really bluff as much as you should, because you will probably be more hero-called than usual.

But still players are going to do the exact opposite most often, play looser, and bluff more. My advice is to play tighter for a few minutes; because the other players are thinking you are probably on tilt, so you will be paid off easily if you have a good hand. Secondly, if your mind is affected by the hand you lost, at least you will make less mistakes by playing tighter.

Do not hesitate to stand up and take a walk. Missing a hand is always better than losing your stack. Of course, in a perfect world, you are not supposed to be affected, so you should be able to play exactly the same. But it’s a really bad idea to try to fight against yourself, even if you feel only a little tilted.

Of course, you can have some mental tricks like I spoke about before about staying positive. But if you feel that you are not 100 percent anymore at the table, don’t try to be a hero. Poker is about making fewer mistakes, a tournament is very long, we are not machines, and we can’t be at our best every time. ♠

Anthony Zinno is a professional poker player from Cranston, Rhode Island. He has won three World Poker Tour titles, tied for the most ever. In 2015, he won the $25,000 Pot-Limit Omaha Eight-Max WSOP bracelet for $1.1 million. Zinno has more than $5.2 million in career cashes.

Jeff Madsen was born in Santa Monica, CA and attended the University of California in Santa Barbara. He has won four WSOP bracelets and has accumulated more than $5.1 million in tournament cashes.

Quentin Lecomte, 23, started playing poker at 18 and turned professional in 2011. In the beginning,he played mostly online cash games, but after 2012 focused mostly on tournaments. Lecomte won the Unibet Open in Cannes for €100,000. He lives in Prague and, after poker, hopes to find a career in politics.


“Mathematically, we can’t ‘rush’ our ability to acquire chips in poker tournaments. We have to patiently wait for the correct spots, and make the best play possible given the specific situation.”
- Anthony Zinno

“The moment an emotional moment arises, be the observer of the emotion, but don’t let it overcome you.” 
- Jeff Madsen

“When I am running bad, instead of thinking about my downswing, I try to always find something positive to focus on.”
- Quentin Lecomte