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Willpower Part II

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Dec 06, 2017


When you are at the table you must fight for every chip. When you are away from the table, you must do everything you can to improve. In sports, the top performers, not only fight furiously during the competition, but also work harder on their skills and conditioning-think Steph Curry or Jerry Rice-than their opponents do. This also applies to games like chess (Magnus Carlsen) or bridge partnerships (Meckwell or Levin-Weinstein.) There is a German word wehrwille, which means war will and implied that who wants most to win will win. During World War II, German troops appear to have lost their will to win when attacking Russia as the temperatures plummeted to 65 below zero. Poker players also go through cold periods, but if they want to survive, they have to maintain their will to win.

Another piece of supporting evidence, that discipline can become exhausted, comes from the non-poker behavior of winning players. They are capable of maintaining their self-control for long hours of poker play, but by the time they leave the game, their self-control is used up. Without mentioning any names, many, perhaps most, of the top players have had problems with self-control in other areas. They abuse substances – frequently smoking, drinking, or using drugs. They have problems with their weight.

The percentage of poker players who have elected to undergo some form of gastric bypass (having their stomach ‘shrunk’) to enforce disciplined eating is much higher than the population as a whole. They are often undisciplined in other forms of gambling. It is common to see successful poker players lose consistently at sports betting or craps, and not have the discipline to quit those negative equity pursuits.

There is another important implication of the hypothesis that self-control operates in a fashion analogous to muscle strength. Muscles that are fully stressed, and then given time to recover, are strengthened. This may well apply to developing increased discipline and self-control. If so, it should be possible to push your ‘discipline muscle’ to make a maximum exertion, and then after allowing time for rest and recovery, it will be stronger. On the next occasion, you may be able to continue in a disciplined state for a longer time or to maintain a higher, more effective level of self-control than on your previous attempt. Over time, it should be possible to develop quite a bit of strength in the area.

One of the reasons that poker requires so much will power is that you must focus on so many things at once. Live games require you to watch and to listen to as many as nine opponents. They are located on the left, the right and across. You must also remember your hand, the board, folded cards in stud games, and the previous action on the current hand. Then everything you see, hear and learn about this hand must be compared to previous things you have learned about your opponents or this particular type of situation. You are undertaking an effort that requires extreme multi-tasking. The best players seem to take everything in, analyze it, draw the correct conclusions, and make the winning play.

Prolonged mental efforts deplete blood sugar. Eating too much refined sugar will cause a sharp spike in your glucose levels, which will be followed by a steep drop. So will any kind of large meal. Eating a piece of a fruit will help maintain your energy, without creating the sharp rise followed by the sudden drop in energy. A moderate amount of caffeine has also been shown to increase or maintain alertness.

Conclusions and advice for the poker player:

Develop a healthy life style.
Work on your game away from the table.
Work to strengthen your ‘discipline muscle.’
Find opponents whose discipline has been exhausted. They will be tired, and playing too many hands.
Avoid exhausting your discipline muscle by trying to focus on too many things or playing too long.
Avoid playing when your discipline has been exhausted. (This is, of course, much easier said than done. It is difficult to dredge up the discipline to quit, when your store of discipline has already been depleted.)

In tournaments, you are forced to play long, grueling sessions. Maximize the benefits of your breaks by relaxing or even meditating, and perhaps having a light snack, like a piece of fruit. ♠

Steve ZolotowSteve ‘Zee’ Zolotow aka Zebra is a very successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 40 years. With two WSOP bracelets, over 50 cashes, and a few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his Vegas gaming time to poker, and can be found in cash games at Bellagio and at tournaments during the WSOP. When escaping from poker, he spends the spring and the fall in New York City where he hangs out at his bars: Doc Holliday’s, The Library and DBA.