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The Psychological Side Of Being a Poker Winner - Part 2

by Marvin Karlins, Ph.D |  Published: Apr 25, 2018


“The most likely candidate to beat you at the table is yourself.”

In the first part of this two-part article, I presented the first three of eight critical psychological keys to enhance your winning chances at the poker table. They were: (1) Follow the “BMW” approach to drive yourself to victory (Bag, get in the Money, Win the tournament); (2) Focus on being the best you can be, not the best there is, when it comes to playing poker and (3) Try not to make mistakes, but when you do, put them behind you and move forward. Below are the final five keys to keep that all-important mental edge on your side of the table.

(4) Never play poker unless your desire to do so is strong!

Poker is a hard way to make easy money. Even the best players lose far more often than they win. The hours are long. The nature of the game itself — with the luck factor thrown in—can lead to excruciating losses. Mike Sexton, of World Poker Tour fame, nailed it in his book Life’s a Gamble when he said:

“I always tell anyone who is thinking about becoming a professional player that even if you have the talent to do it and are a winning player, if you don’t love to play poker—not like to play, but love to play—don’t do it because you’ll be miserable.”
Unless I am really enthused to play, I won’t. It’s that simple. I suspect that if I played poker for a living I’d probably end up with a severe case of “burn-out.” Hey, I had difficulty maintaining my poker passion through six straight weeks of play at the 2017 WSOP!

You know how you feel when you’ve eaten far more than you should have at the local buffet? That bloated stomach, the queasy feeling, the mental image of a stuffed turkey you can’t ignore? You can over-indulge in poker, too. Each person has their poker limit: when the game can’t hold your interest and your passion. When that limit is reached, it’s time for a break from the tables. I’ve never met a successful poker player who is bored with the game. Seasoned pros know the signs of burn-out and will take a break from the tables to rejuvenate their bodies and passion for the game when their joy for playing wanes. Those that don’t usually end up either broke or in some other line of work.

A friend once asked me if I made a living playing poker and I said: “I make a life playing poker.” If you love the game, you’ll understand the distinction… and be in the correct psychological frame of mind to win.

(5) Recognize that great tournament players can’t be afraid to take risks: This psychological behavior is well-described by my friend Steve who went to a circus and watched a performer do all kinds of fancy acrobatics as he walked a high wire between platforms set 40 feet off the ground. A few weeks later my friend visited a different circus and saw a different high-wire act. This time the performer simply walked across the thin wire, using a long pole to keep his balance. Yet, Steve was much more impressed with him than the acrobatic first performer.

Why? Because the second performer didn’t use a safety net. If he fell he faced severe injury or death, and Steve appreciated the risk the performer was taking to entertain him.

If you want to be a successful no-limit hold’em player you need to be a risk-taker. You can’t worry about falling, about building safety nets. There’s no room for the faint-of-heart, risk-aversive performer in no limit poker! When money becomes anything more than a method of keeping score, you’re dead.

(6) It is good to feel confident at the tables; but self-pride can be a killer. Whenever I am asked to draw the line between constructive confidence and destructive pride I’m reminded of an incident involving the gambling whale Kerry Packer. Before he passed away, Packer was an Australian tycoon who regularly bet 10 to 20 million a weekend on gambling junkets around the world. One day, while gambling high-limit baccarat at Caesars Palace, he became disturbed by a foul-mouthed gambler who was playing at his table and cursing the dealers for his bad luck. Eventually, Kerry’s patience wore thin and he politely asked the player to stop behaving so rudely. That made the loser even more abrasive and he told the Australian: “Listen, buddy, you obviously don’t know who you’re talking to… I happen to be a Texas oil tycoon and I’m worth more than $40 million!” Upon hearing this claim, Packer casually replied: “I’ll flip you for it.” The Texas gambler was crushed: his pride drained like air from a busted balloon.

“Pride!” You can’t be prideful and be a winner at the poker table. Confident, yes; prideful, no! Pride can cloud your judgment and put you on tilt. Pride can make you play over your head rather than with it. It can make you beat yourself. Humility is a poker player’s winning hand; never forget that “pride goeth before the fall”

(7) Know when to quit winners!

Early in my gambling career I was in Vegas with a husband and wife who were my friends. After a particularly dismal gambling session we all headed to the elevator to call it a night. Or so I thought. Once the elevator doors closed my two friends got in a heated argument. The husband told his wife to “give me back the money I told you not to give me.” At first his wife steadfastly refused, already furious about her husband’s casino losses. Finally, however, she relented and said in disgust: “Here is your damn thousand…just take it and leave me alone, I’m going to bed.” At which point the wife got off the elevator and the husband nodded to me. “Let’s head downstairs and get our money back,” he said resolutely. It was 11:00 PM. Some five hours later my married friend had enjoyed an obvious “heater:” running the original grand into $80,000 at the baccarat table! Four more hours passed and he lost it all back, including the initial thousand. His entire bankroll was gone! There was nothing left to do but go back upstairs to his room where he was met at the door by his wife. “Well…?” she asked, “how did you do?”

“I lost the thousand,” the husband replied without hesitation.

Which was “technically” true and probably saved Vegas from recording another homicide. Don’t you be the gambler that eats like a bird (bets small) when he’s winning and shits like a moose (bets big in an attempt to get his losses back). Most important: don’t go for the chandeliers… when you’re winning at poker, especially cash games, know when to walk away winner. It’s what separates the victors from the vanquished.
(8) Don’t gamble with money you can’t comfortably afford to lose.

There’s an old gambling story that’s been circulating for years. It always gets a laugh, but don’t let the humor hide the severe problem it identifies. A guy goes to his friend’s house and wants to borrow $400. When the friend asks him why he needs the cash, the man explains he is desperately low on funds and faces loss of electricity and maybe even eviction if he can’t come up with the money. Feeling sorry for his buddy, the homeowner goes into his bedroom, fetches four hundred-dollar bills and hands them over. The borrower takes out his wallet and shoves the cash inside, thanking his new creditor as he does so. But wait! As the man opens his wallet the lender sees several hundred-dollar bills already nestled there.

“Hold on a minute,” he says with surprise, “I thought you said you didn’t have enough money to pay your bills…what about that cash in your wallet?”

“Oh, that… that’s gambling money,” explained the man who had requested the loan.

I call degenerate/compulsive/addictive gambling the “termite disease:” because you often don’t discover it until the house is ready to collapse. No gambler should ever be betting money he or she can’t afford to lose. Not only can it affect one’s quality of life, it can also affect his/her quality of play. When you’re betting cash you have to win it affects your decision-making: you take risks when you shouldn’t and don’t when you should. It’s simple, really: scared money never wins in the long run.

In sum, poker is a game of skill, luck and psychology. Work on incorporating the eight keys I have presented to unlock your mental prowess and give yourself the best chance possible of winning at the tables…and in life. ♠

Marvin Karlins is co-author of Read ‘em and Reap and Deal Me In. This article is taken from his newest poker book, A Chip and a Prayer, available at bookstores and online booksellers May 22.