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Head Games: Being Mentally And Physically Prepared To Improve Your Game

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jun 16, 2021

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The Pros: Garrett Adelstein, Matt Berkey, and Jon Van Fleet

Craig Tapscott: What kind of practices do you focus on away from the table that help prepare you for the long, grueling hours of poker? 

Garrett Adelstein: My morning ritual is the key to my well-being on and off the felt. It starts with a healthy meal, followed by a six-mile run with my dogs, finishing up with 20 minutes of meditation. I also lift weights four days a week in the afternoon. Nutritionally, I eat six clean meals a day, mostly avoiding sugar or any processed foods. Sounds super fun, right?

Both running and weightlifting are easily my best antidepressants. In a career filled with variance where so much is out of my control, running 5K races allows me to compete against myself in a pure, unbiased manner. Humans are biologically wired to run outside in the sun, not sit in an artificially-lit casino for most of their waking hours. 

Weightlifting has also always provided similar mood-enhancing effects. No matter how badly the deck punches me in the face in a given poker session, I can still feel a sense of accomplishment knowing I took care of the morning ritual. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that without these things, my mental health rapidly deteriorates.

Although this stringent training and nutrition regimen is executed primarily for my overall well-being, I suspect it makes all the difference in the world when I’m on hour 36 of a high-stakes poker session. Some poker players like to clock in and out at the same time daily, never playing more than eight hours… I couldn’t be more the opposite.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in recent years to only play poker when games are big and rather profitable. But once I’m in there battling it out, I’m not leaving until the game breaks, period. For those who play the largest live cash games, one’s execution in hours 12-48 represents a huge chunk of his or her overall profits. Most players never even get to that 12th hour.

Matt BerkeyMatt Berkey: I’ve been a firm believer in treating both my mind and body as though they are irreplaceable assets. This means staying diligent to daily routines which help me stay in peak physical and mental condition. Depending on where I’m at in my training cycles, I’m usually in the gym four to six times a week. My morning routine consists of a 45-minute sauna session as well as a daily meditation and journaling when I find myself in a place where my mind feels cluttered. These practices carry over to the felt as it’s easy to get caught up in the throes of battle and lose the laser focus necessary to perform at an elite level. By challenging my mind and body off the felt routinely, I’m essentially training my subconscious to respond calmly to chaos. 

Jon Van Fleet: I gained about 30 pounds during COVID. I felt kind of stuck. I’d try to eat healthy for a few days, but then I’d have a bad session and eat poorly. Over the last few months, I’ve finally changed things up and have a routine that’s working for me. I’ve lost about 40 pounds now. The main thing I’ve been doing is fasting (drinking coffee and water) and only eating within a six- to eight-hour window. I’ve been eating kind of late, between 5 PM and 11 PM and that’s not great for digestion, but so far this is working. If I’m busy working, that isn’t that hard to do during the day. At night relaxing, is when I go off the rails, so I feel it’s better to have my window then. 

As far as physical exercise goes, I lift three to five times a week with my trainer. I have plans to train in Muay Thai once everything opens up again as well. I miss that feeling of really pushing myself and being covered in sweat. The sun just came out recently in Vancouver, so I’ve been enjoying walking around and looking at the cherry blossoms. 

I’m not sure if anything really prepares you for sitting in a chair all day as much as poker players do. We really have to do something to counteract the fact that we sit on our butts all day. One trick I like to do occasionally is high-intensity training on my break, for one to two minutes, if I’m not feeling very sharp. For me, that’s just running up and down my stairs or doing push-ups or something of that nature. Above all, the brain and body need rest. Time spent on self-care is worthwhile time, especially if you play a brain game for a living. Take care of yourself, everyone!

Craig Tapscott: Share a few things you do that keep your mind sharp, and spirit and motivation fed in between your sessions or tournaments?

Garrett AdelsteinGarrett Adelstein: Motivation comes from a person’s ‘why.’ For the overwhelming majority of professional poker players grinding it out, their why is to put food on the table and get their rent paid. This is the heartbreaking reality for most in our industry, and it’s the biggest reason why I often advocate to those who email me for advice, to avoid poker as a primary income source.

For a few unicorns in the high-stakes poker world, they need a different why as earning another million isn’t going to move the needle on their quality of life a single iota. My why is multifaceted, but starts with using additional profits to improve the lives of those I love, friends and family. Further, my fiancé and I are committed to philanthropy, regularly donating to the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program where I am also a mentor. With this in mind, the guilt I used to consistently feel for spending most of my adult life on a zero-sum game is slightly alleviated.

One’s mental game is everything in high-stakes poker as the dollar amounts won or lost in a single hand alone can be enormous. When nothing is going right for me in a session, my first line of defense comes from gratitude. I’m so grateful for so much in my life, from my health, to my loved ones, and yes poker as well. The fact that I’m even able to play high-stakes poker often blows my mind. All poker players have a multitude of reasons to feel grateful.

Between sessions, I have successfully used CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to fight my cognitive distortions and mourn big losing poker sessions with greater success. What’s the point of making a ton of money playing poker if you are still going to be miserable the 40% of sessions you lose? I’ve spent the last decade of my life focused on how to incorporate poker into an otherwise peaceful existence with some success. I truly feel for the majority of poker players who struggle with this critical skill. The goal isn’t primarily to get rich, it’s to find a way to smile regularly.  I’ll always be cheering for more people in our community to make that happen.

Matt Berkey: Staying mentally sharp is a byproduct of pursuing curiosities regularly. Be it homing in on specific strategy elements, or just engaging regularly with intelligent people about areas of life where I lack proficiency, I find that I’m most challenged when I’m searching for a way to think about problems which don’t necessarily have solutions.

Poker is a fantastic sandbox in this way as strategies tend to be fluid with multiple solutions, all of which can be tailored to the specific scenario and environment you’re currently solving for. There’s a fine line between finding exploits and falling victim to circular logic- having a method of checks and balances, be it a trusted group of peers or solver study, to scrutinize my lines of logic has proven invaluable to this process. 

Jon Van FleetJon Van Fleet: I think my motivation is just fed naturally. I love being at the top of my game and enjoy the process of studying poker, even if I sometimes bitch about it. However, I have placed a really high priority on mind training. Mindfulness and meditation have been a big part of my life over the last eight years. I’ve gone on numerous retreats, including two 10-day Vipassana retreats, and try to have a daily practice of meditation. Mindfulness and awareness have kind of saved my life to be honest. I used to be a fairly unhappy, anxious person, and I believe that I’ve somehow turned down the volume of my brain if that makes any sense. I know that research suggests that you can create new neural pathways through meditation as well.

After saying all of that, I have to admit I’m actually somewhat out of practice with pure meditation as I’ve been working on my precision breathing with Neuropeak, a biofeedback program that Stephen Chidwick recommended to me. So far, we’ve been training biofeedback, heart rate variability, and precision breathing. I’ve found it pretty easy to get a rhythm if my eyes are closed, but everything goes out the window if I’m working or something stressful happens. I’m only a couple of weeks into the program but so far, I’m impressed.

Like anybody else, I’ve been super frustrated by poker many times and gotten stuck in negative mental feedback loops where I obsess over my luck, how bad I am at poker, or how bad someone else is at poker. None of those thoughts are relevant to making good decisions. A few powerful tools for helping me get out of negative mind states are gratitude and thanking people daily. It’s good to remember that I am lucky that I get to play a game for a living. In my mind, the optimal mental state for poker is sharp, calm, and detached. It still feels like a punch to the gut when I get sucked out on, but the time it takes to get back to that optimal state gets shorter and shorter. ♠

Garrett Adelstein has been a respected figure in the high-stakes poker scene since 2005. The former poker coach has played in some of the biggest live no-limit games in the Los Angeles and is a fixture on streams such as Live At The Bike. In 2013, Adelstein was a cast member on Survivor: Cagayan.

Matt Berkey is a high-stakes poker pro and the founder of Solve for Why Academy, an innovative poker training business. He is creator of the unique Poker Out Loud show, host of the popular Solve for Why Vlogcast, and star of Dead Money on PokerGO. Berkey has more than $4 million in career tournament earnings, including a seven-figure score in the 2016 Super High Roller Bowl.

Jon ‘apestyles’ Van Fleet is a noted poker author and has been incredibly successful online player for many years. With more than $17.5 million in cashes, he is currently in the top 10 on PocketFives’s all-time online poker money list. Van Fleet has many hours of poker training content available at www.bbzpoker.com. 

*Photos courtesy of Garrett Adelstein and Jon Van Fleet.