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Head Games: How To Stay Mentally Strong During A Poker Session

Three Mental Game Experts Weigh In

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Feb 09, 2022

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The Experts: Jason Su, Elliot Roe, and Jared Tendler

Craig Tapscott: What type of pregame warmup do you recommend so that you can sit down and play your ‘A’ game? 

Jason Su: A lot of people will suggest stuff like meditation, exercise, or eating a healthy meal to prepare for a session. These are all fine suggestions, but in reality, everyone is different, and this is very generic advice that doesn’t take into account what the person’s life is like and what helps them feel calm and centered. What I’ve found from working with many different types of people is that the thing that will unlock your highest levels of performance has less to do with “what” you do and more “how” you do it.

Exercising before a poker session is a great idea in theory, but if you’re just checking off a box and going through the motions, that’s the exact dynamic you’re going to be bringing with you into your session—one where you’re not fully present, engaged, and ready for battle. Show up like this often enough, and the quality of your play will decline. You may then start to feel disillusioned with your pregame routine and want to switch to something else. But you haven’t identified the true problem, which is that the way you’re executing your pregame doesn’t create the feeling of readiness inside you to play.

Now, imagine your pregame routine involves you doing something that very few people would say is particularly useful in terms of preparing for a session, like folding your laundry. If you consistently do this before sessions in a way that creates a calm, relaxed, and connected feeling inside you, you’ll often take your game to another level that day.

I suggest working backwards: what things do you think might put you in a state where you feel present, grounded, confident, and excited to play? Go do that. The answer might shift from day to day, but over time if you work the question from this angle rather than “should I do this?” or “should I do that?” you’ll find that the answers you come up with will be just right for getting you ready to play today—which is the only thing that matters.

Eliot Roe: Preparation is key to success in today’s poker environment. High-level professionals look for any edge they can take to have full focus at the tables. This includes personal training routines, nutrition plans, and even sleep coaches to ensure they’re at their best when it’s time to play.

It’s no surprise that if you watch a modern high roller tournament, you’ll notice the vast majority of the field are in good [physical] shape. This is so they can focus fully over multiple days. Not all players have the time or money to put all of this in place, so I recommend players follow our A.G.A.M.E protocol before each session:

A — Attend to physical needs. Use the bathroom, have water and healthy snacks on hand, etc. This should allow you to focus on the game without physical distraction.
G — Goals for your session. Spend a few moments thinking about the specific areas of the game you’re looking to focus on today. Having specific areas of the game you will focus on during your session will help boost motivation and focus. 
A — Activate your mind. Pull up a few hand histories and look them over to get your mind into poker mode (ideally, they should relate to your session’s focus covered in goals). Consider this a warm-up in the way you would stretch before exercising. 
M — Mp3s or Meditation. Spend a few minutes following a mindfulness meditation practice or utilize my specific poker warm-up audios on my Primed Mind mobile app. 
E — Eliminate distractions. Shut off your phone, ask friends and family to respect your time, close out any social media and ruthlessly eliminate all distractions that could take your focus from the session

If you put these into place prior to each session, you should notice more focus and less tilt in your game.

Jared Tendler: When I started coaching poker players over a decade ago, I had a hard time convincing players of the value of warming themselves up to play. That’s not the case anymore, but players still have some confusion about what their warmup should look like. First thing you need to do is put away everything outside of poker. In order to have the kind of pure focus you need to play your best; you need to be free of everything else in your life. For many of you, that means putting your phone away while you play. It’s affecting you more than you realize.

Once your mind is clear of everything unrelated to poker, you’ve got space to think about how you’re going to dominate. This is less of a mental thing and more technical. What’s your game plan? Be specific about how you want to play and what mistakes you’re trying to avoid. I realize this is dependent on your table, but there are aspects of your game unrelated to your opponents. You never want to beat yourself, and a surefire way to prevent that from happening is to make sure you’re clear on the mistakes you can get sucked into and how you’re going to avoid them.

Lastly, do the same thing for the mental mistakes – tilt from a bad runout, passively playing hands to avoid variance, getting distracted, or becoming overconfident winning a few big pots. Whatever mental game mistakes tend to affect you, be clear on your strategy to correct or even prevent them from happening. Too often players show up thinking they’ll be able to avoid them because they “know” better. Guess what, you might know not to do that, but that’s not the same as actually being able to handle those spots differently. If you’re not prepared, you’re gambling with your mental game.

Craig Tapscott: You just took a horrific beat. What do you do to regain your composure and get your head back into the game?

Jason Su: In these spots I like to start with what not to do. Definitely do not start by trying to reframe what just happened in a positive light by saying any of the following things to yourself:

“It’s all one long game.”
“If I just keep getting it in good, the luck will even out.”
“I’m happy that happened because I want my opponents to play like that against me.” 

These are ways that people deflect their attention from the natural emotional responses that are happening. These “positive mindset” adjustments are empty calories—no amount of repeating them to yourself is actually going to make you feel better, and may even drive you further into madness when you realize later that you feel even more agitated than before.

At some point everyone decided that experiencing emotions at the poker table is detrimental to your winrate, and that the solution is just to pretend they aren’t there. The problem is that emotions are real, they come when they want, and you have no control over when they show up. Denying that they exist is how things get bottled up.

Do that for too long, and that’s when you’ll see people “blowing up” over small things. It’s not the thing that just happened that triggered the meltdown, it’s the stress and burden caused by continually refusing to be with your emotions. Feeling your feelings doesn’t mean you have to cry, rage, or shout. It just means being willing to feel them come through you when they show up, no big deal.

Agitated thoughts are a reflection of an agitated nervous system, and you can’t make them go away by just telling yourself to think something else. What you need in these moments is to create presence and relaxation in the nervous system. Take a breath, then feel your emotions. Be with the experience you’re having without telling yourself that it’s wrong or that you need to fix it. Doing this will relax the system and allow your thought patterns to shift into the version of yourself who doesn’t need to convince yourself that you’re okay—because you actually will feel okay.

Elliot Roe: It can be tough to deal with a bad beat at the table. You get our money in good, and you are almost counting your new stack when the one outer hits on the river crushing your expectations. So how do we ensure it doesn’t impact the rest of the session? 

The first step is making sure all of the pre-game routines are carried out, as they will give you better defense against the tilt caused by bad beats. Ideally, you’re so well prepared when they happen you just smile and move to the next hand.

If you’re feeling an emotional response, take in a few deep breaths with long exhales, this will calm your nervous system and get you out of fight or flight faster. 

Next is to accept you did your job, you got your money in good, and even though the cards went against you, you won EV in the hand and your thought process was correct. Reframing can be a powerful tool in regaining your composure. 

And even better than reframing after the beat, framing it properly in the first place. You see, the biggest issue isn’t necessarily that you lost the pot, it’s the expectation you created in your mind.

If in your mind, you’ve already won the hand and are visualizing yourself scooping a massive pot, you’re creating a massive gap between your expectation in and what really happens. MTT players get into this habit a lot, when they are already spending first place money in their mind when they are chip leader with 20 players left. 

Being realistic with your odds to win or lose a hand, and being ready for the worst possible scenario, goes a long way in preventing the emotion before it starts. 

Focus on the truth that poker is a long-term game. You should view yourself as the casino looking at quarterly results rather than the gambler focusing on every spin of the roulette wheel. If you keep getting your money in good you will profit over time, so the bad beat should be as meaningless to you as the casino losing a hand of blackjack to a gambler. It’s important always to ensure you’re playing in games you are truly rolled for as this will also help defend you against excessive responses to bad beats. 

Jared Tendler: The seasoned top pros that I work with don’t have a problem handling sick beats. Do they get angry? Sure. Does it affect their play? No. Do they have some superpower? Heck no. The reality is that bad beats, regardless of how disgusting they are, don’t have to cause anger. Thinking about it objectively it’s not the bad beat that causes anger. The anger is a result of a faulty perception that you have about poker or yourself. The top players that I’ve worked with, and frankly many other players at all levels of the game, don’t tilt from bad beats because they’ve corrected the flaws in their mentality.

How did they do this? You first need to understand precisely why horrific beats cause so much tilt. Think about the sick beats you’ve taken that have tilted you, and ask yourself why did they piss you off so much? Your answers will likely include something about how much money it cost you, or the title you could have won. That’s reasonable, and yet, why is it flawed? Because you don’t control the run out. You don’t control the cards. So even thinking that it cost you something presumes it would have been yours. This is a fantasy.

The next time you take a crazy beat, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you don’t control the cards. Whatever you wanted to happen didn’t. You can either live in the fantasy of what could have been, or you can deal with the reality of what is. Talk yourself through it and get yourself to focus on the next hand. That hand is directly affected by the quality of your mental state. Get yourself together and don’t allow the beat to start a self-inflicted downward slide. ♠

Jason Su is the author of the book, Poker With Presence. Using his background of nearly 20 years as a winning professional player in all forms of poker, Jason now works with poker players, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and competitive athletes, helping them create their highest levels of presence and performance on a daily basis. You can find him on Twitter at @jasonbsu or read more about his work at 
pokerwithpresence.com.

Elliot Roe is a world-renowned Mindset and Performance Coach who helps those in highly demanding industries unlock their full potential, perform on-demand, and become the best in the world. Elliot is the voice of the Primed Mind podcast, and mentors a team of elite coaches. To learn more about how you can improve your mindset, visit primedmind.com and elliotroe.com.

Jared Tendler is a mental game coach for over 650 poker players hailing from 45 countries, including some of the top players in the world. He is the author of the bestselling books, The Mental Game of Poker 1 and 2. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @jaredtendler and visit his website jaredtendler.com.