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Poker Strategy: Training Your Mind To Withstand Variance

Jeff Gross, Kelly Minkin, Ryan Fee, and Matt Waxman Share Their Tips


The Pros: Jeff Gross, Kelly Minkin, Ryan Fee, and Matt Waxman

Craig 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 more importantly, how you recovered to be a better player?

Jeff Gross: Variance is inevitable if you have played poker for any significant period of time. I believe being balanced during the highs and lows is one of the most important attributes to be a successful poker player and withstand the test of time.

I had a rough patch last September during the PokerStars WCOOP (World Championship Of Online Poker) intensive tourney grind. I streamed on Twitch and played long days. One day seemed to roll into another, and by the end of the series I was burned out. I had taken a good hit from high-stakes tournaments and had subpar results. This caused me to really take a look at my daily preparation, as well as to evaluate the number of tables I was playing.

I saw some key mistakes I would never have made when playing a reasonable number of tables. My focus was clearly off. I came to a big realization that quality is the answer over quantity. It sounds simple, but it’s really important. Sometimes taking a real beating is significant. My dad always told me, ‘It’s not about what happens, but how you react to what happens.’ Great players that are able to take negative experiences and obtain valuable lessons will experience continued success.

Kelly MinkinKelly Minkin: In 2014, I started making regular trips from Phoenix to The Commerce Casino in Los Angeles to play high-stakes no-limit cash games. I had only been playing poker for a couple years, but quickly moved up in stakes as I became a winning player at each level. I built up what I believed at the time was a decent bankroll, and decided that I wanted to take a shot at the bigger games. 

One of the first trips I made to Commerce, I brought $10,000 with me to play the $10-$20 game. Knowing what I know now, that was not enough for the low-end of variance. It was a five-day trip, and on the first day I ended up losing my entire roll after a few bad beats and bad plays. I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to fly back to Phoenix early. I took the walk of shame back to my room, but before I packed my bags, I decided to give it another shot. I asked the concierge if I could get a ride to the bank, which they politely obliged. I withdrew another $10,000 and went back to the tables determined to make a comeback. I clawed my way back and ended up in the black about $35,000. I kept my head on, played solidly, and ran pure. From that moment on, the regulars remembered my name. 

Of course, mentally, the lows of poker take a toll. But being able to recover from a downswing truly is what separates the faint of heart from those that can withstand the blows. It boils down to a positive mindset, as well as the tools that you learn are necessary to be a successful player. If it is out of my control, I try to focus my energy on what I can control, which is my emotions. It is a skill I am good at, and it goes a long way not only in poker, but in all aspects of life.

Ryan Fee: A lot of people treat poker like a sprint, when it’s really a marathon. There are times when you get really lucky and other times really unlucky. Perhaps you were in a good game and you were clear headed and played well. When good games come up, it’s your responsibility to be in the mix and to wait for perfect spots to happen. Be patient. I’ve definitely been too aggressive in my early years as I developed as a player.

One time I was staking some tournament players, which turned out to be a huge mistake. They were losing consistently, and it was extremely demoralizing. Then I also went on a downswing. I did silly stuff like flipping and lost a bunch. I was depressed and sad for a few weeks and stopped playing entirely, which was rare for me at the time.

In the long run, however, it was a huge learning period for me. I slowed down, took a break. I began to seek out the best games for me. And I learned how valuable it was to play within my bankroll. And to tell you the truth, that’s really the secret for success. Be financially responsible with your roll. It’s a major factor as you move up in stakes.

Matt WaxmanMatt Waxman: Luckily this was a lesson I learned at an early age when it was much easier to recover. I was blinded by the lure of being a poker superstar like the heroes I watched on TV such as Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey. When I was 18, I did well in games with high school friends and looked for bigger action out on the nightly cruise ship games. Back then Florida land-based casinos didn’t host any games where you could beat the rake. I did well in the $4-$8 limit all summer and was feeling confident, so I sat down to play $5-$10 no-limit with my friend Alex Jacob (Jeopardy! champion), whom I would drive there with every night.

My whole roll was about $2,000, and I lost it all in a big three way all-in. Another time, I bought into the L.A. Poker Classic with about 75% of my net worth for $10,000 and bluffed off most of my stack at level two. The problem was that I was too interested in proving I was a big deal in poker, and not concerned enough with treating the game like a profession. Ironically, I didn’t have my first big breakthrough until I stopped caring about the glory so much and started properly managing a bankroll and developing a good work ethic.

Tournament poker was great because it provided the opportunity for a lot of freedom at such a young age, both financially and being able to travel. And I could take time off whenever I chose to. But such a small percentage of people who try to make it as a pro, actually succeed. And worst of all, you have a job where the overwhelming majority of days, you’re going home disappointed.

These losses would have such a detrimental impact on my psyche, because my head was filled with dreams of greatness. It’s almost as if I thought I was destined to win and would just be brutally disappointed time and time again after extending way too much money to take a shot at a big tournament. The fact of the matter is you can’t control the outcome of one tournament, so it’s best to focus on the things you can control, like understanding the math of the game or human psychology behind various table dynamics. The best player doesn’t win every tournament, they just have the best chance of winning a tournament. Put in the work, don’t overextend yourself, and if you’re a great player (or a lucky one), you’ll end up successful. 

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

Jeff GrossJeff Gross: Going on tilt is a serious problem. We all tilt in some capacity, so minimizing this is the key. On my podcast with Kahle Burns, we discussed this in depth. He reveals that this is possibly his stoniest attribute. I also believe I deal with this better than most, but it’s something I am constantly aware of and work on. I do my best to get as close to a Zen-like mindset as possible.

Showing mental distress will almost always work against you. If you take a two outer with only the river to come and pound the table or curse, this shows you are vulnerable and can add a bigger target on your back. No one likes to be unlucky or unfortunate, but poker, just like life, is a numbers game. Good things happen, and not so good things happen.

One trick I find is to quickly think of positive things in your life or even something as cliche as the miracle of being born and being alive. Thinking something like this can shift your mind and may be the difference between being predator or prey. I have picked this up from some of the game’s best. The players I respect the most all seem to have this trait in common, and that carries over into not telling bad beat stories and constantly complaining.

Kelly Minkin: I often get complimented at the table on how well I handle bad beats in high equity spots. It is one of the reasons, I believe, that I have an edge against the average player. The reality is most people are not capable of maintaining composure in times where the emotional tilt creeps up on you. Every individual that plays poker has experienced tilt, but it’s what you do when you feel tilted that matters. If you can recognize it, acknowledge it, and let it pass, then you can defeat the beast that defeats most others. 

It sounds like an easy solution, but it is extremely difficult to formulate this type of plan and stick to it when you are in a situation that elicits that feeling of flushed cheeks and a palpitating heartbeat. When you’re overwhelmed with emotion, it is a difficult thing to control. In practice, once you find a solution that works for you, it becomes possible. My advice to players looking to overcome tilt is to start with trying to recognize when you feel tilted and be honest with yourself. When I feel tilted to the point of being distracted, I am disciplined enough to take a physical break from the game. The phrase “take a lap” is great advice. Just get up from the game, get some fresh air and allow yourself to recover mentally from whatever happened.

Unfortunately, if you’re in the middle of a tournament, you don’t have that luxury. During tournaments, especially after a bad beat, I try to avoid entering a pot for an orbit. Sometimes this strategy is unrealistic, because I might get dealt a premium the following hand, and in that case, I recalibrate my strategy and use my image to play aggressively in a way that my opponent could perceive as tilt.

Ryan FeeRyan Fee: You have to change the way you think about the emotional swings. It is a mindset. I’ve seen many players in live tournaments lose a pot and completely self-destruct. Tournament success can be like a roller coaster. You will make some great moves and make some horrid moves. You have to remain focused and not let it get the best of you.

As I said in the previous question, it comes with playing games you are rolled for. You cannot be afraid to bust. Instead, you should be constantly accessing and reevaluating where you are at in a hand and making decisions based from that information. You will be successful if you can stick to that. But if you start to bitch because you lost a pot, just grow up and act like a professional. No one wants to hear your bad beat stories.

Matt Waxman: Tilt-control was one of the toughest obstacles for me to overcome as a player. I’m certainly a lot more mature and better suited to deal with tilt now. An appealing aspect of tournaments is that there is a cap on how much you can lose in a session. Putting some headphones on can be a great hack to blow off some steam, because the music takes your mind off things and filters out any of the potentially triggering table talk, like if the recreational player who just called off way too much of his stack versus you with bottom pair is explaining to everyone how he put you on A-K. 

The best way to deal with emotional swings is to put everything into perspective and be totally present. If you’re too busy sulking over an old hand, you might miss a great opportunity to pick up some chips in the present moment. I’m not saying I’m always present at the table, and there is certainly good reason to think about previous hands played with opponents for reconstructing your strategy, but I know I play my best game when I’m totally in the moment.

That’s why the people who are always happiest to be playing, have great results, even if they’re amateurs. It is because they’re tapped in. Meanwhile, the player who might have the best fundamentals at the table has their head in their phone and they are leaving lots of value out on the table because they’re simply not interested in what’s going on. If you enjoy the process (not just with poker), you will be able to commit a lot more focused energy and be more productive. 

Jeff Gross is an online ambassador for partypoker, and has over $5 million in career tournament earnings, which includes a runner-up finish in the WPT Montreal main event. The high-stakes player has built an enormous following for himself, which includes more than 150,000 viewers and listeners across his Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch platforms.

Kelly Minkin is a professional poker player and an attorney at The VerStandig Law Firm. The new mom (Congratulations!) twice earned the honor of Last Female Standing in the WSOP main event, and has over $1.5 million in career earnings that includes a third-place showing at the WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open main event. Minkin has been featured on ESPN, Poker Night in America, Live At The Bike, and PokerGO.

Ryan Fee started playing online poker in high school and worked his way up to playing the highest stakes cash games and tournaments. The high roller has recorded more than $3 million in live tournament cashes, which includes a WSOP bracelet he won with Doug Polk in the 2016 tag-team event. Fee is also one of the leading teachers at Upswing Poker.

Matt Waxman is a successful tournament player, having cashed for more than $4.2 million dollars to date. He has two WPT titles, winning the Grand Prix de Paris in 2011 and the Tournament of Champions in 2018. He also earned a WSOP bracelet in 2013 in a $1,000 no-limit hold’em event. Waxman is one of the founders of POKERithm. Watch the pros, or play the game yourself at