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How to Trick Your Brain (and Body) Into Playing Better Poker
Everyone likes to talk about how much poker relies on psychology and how the cards are only secondary.
While there is some truth in that, it's mostly relevant to mental condition and preparation.
The mind and brain's influence on our actions and successes is probably widely underestimated.
As a game where the psychological aspect is essential, poker is a great example of that.
Of course you have to be good at reading people and their tells, but your poker success also depends on other psychological concepts.
In short: you can get better results by learning how to control your brain. This advice is relevant to a lot of different fields and even to your daily life.
In this piece we'll talk about three different neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques: positive visualization, anchoring and body language.
1) Playing Like a Pro: Positive Visualization
Whatever your skill level, playing live poker is always a bit stressful -- if not completely intimidating. Even when you're experienced.
Adrenalin is a good thing because it helps you have a clearer mind and gives you more fighting spirit.
However, healthy stress can easily turn into a paralyzing fear. As a result your reflexes will be impeded, you'll make bad decisions and you'll lose.
It's also a vicious circle: the worse you play, the more stressed you'll be and ... the worse you'll play.
That's why you need to know what techniques poker pros use to strengthen their minds. One of them is positive visualization.
What is positive visualization?
It's an easy, interesting and (importantly) free technique. There are only two rules to follow:
– Apply it during your preparation and on the day of the tournament;
– Ideally, practice every day.
Find a quiet, comfortable spot. Relax and close your eyes. Picture yourself going to the casino or the poker tournament venue and playing.
Visualize the whole room, feel the atmosphere. Picture yourself: you're dynamic, confident and you succeed in everything you do. Feel the pleasure this gives you.
And then, say out loud that this is the way things will go.
Positive visualization for new or online players
You've never been to a real live casino? Don't panic! The easiest and most efficient way is to simply go to a casino to get a feel for the atmosphere and familiarize yourself with the place.
If this is not possible, you have two solutions:
– Go to another gambling venue (all casinos aren't the same but they all have similarities, especially as far as poker games are concerned);
– Watch tournaments and poker games on TV to feed your imagination.
Watch the players closely – especially the poker players – and picture yourself in their shoes.
If you've already played in online poker rooms you can use the feelings you experienced when you got good cards or when you bluffed successfully.
Positive visualization for experienced players
If you've already played poker tournaments in a casino or even if you've just played poker with friends, you have an edge.
You're already familiar with the sensations we are looking for.
It will be much easier for you to practice positive visualization and picture yourself playing successfully.
To take things further you can even imagine you're playing against tougher opponents -- even those who might have defeated you.
What matters is that when you get to the poker table you have a winner's state of mind.
That's why you need to have already felt the elation and pleasure of winning ... even if it was just in your head!
By creating a positive mental context you increase your odds of winning dramatically.
2) Anchoring: A Foolproof Way to Improve Your Confidence
No poker player can win without self-confidence and the ability to handle stressful situations – especially when playing a tournament.
Thankfully, there are techniques you can learn to channel your emotions. Even better, anchoring allows you to keep it all in check and to feel good at will.
Here's how it works.
When your brain tricks you
Your brain registers information collected by your five senses (smell, hearing, sight, taste and touch).
Outside of basic information (what burns, etc.), your brain is also influenced by its own cultural and social references.
Here's an example: a study conducted by the University of Oxford showed that the same smell would trigger more negative reactions when it was considered a «bodily odour» than when the subjects were told it was cheddar cheese.
It was actually the exact same smell, which shows that the choice of words is very important and influences the subjects' perception.
This is a natural phenomenon that can turn against you. Your senses also register your physical reactions when you're experiencing really strong emotions (positive and negative).
That's why some smells, sounds or tastes can trigger memories, even years later, and a physical reaction.
This is something therapists use when they work with patients who have been through some sort of trauma.
That's also why some bakeries spray enticing smells (warm bread, croissants,...). It has been shown to improve sales dramatically.
Even if they're not hungry clients will buy something because they're looking for pleasure and well-being.
Anchoring: tricking your brain
So what's the link between this and the need to handle pressure during a poker tournament?
It's quite straightforward, really. By using NLP you'll be able to trick your brain into sending positive vibes ... at will.
This technique is called anchoring. Basically it uses this sensation/emotion relationship to your advantage by creating artificial connections.
The easiest way to do that is touch because you won't need any props and you'll be able to use anywhere and at any time (playing with friends, at a casino or even if you're playing real-money online poker).
Here's a step-by-step:
1) Find your anchoring gesture
There is no right or wrong gesture. But because we're talking about poker, there is one rule to follow: it has to be discrete enough so that people won't notice it when you're playing.
It can be joining your feet together for a few seconds, making a slight movement with your fingers, touching your arm or your hand, etc.
You just have to find the one that suits you.
2) Use that gesture every time you feel a specific positive sensation
Depending on what you're looking for, use your anchoring move when you feel confident and safe, when you feel pleasure, when you're happy, etc.
Repetition is key here. After a while your brain will automatically associate this gesture and the sensation.
3) Test and use your anchoring gesture in real-life situations
Before you actually use it at the poker table you need to use it progressively in your daily life.
For example, every time that you find yourself in a stressful situation or when you don't feel self-confident enough.
When you've reached a new stage, you can move on to other situations.
Your anchoring gesture needs to become automatic and you need to keep using it when you feel good.
Of course in case of a very strong negative emotion your anchoring gesture won't be enough for you to reach a state of well-being in a few seconds.
But it will still be very efficient to counterbalance unpleasant sensations and help you get some hindsight to channel your emotions.
3) Body Language: Use Your Body to Win
To be effective throughout a poker tournament you need to seriously look into the way your brain works.
Skills and luck aren't enough; the difference between a good player and a winning player is also physical and psychological.
You need to have incredible mental strength, even after a bad beat or a series of bad hands.
Fortunately for you there's a way to achieve this thanks to the subtleties of human physiology.
The link between your emotions and your body
Take some time to observe the people around you and your own behaviors depending on what you're feeling: joy, sadness, anger, well-being, fear, worry, confidence, etc.
You'll soon realize that your body has ways to express what you're feeling.
When someone is telling you about their misadventures or gets angry recalling an argument, you'll notice that they're often «miming» their misfortune.
And even when you're containing an emotion you won't be able to stop yourself from feeling it physically inside of your body.
Your state of mind always has an impact on your posture and behavior.
How can you use this to win?
It's very simple: you need to reverse this physiological mechanism and use it to your advantage.
You won't be undergoing an emotion or sensation; you will trigger the one you have chosen.
The relationship between emotions and body language works both ways.
During a tournament, even when you're on a losing streak, you need to force yourself to do some role-playing.
Instead of allowing yourself to doubt, get angry or scared, you will always behave as if you were confident, sure of yourself and positive.
You'll take deep breaths, look straight ahead, smile (or look emotionless) and push your shoulders back.
By acting like a winning player, you're tricking yourself. Your emotional perception will change and your pessimism and fears will decrease dramatically.
This is also a very good technique to boost your motivation and energy when you're starting to feel tired (which always happens after a few hours of playing).
It's much more efficient than drinking Red Bull.
Manipulation: learning how to read people's mind
When you play poker you're always trying to figure out your opponents' tells.
If you manage to master the relationship between emotions and the body, you'll have a powerful tool to get into the other players' head and manipulate them more easily.
By mimicking (discretely) someone's attitude, you can guess what they're feeling. This will give you great clues and better chances to win.
Of course this will be harder to use against professional players, but not everyone is Phil Hellmuth -- which gives you some room to try this out!