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Jared Tendler: “Hellmuth is the Phil Mickelson of Poker”
Mental coach Jared Tendler helps us understand the psychology of being “in the zone” and why Hellmuth is the Phil Mickelson of the poker world.
Tendler's new book, co-written by Barry Carter, just hit shelves and in it he draws on the same concepts that allowed Tiger Woods to absolutely dominate the golf world in the late 90s.
In this interview Tendler explains what the zone is, how we get into it and why we should spend as much time as possible there.
PokerListings.com: Tell us about “the zone” and why it's so important.
Jared Tendler: The zone is basically the peak of your mental performance. It's the space in your own mind where everything just seems sort of easy and natural. You're making very high-level decisions very easily.
If you're a golfer your golf swing is working out and every shot's going where you want it and you're able to visualize the shot very easily.
In poker your reads are spot-on and you're able to make correct decisions easily, sometimes to the point that you're not even sure exactly why it's right.
It's like when you're putting and you just know how much the putt's going to break.
It really is like a nirvana in a sense.
It's a difficult concept, though, because it's so hard to make it happen consistently, and people think it happens kind of randomly.
They don't see the predictability associated with it. Just like there's predictability associated with getting angry or losing confidence.
PL: How do you explain the “zone” in poker terms? In sports it seems much more about muscle memory and repetition whereas poker is more a mental game.
JT: The equivalent in poker of an athlete's technique is a player's knowledge-base. The thing that's consistent between poker and sports is the mental process.
When you're in the zone you're able to use your highest level of decision-making and have full access to that technical base of knowledge.
When you're at a lower level, say you're tired or tilted, both decision-making and technical knowledge decrease.
The same way a frustrated golfer will hit a bad shot because he's unable to access that technical golf swing knowledge, a tilted poker player will make a mistake because he's not able to think through the hand properly and access that knowledge-base well enough.
PL: How big a factor in performance does this ability to play in the zone represent? Are the best athletes and poker players just that much better at consistently reaching their potential?
JT: Obviously talent is a big part of the equation here. You know, if you take someone who's playing mid-stakes poker, they don't necessarily have the talent to compete with the best no matter how well they're playing.
But if you look at the frequency at which the very best athletes and poker players are able to play in the zone, or damn close to it, it is definitely way higher than people at lower levels.
PL: We all know what it feels like to be in the zone in sports or poker, but what kind of work has been done scientifically to define it?
JT: Most of the knowledge in this area that I've drawn on from the sports world has come from only 5-10 years ago.
The recent research for me has been mostly on my own sort of taking the theories I've been taught and building on them.
I talk about the Iowa Gambling Task and that's like the x-factor for understanding the zone. I've never seen those two pieces put together. It might be out there but I haven't seen it.
The thing that distinguishes the zone from every other state of mind is the access to unconscious data. So the thing that allows a golfer to just instinctively know the break on that putt, or the basketball player driving the lane to know exactly when to pass it, is access to more data.
If you don't have that you're at a knowledge deficit.
PL: So when you're in the zone you're accessing data you've taken in that your conscious mind isn't even able to process?
JT: That's exactly it.
PL: You said this understanding of the zone is relatively new. Was there someone in golf that really embraced it and kind of jumped out in front of everyone as a result?
JT: I think it had been building and then Tiger came along and sort of trumped everyone. He basically forced people to catch up mentally and physically or they were gone.
Tiger had been working with sports psychologists since he was 12 but if you look at the level of intensity and focus he brought to the game in the years like 1998-2001 it was disgusting.
People saw him as like the only person playing nosebleeds while everyone else was playing $5/$10, and I think on a mental level he was.
Now pretty much everyone in golf works with a psychologist in one way or another but that wasn't the case before Tiger.
PL: It's a tired comparison but it seems like Phil Ivey embodies that level of intensity and focus best in the poker world. Do you think Ivey is playing at a level comparable to Tiger in his big years?
JT: I do. And you could make Hellmuth the Phil Mickelson of poker.
Hellmuth and Mickelson both have more mental game issues than Tiger and Ivey. Both Hellmuth and Mickelson are great champions, won a ton, but I don't think they have the composure and consistency that Ivey and Tiger show.
That's a testament to how good they are when they're at their best but it's almost more telling about how good they are at their worst.
It's interesting because that's where the biggest edge exists.
If you look at the best poker players or golfers in the world when they're at their best, the edges are tiny.
Like Tiger and Mickelson at their best might actually be equal. But Tiger might be three shots better when they're both at their worst.
Ivey might be a full big bet better than Hellmuth, or Galfond or whoever when they're at their worst.
But in the bigger picture it's all about being able to sustain that high level of performance by getting into the zone more frequently and staying there for longer.