Managing Your Emotions is the Key to Succeeding in Poker

Allen Cunningham

Poker is a difficult game. Anyone who has tried to play professionally for any length of time can certainly attest to this truth.

Interestingly, the real obstacle to long-term success is not the difficulty of the game - although when played at the highest levels, poker is certainly a nuanced, complex game.

In my opinion, the truly difficult aspect of poker is the mental part. More specifically, it's the ability of a player to control their emotions both in the heat of battle and, perhaps more importantly, over the longer term.

Poker can be a grind and it can absolutely take a toll on you if you let it. So if you want to be a professional for the long term, you'll need to find a way to manage the stress and emotional swings inherent to the business.

Anyone who plays poker long enough will eventually encounter a downswing. Sometimes, these downswings seem to have a way of lasting much longer than you might think they should. One reason downswings can seem to last an eternity is that often your mental state starts to affect your decision-making.

To wit: When you're in a rut and going through a prolonged losing streak, the fact you're experiencing a losing streak impacts your play and causes the downswing to continue.

Highs and lows, rushes and downswings are unfortunately more the rule than the exception if you're a professional poker player. That's why managing stress separates the wheat from the chaff in the long run.

I think Doyle Brunson may have said it best. When asked which of the current group of young stars he thought was going to be the next great player, Doyle said something to the effect of "I don't know. Ask me in 30 years."

To be successful over a long period, you first need to be in the game. This requires being able to manage your emotions (and your bankroll) over the long term. Anyone can remain positive when things are going well; it becomes considerably more difficult when things are going poorly.

I've noticed the vast majority of players are unable to accurately assess how well (or badly) they're running. Specifically, when things are going poorly, the typical player tends to focus on bad beats.

They may even start to anticipate the beats they're about to take. This sort of defeatist attitude can't help but affect your play. If you think the poker gods are out to get you, you'd be amazed at how often they do just that.

Similarly, when a player goes on a good run and books a large win for the day, their first reaction is usually to say something like "I played well today" or "I only suffered a couple of bad beats today." This thought process illustrates exactly the type of bias that can lead to great frustration.

Simply put, people tend to only remember the bad things that happen to them (at least at the poker table). The good breaks (cards) are often brushed off as "running normally."

The same type of bias (or inability to accurately interpret events) has another irritating, yet frustratingly common manifestation - the bad beat story. Nearly everyone (with the notable exception of's new bad beat counselor) hates to listen to bad beat stories.

Paradoxically, almost every poker player continues to insist on telling bad beat stories.

This wouldn't matter if the disconnect between reality and a poker player's perception of reality wasn't one of the most damaging aspects of the game. It causes a great deal of unnecessary stress.

For professionals, whose existence is probably stressful enough, this extra stress can have a serious negative impact. Often, when you think you're running poorly, you'll tend to play differently (worse) than you usually do.

Normally, this means more cautiously (passively), but occasionally it can also mean more recklessly.

Now, no one likes to lose a big pot. Least of all to a bad beat. But if you intend to be a professional, you simply must learn how to become emotionally detached from the results of a session.

You can't get upset about the things you can't control. In fact, the more you do, the less you're going to focus on the things you do control - namely, your play. The closer you can come to adopting a Zen-like attitude, the better off you'll be.

If you can suffer a horrific bad beat, one that costs you a huge pot, and simply smile and say "nice hand" and actually mean it, you're well on the way. Remember, the guy who hit the three two-outers against you last session is (probably) not the devil; he's your customer.

Treat him as such. If you do, you'll find you have a lot more energy to devote to playing better poker and you'll probably be a lot less stressed as well.

For those of you who intend on playing poker for a living, this will also make the office a much more enjoyable place to be.

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