Handling Stress in the Poker Wars Part 2

Leo Margets

Recently we looked at frustration and stress and their physiological and psychological impacts on us - in particular when our poker lives don't go quite as we'd like them to.

My focus was on different reactions to stress and some simple tricks to cope with it.

Here, I want to take a longer look at stress and the emotions that accompany it, and delve deeper into what goes on inside your mind and body at the poker table.

Yeah, I know, I know; it's the ol' professor bit again. Sorry, I can't help myself. But hang in with me here. You may learn something to help your game.

Let's start with two key points:

1. Stress isn't necessarily bad, it's just another emotion.

2. You can feel very different emotions from the same amount of stress.

I know, those sound so bloody cryptic, but don't you dare move the mouse toward the "back" button.

The story isn't that complicated, and it'll give you new ways to understand our game and new insight into why some of you may be better players than your peers in some cases but not in others.

Stress isn't necessarily bad, it's just another emotion.

As we noted before, the research shows that continuous high levels of stress are bad for you. However, things are a tad more complex than that.

There are times when stress is an important motivator. If it's high enough, people can do things unimaginable in "ordinary" situations.

Parents have ripped open the doors of flaming cars to rescue trapped children - and only later realized that they did it on a broken leg.

When the emotional levels get high enough, they can spur us on to do the most remarkable and wonderful things.

Hevad Khan
When emotional levels get high, strange things can happen.

But, on the other hand, do you want someone in the same state doing brain surgery on you?

Not me, baby. I want someone really stoked if my kid is in a burning auto. If she's wielding the surgeon's blade, I want her cool and calm.

And vice versa: The calm, relaxed demeanor the surgeon needs isn't worth much with a flaming wreck in an intersection.

To make this point clear, imagine it's the surgeon's kid in the burning car.

Adopt the Goldilocks Approach

In psychology these things are called "interactions."

How stress affects you depends upon (or "interacts" with) other things, like what task is before you.

The interaction between stress and the difficulty of the task has been known for a century and is called the Yerkes-Dodson law, after the two psychologists who did the early research.

Is there any advice buried here? Sure. Adopt the "Goldilocks" approach.

Like the heroine in the child's story you need to try to get everything "just right:" not too hot, not too cold, not to soft, not too hard.

If you're cranked, hyper-stoked, on a permanent adrenaline rush, your thinking is going to suck.

Conversely, if you sit there like a sick toad with no motivation to get involved, you'll be lacking appropriate aggression.

First related thought:

Ever wonder about good $5/$10 players who complain that they can't beat the $1/$2 game?

Phil Hellmuth
Whiners gonna whine.

Their stress levels are probably too low. Not enough pressure. They don't care.

Oh, they'll whine about one-outer suck-outs and bluff-proof calling stations, but that's not the real reason.

They know what adjustments they need to make but for the most part, they just don't care enough. Surgeons in a rescue operation.

Second thought:

Ever wonder why winning $5/$10 players get smacked around when they move up to $10/$25?

Likely their stress levels are too high. Too much pressure. They care too much.

Of course they'll bitch about guys calling raises with 4-3s or moan about how lucky their opponents are, but again, they know how the game is played at this level.

The problem is that their emotions are cranked too high. Rescue workers doing surgery.

Fascinatingly, it can be the same player in both scenarios.

His knowledge of the game is the same. His decision-making ability hasn't changed.

If you asked, he could explain the strategic adjustments needed but, alas, he can't pull it off. He's lost the Goldilocks touch.

You can feel very different emotions from the same amount of stress.

Remember that experiment we discussed in that previous column?

If not, here's a quick refresher: People were given what they thought was a new drug to improve their memories. It wasn't (alas, there is no such drug); it was adrenaline.

Some waited in a room with a very funny and crazy character who told jokes, played games and generally had a ball; others were put in a room with an angry, depressed person who bitched and complained about everything.

Find the "just right" stress level.

Later, those in the room with the class clown were in a terrific mood and, interestingly, didn't think there were any side effects.

The others were depressed, anxious and reported a host of unpleasant side effects.

Same drug, dose and physiology. Different environments, different interpretations.

Simple Lesson for Poker Junkies

There's a simple but largely unappreciated lesson here for us poker junkies.

Your interpretation of your emotional state is as important as the emotions themselves.

Imagine you've traveled half way around the world to play with over a thousand others for a million-dollar prize; or made your pilgrimage to Vegas for the WSOP; or gotten an invite to an underground club in The Big Apple - the one where "KGB" sits in his undershirt waiting for you.

Me? Been there, done that and have always found myself with seriously heightened emotions.

Sometimes I felt upbeat, with a sense of anticipation, a desire to get in the game, a feeling that was so strong I could almost roll it around on my tongue.

Other times I was less sanguine about my prospects, experienced anxiety, a sense of dread - a quiet voice whispering "You're out of your league, sucker."

I'll bet you a rack of reds that I and the rest of you rubes out there have done better when we've managed to view the emotional arousal in a positive vein.

Remember Goldilocks

Poker advice: The next time you unrack your chips with a bunch of blood-sucking pros or find three "bracelets" at your table, remember Goldilocks.

It isn't anxiety or terror, the adrenaline rush is not a disguised death wish.

It's anticipation; you're energized, alert, mentally focused and as sharp as any surgeon.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and co-author of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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