Handling Stress in the Poker Wars Part 1

Thomas Fuller

Poker is: (a) A stressful game; (b) A game people play to relax; (c) Both.

I chose "(c)." Your answer will depend.

Depend on What?

What's it depend on?

On your approach to the game, the stakes you play for and your own reasons for sitting down in the first place.

Most people play for recreation. They play with friends in home games, they hit the local casino every once in a while, or fire up the old computer for an online game.

The stakes are typically low and if they lose a couple of bucks, who even notices? If they win, cool.

But increase the stakes, stir in a dollop or two of ego and stuff changes.

It's one thing to drop a couple of sawbucks to your buddies; it is a very different thing to find yourself stuck four dimes in a cutthroat $10/25 NL game with a bunch of guys with insect shades, hoodies and baleful stares.

You know, ones who look like they just walked out of an audition for a remake of Rounders.

Is there stress in these settings? Indeed.

Can it impact your play? Absolutely.

How Does Stress Affect Your Game?

Frustration a common cause.

Stress affects the body, the brain and its decision-making ability.

One of the most common causes of stress is frustration, which is experienced when: (a) goals are blocked (your last three bluffs were snapped off), (b) constant pressure is applied (your c-bet got raised for the fifth time) and (c) progress is thwarted (you missed another draw).

Enough of this and your biology goes go wonky; adrenaline levels climb, body temperature swings wildly, hypertension kicks in and thought processes head for the Port-o-John.

Unhappy outcomes at poker are ultimately unnerving and frustrating.

But do they necessarily cause stress? Do they always produce the physiological changes that impact your game?

Missing a dozen draws in a row will drive most folks' blood pressure up a couple of ticks, but not everyone's.

Some find such events merely annoying, like a buzzing fly. The stress is still there but they have different emotional reactions to it.

What's Your Emotional Experience?

In a study done some years ago, students were given a dose of adrenalin, told it was a "memory" drug and asked to wait until it took effect.

Some were left in a room with a very funny guy who told jokes, stories and clowned around. Others were put with a morose, depressive character.

When quizzed later about their experiences, the students in the first group thought the experiment was a hoot; they loved it.

Those in the other group thought it was depressing, unpleasant and reported odd side effects.

Same drug, same biological impact, different emotional experiences.

Stone-Cold Bluff: Gut Clenching or Zen Moment?

There's a take-home message here.

Brad Booth
Can you keep cool during a huge bluff?

Recall the last time you ran a stone-cold bluff at a big pot. Heart pounding at Indy 500 speeds, gut clenching as you wait for your opponent to make a classic lay-down.

It's a Zen moment for some - and a psychological nadir for others.

You can often see the difference by the way in which the bluffer reacts after the lay-down.

Those who handle stress well just rake in the pot; it's just part of the game.

But it isn't unusual for players who cope less well to react openly, exhale loudly, shake their heads or even laugh.

These folks experience stress far more poignantly than the others.

The Game Requires Risk

The game, by its very nature, requires that we take risks.

Risk involves stress, and we vary widely in how we manage it. Some learn to modulate it so that its impact on their biology and decision-making is controlled.

This group includes the solid pros whose careers have spanned decades and a few good recreational players.

Others never learn; mostly you will find them in the lower-limit games.

Still others find the adrenalin rush irresistible. They become poker's Icarus characters, the action junkies, the ones who soar for a time only to crash and burn and vanish from the stage.

You Can't Avoid It - Just Learn to Control It

If you play poker you can't avoid stress; in fact, you don't want to.

You want to understand it, control it, keep it at nonmalignant levels.

The easiest way to do this is to stay within your "comfort zone." Even the very best do this.

A few years back heads-up for staggering sums.

Beal, with some of the deepest pockets in the world, had a singular aim: to force the pros out of their comfort zone.

Phil Ivey
Not intimidated by Beal.

To counteract Beal's gambit, the pros combined bankrolls and played in rotation, thereby distributing the financial liabilities and stress among them.

Eventually, they (well, mostly Phil Ivey) sent Beal back to Texas poorer by several million.

Lest you get sidetracked by such tales, here's another surprise: money isn't the issue.

Bill Gates, one of the few on this planet with deeper pockets than Beal, is a regular player.

Gates could sit down in the biggest games in the world and nothing could dent his bankroll. He is financially inoculated against all assaults.

But he is famous around Seattle for never playing higher than $10/$20. He just doesn't feel comfortable doing so.

I doubt he knows the psychological research here, but he is doing the right thing.

He has found his comfort zone. His stress levels are kept manageable.

His decision-making will be unaffected by emotional swings and his game will thrive. Bill, of course, plays to relax.

The Practical Advice?

  1. Understand how you deal with frustration and its offspring, stress. Are you easily affected? Do modest levels, as the Brits say, "get your knickers in a twist?" If so, stick to the lower levels where there isn't as much pressure. If not, feel free to move up as your skill level improves.
  2. Discover your comfort zone where you feel at ease and don't let anyone push you out of it.
  3. Be careful not to get "addicted" to those adrenalin rushes. When they pop up, you can roll around in them like a hog in a muddy swale but don't go out of your way to find them. You'll last longer that way.

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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