5 Ways to Cure Your Social Anxiety at the Poker Table

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Have you seen Mr Robot, yet? No?

Come on; Game of Thrones Season 7 won't be on until sometime in the spring so I know you have a hole to fill.

Mr Robot is a show about a guy named Elliot. He is a brilliant mind, a genius hacker, but he doesn't know how to relate to people.

The lad can bring down the world's economic system but he can't get over his social anxiety. In a way he reminds me of a lot of poker players that have crossed my path.

When I grew up there were two types of kids:

Type #1: You were into sports, liked girls and were thick as shit.

Type #2: You were into books, were scared of girls and were smart.

The Type #1 people would eventually end up smoking, drinking and gambling. The Type #2 people would end up working for SpaceX.

Poker a Godsend for Nerds

Poker was a Godsend for Type #2 people and it was often online poker that was the gateway drug.

poker anxiety stress
There will be people. And that's OK.

They could use their intellect to win obscene amounts of money; and they got brave enough to type things into the chat box like:

"I hope you get cancer and have to have your balls removed."

And then one day, by accident, they won a satellite into a live event.

Oh shit.

There will be people there - yellow people, brown people, people in wheelchairs, scary bald-headed people with swastika tattoos on their skull, lesbians, gays, transgenders, cowboys, Indians, fat ones, bulimic ones, alcoholics, drug addicts, the ones with yellow stains on their fingers that drive you crazy because you don't know if it's turmeric or nicotine, old people who smell of piss, and those scary looking young kids with baseball caps, sunglasses and hoodies.

What will I do with my social anxiety! Chill, Winston. I have a few ideas for you. 

1. What’s the Worst That Can Happen in Live Poker?

A lesson from the Stoics. Nobody likes to lose, and if you think about it you will lose far more hands than you are ever going to win. That sucks.

poker social anxiety
Not everybody's a Pessimistic Pete.

What makes a great poker player is they always come to the table believing they will lose. But they aren't all Pessimistic Petes.

They believe in their ability to win but they also understand the luck factor in poker. By thinking you will lose in the short term but will win in the long run all great poker players find calm in the storm of a major loss.

This can also help with social anxiety. Think about your fears. What scares you? Now multiply those feelings tenfold.

Imagine one of your competitors is Negan from The Walking Dead and he's taking your head off with Lucille after getting fed up of being constantly three-bet. Imagine someone else pulling out a gun and putting a cap in your ass.

Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen? None of those things will happen. Nobody will die. You will live.

You aren't afraid of what people will do to you. You are scared of the feelings that rise from the pit of your stomach such as embarrassment or shame. You own those feelings. You can change them.

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2. Change Your Beliefs; Change Your Feelings

Imagine your wife of 30 years tells you that she wants a divorce and has been banging your best mate for donkey's years. I believe you would feel anger, self-pity and shame.

poker anxiety
This is poker, baby.

Now imagine that your wife of 30 years tells you that she wants a divorce and has been banging your best mate for donkey’s years, and then later you find out she was a serial killer.

How would you feel?

I imagine you would feel relieved and probably happy you never woke up like John Wayne Bobbit. It's not the getting dumped part that bothers you; it's the feelings that you create in reaction to being dropped.

Think about that. Nothing that anyone at a poker table does can affect you. Only you can create damage by creating negative emotions in reaction to their actions.

This is poker, baby. People are going to try and get under your skin. Change your beliefs and it will change your feelings. 

3. Create an Exposure Hierarchy

What is going to send the social butterfly into the chrysalis?

how to help social anxiety
Instant gratification is for suckers.

Make a list of all the scenarios that arise in your mind and note them down on paper. This is now your goals list.

Rate them from the most intimidating to the least.

Now, remember, poker is a game won over the long term. The short term, instant gratification thing is for losers. So we have all year. Hell, we have your entire life to get this right.

Let’s turn this into a game within a game. Take the least worrisome thing on your list and set a goal to challenge yourself in that area during your first session.

Keep working at it until it becomes comfortable. Then move your way up the list until you are asking the dealer out for a date.

anxiety in poker
Not always about you.

4. Don’t Focus on You

"I am scared."

"I don't want to feel shame."

"I don't want to look stupid."

"What will I wear?"

"How shall I riffle my chips?"

Do you see the theme? All of these statement/questions focus on YOU.

If you focus on yourself you start to become self-conscious. And guess what? It's likely they are doing the same, and this makes for awkward conversations that stimulate anxiety.

Focus on them. Listen to them. If you don't want to speak, then nod. If you don't know what to say, then reflect back the last few sentences they said and it will act as a trigger for them to keep talking.

Ask questions. By behaving in this way to increase their self-esteem and in return the conversation becomes all flowy like newly cleaned curtains on a washing line. The same washing line you wanted to hang yourself from moments earlier.

5. EFT

If you try points 1-4 and are still a quivering mess, run to the washroom and practice some Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

This form of psychological acupressure, using fingers instead of needles, helps release blockages within your energy systems such as anxiety, fear, and worry. Here, check it out:

I know it looks a little far out but let's face it -- before you started reading this you were worried about talking to another human being.

Just don't forget to do this in the washroom. If you start doing it at the table you might give the other players social anxiety.

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Jared Tendler Cures Your Poker Anxiety

Anxiety about making mistakes is one of the common problems in the lower levels of the game and something that will likely cost you more money than any technical leak you may have.

So I enlisted the help of a man who knows more about tilt than Ray Kroc knows about making hamburgers: the author of The Mental Game of Poker and The Mental Game of Poker 2, Jared Tendler.

Here's his advice:

On Variance in Poker

“So many people come into poker having previously experienced wins and losses in sport, chess, or many other forms of competition," Tendler says, "where the playing field is more equal.

"In poker you have to recognize that there's another entity besides you and your opponents that will dictate results.”

poker social anxiety cures
In golf it's called the "rub of the green."

"In golf it’s called the ‘rub of the green’ and in poker we know it as ‘variance.’ To pinch a golfing analogy, variance in poker is like hitting a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway and continually watching it bounce out of bounds.

"It’s like having somebody that is truly insane, someone who has no perspective in reality, influencing results. And if you don’t understand that entity you will be the one who is driven insane.”

So with a better view of what variance is, what can beginners do to harness that awareness so that its power doesn’t influence results beyond what it already will?

“The best way for beginners to befriend variance," Tendler says, "is to look at their results and pinpoint instances where they were favorites and lost.”

Further Reading:

Look at Your All In Expected Value

There's an old adage that says, ‘You Cannot Manage What You Cannot Measure.’ If you want to improve your game then you need to start recording your hands and spending enough time reviewing your play.

"Review the specific instances where you had an advantage," Tendler says, "that was eliminated by factors that neither you nor your opponent controlled.

how to handle anxiety
"You have to embrace the reality of losing."

“You are mostly going to see this when you are all-in. So, if you are ahead at any point when you are all-in, and you lose, then you got unlucky and that result was entirely down to variance.

"Then you have to look at the other side of that. What about the instances where you were behind and got lucky?”

With that understanding of how I have no control over variance, and therefore that it has nothing to do with my level of skill, what other measures can I use to help me identify skill deficiencies in my game?

“One measure that players use a lot is "all-in EV (Expected Value") and they use it to determine how lucky or unlucky they are. However, this is just a starting point.

"Many seasoned players make the mistake of placing all of their eggs into this particular basket. They over use all-in EV as a pure measure of how they are running and this is not true.”

Poker Players Have to Learn to Lose

“There are a lot of people who hate to lose," Tendler says. "As a poker player your job is to get really good at losing because it’s going to happen a lot.

"You have to embrace the reality of losing. This doesn’t mean you are accepting it without doing anything about it because this is a mistake. It’s being too passive.

"But review your play to get a view on whether you have made the best decision or not, and begin to focus more of your energy on quality decision-making relating to your game and less on pureness of your results, because results can be so influenced by luck.”

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What About Money?

“It’s one measure and it’s an important measure," Tendler says, "so we don’t take it away or disregard it. But we are also not going to overestimate or overvalue it.

"Instead, I would suggest reviewing any hand that you were confused over or found really tough. If you haven't made a decision in the first 10-15 seconds playing online then you need to review that hand because there's something to learn.

"Even if you got the hand right there's still something to look at to encourage the learning.”

jared tendler poker
Tendler: "Be self-aware and then start working on those issues."

When Your Mind Goes Blank, It's Anxiety

“Another big area for beginners to be aware about is anxiety," says Tendler. "This concept is still not talked about enough in poker and one of the reasons for this is so many people don’t relate to anxiety as well as they should.

“For example when your mind goes blank, you can’t think or your thinking is just so basic - it’s important to know that this is anxiety.”

Once you've recognized anxiety what are the solutions to prevent it from injuring your game?

“It depends what’s causing the anxiety," says Tendler. “Is it a fear of failure? A fear of making mistakes? A fear of looking stupid?

"Look inward. Be true to yourself. Be self-aware and then start working on those issues.

“The beginner has an advantage because in the beginning the anxieties are very small. When you address small stuff when it’s small you'll be able to avoid long-term problems and make your progress a lot more efficient without some of the bigger ups and downs.

“It’s not all bad though. Anxiety is the twin cousin to excitement. So anxiety, at low levels, can be the fuel to really power on at a higher level.

"If you look at the most elite competitions in poker and sport, that anxiety, and that nervousness and excitement, can all blend together with a bit of adrenaline to allow you to perform at levels that you were never previously allowed to do.

“So anxiety is not a bad thing if it’s not present in excessive levels. It’s easier to be honest with yourself when you know that avoidance is only going to make your situation worse.

mental game jared tendler
"If you've had issues before in other walks of life then they are likely to pop up again in poker."

"There is no solution that has ever come from pure avoidance. More and more of my clients come to me having been blocking out problems for so long and eventually they blow up in their face.

"They didn’t realize that by blocking the smaller anxiety issues out, or not recognizing them, they would create bigger problems further down the line.”

Self-Awareness is Key to Good Poker

“Absolutely," Tendler says. "Raise awareness about how you are feeling and why you're doing everything you are doing. Don’t stop thinking.

“This is one of the clearest ways where my book can come in handy. Beginners can read the book for building awareness.

"It gives them a primer for issues they don’t even have yet. And possibly they can even prevent them.

“It can also be a great idea to look back into their own personal history: sport, relationships, previous jobs - has anxiety been present?

"If you've had issues before in other walks of life then they are likely to pop up again in poker if you've not resolved them.”

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