The WSOP is the most grueling grind in poker so we spoke with esteemed mental coach Jared Tendler about how to cope with the weight of the World Series.
Seven weeks, 61 events and millions of dollars in prizes all put enormous pressure on players and if you don’t know how to hack it you might as well stay at home and watch the 2012 WSOP on TV.
Tendler penned The Mental Game of Poker and he’s got a few easy-to-follow steps that will help you play your best in Las Vegas this summer.
Interview: How to prepare for the WSOP
PokerListings.com: What’s your experience like with the World Series of Poker? What do you love about it, or hate about it?
Jared Tendler: This is going to be my fourth year going to the World Series.
The first year I went it was as a complete newbie to high-level poker in general. It was overwhelming on many levels, in a good way, and I really learned a lot about how high-level poker players were thinking.
And now in the last three years I’ve started coaching players at the WSOP.
I love the action, and I think the World Series is just a great event period. Everyone there is really excited about poker and I like high-level intense sports and being that the World Series is one of the pinnacles of poker, seeing the intensity firsthand is exciting.
Last year I stayed right until the bubble broke for the November Nine and I think it was the first time I’ve really been able to see poker players cracking.
Before last year I just didn’t have the poker knowledge to be able to spot someone choking.
Golf is my expertise and I can understand someone’s mental game just by seeing them swing a club, and I started to see that in poker last year.
PL: The WSOP puts a lot of pressure on players, whether it’s the amount of time spent playing or the money on the line. What are the biggest obstacles facing players as far as dealing with WSOP pressure?
JT: Basically pressure exposes weaknesses and if you don’t have a handle on what your most basic tactical and mental weaknesses are, you’re going to be surprised by what might throw you off under pressure.
Control is ultimately a function of being able to understand where your weaknesses lie and even if you aren’t solving them, you have to at least be aware of them.
When I think about pressure, it’s like it shrinks down the amount of brain power you have to think through a decision.
So you see people spending so much time in the tank trying to think something through and you can tell just by looking at them that there isn’t a single new thought going through their head.
Pressure can also speed up your mind, so you’ll see people making decisions really quickly and it’s usually because they haven’t been able to consider every piece of information at their disposal. So you see people making poor decisions because they’re unable to work through it logically and systematically.
The way I look at decision-making in poker, it’s the poker player’s technique. It’s like a golfer’s swing or a basketball player’s shot. It’s the fundamentals and there really is a technique to the way they’re able to make decisions, and pressure can cause that to break down.
The better you understand your mental technique the better you'll do under pressure.
PL: How can you learn to better deal with pressure, and make good decisions in an environment like the WSOP?
JT: Ultimately the first thing to know is that pressure can be a great thing. It really is energy and a fuel and you can use it. So we’re not trying to get rid of pressure entirely but get a handle on the excessive pressure that can cause problems.
Recognizing the situations and signs of excessive pressure is the first thing you have to do, then learning ways of dialing that pressure down, sort of turning down the volume, to allow you to think clearly and make good decisions.
One technique I talk about in my book is called “Injecting logic” which is breathing deeply, slowing things down and having some phrase that you’ve predetermined. And that statement is designed to dial it down.
It could be something as simple as, “I’m not going to let pressure break me.” Will yourself to slow down and be able to think rationally and logically and play as well as you can.
PL: How beneficial can it be to understand your opponent’s mental game? Can you learn to target players who are playing well below their A-game?
JT: It’s definitely possible but I think understanding your own mental game has to be number one, and it’s only going to increase your capacity to understand how your opponents are thinking.
There’s a concept in my book I use called the Inchworm and it has to with dissecting an opponent's playing range, like they’re A-Game through their C-Game.
I’ll give you one example. I know a poker player who’s gotten so good at this that he can nail down exactly where his opponents are playing, and understand their games to the point where he knows what weaknesses he can exploit depending on where they’re playing.
We’re talking about poker here but the concept is the same in golf.
If you go back a few years to when Tiger was really dominating, the difference between him and Phil Mickelson, who was second in the world, when they were at their best was nominal. But Tiger at his worst was three strokes better than Mickelson at his worst.
PL: Our last question: What are a few basic essentials that lower level players can focus on at the WSOP, if they don’t have the time for full on coaching and mental training?
JT: The first thing is to keep their dreams to a minimum. It’s okay to envision yourself winning the event but you really need to keep it to a minimum. Your focus has to be on playing every single hand as well as you possibly can.
The reason I say not to dream too much is that you will end up in high-pressure situations, and if you’re focusing too much on the end result you’re not going to as tuned in to what’s happening and the decisions you have to make.
The second thing is not to out-level yourself. A lot of lower-level poker players try to do more than they’re capable of, whether that’s tactically or mentally.
You have to know your game as well as you can and stay within your game plan and what you know how to do.