Jared Tendler Explains Flow and Playing in the Zone

jared tendler
Jared Tendler teaches how to stay in the zone at the poker table.

One area where poker differs significantly from other sports is the degree to which the competitors are evenly matched, especially among professionals.

Soccer teams compete with similar level teams determined by leagues, sprinters only race against those with high enough qualifying times, and boxers are matched against fighters in their weight class and of a similar level.

That’s generally not the case in poker, where there is a heavy emphasis on seeking out competition that’s significantly weaker.

It is routine for a world champion to share a table with a complete amateur. In fact the difference in class between a ‘shark’ and a ‘fish’ can sometimes be equivalent to Tiger Woods playing against a 20 handicap.

Sport thrives on close competition to get spectators interested in watching. Poker players, however, make their money by finding huge edges. The problem is that if you’re only looking for easy money eventually that can harm your progress and thus the size of the edge you have in the game.

Being challenged is a necessary component for both learning and playing in the zone.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

One of the most popular theories about the zone comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor and the author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

He defines being in the zone as a state of “flow” whereby a person is fully immersed in what they are doing.

In order to achieve this state of flow, a balance must be struck between the skill of the performer and the challenge of the task.

In other words, the performer needs to be sufficiently challenged and have enough skill in that task to meet the challenge.

The graphic below illustrates the relationship between skill and challenge:

Tendler flow chart

As you can see, the size of the challenge and the amount of skill you have aren’t important separately; it’s the relationship between the two that determines your ability to reach the zone.

When your skills are low and the challenge is low, or when the challenge is high and your skills are also high, you can perform in the zone.

However, if you’re a massive underdog, you’ll be overwhelmed by the challenge and according to Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll experience anxiety, not flow. Conversely, if you expect to easily crush a weak opponent, you’ll get bored by a challenge that’s too low and fall out of the zone.

Boredom Takes You Out of the Zone

Boredom typically sets in when you stop feeling challenged and there is nothing new or interesting to learn. Like a computer that hasn’t been used recently, your mind is left idling just waiting to be activated.

"When just showing up is enough to have an edge, it’s easy to slip into your B- or C-game."

Boredom is the result of a perceived lack of challenge. When just showing up is enough to have an edge, it’s easy to slip into your B- or C-game.

It makes sense that poker could start to feel like a monotonous grind—you’re dealt the same hands all the time. By now, you’ve been dealt AK suited enough to consider it standard and potentially boring.

However, the players who remain passionate and motivated about seeing the nuances and unique details of how to play each hand are never bored. They see physical tells, timing tells, metagame, combinatorics, balancing ranges, G-bucks, prior action, table image, and many other small details that most players don’t consider.

The dynamics in poker are varied and constantly changing, so while the same hand can be dealt over and over, each hand will play out in a unique way. There are always new areas in which to develop an edge; the game is always evolving and there is always more to learn.

An easy way to stave off boredom is to make sure there’s always something you’re interested in learning.

Are there parts of the game that you’ve wanted to work on, but you just keep putting it off? Focusing on these areas could boost your interest and provide a challenge at the same time.

What are some ways you can stay challenged against weak opponents? Create a game within the game, such as seeing how quickly and accurately you can assess their game.

What information would be useful to gather while you’re card dead? Assume you’re going to find something about another player that will help you exploit them in future hands and your challenge is to find it.

There is always something you can do to make learning more fun and the game more challenging. This is where you should always keep a firm eye on your goals and be ready to refine them to incorporate new challenges.

Jared Tendler is a Mental Game Coach who has worked with over 250 poker players. His newest book, The Mental Game of Poker 2 is the first poker book devoted to teaching players how to play in the zone consistently. It’s available on April 23rd.

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AZ Devil 2013-11-15 14:26:44

Ha! You had me at poker being a sport.

The stooge 2013-08-28 14:07:57

Listen to all you sore loser amateurs sayiin "poker is a game of luck" Its much more than that, itsa mental game that combines many elements that include skill, patience, reading ability, self control, instinct and of course luck. Im no pro but i still know i have a lot to learn and articles like this can be helpful.

johnnychant 2013-07-29 11:10:05

and don't get me started on heads up, it is just a luckfest period. EG You have a great player who can read, makes fancy plays and only gets it in with probable winning cards, vs an average player who akes bad plays but generally won't stack off light. Well that bad player will make his bad calls and plays and still win a good % of the time ,the great player will make great reads and fancy plays and still lose a good % of the time. It all boils down t luck in the end. As much as these guys want to believe they are geniuses, with out luck they would be nobodies.

johnnychant 2013-07-29 11:02:47

you cant ever work out what an opponent will do next. Experts will make moves to fool people trying to read, begginers will just make random moves because that's what they feel like doing, they will call when you didn't think ,they will go all in with random hands, you can't figure people out ,end of. The best thing you can do is play a solid game based on your cards and your observations of the immediate plays at the table.

pokerisluck 2013-07-28 18:22:21

yes laying in the luck zone it's called, when all your cards fall just right and your reads and moves are rewarded rather than punished by the river.

Jon T Plumz 2013-06-27 05:46:38

Same old nonsense. Poker ( no limit texas holdem ) is a game of luck and no matter how many books, pseudo psychological claptrap these people spew out , the lucky players will still keep winning.

Doug 2013-05-28 14:40:07

The absolute key to taking advantage of your opponents - you stop learning and you start losing!

mikeo 2013-05-26 17:11:19

this isnt just for poker but life...

hahashishi 2013-05-22 00:04:18

Zone of proximal development

luigi 2013-05-04 08:53:20

absolute right...I have read this 3 months ago and always trying to seek new understanding,,thank you

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