How to Win at Poker: Managing Your Emotions

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Poker is a difficult game. Anyone who has tried to play professionally for any length of time can certainly attest to this truth.

Interestingly, the real obstacle to long-term success is not the difficulty of the game - although when played at the highest levels, poker is certainly a nuanced, complex game.

The truly difficult aspect of poker is the mental part. More specifically, it's the ability of a player to control their emotions both in the heat of battle. And, perhaps more importantly, over the long term.

The Downward Spiral of a Poker Downswing

Whether you're playing it professionally or just as a frequent hobby, poker can be a grind. And it can absolutely take a toll on you if you let it.

poker emotions tilt
Ask me in 30 years.

If you want to win at poker long term you'll need to find a way to manage the stress and emotional swings inherent to the game.

Anyone who plays poker long enough will eventually encounter a downswing. Sometimes, these downswings seem to have a way of lasting much longer than you might think they should.

One reason downswings can seem to last an eternity is that often your mental state starts to affect your decision-making.

To wit: When you're in a rut and going through a prolonged losing streak, the fact you're experiencing a losing streak impacts your play and causes the downswing to continue.

Highs and lows and rushes and downswings are unfortunately more the rule than the exception in poker. That's why managing stress separates the wheat from the chaff.

Doyle Brunson may have said it best. When asked which of the current group of young stars he thought was going to be the next great player, Doyle said something to the effect of "I don't know. Ask me in 30 years."

You Have to Actually Be IN the Game, First

To be successful over a long period you first need to actually be in the game. This requires being able to manage your emotions (and your bankroll) over the long term.

Anyone can remain positive when things are going well; it becomes considerably more difficult when things are going poorly.

The vast majority of players are unable to accurately assess how well (or badly) they're running. Specifically, when things are going poorly, the typical player tends to focus on bad beats.

They may even start to anticipate the beats they're about to take. This sort of defeatist attitude can't help but affect your play. If you think the poker gods are out to get you, you'd be amazed at how often they do just that.

Similarly, when a player goes on a good run and books a large win for the day, their first reaction is usually to say something like "I played well today" or "I only suffered a couple of bad beats today."

This thought process illustrates exactly the type of bias that can lead to great frustration.

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how to win at poker
You have to be in the game to begin with.

The Bad Beat Story

Simply put, people tend to only remember the bad things that happen to them (at least at the poker table). The good breaks (cards) are often brushed off as "running normally."

The same type of bias (or inability to accurately interpret events) has another irritating, yet frustratingly common manifestation - the bad beat story. Nearly everyone hates to listen to bad beat stories.

Paradoxically, almost every poker player continues to insist on telling bad beat stories.

This wouldn't matter if the disconnect between reality and a poker player's perception of reality wasn't one of the most damaging aspects of the game. It causes a great deal of unnecessary stress.

No one likes to lose a big pot. Least of all to a bad beat. But if you intend to win at poker you simply must learn how to become emotionally detached from the results of a session.

You can't get upset about the things you can't control. In fact, the more you do, the less you're going to focus on the things you do control - namely, your play.

The Closer to Zen, The Better

The closer you can come to adopting a Zen-like attitude, the better off you'll be. If you can suffer a horrific bad beat, one that costs you a huge pot, and simply smile and say "nice hand" and actually mean it, you're well on the way.

Remember, the guy who hit the three two-outers against you last session is (probably) not the devil; he's your customer. Treat him as such. If you do you'll find you have a lot more energy to devote to playing better poker and you'll probably be a lot less stressed as well.

For those of you who intend on playing poker for a long time, this will also make your poker 'office, wherever it may be, a much more enjoyable place.

The Better You Feel, the More You Win at Poker

The better the mood you're in - the more rested, energetic and jovial you are - the more money you're going to make at the poker table.

Obviously, no matter how you feel or play, you're going to go down in flames when you get rocked by a cooler or a bad beat. But as long as you're making the best decisions you can make, you're earning the most money possible.

how to stay calm in poker
The better you feel, the more you win.

Choices you make at the table are directly influenced by the mood you're in at that moment.

If you want an example of this, just take a look at a player on vicious tilt compared to how they played when they first sat down.

Watch the play of a sober player change with each drink they consume, the feeling of invulnerability overtaking their decisions to the point of excessive donation.

As a player you should only play cards when you're in a state of mind suited for making money. Poker is not a game to be played passively.

Like any competition or sport, you need to enter the game focused and ready for battle. If life events have your mind in a knot, chances are you won't have the focus necessary to make the right decision when a difficult situation approaches.

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The More You Win at Poker, the Better You Feel

What came first, the feeling or the profit? Think back to all the winning sessions you've had in your life, especially the big wins.

Phil Hellmuth blowup
Most poker players are fragile beings.

You will remember that a strong, warm feeling of elation was firmly situated in your chest during all of them. Did you have this feeling as a result of winning or did you win as a result of this feeling?

The answer to this question is both. Although there are sessions where the feeling is exclusively the byproduct of a heater or sexy luck, for the most part the feeling is self-perpetuating.

If you come into a session with this feeling, barring any cold decks, you're going to start churning a profit. The profit you make enforces the feeling starting the cycle.

Until this cycle is broken, you're a very dangerous player on that table.

Breaking the Emotional Cycle

To defeat a player running on this psychological high you have to break their cycle. In turn you have to refuse to let another player break yours.

Most poker players are fragile beings; they ride their results as if they were on a life raft lost at sea.

But take note - you never want to play against other players at the top of their cycle if you don't have to. Players at the top will be making strong choices and strong plays and playing a much trickier game than the average player.

You want to pick battles only with opponents who are anywhere from the bottom to the middle of the psychological scale. Make them yearn for the high and the stack that comes with it.

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Pamela 2008-03-21 17:18:00

Any reading material you can suggest for controlling such emotions? I think Im well on my way to being Zen-like, but a good read wouldnt hurt the cause :)


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