How to Handle Stress in Poker
Poker is: (a) A stressful game; (b) A game people play to relax; (c) Both.
Poker is: (a) A stressful game; (b) A game people play to relax; (c) Both.
I chose "(c)." Your answer will depend.
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 Play Poker for Fun
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 Poker Game?
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 Poker 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 Clench or Zen Moment?
There's a take-home message here. 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.
Poker 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 Dallas banker Andy Beal played a group of poker pros 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.
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?
- 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.
- Discover your comfort zone where you feel at ease and don't let anyone push you out of it.
- 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.
Stress Isn't Necessarily Bad
As we noted before, the research shows that continuous high levels of stress are bad for you. However, things are a tad more complex than that.
There are times when stress is an important motivator. If it's high enough, people can do things unimaginable in "ordinary" situations.
Parents have ripped open the doors of flaming cars to rescue trapped children - and only later realized that they did it on a broken leg. When the emotional levels get high enough, they can spur us on to do the most remarkable and wonderful things.
But, on the other hand, do you want someone in the same state doing brain surgery on you? Not me, baby. I want someone really stoked if my kid is in a burning auto. If she's wielding the surgeon's blade, I want her cool and calm.
And vice versa: The calm, relaxed demeanor the surgeon needs isn't worth much with a flaming wreck in an intersection. To make this point clear, imagine it's the surgeon's kid in the burning car.
The Goldilocks Approach to Poker Stress
In psychology these things are called "interactions." How stress affects you depends upon (or "interacts" with) other things, like what task is before you.
The interaction between stress and the difficulty of the task has been known for a century and is called the Yerkes-Dodson law, after the two psychologists who did the early research.
Is there any advice buried here? Sure. Adopt the "Goldilocks" approach. Like the heroine in the child's story you need to try to get everything "just right:" not too hot, not too cold, not to soft, not too hard.
If you're cranked, hyper-stoked, on a permanent adrenaline rush, your thinking is going to suck. Conversely, if you sit there like a sick toad with no motivation to get involved, you'll be lacking appropriate aggression.
Not Enough Stress
Ever wonder about good $5/$10 players who complain that they can't beat the $1/$2 game? Their stress levels are probably too low. Not enough pressure. They don't care.
Oh, they'll whine about one-outer suck-outs and bluff-proof calling stations, but that's not the real reason. They know what adjustments they need to make but for the most part, they just don't care enough. Surgeons in a rescue operation.
Too Much Stress
Ever wonder why winning $5/$10 players get smacked around when they move up to $10/$25? Likely their stress levels are too high. Too much pressure. They care too much.
Of course they'll bitch about guys calling raises with 4-3s or moan about how lucky their opponents are, but again, they know how the game is played at this level.
The problem is that their emotions are cranked too high. Rescue workers doing surgery. Fascinatingly, it can be the same player in both scenarios. His knowledge of the game is the same. His decision-making ability hasn't changed.
If you asked, he could explain the strategic adjustments needed but, alas, he can't pull it off. He's lost the Goldilocks touch.
Simple Lesson for Poker Junkies
There's a simple but largely unappreciated lesson here for us poker junkies. Your interpretation of your emotional state is as important as the emotions themselves.
Imagine you've traveled half way around the world to play with over a thousand others for a million-dollar prize; or made your pilgrimage to Vegas for the WSOP; or gotten an invite to an underground club in The Big Apple - the one where "KGB" sits in his undershirt waiting for you.
Me? Been there, done that and have always found myself with seriously heightened emotions.
Sometimes I felt upbeat, with a sense of anticipation, a desire to get in the game, a feeling that was so strong I could almost roll it around on my tongue.
Other times I was less sanguine about my prospects, experienced anxiety, a sense of dread - a quiet voice whispering "You're out of your league, sucker."
I'll bet you a rack of reds that I and the rest of you rubes out there have done better when we've managed to view the emotional arousal in a positive vein.
Poker advice: The next time you unrack your chips with a bunch of blood-sucking pros or find three "bracelets" at your table, remember Goldilocks.
It isn't anxiety or terror, the adrenaline rush is not a disguised death wish. It's anticipation; you're energized, alert, mentally focused and as sharp as any surgeon.
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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