The Psychology of Poker: Resilience

The Psychology of Poker: Resilience

We have tons of guides about Poker strategy, Odds and equities, but being a good Poker player requires more than just that. In this series we want to take a look beyond that and shed some lights on the human aspects of the game. 

Today we want to take a closer look at one of the most important features every Poker player needs to become successful in the long run: Resilience. This feature is not specifically called out a lot, but as we will see, every successful Poker player does mention it being an important part of his character.

What Is Resilience… And What Is It Not? 

The thing many people think about when they hear resilience is the ability to keep your cool and move on with life as if nothing happened. While somewhat in the same category, this is simply not the case.  

Resilience is not the ability to swallow your feelings and smile. In fact, that may not even be a healthy way to cope with a lot of situations we face in our lives.  

Let me give you an example of two friends of mine, that I have known for a long time: 

Some years back, I was invited to a friendly game of poker at my friend’s house. We had a great evening set up, with beers, snacks and a whole evening of playing poker. We were 8 friends in total and all in a great mood, as some of us hadn’t seen each other in a while. So, after some chatting, we sat down and started playing.  

We had played for about half an hour and two players were left in a hand with a very big pot. They both decided to shove and one of the players was a clear favorite. There were about 2 cards left in the deck that could cost my friend – let's call him Peter – his victory. But as luck would have it, the river revealed one of those exact cards. He lost about 95% of his stack. He was clearly upset, but he brushed it off and smiled. He started playing more aggressively and rebought about 2 more times before calling it a night and going home.  

About an hour into the game, another friend of mine – let's call him Tom – shoved all-in against me. He had the flush nuts and all that could save me was another 9 for my full house. As luck would have it, I hit my full house on the river and took most his stack.  

Now, Tom didn’t enjoy this one bit. He slammed his fist on the table, threw some curses around that would have made a movie X-rated and stormed out for a cigarette. But we knew Tom, so we left him alone for a few minutes. He returned, laughing about the whole incident and sat back down with a smile. He took a deep breath and said “alright, let’s do this!”. For the rest of the night, Tom played like nothing had happened and went home with some extra money and a great experience of the evening.  

Whenever I experience something that really upsets me, I look back at this story. Who would you rather be? Peter, the one who just sucks it up and decides to bottle everything up deep inside, prohibiting him from moving on, or Tom, who reacted strongly, but bounced back after accepting what happened and moving on? 

The difference between the two is their level of resilience. You see, resilience is the ability to accept the bad things that happen for what they are and bounce back – and often come back even stronger than before. 

The Stoic Mindset and Anger

Stoicism does not really scream “freak out and things will be ok”. In fact, one of the stoic virtues is self-control, which would specifically judge the strong display of emotions that Tom displayed.  

But our focus here should lie somewhere else: 

Stoicism coined the idea of excepting the things that happen around us, that we have no control over. This philosophy helped Marcus Aurelius fight two wars, despite his sons dying, helped Nelson Mandela keep fighting for freedom after 27 years of prison and Viktor Frankl go through the horrors of the second world war and move on to be one of the greatest therapists of all time. 

The old philosopher Epictetus wrote that suffering does not stem from the events in our lives, but from our judgement about them.  

How Does This Relate To Poker? 

To become successful in Poker, and in its multiple variants like Texas Hold'em and Omaha, you need to understand that things can go badly, even if you do everything right. Some things are out of your control and there is no way to change the result.  

But there is a way to move on and use that knowledge in the future. 

Now, Tom understood that. He realized that He made the right play and just got unlucky. His strategy was not faulty, and he did not misplay. That’s why he did not change anything moving forward. He kept playing the Odds and as time went on, he did manage to come out on top. 

Even if you lose your stack, it’s not the end of the world. There have been much greater tragedies out there, that have no discouraged people from pursuing their goals. 

How Does Anger Play Into This? 

So, if stoicism tells you to keep calm, why did Tom get angry? And why do you say that is ok? 

Obviously, Tom was not a professional Poker player at the time. When you watch Poker on TV, you can see the pros lose millions and just shrug it off. Tom already had a high level of resilience, but it was nowhere near the amount required to be a professional Poker player.  

You see, anger is essentially a coping mechanism that is meant to protect us. Anger is always born out of fear – fear of loss, fear of getting hurt, fear of not being good enough, etc. 

Out in the wild, it was a mechanism, that would lend you strength, the strength to overcome the obstacle that would frighten you, to be exact. In today’s society, this strength is rarely required, but having that extra bit of “strength” can and will work as a coping mechanism if used correctly. 

Becoming angry at something also means acknowledging that something happened and that we did not like it. This acknowledgement is the first step to accept and deal with the problem at hand. Peter did not really do that. He just pretended that it never happened, which lead to an internal conflict, nagging away on his concentration.  

The goal is not to become angry, but to accept and deal with the loss and move on – and if anger is the coping mechanism you need to do that, until you have increased your resilience to an adequate level, then that’s still better than just ignoring the event. 

How Do You Increase Your Resilience? 

To increase your resilience, the first step is always to understand what you are doing. You need to understand the difference between not caring and accepting the things that are out of your control. You are always allowed to feel a certain way about things – you are human after all – but you cannot let this keep you from rationally analyzing the situation and improving potential mistakes you may have made. Once you understand those differences, it’s time to start. 

Take A Step Back 

As you are facing a difficult situation – either in Poker or anywhere else in your life – it is important to recognize this situation and take a step back to analyze it.  

  • Was there realistically anything you should have done differently or was it just bad luck? 

Some things are out of our control, and some were our fault. It’s important to understand whether the play you just made was within your strategy or just a gamble you took. There is no point dwelling on it either way, but there may be an opportunity to learn and improve, something you really should not miss.  

  • How do you feel about it? 

Starting out your journey of improvement, you will probably get angry a lot. It’s important to recognize this anger and feel it. It does help making the situation real and therefore accepting it.  

  • Notice how you react 

As you keep analyzing yourself during these situations, you will notice your behavior becoming calmer over time, as you recognize your anger, directed towards the outside, becoming less, because it is essentially a waste of energy that will not do you any good. Still, it is important to watch and recognize it. 

Practice Makes Perfect 

As time goes on and you go through your analyzing process again and again, you will go through the same process of accepting and recovering again and again. You can compare this to a muscle being trained over and over again. This muscle will be able to take your lighter challenges with more and more ease and you will be armed to face bigger challenges.  

At the same time, your recovery will become faster and faster, because you will have gone through the process so many times already.  

It may still be a challenge to stay cool during a big poker tournament on TV, as the pros do, but playing on your favorite Online Poker Site and having your opponent luck out might cause you no more than a big sigh and rolling your eyes, as time goes on. 

Your Character Matters

During all this, you need to keep in mind, that every person experiences the events in their lives differently. 

Some people may have a naturally more laid-back attitude, while others may be naturally more anxious or angry.  

You need to keep in mind, that all the techniques we recommend require a large amount of self-reflection and self-honesty. The pros that you see on TV are practically bodybuilders, competing in a challenge with massive amounts of pressure. It takes years to build this mindset and it needs a strong foundation to be built upon. 

Do not get discouraged if you smash a few mice in the process, but these situations are good times to reflect upon how you feel and to learn from these situations. 

Building In Other Areas Helps 

After comparing your mind to a muscle this much, you can probably see the next point coming. 

Train Your Body

Pushing yourself beyond your limit of comfort takes a similar amount of effort in different areas. Push yourself through a few reps of push-ups. The exercise to push yourself through though situations, be it at the gym or anywhere else in life, will strengthen your mind and your willpower. Yes, in theory you can do it without physical exercise, but if you want to improve efficiently, this is a good way to do it. A strong body is better at handling a strong mind. Not only will you be able to withstand higher amounts of pressure without your body reacting as strongly, but your hormones will be used the sensation of stress and you will feel it less severely.  

The Big Takeaway 

Advancing your Poker game will always require you to bounce back from difficult events and with enough improvement of your resilience, this will eventually leave you stronger than before. This ability to handle stressful situations will take you far in life, even beyond the game of Poker.  

Yes, a good Poker player needs to study Poker strategy, but to become successful, training your mind is just as important. You need to work out your mental muscle, being it handling Tilt, overcoming the fear of taking risks or working on your resilience.  

Let us know if there are other topics you would like us to cover. Until then, don’t give up, everyone has the tools they need to be their best self. 

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