When you're playing poker, does time whiz past?
Do you have a feeling of control? Do you find the game challenging?
Do you win a hand and can’t remember the exact reasoning behind your decisions?
If you've never experienced any of these things then you should stop playing poker and find something else to pass the time of day.
If you have experienced these things, then you've found a state of Flow.
AKA Being In the Zone
Flow is the term used by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a mental state that is reached when a person is feeling a high degree of energized focus, producing a wonderful sense of joy.
If you're into sports then you may recognize this description as being "in the zone."
I've listened to Csikszentmihalyi’s audio book on Flow and it’s surprising how it relates to the game of poker.
He breaks down the feeling of Flow into a number of specific characteristics. Although these milestones can be used to ensure a surer path to victory, I prefer to use them to find that often-elusive path to joy.
The actual number of characteristics required to maintain a state of Flow differs depending on the research paper you read.
The audio book that I listened to covered seven specific characteristics that seemed to be more prominent during his research.
The 7 Characteristics of Poker Flow
1. Goal Setting
Csikszentmihalyi determined that people who have a clear purpose and understanding of what to do next are more likely to obtain a state of Flow.
A clear purpose, or goal, produces a laser-like focus that is important to achieving that state.
Most poker players will have a goal to win a World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet. That’s a solid goal, but I believe Csikszentmihalyi’s first characteristic of Flow digs a little deeper than that.
Poker players who achieve a state of Flow are creating goals one hand at a time. Their clear purpose is to play each hand as optimally as possible.
Nothing else matters except for that one hand. Don’t think about the future, don’t think about the past, just focus on one hand at a time.
In my opinion this is the best way to achieve a state of Flow in poker.
2. Receive Immediate Feedback
After you've played each hand you will receive immediate feedback on how well it played out.
Poker is a game of incomplete information.
You won’t always see what the other person is holding but great players will quickly form assumptions based on their experience and then generate internal feedback on the hand.
This process is important (and often done sub-consciously) as it allows a person to maintain a state of Flow by making minor tweaks to performance based on that feedback.
A great example for a poker player new to the game is to identify "the mark" -- the one player at the table he or she believes is weaker than him/herself.
You will only find out this information when you start playing. Your brain will process the action that's taking place on the table and pinpoint the weaker players.
You then adjust your game and focus on trying to play hands with these players. This is immediate feedback in action.
3. Balance Between Skills and Challenge
It’s important that the difficulty of the task one is facing is comparable to the skills of the person involved.
My son likes to play the video game Call of Duty with me. The process goes something like this:
He hands me a controller then he proceeds to kill me every few seconds. Whilst he is seemingly enjoying it, I am not.
I am out of my depth. I don’t know what I am doing. I am not enjoying it.
Soon my son’s attitude changes. The game is too easy for him. He loses concentration. He starts to mess about.
He wants to raise my levels of hope. In the end he turns the game off and suggests something else.
The same happens in poker. The process of when to move up in stakes becomes more important when you read Csikszentmihalyi’s book on Flow.
It will be difficult for a player to achieve a state of Flow if he's playing in games that are too tasking or too easy.
It’s all about balance. Let your mind and body tell you what the right level is for you. This is Flow.
4. The Feeling of Control
Very often our lives are blighted by a sense of fear.
I’m not talking about a person suffering from arachnophobia who has just had a Tarantula dropped down his pants. I’m talking about intangible fears.
Fears that are set in a future that doesn’t exist or a past that once was.
All of these fears are created due to a perceived lack of control. We all seem to have this view that we need to, or have to, control everything.
But when you operate in a state of Flow your need to control dissipates. It’s irrelevant, and this allows you to feel free.
A great example is the tension that’s created when you keep missing your draws. You cannot control the order of the cards that come out of the deck.
It’s random. When you are in a state of Flow this awareness is natural. The deck produces a card, you miss your draw, the game moves on to the next hand.
5. Concentration on the Task at Hand
During his study on Flow Csikszentmihalyi found that one of the most frequently discussed stages was the feeling that nothing else mattered but the task at hand.
As I write this article I am thinking about returning my suitcase to the store. The wheel is broken. I have to walk. It’s raining.
My mind is taken me away from this article. It’s taking me away from Flow.
When Flow is experienced the rest of the noise is wiped out. No thinking about three-wheeler suitcases. No thoughts about the impending death of a cat.
The cost of the weekly shopping bill goes out of the window. The downswing doesn’t exist in that moment.
There is no room in Flow for irrelevant information. I mean, come on, what does the cost of your gas bill have to do with winning this hand?
6. The Loss of Self-Consciousness
This is ego (everybody’s got one). A lot of the noise and distraction that surrounds us is attracted to the ego. It’s all about me.
But once you're in a state of Flow the ego subsides. There is no room for ego and Flow. The two are not compatible.
When people stop thinking about themselves they get the opportunity to expand the concept of who they are. Once everything falls by the wayside it’s nice to be inside our skin.
Our mind feels like a warm and wonderful place.
There is a lot of ego related to poker. The need to beat him or her. The need to win this hand.
The need to stand strong in the face of a four-bet, even though you are holding a bag of spanners.
Let it go. Get into the Flow.
7. The Transformation of Time
I think this is the one area of Flow that poker players experience more than most.
When you consider that you're folding most of the time, isn’t it incredible how fast the time goes?
How many times have you played poker for 12+ hours and thought: "where has the time gone?" That is Flow.
You are completely immersed in the experience. Nothing else matters at that time.
Transformation of time also works in reverse. When you're in a state of Flow you can make seemingly difficult decisions quickly.
This is because time appears to slow down. The beep-beep of the online countdown doesn’t ruffle your feathers when you're in a state of Flow.
On the other hand if you keep looking at the clock, wondering why this goddam thing is taking so long, then you need to check in with yourself.
You are not experiencing Flow.