Poker Strategy: The Mental Game (Part 2)

By: Daniel Laidlaw

As I embark on another period of live poker I thought I’d help prepare myself by sharing an expanded mental checklist of the sort of things you should be thinking about when preparing for and playing a live session.

In part one of this piece we looked at warming up, developing a plan and perceived table image.  Here are a few more things to think about at the tables.

No ego: depersonalize the game

The poker room is a place of self-delusion and fevered egos. Almost everyone thinks they’re better than the majority and it’s a culture which prides itself on competition, at least superficially. However, a lot of players don’t realise that ultimately the only person you are competing against is yourself, and consequently they are extrinsically motivated by a desire to “prove” themselves to others.

This manifests itself in a number of counter-productive ways: Playing under-rolled, giving away information for no purpose, berating fish, and generally spewing too much.

So the bad reg you’re anti-sweating got there in another huge pot. So what? Why do you care, really? Focus on making optimal decisions; any other motivation can only distort your judgement.

Take breaks

Personal preference. Find out what works for you. Getting up and wandering around every hour or so is a good opportunity to reset and remind yourself of what you want to be thinking about in the next hour of play.

Be self-aware

You want to be a dispassionate observer of your own thoughts and feelings at the table. Know when you’re feeling bored, frustrated, angry etc. The very act of recognition and being able to say to yourself “I am feeling this” helps to distance yourself from it and realise, as the Buddhists say, that your feelings are not “you”.

Dostoevsky wrote that stupid people mistake immediate causes for primary ones. They believe that other people’s actions determine their reactions and that this is the foundation of their activity. This is how fish justify tilt: they mistake an immediate cause (the way an opponent played a hand) for a primary one (insecurity).

I suspect this is unconscious; they are essentially reactive and there is no separation of the self from the thoughts / emotions experienced by that self, no conscious internal dialogue. This self-awareness is a prerequisite for critical self-evaluation and hence success at poker.

Of course it’s very easy to lose sight of this and become embroiled in a reactive state when a session is going poorly. Regular reminders help.

Track pot size

The most annoying part of live poker. If you don’t know what the pot size is at any point in the hand, you’re doing it wrong. If you ever see someone ask the dealer to “spread the pot”, it’s a huge clue they don’t know what they’re doing. Practice by counting the pot size in hands you’re not involved in until it becomes second nature.

Which leads us to…

Pay attention to hands you’re not involved in

Paradoxically, even though mono-ing a live game means you should have the time to absorb every piece of information, the monotony of it makes it quite difficult unless you remind yourself to stay switched on. Unfortunately, you can’t go back and click on the hand history replayer to review key hands. It’s like watching a Test match live before the introduction of replay screens; if you miss that key moment, it’s gone.

Consistently paying attention once the cards are in the air requires discipline and commitment – you have to genuinely want to be engaged in the game. You’ll be rewarded for doing so.


You can follow Daniel on Twitter @Choparno