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Mental Preparation for Better Poker – See it, Feel it, Do it

Michael Phelps

Even the most focused sharks can’t catch every fish

Whether you are a polished pro or a home game rookie, you have likely witnessed the role of emotion in poker. In my work as a performance psychology consultant, my job is to help performers build skills to enhance or protect their performance process through mental preparation. Here is a glimpse of what you can do to be better prepared for the next time you feel emotionally reactive to something at the poker table.

Target Sore Spots

What scenario gets to you the most? That is, what circumstance is so frustrating that you always go on tilt and blow your chip stack as a result? Whatever it is, treat this as a high leverage point for your improvement. Here’s a scenario that can happen from time-to-time:

You make a strong pre-flop raise from the button with AdAh in the face of two limpers. The blinds quickly fold as does one limper. The second limper calls, to your satisfaction. The flop comes Qs4d8c rainbow. Nice. The limpy villain bets out about half the pot and you are happy to call it with no real draw threats on board. The turn card comes 2h. The villain gets busy again and leads out at you for half the pot once more. You feel good about your position in the hand. You consider that he may have a set of Queens at worst but he doesn’t limp pre-flop with big hands. A set of eights, perhaps? Perhaps, but you you begin to give him credit for top pair or an unlikely set. At any rate, you cannot fold. A raise is, again, in order. You pop it and are called and to the river you go. The river card is a 5h and the board sits Qs4d8c2h5h. He leads out once more and, playing conservatively just in case. His hand? 8s4s. The chips slide over to him and he slips in a jab, saying “Donkey”.

The next hand, short stacked, you decide to call an all-in bet after getting 4 bet pre-flop with KsJs only to see your opponent have those very aces you held last hand. Of course, they hold up for him and the stack you build for the last 3 hours has vanished.

Sore. Spot.

Identify Ideal Responses

If you were the player you wanted to be, how would you ideally react? Keep in mind, emotions are natural and unavoidable. So do not fool yourself into believing you can be emotionless and stoic under any circumstance. Instead, think about what a positive reaction would be, one that quells any negative slide to Brokeville.

Practice Seeing Scenarios

Have you got a scenario in mind? Next, take the time to run through the scenario in your mind from beginning to the end. See it in real time. See the plays. Feel the emotion. Recreate it as best as you can. By seeing the emotional scenes, you will in turn experience some vicarious emotions, even if only at a very low level. This is good. Feel the burning, the disgust, even the anger. Great training simulates real life.

Visualize Ideal Responses

Finally, picture yourself “taking it on the chin”. For example, reach for perspective (e.g., “Getting rivered is part of the game”), take 4 or 5 deep breaths, see yourself play calmly in the next hand (as opposed to losing your guile, a trademark of tilt). Perhaps you even picture yourself taking a break and leaving the table for an hour or the day. Do it in training time when there are no consequences.

Tip: If you keep seeing negative responses and cannot see the positive ones you’d like to have, take a step back and target a simpler, less intense scenario.

Mind Games

If you took 10 minutes daily to mentally rehearse one scenario that does the most damage to your mental edge, you will get better at buffering its power over you. Instead of singing in the shower, rehearse. When you get the hang of the “See it – Feel it – Do it” process, add another scenario. Like an athlete who works out between performances, a poker player can become stronger away from the table by using this simple mental training approach.

Kelly Doell, PhD is a health and high performance consultant. Learn more about his work at www.KellyDoell.com



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  • Alex

    People who tilt playing one table live 200NL are a joke. They should try playing 8 tables of same limit online lol

    • Kelly

      Multiple bad beats occurring virtually simultaneously is an even greater challenge to those who multi-table online.

      • Ivan Y

        I agree with Kelly. Losing multiple all-in pots within a few seconds apart from each other often causes tilt. Even the seasoned grinders can still ’tilt’ for a moment or two after a situation like that.

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  • Johna465

    You have brought up a very good details , thankyou for the post

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