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Poker Inertia

newton appleYou’ve heard it before. Starting a poker session is easy. Knowing when to quit is the hard part. One of Newton’s first laws of physics targets inertia. Objects tend to resist changes to their motion whether they are at rest or moving, he noted. Who knew he was referring to playing cards?

If you’ve played the game, you’ve struggled with when to call it a day. It isn’t surprising either. A quick analysis of Newton’s law tells us why.

Chair Glue

While Newton’s law will not translate directly to your poker seat, virtual or actual, the theory highlights two theoretical principles which make a poker player vulnerable to the phenomenon often referred to as “chair glue”.

Inertia to a poker player is actually two fold. First, there is the physical object of your behind planted in a cozy chair. To actually get up and leave a seat is not as simple as it seems. In a poker tournament, where you are under a degree of external control because you are told when to take breaks, where you will be sitting, and there are distinct ends to sessions, there are few issues with inertia. This is especially the case when you bust and, well, get shown the door.

In these cases, there are external forces acting upon you. But when does this happen in a cash game for example? Unless you have made dinner reservations, most players sit down at a table within a rather open-ended time frame. There are little to no external forces.

Secondly, there is also the mental motion behind those aviator shades. The objects, it appears, are thoughts. You are directing your mental energy toward making decisions, analyzing your opponents, and making mathematical calculations. At least, you probably should be. The problem of chair glue arises in the absence of external forces like those listed above and the engagement of your brain. Why? If no external forces exist, an internal force must trigger movement. A decision has to be made and a motive must exist.

Primal urges

For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at hunger. Hunger is a primal inner-force. Its sole focus is to motivate you to take action in order to keep you alive. Last I checked, aliveness is important to poker. So, your body creates a drive which, once it achieves a certain threshold, puts you into action. Even still, full engagement in the action can trump these urges, at least for a little while. That’s the power (and the problem) with the mental inertia of the game.

Similar urges like needing the restroom also happen. But let’s keep it clean for now.

But what if you are engaged and have no primal urge that trigger movement? Well, that water is much muddier. It is easy to lose your sensibilities at a table even though all the signs say it is time to go home or quit. In fact, the negative part of the game, losing, can create another strong drive which acts in the opposite direction; recouping losses. Losing one’s investment is hard to take for anyone. It comes with a host bad decisions like staying at a table where you are over-matched or extending your stop-loss limit (if you set one).

Let the Force Be With You

As it happens, without primal urges to take care of your normal bodily processes, creating enough internal force to push away from the felt is extremely challenging. There are strategies which can help, like setting an aforementioned stop-loss and quitting once you’ve spent to your limit. Putting yourself on the clock and quitting after, for instance, 4 hours, is another strategy. However, armed with these, you still have to abide by or honor them with actual action.

That takes discipline, maturity, and wisdom; three things easily absent in any given poker room.

When discipline or patience is required, I have found most performers expect themselves to use it without much practice. Knowing what is needed and doing it when it matters are light-years apart. How much has it helped you for someone to tell you to be more patient? If that advice takes, it usually isn’t long before you default to that impatient state. This is because of a lack of practice to reset the default.


As I’ve written elsewhere, what you feel can be the trigger you need. Primal motives like hunger are coupled with a lot of physical sensation and are difficult to ignore. However, there are more subtle cues which tell you it is time to go. Leaving when it is time means becoming self-aware of your cues. Feeling frustrated, jittery, or overly aggressive towards certain players might be examples. These don’t mean anything until you make them mean something.

Desperation, something felt when chasing loses, is a big one. It is hard to recreate it but by practicing “walking away” in other life circumstances when you feel out of sorts or off your game helps.

So if you struggle with traditional methods like using a stop-loss or stopwatch and tend to ignore them, train your gut feeling. That begins in identifying undesired feelings and observing and reacting to them away from the table.

Kelly Doell, PhD is a mental performance consultant. Learn more about how his work can help your performance at www.KellyDoell.com



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