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Breaking Through: Approaching poker with the right mental and physical game

Everyone remembers the “bluff of the century.” Chris Moneymaker remained focused. Heads-up against Sammy Farha, he put his entire shot at the World Series of Poker Main Event title on the line. On a board of [9s 2d 6s 8s], Moneymaker moved all in with [Ks7h] when the river brought a [3h]. It was a stone-cold bluff and his resilience and determination paid off.

In the face of a superior player (Moneymaker has admitted this), he found a way to win. After days and days of playing, he remained stoic and solid – putting mental anguish, exhaustion, and nerves behind him – and giving his opponent a massive decision for his tournament life.

But even for players in $2-5 and $10-20 cash games, it’s important to realize the importance that being in the right mental and physical state when heading to the poker tables – both live and online.

History can offer a little insight into finding success. While he may not have been a card player, third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson offered some nice advice that applies well to poker players today: “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”



You’ve studied online. You’re armed with as much math as possible. Tells and bet-sizing variations are top of mind. While all this may be needed, the right mental approach at the tables is important. Lack of focus and determination can bring mistakes.

Bryan Campanello, of Southlake, Texas, knows a bit about poker success. In a career approaching $900,000 in tournament winnings, he’s won one WSOP bracelet and three WSOP-Circuit rings. Campanello believes there is a direct relationship between mentally strength and success in poker.

“I definitely believe that someone who is mentally strong and thinks about their personal health will end up more successful in anything they do,” he says. “But it definitely helps in poker because of the long hours and sheer number of pitfalls available to someone spending a lot of time in a casino. Trying to approach each hand with a clear mind and focus separates the best from the rest.”

For Campanello, there are some keys ideas to remember to help stay in the right frame of mind at the tables:

  • Try to have a short memory.
  • Don’t let past results affect decision making for upcoming hands, whether those results are positive or negative.
  • Stay focused on the hand currently happening. Don’t let losing the last pot change what you do in the next one.

Campanello also believes lifestyle choices can affect one’s decision-making in poker. He offers some insight on avoid some negatives.

“Poker has many pitfalls – whether long hours in a casino, drinking, or gambling,” he says. “Avoiding those things to keep a clear mind definitely can help. Even something as simple as using the break to walk outside and get some fresh air can impact one’s ability to stay focused. Players are constantly drinking or gambling on breaks and all of that can affect their ability to make an informed decision in the next hand they play.”

In other words, it should always be a goal to be “in the zone.” Staying sharp includes constantly working to improve and develop one’s game.

Longtime tournament pro Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler has plenty of experience as a traveling player and has amassed more than $3.5 million in tournament winnings and numerous titles and final table appearances. He knows first-hand the need to stay sharp mentally – fatigue can bring mistakes.

“Staying focused is extremely important,” he says. “I let my guard down and folded Queens preflop once because I so close to bagging.”

Kessler said it’s important to remember that, “it’s all one tournament,” and moves like that caused by fatigue can be missed opportunities to accumulate more chips.

Even poker legend Daniel Negreanu has felt the need for an occasional refocus and strategy adjustment. After recently Tweeting that despite $2.79 million in tournament winnings, he ended up in the red for the year and also was in the red in 2016 after many winning years.

Even Negreanu decided some limbering up mentally would help his game – and has been on a tear to start the year with more than $1.2 million in winnings in 2018





Whether multi-table grinding long hours online at the virtual felt or tossing chips in a big pot at the WSOP, poker can be tiring – long hours, slumped at a table, little sleep or rest, and despite a nice chair massage, relaxing can be tough.

Whil Campanello admits he is not good at keeping a consistent physical routine, he believes it definitely could help with the hours and mental strain associated with poker. That includes a diet that maximizes one’s ability to stay sharp in both mind and body.

“A healthy lifestyle and diet definitely can help a player,” he says. “Eating lighter foods during a tournament and ones that give you good energy can increase focus and prevent you from feeling overtired or distract you. While playing I usually like to do smaller meals consistently so I don’t feel hungry, but am never too full and become tired.”

For Kessler, that healthy lifestyle also includes taking plenty of downtime and getting plenty of sleep.

“You need to be well rested,” he said. “Playing tired you miss things you wouldn’t otherwise. In key spots, I turn off all electronics.”

Kessler has plenty of experience in tournament play. He plays about 100 tournaments a year and has seen it all on the tournament trail. Despite the trend in legalized marijuana, Kessler is amazed at the number of players focused on grabbing a quick toke on break rather than focusing on cards. He sees that as the opposite of staying healthy in regards to card-playing.

“People whose first priority on break is to smoke weed amaze me,” he says. “They can’t be playing optimally.”


Putting It All Together

Longtime pro Ray Henson admits it took him a few years to figure out the link of a healthy lifestyle and success. He didn’t believe there was a correlation in success and how a player treats himself. Regular partying and poor eating, he says, hindered his game until he made some changes.

“As of about three or four years ago I realized how wrong I was and started making changes,” Henson says. I’m still not to the point that I would like to be, but I have made some rather large changes.”

Henson has begun a more active lifestyle and eating healthier. During the WSOP, he went from fast food everyday to eating better fare from the All- American Dave food truck almost every meal.

“I’m not perfect in this aspect either, but compared to where I was a couple years ago it is a complete change,” he says. “When I was younger I would be going out every night, many times after I bagged and had to play the next day, and just partying and not getting much sleep. Looking back I’m not really sure why I ever thought this would be a good idea.

“My advice to younger guys, especially  those traveling for first time to places like the WSOP, is to just treat it more like work. And if you feel the need to go out and party, don’t do it the night before you have to play, even if you don’t play until late.”

Henson, who has $2.5 million in tournament winnings and four WSOP-Circuit rings, knows he’s still not perfect and has more work to do. Looking back, he has some regrets about lifestyle decisions he’s made that he know affected his poker game. That same goes for other players he’s seen waste some of their talents from poor choices.

“There’s no telling where I could be in poker if I could have started these routines earlier in my career,” he says. “I have also seen several other well-known pros make a ton of these same mistakes I have made, and have seen people with incredible talent that just never gave up partying to take poker seriously and never lived up to their hype.”

Before making some changes in diet and exercise, Henson had success at the tables but also felt he lacked consistency. The past few years have been different.

Speaking about these topics have motivated the Texan even more.

“I’m hoping that I can keep pushing myself and maybe start showing even better results in the future,” he says. “These questions have made me feel more accountable for trying to push myself even harder. I have realized these lifestyle changes have made a difference, but having to actually talk about it has made me realize that I do need to continue to push myself.

“Competition is getting tougher and tougher on the felt, and the ones that mentally prepare themselves to be most ready are going to be the ones that continue to be the most successful.”


Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Texas. He has written for numerous publications and also writer/host of the True Gambling Stories podcast, available on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio, PokerNews.com, HoldemRadio.com, and TrueGamblingStories.com. For more of his work visit SeanChaffin.com. Find him on Twitter @PokerTraditions. For story assignments, email his at Seanchaffin@sbcglobal.net.

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