The Mental Game: Why Poker Psychology Is So Important in 2018

In the seven years since Black Friday turned the online poker community upside down, the games have evolved into an incredibly tough environment. No longer can we expect to just bet for value and hero fold our way into a healthy win rate at stakes we are good enough to play. The games are just too tough now, and we are not doing ourselves justice at the tables if we are not in tip top mental shape to do battle with the other regs.


Jared Tendler – The Man that Opened Our Eyes

In May 2011, Jared Tendler released his first book called The Mental Game of Poker. Less than a month after Black Friday, the timing couldn’t have been any better. With the American player pool decimated things were about to get a whole lot tougher. Real tough, in fact.

At the time, many sports fans would have been aware that sports psychologists were commonly used at the highest level, but most of us in the poker community didn’t have a clue about how they could help us. That was about to change. Beyond making sure we were refreshed and relaxed before playing, there wasn’t a lot of information available to us before this book was released.

Snake Oil?

Initially, the sceptics were crying out accusations of mumbo jumbo. They assumed that experience was all that was required and that all you had to do was to push through any pain until you weren’t affected any longer. How wrong they were.

The first example that became common knowledge was Tendler’s work with Dusty “Leatherass9” Schmidt. Schmidt had terrible tilt issues and was going through an insane number of keyboards and monitors that he’d launched at his office wall. After sorting this out, he then also began to see how his mental approach in general was wrong.

It’s worth noting that once a player reaches a certain level of proficiency there is no more training material available. High-stakes players are always talking poker with each other, and this is how they learn and develop their games. But aside from that the only other way you can increase your edge is to sort your head out, for want of a better phrase.


The Learning Process

How we actually learn is not something we generally give much thought to as adults. Jared Tendler gave us some revealing highlights in this now classic book.

Firstly, the four-stage process of learning a new skill, while actually simple to understand, can revolutionise your poker skill set in a short amount of time.

Unconscious Incompetence: This first level is where we have no idea what is going on, nor what the areas are that we need to work on.

Conscious Incompetence: Now you know what your failings are, but don’t actually have any of those skills yet.

Conscious Competence: During this stage you are starting to pick up the skills necessary to plug your leaks, but it takes up a lot of your mental awareness.

Unconscious Competence: By this point in the process the skill is as automatic as breathing and uses minimal conscious effort.

The trick to using this knowledge to your best advantage is to understand when something needs more effort to move from the third to the fourth stage. As you accumulate information and implement it into your A-game it becomes progressively more difficult to add more if you are stacking it all up in stage three. The net result of this is you soon reach a plateau and stop improving.



The second piece of eye-opening information that Tendler wrote about was the “inchworm” concept. It is nothing new but suffices as an extremely accurate representation of how we learn and the way this applies to our in-game performance.

In the bell curve above we can see that most of the time your performance will be a solid B-game. Now consider that the area under the curve always remains constant. As we learn new skills and absorb information our A-game will move to the right, but this requires the curve to flatten out. With a flatter curve we no longer see the majority of our sessions as a solid B-game, but now there is a much more even spread between our best and our worst performances. This means that any kind of outside influence that negatively affects you, such as tiredness or emotional turmoil, can lead to a much greater decrease in performance than is usual. The key lesson from this point is to make sure that you always work on your worst weaknesses.

Conversely, if you become obsessed with eradicating your weaknesses and don’t dedicate any of your time to learning new concepts then your bell curve will reach a high point on the graph covering a very narrow range but won’t move forward at all. Your performances will be extremely consistent at this point but that’s not much consolation if you aren’t improving.

You must keep this balance between learning new concepts and mastering the ones you already know into the unconscious competence stage.


The Tilt Issue

As long as poker has been played tilt has been an issue for all regular players on some level. Some suffer with this issue more than others but on the whole we all experience its negativity with some frequency. However, it wasn’t until Jared Tendler wrote his book and started to coach poker players that people really started to understand what the underlying causes were. A decade ago we all thought it was a plain anger issue, now we are analysing specific niches of the problem.

Running bad tilt; injustice tilt; hate losing tilt; mistake tilt; entitlement tilt; revenge tilt; desperation tilt. No doubt there are more reasons to tilt that have been discovered in recent years. All of these problems can be analysed down to their root cause and removed completely. What excuse do you have to not be sorting this out now this information is available?


Other Common Issues

Fear: Being scared for whatever reason will impact your results heavily in some way. Maybe you won’t play enough if you’re scared of failure; this kind of illogical thought process is a mental game leak.

Motivation: Keeping motivated enough to get the best out of yourself is far from being an easy task. Issues with procrastination and pure laziness are the bane of a professional poker player’s working life but with some dedicated work they can be eradicated to make you more efficient.

Confidence: It’s impossible to feel 100% confidence every time you sit down to play, but once you understand its true nature you will be able to maximise your mental performance every playing session. No more of that feeling destroyed by variance when the bad times run on and on.


Final Thoughts

Even though it’s more than seven years since mental game coaching fully arrived into the poker community it is far from being fully utilised by everybody. There is still a massive edge to be had by any player prepared to work hard to master the mental game concepts. This particularly applies to players who have been stuck at the same stakes for a considerable length of time. Your effort is guaranteed to translate into results if you persevere for long enough, so do yourself and your poker career some justice and dive straight in. Don’t be a mental game fish any longer.

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