Mind games

Road rage is a thing of the past – it's river rage that consumes us poker players these days

It will stop mistakes from snowballing into disastrous decisions

Whenever you sit down at a poker table there’s always one player who’s going to be trying their hardest to trip you up, take you down and make you look like a fool. The bad news is that you can’t escape them, because in fact that scheming Machiavellian genius is none other than you.

The good news is there’s a way to get around this evil part of your psyche. And no, you won’t have to enrol for the Ludovico technique. All your brain needs is some gentle persuasion, in the form of a hypnotherapist, who is trained to rewire your brain using neurolinguistic programming (NLP). It sounds complicated but it isn’t. All you have to do is to open your ears and lie back on a couch. Perfect.

Think for one second about all the bad calls and suspect moves that you’ve made – and I’m not talking bad beats – that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. If you’re being honest then you’ll accept that most of your memorable losses, near-misses and should-have-beens aren’t just down to the luck of the cards but to less-than-perfect decisions.

What makes it even more frustrating is that sometimes you even know that you’re doing the wrong thing at the very moment you do it. Why do this to yourself? Well, call it tilt, call it rage, call it a self-defeatist attitude – whatever you want to name it, this car crash state of mind takes over every player from time to time. And the more you let it affect you the more you’re going to see your bankroll end up in someone else’s. And you don’t want that. And we don’t want that. So let’s sort this out – a simple case of mind over matter…

Teenage angst

It’s 1994, I’m 16 years old, and I’m playing a fast paced twoplayer card game called Slam with a lank-haired (now balding) fella from school. I am unbeatable at this game. Really. Despite the occasional freak blip I’ve cleared up against everyone I’ve played, which is why I simply cannot believe that I…have…just… lost…! The red mist descends and the cards are flung across the room with a blast of profanity that can only be unleashed by the ferocity of teenage hormones.

What I’m trying to convey is that historically I’m not a good loser, that I’m not someone who can easily or naturally accept an 8% outdraw. And if it’s me that has idiotically put myself in the position of praying for a 9/1 shot then I’m liable to throw chips at pots that I know I’ve got only a slim chance of winning in a tilting form of self-flagellation. In the company of strangers I’ll put on a game face, nod, say ‘nice hand’ and then politely excuse myself to the gents where I’ll kick in the stall doors and gnash on a toilet roll while invoking the gods of poker, Norse mythology and ancient Babylon to bring a plague upon my opponent’s house. Or rather that’s what I used to do before my brain was rewired by Michele Burghardt, poker hypnotherapist extraordinaire.

We can retrain you

Forget about the running-aroundnaked- on-stage-thinking-you’re-achicken nonsense; real hypnotherapy is about being put into a state of calm relaxation, at which point a trained hypnotherapist can retrain parts of your behaviour by speaking directly to the subconscious mind. The brain is loosely split between the conscious mind, with which you analyse information and make decisions, and the subconscious mind, which deals with the meat and potatoes of how you move through time and space: blinking, walking and breathing for instance. The subconscious mind decides which bits of information are fed to the conscious mind and influences how your conscious mind receives and processes that info.

Ultimately, whatever your subconscious mind believes to be true is what the conscious part of your brain will believe too. If you can change how that hard-toreach bit of grey matter reacts to certain situations, such as receiving a punishing bad beat, it could irrevocably change your poker fortunes for the better. Well, that’s the theory, but can I get it to work for me?

Guinea pig

Steve ‘HillyTheFish’ Hill had picked up one of Michele’s poker hypnotherapy CDs just before the World Series of Poker where, beyond all expectations, he managed to last to the third day of the $10,000 Main Event. Even more unbelievably Steve, a man with one of the most cynical subconscious minds you could care to delve into, claims that the anti-tilt CD directly contributed to his longevity at the Main Event. It was no small claim, so PokerPlayer felt obliged to test it and find out exactly what difference it could make. And as the office hothead most prone to explosive moments of tilt, I was the automatic candidate to go under the hypno-scapel.

Burghardt, a practising hypnotherapist from the United States, initially brought her love of poker into her workplace (www.catchtheriver.com) when her husband badgered her into improving his game. She claims the results were ‘astronomical’ for hubby dearest and soon produced a series of hypnotherapy CDs specifically aimed at poker players. Not content with eating from the set menu I arranged with Michele to take part in two 60-minute interactive sessions.

The first session began with a half-hour chat discussing the problems in my game, concentration and tilt mainly, before Michele talked me into a deep state of relaxation. She was keen to point out that she wouldn’t be able to hypnotise me to do something that I didn’t want a la The Manchurian Candidate, and that we wouldn’t be working on the root causes of why I tilt (this would obviously take far too long and delve into the darkest places imaginable) but simply making sure it didn’t happen in the future. The hypnotherapy was going to make my game more solid and, if the results are positive, who am I to question how it worked?

Going under

When you go under you only retain a fluid memory of the session itself and can only fully confirm that it took place because Michele emailed me the recorded session afterwards. I can remember Michele’s soothing voice making me relax, sink into my chair, slow my breathing and, after that, just a vague recollection of words washing over me. Michele used neurolinguistic programming to speak to my subconscious mind in a bid to convince it that a calm demeanour at the table is better than an explosive one.

The recording, when listened back to, sounds more than a little 1984: ‘You remember to forget and forget to remember how to get angry. Quickly, easily and instantaneously you are focused on the next hand because you remember to forget and forget to remember how to get angry when you lose a hand of poker.’

The psychological mantras sidestepped my now quiet conscious mind and headed straight to the subconscious part of my noggin. Whether it was going to have long-term effects or not, I felt absolutely marvellous at the end of the session, as if I’d slept for a couple of hours.

Put to the test

The next day Michele advised me to test out how the session had affected my play, so I duly donned a pair of smart shoes and turned my fully-firing synapses towards the Vic’s £30 freezeout.

Did I take it down? Did I bollocks. However, I did make the final table, pocketed £90, and had one of the most enjoyable poker sessions ever.

Approaching the bubble I’d been a near shoe-in for the final table with an average-sized stack, when I called with middle pair on the flop against a short-stack’s all-in shunt. Unfortunately he wasn’t trying to buy the pot as I suspected but was fast-playing trips. My stack was left in tatters. I knew that I could have, and probably should have, sacrificed the big blind that I’d stuck in and waited for a better spot.

Now the old Dacey would have imploded at this point, lumping in his remaining chips on the next hand with a snort of selfdisgust. Instead, I just took a deep breath, let the previous decision roll by and moved onto the next hand. I was now shortstacked but felt at ease and merely reassessed my gameplan. After 30 minutes, I’d survived several larger stacks’ eliminations and had snuck into the money. Job done.

Since finishing my sessions, and revisiting the recordings, I’ve seen my game improve and the incidents and consequences of tilt reduce. Hypnotherapy is not a miracle cure, it’s not going to turn you into a poker superstar overnight or instantly inject every stat from Super/System into your head, but what it will do is vital. It will stop you making as many mistakes and it will stop those mistakes from snowballing into truly disastrous decisions. While tilt will never truly be a thing of the past, you’ll find that, like an old school friend, you just won’t see it as often.

Want to get on the couch?

Check out Michelle’s website www.catchtheriver.com for more info about poker hypnotherapy. One-on-one sessions range from $79 for an hour, while her four-CD ‘No Tilt’ set costs about £50.

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