The Mental Game of Poker 2: How to play your ‘A’ game for longer

Learn how to grind more hours while still playing your ‘A’ game in this extract from Jared Tendler and Barry Carter’s new book The Mental Game of Poker 2…

While there are some players who have more natural talent for grinding, with the right approach, anyone can learn to play more hands, longer hours, and across more online tables. One key to increasing your capacity is to understand that endurance and strength develop in a similar way in the mind as they do in the body. Many players treat the mind differently and don’t think playing that extra hour or adding a couple of tables should be an issue. However, their goal can’t just be to play longer or more tables, they also have to maintain a high level of play. You don’t need skill to be able to play long hours or a ton of hands and be a losing player. Sure, some drop-off in the quality of your play is expected as you increase volume, especially at first. However, it’s critical that you minimise that drop-off as much as possible.

Contrary to what some critics say, highly skilled multi-tablers are not playing a mindless form of poker. Undoubtedly, focusing on only one table allows you to think more deeply about each decision than when you’re playing ten tables. However, skilled multi-tablers have automated a large amount of knowledge and an incredibly complex decision -making process. They’re making tons of complex in-game decisions instinctually and with very little conscious thinking.


In order to become a successful grinder, a large part of your poker skill must be automated or mastered to the level of unconscious competence. Automation is especially important for multi-tabling online because there is a limit to how much a player can think about at any one time. By automating a large amount of their skills, they can ‘autopilot’ many decisions without wasting valuable mental space or resources. Good grinders are able to instantly analyse prior action, bet sizing, hand ranges, and other details of the hand without thinking. Decisions that require thinking burn a lot more energy than automatic ones.

Increasing Mental Endurance

Many players expect it to be easy to increase their mental endurance. They see other players who can play twelve tables for six hours at a time without a problem and think they should be able to as well. What they don’t realise is that if they currently can only play six tables for three hours, they’re expecting a 200% increase in their capacity to happen automatically. This is no different than trying to run fifteen miles when they are normally able to run only five. They may be successful in running 200% more on one occasion, but repeatedly? With each consecutive day, their bodies get a little weaker and without proper rest, the risk of serious injury increases dramatically.

Grinding a lot of poker is similar to running long distances day after day – you need to increase your mental endurance in order to consistently grind that extra distance. Steadily add tables and time while maintaining quality decision making just as you would increase weight and duration while maintaining proper form in a physical workout. Here are a few ideas for how to effectively increase mental endurance:

  1. Make a realistic assessment
    This step is extremely important. Spend some time looking through your poker database or thinking about the amount of volume you’ve put in over the past six to twelve months. Specifically, determine how many tables you play on average and how long you can play that number of tables while maintaining at least your B-game. If you’ve been dealing with tilt or other mental game problems, you must account for them in your calculation. When you increase volume, you’re increasing the frequency of triggers that can induce mental game problems. This makes you susceptible to having these problems accumulate, carry over to future sessions, and become even more problematic. Underestimating the impact of increased mental game triggers is a major reason that players fail to consistently grind more poker.
  2. Increase steadily
    Trying to immediately increase your mental endurance by 100% is clearly a mistake, so what is a percentage that makes sense? It’s hard to say exactly, however, a reasonable percentage increase is much closer to 10% than 100%. Working from the average number of tables and hours you’re capable of playing, make a plan to gradually increase that number. If you can play four tables, adding a fifth is a 25% increase. That large increase may mean you need to decrease the amount of time you play, or play lower stakes, until playing the fifth table becomes as comfortable as playing four. Going this slowly may seem ridiculous, but if you push too hard, you can burn out and inevitably slow down or jeopardise the overall process.
  3. Push yourself
    The hardest part of increasing the distance of a run is the part beyond what currently feels easy to you. Playing an extra table for a longer period of time puts added strain on your mind. You have to fight for every inch of progress. If you only do what comes easily, you won’t be increasing your endurance. You need to continually push yourself past the point where you are comfortable, and then follow it up with rest so your mind can recover well enough to push again.
  4. Track your progress
    After each session, keep track of how long you played, the intensity of the session overall, and the volume you were able to add while pushing yourself. Note any improvements— was it easier to push longer? Did you play better than normal? Also, keep track of any factors that influence the relative difficulty of the session, such as sleep, the severity of good and bad variance, or exercise. That way you can get a more accurate reading of your progress.

Rest and Recovery

Rest is essential to the recovery of your mind and body. As you’ve already learned, you don’t have an infinite supply of energy. Just like you have to fill up the gas tank in your car, your mind and body need to refuel. Knowing how much to rest, when to do it, and how best to do it, takes some experimenting. There’s no one-size-fits-all method. Here are a few ways you can get proper rest:

  1. Cool down
    Athletes ice and stretch their muscles after playing to help their bodies recover more quickly. Poker players who grind a lot of poker need to help their minds recover after long sessions by taking notes after they finish playing. Writing out their experiences at the table frees their mind from having to grind on poker long after they’re done playing.
  2. Step away from the computer
    Spending time away from the computer, and away from poker, is essential to helping your mind rest. Hang out with friends (but don’t talk about poker), go to the gym, watch a movie, or do anything else you find enjoyable. Poker players generally know they should be getting away from their computers, but they often have trouble breaking out of the habit. This takes self-discipline.
  3. Take time off
    Don’t expect to be able to play poker every day. Sure, you can go stretches of time, one month for example, where you can play every day, but at some point your mind will start to break down. Take, on average, one day off per week, five days off per month, and five days in a row off per quarter.
  4. Get some sleep
    Good sleep is of paramount importance. You might be able to get away with a few days of less than optimal sleep, but eventually it’ll catch up to you. Lacking sleep is like a car running on empty. With too little energy in the tank, how can you expect to consistently grind a lot of hands and play them well? The amount of sleep each person needs to be at their best varies. Find the amount that works best for you by relating the amount of quality sleep you get each night to your endurance levels the following day. Keep in mind that for some people, sleeping too much can be as problematic as sleeping too little.
  5. Take a vacation
    Poker players often don’t like taking vacations because of how rusty their game tends to be when they return. Enjoying some extended time off from poker is important.
  6. Schedule days off
    Rather than only resting when you get burned out, plan days off ahead of time. This gives you something to look forward to while you’re grinding.
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