Positive Poker: If you want to be the best you need to keep a positive outlook at all times

In this extract from new book Positive Poker, psychologist Dr. Patricia Cardner and poker pro Jonathan Little explain how to manage your bankroll and stay positive when you’re on a downswing

PositivePokerLOngThe importance of bankroll management

Dr. Patricia Cardner: The elite poker players I interviewed all mentioned bankroll management as being critical to poker success. It was one of the few things they all agreed on! I would consider it to be the starting point of your psychological skill set – it is that important. Consider some of their comments about its importance:

‘I always emphasise bankroll management. You cannot be a successful poker player if you don’t have any money.’

‘It’s pretty tough to get to the top if you don’t have bankroll management. You can have a lot of talent, and at some point you will get unlucky. If you are playing over your head and get unlucky, you won’t have any more money to play with.’

‘You can’t be spewy in poker and be a winner! If you have a gambling personality, you won’t get to the top. I did not get into poker to gamble. I got into [it] and realised I was good and that I could make money. I am actually pretty risk averse.’

[Poker pro] Jonathan Little gives very specific guidelines for bankroll management. First, he suggests that you have six months living expenses set aside [if you want to be a pro]. If you have an outside source of income, he suggests 50 buy-ins for full ring cash games, 80 buy-ins for six-max games and 100 buy-ins for tournaments.

Clearly, bankroll management is a very important part of becoming an elite player. No matter how good you are, you can easily go broke if you are not disciplined with your money. Many of the elite players I talked to commented on being disciplined and risk averse. Many recreational players and casual observers of the game might find this surprising, but it does not surprise me at all. To get to the top of any field, you simply must have a tremendous work ethic, patience, and willpower.

Learning from Barack Obama

Dr. Patricia Cardner: President Obama has some interesting habits, which contribute to his ability to make good decisions. I don’t think anyone would deny that being the President of the United States requires a great deal of decision making and self-control.

Obama only wears blue or gray suits and has removed mundane decision making, such as what to eat, from his life. He doesn’t shop or engage in any activities that will reduce his decision-making focus, and he exercises daily. The self-discipline that being the President entails comes at a high price. I think that’s true for anyone who achieves great success in anything, poker or otherwise. Decreasing the number of mundane decisions you make allows you more decision-making capacity for tougher propositions and keeps willpower high.

If you know you are going to play a long session or tournament, automate your decisions for as many routine things as you can. Have a uniform of clothes that you wear every day (like Matt Affleck and his sports jerseys) or select your clothes the night before an event or session. Eat the same meals every day. Do not make any more decisions than you have to. By ritualising the mundane, you can save your decision-making self-control for when you need it most – at the table.

Jonathan Little’s rules for successful poker

Jonathan Little: I am a huge fan of automating simple decisions. When I am playing poker, I decide when I am going to wake up, what I am going to eat, and what I am going to wear before I depart for my poker trip. I know what I have to do and I make it as easy on myself as possible to get it done.

In my journey through the poker world, I have discovered a few key situations that often arise that get me in trouble. To combat these problems, I have a ‘Rules’ file that is kept in my phone and I often refer back to them. Here they are…

• If you lose 300 big blinds in a live cash game, quit
Once I am down that much, I tend not to want to play anymore. While I have always felt ‘stop loss’ points were silly, assuming you don’t tilt, the more poker I play, the more I see their purpose.

• Do not play more than 12 hours per day
When you play long sessions you usually get tired, hungry and figure out a way to lose. Long sessions also get you off your sleep schedule, which will hurt your play the next day.

• Do not play in bad games
If the game isn’t profitable, and you are playing purely to make money, there is no reason to play.

• If you feel the least bit tilted in a tournament, tighten up and relax
When things are going poorly in a tournament but you still have chips, you have to make the most of them. Countless times, I have seen a player go from a huge stack to a medium stack and be upset. He then bluffs off the rest of his stack in an awful spot. Try to avoid this. In order to counteract the standard reaction to tilt, which is to gamble much more than normal, you should tighten up and relax.

How to stay motivated

Dr. Patricia Cardner: When it comes to poker, motivation is a key variable and it plays an important role in both learning and performance. Because poker is a game of the long haul, it is vital that you understand how to maintain high levels of motivation. Combine the fact that poker takes a long time to master with the natural variance that occurs, and you can easily see how it can be difficult to maintain motivation. 

Motivation is a central element of poker success. When you first got interested in poker, you were probably eager to soak up everything you could about the game. You probably spent inordinate amounts of time reading about the game, watching training videos and playing. It is just as likely that after gaining experience, studying and watching poker videos came much lower on your priority list.

What is motivation? Motivation describes a powerful inner force that activates us to behave in some way. When we are motivated, we take active steps to get to where we want to go in life. There are basically two types of motivation: internal and external. Internal motivation is the type that comes from within. You are internally motivated if you enjoy the processes of learning and find playing poker enjoyable without being focused on external factors like winning tournaments.

Someone who is externally motivated, on the other hand, plays for the glory. They are motivated by the money, titles, and awards that go with winning.

Take a minute to think about what motivates you. Do you play poker because you hope to gain fame and fortune? Do you enjoy the routines associated with studying the game and playing? Do you enjoy mastering the various elements of the game? Does time fly by when you are engrossed in the game? Answering these questions will  give you a good sense of where your motivations lie and help you determine whether to make any adjustments.

Coping with running bad

Dr. Patricia Cardner: With poker, the question is not if you will experience a slump where you run badly, but when. Running bad, or variance, is a major part of the game that can negatively affect your motivation. [When this happens] it is important to see a slump for what it really is. The first thing to find out is if you are truly running bad or if you are making poor plays. Keeping records and then analysing them objectively is the key to getting your answer. If you are making mistakes, you can make a plan to correct them and your ‘run good’ should return.

Alternatively, the majority of slumps are psychologically induced and exacerbated, and they follow a particular pattern. They start off with a poor performance or two. Then typically you start to develop self-doubt and worry. If you get preoccupied with thinking about the beats you have taken, you are not able to focus adequately on the game at hand. You may also try to over-control your table in order to prevent further bad outcomes. Because you are not focusing on the right things, you miss valuable info.

So what can you do to get your motivation to remain high when you are experiencing a downswing? 

  • Remember to have fun while you are playing. Fun and passion are important components to peak performance.
  • Maintain a high level of self-confidence no matter how long your downswing lasts. If your game is solid, you should have confidence in your ability.
  • Do not be results- oriented. You should concentrate on the action as it unfolds, make the best play for the situation, and let go of the results.
  • Focus only on things you can control.
  • Tell yourself that a downswing is merely a challenge that you will overcome. Train yourself to look forward to being challenged.
  • It can be extremely frustrating to be on a downswing that seems like it will never end. You must trust that it will.

Jonathan Little on dealing with downswings

Jonathan Little: When I play poker, time flies. It often feels as if I shut my eyes and open them again 12 hours later. Most of the time, I have no clue how or when I won or lost my money. I have also noticed that when time crawls, I do not play too well. When time is moving at a snail’s pace, I have decided that is usually a clear sign it is time to quit and find something else to do for the day.

I keep a list of concepts I constantly need to work on in my phone. I look at this list both before I play and during breaks. This list is made up of situations where I feel uncomfortable and am unsure about the right play, either because that specific part of the game is far from solved or I simply have not studied enough. For example, in multi-table tournaments, I have a difficult time dealing with overly aggressive players who constantly reraise in bubble situations. While I initially fought fire with fire, applying even more pressure, I eventually figured out that playing a tight game in bubble situations is never a bad idea.

It is important to remember that poker is a game and games are supposed to be fun. The mindset you take to and from the table will either make the game fun or miserable. If you show up fearing every possible bad beat, you will probably not enjoy yourself. If you accept that there will
be swings in the game and that quite often you will not win, you can play without fear and enjoy yourself the entire time.

You can buy a copy of Positive Poker: A Modern Psychological Approach to Mastering Your Mental Game from dandbpoker.com from just $14.95.


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