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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Gaming


Poker - The Mental Game Part 1

Ryan Carter

In the new article series "The Mental Game" we will be covering on of the most intriguing yet over looked subjects in poker. Most poker content focuses on the technical aspects of poker hands, but neglects what goes through your head to get to that point. The simple advice of don't tilt, don't play drunk, and never start playing angry/sick doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. Avoiding tilt is difficult because most people do it unconsciously.

Have you ever wondered why after reading every poker book, every forum, and joining every coaching site you still can't win? The reason is because while all those resources are filled with great information they don't teach you the skills to use their techniques and destroy your mental roadblocks. Once I realized that some big pieces were missing from poker literature I branched out into other areas to find the answers I needed. I've read books on psychology, self help, meditation, hypnosis, body language, and pretty much anything else I thought might help. Some of it was pretty fruity, but there were plenty of gold mines that changed the way I thought about the game. I was amazed at how many times I could have substituted poker into a book about mental philosophy and it would have fit perfectly.

Poker is a two front battle. You play against your opponents and you play against yourself. The truth is: Your brain is not wired to be a winning poker player. The way our brain thinks makes your default poker setting LOSER. That is why 95% of players lose money. They haven't realized that they need to go inside and flips some switches to change it to winner. In this series I'm going to share with you everything I've learned and created on the topic of the mental side of poker. Hopefully it will be the catalyst that turns all your poker knowledge into cold hard cash.

Why You Play Poker

Brutal honesty is the first mental skill you need in order to be a winning player. Be honest with others, but more importantly you must be completely honest with yourself. It is so easy to lie to yourself for a quick shot of false self confidence, but this is just building an ice palace in the desert. It feels good for a short time, but will eventually fall apart. If you lie to yourself about poker you will not be a long term winner. The majority of players don't have an issue with understanding the game they just ignore the holes in their game. The holes you have and your mental inability to fix them are constantly being exploited by your opponents. Instead of fixing them you just end up making excuses for your mistakes.

I could write a whole article on honesty, but its better to just keep it simple. Why? Because being honest to yourself about your poker results and hands isn't a hard process. There are no crazy techniques to help you be more honest. If you are dedicated to making the most out of your poker play it should be easy. Just be conscious when you try to lie to yourself and never let it get any further. If you are unable to be honest with yourself and others about your poker results: Why do you play poker?

One of the reasons I believe poker is so popular is it is able to stimulate so many different needs that it attracts a wide range of personality types. Think about all the different types of players you face each day. You have the maniac, the rock, the chaser, the bluffer, the professor, the boasting pro, the grinding pro, the sheriff, the math guy, the feel players, and all these range from 18 year old men to little old ladies. In any given game the 10 seats at the table could easily represent 10 different groups in the world population. The beauty is all 10 could be playing for 10 different reasons.

In order to get your mental game down you first need to realize the true reason you play poker. Almost everyone I ask gives me the same answer "I play to win money". I've come to realize that almost nobody's main reason for playing is strictly to make money. The grinding pro is the closest to this mindset, but even he could be making as much, or more, money doing something else. He must have other motivation for playing. Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons for playing.

  • Love of action: The emotional swings from the ups and downs are very appealing to people who lead an otherwise boring life.
  • Competition - good: They love the spirit of competing against the best of the best and the respect that comes with winning.
  • Competition - bad: They love to crush the hopes and dreams of everyone they play. Destroying opponents can be a huge ego boost.
  • Freedom: A professional poker player has an amount of freedom unavailable in almost any other job.
  • Camaraderie: Home games and live casinos offer a place where anyone can go and be part of the group. People who are looking for the company of others often pick up the game for this reason.
  • Be a Victim: Some players subconsciously would rather lose to a bad beat than win the pot. The feelings they get from others pity is worth more to them than the pot. * Seeking Approval: This fits in closely with Competition - bad, but also includes the "professor". He will tell you what he thinks you did wrong even if you didn't ask and even if it hurts the amount he can win.
  • Love of the Game: This player truly loves everything about poker. They love putting in time learning, the competition, and the money they have to show for winning.
  • Gambling Addiction: This is the love of action turned unhealthy. If you need to play higher and higher just to feel alive and don't care if you win or lose as long as you're in action you probably have a gambling problem. If you this is you please get help from someone such as Gamblers Anonymous.

Those are only a few reasons, and as you can see some are healthy and some aren't. What you must do now is figure out why you play the game. You will have to be completely honest with yourself, as you might find you are playing for all the wrong reasons. To figure out why you play think back to what attracted you to the game, what makes you happy when you play, and what pisses you off? What was the high point and what was the lowest low? Do you know what you want from the game in the future, and are you taking steps to meet any goals? Answering these questions should give you a pretty clear idea of your poker motivations.

I'll use myself as an example. I believe that I play for the love of the game. I remember first learning the game around the time the WPT came out. I had always enjoyed card games, and couldn't pass up such an exciting game... plus you could win money!

I would play heads up matches with my roommate from 11pm till the crack of dawn. We started playing for money, but soon stopped once we realized we played just as hard without it. I soon found the 6 max NL games on Party and I was in love. The games back then were so passive we would have contest on who could win the most pots in a row. The record was 22.

As time passed I started winning more and thoughts of going pro entered my head. Even before poker I knew I would not be the person to get a job they hated slaving out a pay check week to week just to make ends meet. Poker just seemed so perfect, like it was my destiny to play. At age 20 I moved to Florida with some other poker players. While there have been some ups and downs but 3 years later we still post great hands on the wall, have amazing poker discussions, and go crazy together when we are deep in a tournament or win a giant pot. I play poker because I love everything about the game and it allows me to live a lifestyle I wouldn't give up for anything.

The reason knowing why you play is so important is that it drives every single decision you make at the table. Why do you think you make calls when you know you're beat? Well it's probably because the small chance of winning a huge pot out ways the obviously bigger chance of losing. If you said to yourself "Am I just making the call because I love the action" you would immediately be able to reconsider your action. This is the first step in actively questioning previously subconscious decisions.

Spend some time before your next sessions thinking about this and watch what a difference it makes when you play. You will probably discover you were making plays on auto pilot not because they were right, but because of the emotions they generated. The sooner you start taking decisions off auto pilot and looking at them in an objective light the sooner you will be able to make serious cash. An even better benefit will be the ability to expand your enjoyment of the game. Poker is much more entertaining when you allow yourself to enjoy all aspects of the game instead of letting your subconscious restrict your pleasure.

For the rest of this great No Limit Holdem article series visit:

Ryan Carter is a no limit holdem cash game pro and a contributing writer for

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