Some say that you play poker against the other people at the table, and some say that you play it against yourself. Sure, you’re going to need to read your opponents to adapt and exploit them, but this won’t be possible in the first place if you can’t beat yourself first.
But what does this mean? It means that your head needs to be in the right place. It means, even more-so, that your head, not your heart, needs to be in charge. It means that you need to keep your cool.
In poker and other competitive endeavors, we refer to this as the mental game. By building up a strong mental game, we allow ourselves to consistently bring our A game to the table, and this directly translates to our win rate.
Want to make one of the biggest +EV plays of your life? Look inside yourself and work on your mental game.
Ah, the poker player’s worst nightmare: tilt. Tilting is a mental state in which we make suboptimal plays solely because of a psychological condition or feeling. Most often, it comes from frustration or anger.
Take this all-too-common example. On the turn, you’ve got a nice made hand, such as a set. You jam all your money in, your opponent calls, and they flip over a pair of higher cards. They’ve got 2 outs on the river: the two cards to make their set. Their card comes on the river and you lose a pot in which you had about 95% equity.
Spots like this, or if you get it all in with aces pre-flop and then lose, can cause us to tilt off. We got super unlucky and it feels bad.
In this situation, what do you do in the coming hands? Do you call no matter what? Do you just jam in your chips without thinking?
If you tilt off like this, you make yourself an easy target and you only exacerbate the situation. Your emotions will never make +EV plays for you.
Staying Focused and Balanced
To combat tilt, we need to stay focused and balanced. Even though poker is a game of skill, it still involves chance and variances, so, even when you make +EV plays, you’ll often still lose chips.
You not only need to understand whether or not you made the right play based on the EV, but you need to let that be the force that guides you. If you lose to a 2-outter on the river, tell yourself that you made a great play and that you’re looking forward to the next time you get in that situation instead of bemoaning your luck.
A big part of mental game comes down to how we talk to ourselves. If we think negative thoughts and lose control of our emotions, then we lose win percentage before we even look at our cards. Stay focused on what matters, take a deep breath, and don’t let the bad beats get to you.