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Poker Fundamentals: Mental Game

Poker strategy goes super deep, but, before we can tackle more advanced concepts, we need to make sure that we’ve nailed down all the fundamentals. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran, brushing up on the basics is always worth it.

So far in our series on poker fundamentals, we’ve covered pot-odds, ranges, bluffing, and aggression. Today, we’re going to step back from the table and talk about something other than cards and betting.

This installment is all about mental game. It can be easy to ignore mental game in favor of more technical studies and practice, but the best players know that this is just as important as anything else.

It’s not just poker players, either. All sorts of competitors, including professional athletes, pay close attention to their mental game. We should do the same.

What is Mental Game?

Mental game is all about mindset. It’s the way that you talk to yourself while you play. It’s about how you react to different situations, not logically, but emotionally.

You play cards, so by the simple rules of variance, I will say with confidence that you’ve been unlucky—probably on many occasions. Now, I want to ask you a very important question: how do you respond?

Do you get heated, start playing bad hands, and lose even more chips? Do you feel disgraced, embarrassed, or gypped out of your just deserts? Or do you keep your cool and play on just the same?

Take a moment to seriously reflect on this question. Before we can start working on improving our mental game, we need to diagnose where we are in the first place. We need to figure out what gets under our skin and where our leaks are.

Improving your Mental Game

By improving your mental game, you’ll tilt off less often, and this will have a huge impact on your win-rate. It doesn’t matter if you ‘know’ the right line and decide not to take it, after all.

Once you’ve assessed the state of your mental game, it’s time to get to work on improving it. To do this, you’re going to need to do some soul-searching and figure out what works best for you.

Perhaps you need to get up from the table to stretch your legs. Maybe you should sit out for a hand or two and focus on taking deep breaths. Or, it might be all about working on the way that you talk to yourself—instead of internally moaning about your bad luck, try telling yourself that you made the right play and let that give you pleasure.

The truth is that mental game is one of poker’s most difficult challenges. Emotions are powerful, and it’s much easier to study up on math and theory than to take a good, hard look at ourselves.

Nonetheless, as winning poker players, it our job to maximize every aspect of our play. Consistently bringing our A game to the table is our top priority, so we should pay close attention to our mental game.

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