Updated: Jun 7, 2018
I’ve played poker professionally for 8 years and I’ve been fortunate enough to turn something I enjoyed doing in my spare time into a profitable career. I was reminiscing recently about what skills I’ve had to develop to become successful as a poker player and I wanted to share them with you as I believe many of these can be transferred into your day to day life.
Poker is a game and with all games you have winners and losers. When playing poker you’ll win hands and lose hands, you’ll have winning days and losing days. On several occasions I’ve lost more money in one day than I usually win in a month and it hurts, it hurts a lot. You go to bed a broken man and wake up the next day feeling a little better and get ready to go again. The good news is that after this happens several times you realise that you can handle it and eventually over time you start to feel that you could handle anything. You start to develop a thick skin, if when you want to give up you can keep going, you can then start to see that the tough times don’t last forever, even if it feels like that at the time. The more you can handle the more you build your confidence as the situations that you once felt were difficult become easier to deal with.
Confidence can help you in any walk of life. It’s not always about being able to do something, it’s about believing that you can do it. It’s backing yourself to be able to do something and being able to bring certainty into an any situation. So even when things don’t work out you can keep believing you can do it and you can turn it around. It’s the wobble of uncertainty that can stop you from following through on what you know is right if you let doubt seep in. This is what can stop me from making a huge bluff on my opponent or making a big call for thousands of dollars. The key in building stable confidence is where you put your focus. If I base my confidence on how much money I win or lose every day then I will set myself up to ride a roller coaster, one of extreme highs and even bigger lows. So I base my confidence on what I can control, doing the right thing. I focus on making bold, quick and efficient decisions, they don’t have to be right, I just have to be good at making them. I put in work off the table and make sure my game is tight and then when I play I focus on making the right play and doing my best. I focus on what I can control and let go of what I can’t control, which leads us to that cheeky rascal by the name of uncertainty.
3. Facing Uncertainty
Uncertainty is a feeling that causes worry, anxiety and often misery in millions. It’s the hardest task to master but when you do master feelings of uncertainty you can change your whole life. When I play poker I never know how much I’m going to win or lose in any given minute, hour, day, week or year. How scary! When we put our focus in this place we get pain, because we are trying to control something we have no control over. Here’s how I deal with uncertainty everyday. I prepare, I make sure I have enough money to last me 6 months in the bank and a bankroll big enough to ride the potential swings. Then I cover my balance and I play, I check my balance at the end of the month and see how I get on. I let go, I let go of controlling what’s beyond my control. I focus on my game, I trust myself to make the best decisions I can. After I make my decision in any given situation I let go, my job is done and put my faith in the hands of the poker gods. I place my focus on the process and not on the results. This is down to our perception and controlling the controllables. Anxiety is based in the future, it’s wanting to have control over what is going to happen. The thing is we can’t control what will happen, nor should we want to. Little do we know that we actually want a surprise, it’s what makes life fun. If there was no luck in poker and therefore no uncertainty then the best players would win 100% of the time and I would be out of a job. Our relationship with uncertainty can have a huge bearing on our relationship with that pesky devil anxiety.
4. Be Process Orientated
We are often told that the results are the be all and end all. It’s true that results are important, after all if I didn’t win any money then I wouldn’t be able to eat, pay my rent and worst of all I wouldn’t be able to afford my Netflix subscription. No more Narcos, say what?!! The problem here is that if we are all about results we take our focus away from the one thing that helps us get there, the process! I have always loved playing poker. Many years ago when I used to work in an office I would sit there thinking about how much I couldn’t wait to get home and play poker. I worked on my game, read books and enjoyed learning new plays that would improve my game. Most importantly I put in hours and hours of play at the tables because I enjoyed it. I remember one summer I played a free tournament 3 times a day every day until I finally won one for 60 dollars, it felt amazing. The point here is that it wasn’t the result that got me the result, it was the hours of play and improving, the process. It means in the case of poker focus on playing poker, learning the maths and studying the game. Not focusing on how much money can I win today. Slightly off piste now, but that's how I like to roll sometimes, let’s say you want to get in shape. That means you’re gonna have to workout and eat healthy food. The people in the best shape can’t wait to get to the gym. So find a workout that you enjoy doing, take a class or go with a friend and make it fun and then you’ll enjoy the process. If you do that over time the results will follow as it's the process that will get you the end result.
5. Staying in the Present Moment
When I’m playing poker online I quite often play anything from 4 to 6 tables all at once. There’s a lot going on, that means I need to stay focused. My attention needs to be on each hand while I’m playing it so I can make the best decisions, which will result in me winning more often and then if the luck goes my way means I win lots of money, yeah buddy! To do this most effectively I need to stay highly present, there in the moment. If my mind is thinking about the hand I played five minutes ago where I lost loads of money or I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch that day then I’m distracted and I won’t be at my best. One tool I use for this which has helped me so much in this area is meditation. I will never sit down to play poker without meditating first. It helps me clear my mind, practice being present and focus better during sessions. If I have a stressful session or big losing day then I’ll often meditate after the session to bring me back to the present moment and process the stressful emotions of the session. I’ve found the headspace app useful in getting started and I've now been using it for years.
6. Stress Management
Poker can be highly stressful very often. Gambling large amounts of money daily despite years of practice can still be something I have to work at processing. Due to the huge amount of luck involved with poker I can often make the best decision only to see the money going to my opponent instead of me. This can be frustrating and can result in feelings of anger and stress. Twin that with regrets of making mistakes and you have a pretty negative cocktail on our hands. Mindfulness has allowed me to take a step back from the feelings. I realise that I experience the emotions but they are not me. They don’t own me and they are not attached to me. So I acknowledge when I’m feeling stressed or angry and allow it to be. There may be certain triggers such as shouting out loud or starting to play hands much quicker than normal. At this stage I become aware of the emotions and allow them to pass. If they calm down then I get back to it and continue my session but if I still feel them then I may decide to quit for the day as it’s difficult to make clear, calm and precise decisions when you’re stressed out. That usually ends in a broken keyboard or smashed up mouse. Often your brain shuts down during periods of overwhelm which is no good when you are playing a game that requires huge amounts of mental processing. The key here is to process the emotion and let it be, if I suppress it and pretend it hasn’t happened then it will come back to bite me in the arse later down the line.
7. Removing Distractions
Emotions can be a pretty big distraction. When each decision can be the difference between winning and losing thousands of dollars you want to make sure you’re focused on the task at hand. So being aware of and managing emotions helps. There’s a few other sneaky distractions I’ve managed to spot and remove over the years. Our phones can be a huge distraction. When I’m playing poker I always turn my phone on silent and put it in another room. There’s no way I can be concentrating on playing a hand of poker and texting a friend at the same time. We like to think we can multitask but in reality that means we are flittering between tasks very quickly. It’s also a barrier to staying present which is important when playing winning poker. Other notable distractions include other people (how very dare they), social media, tiredness and hunger. All can affect our decisions when they are calling us. I’m a bit like a battery when it comes to food, if I don’t eat for too long I shut down. I also need eight hours sleep to operate, who knows how I’m gonna cope in the future when I have children. The stories of five hours sleep or even worse no sleep scare me. When it comes to playing poker I make sure i’m well rested, fed and workout often so I can stay focused and play my best.
8. Decision Making
Each day I make thousands of decisions. Some of them are so easy I make them on autopilot, others are completely new situations I’ve never seen before and can be very challenging. When making tough decisions we use a lot of willpower and like a muscle we can build this but it also can run out. I’m very conscious that if I’ve made several big folds then the next one might be harder to do because I’ve already used up a lot of mental energy. At this point, if I’m aware then I may call it quits for the day and come back fresh the next day. Good decision making requires us to trust ourselves. It’s not about getting it right every time it’s just about being able to do the right thing in the moment. Take in all the information you have in front of you then make a decision and be OK with getting it wrong. Trust yourself to make the right choice at the time and know you can handle whatever the outcome is. This really comes down to our self worth but I’ll save that very important topic for another time. When we love who we are we trust ourselves more and decisions don’t become so overwhelming.
9. Mistakes are OK
When we make a lot of decisions we will inevitably get some wrong and that’s OK. As a successful poker player I make lots of mistakes every day. Believe it or not I can’t always be right! The main thing is knowing that mistakes are part of success. Look at any successful business man and he or she would have had several businesses fail (mistakes) before they find out what works. This is about letting go of perfection and being OK with making mistakes. Then we can take more action which will lead to more successes. I make loads of mistakes every day and i’m used to it now. Any poker players reading this article will know that when someone make a pot sized bet and you’re thinking about making the call you only have to be right one third of the time to break even. That means if you played that hand an infinite amount of times you can make the wrong decision 66% of the time and not lose any money! I use this example to show that mistakes are part of success and if we are prepared to learn from them then the sky's the limit. It’s about taking action, to be success you have to take a lot of action and when you do so it won’t always go to plan. When I was moving up stakes in poker it often meant facing tougher opponents. I remember when I moved from the $200 tables to the $400 tables it took me several attempts before it worked out. I had to learn from my mistakes, work on my game and improve and adapt to beat these guys. It cost me some money in the process too but eventually I managed to beat the game, I moved up and so did my hourly rate.
10. Self Motivation
As a professional poker player I’m my own boss. That means I can roll out of bed when I like, pick when and where to play poker and choose how many hours to play for a day. Dream scenario right?! I mean this is what every online advert I see is these days. Be your own boss, sit on a beach with your laptop for 5 mins a day and be rich! I’m not going to lie, it can be great and I’m very grateful to be in this position. But I want to give you the whole story. When everyone is at work and you’re living the dream that means all your friends and loved ones are at work. So you are on your own 9-5 monday to friday. This can be isolating, another aspect I’ve learned to deal with effectively but again a topic for another time. Also when you have to be in work to start for the day at 8am, if you don’t show up enough times you get fired. If I don’t turn up I don’t earn any money but there’s no other punishment. This means I have to be self motivated and self disciplined. Here are some tools I've developed to stay motivated and playing as long as I have. I set a schedule, one that I will stick to. So i’ll get up at 8am and do my morning success routine, then start poker at 9am, play for three hours, hit the gym and have lunch and then get back and play another three hours from 3pm to 6pm. They key with a schedule is to keep things at the same time everyday. If one day I get up at 8am and the next day it’s 10am then something has to give. I’ll end up missing the gym or skipping a few hours poker and this is no good. Keeping it at the same time means it will always happen. Another key is to do these things even when I don’t feel like it. This consistency is what will get you results in the long term. If I only ever played poker when I felt like it then I would never have made it this far. Lastly love what you do or make it bigger than you. At the start I wasn’t motivated to play poker for the money, it was the thrill of the game and the chance to improve and the competition, knowing you can win. Everyone's different but money isn’t a driver for me, so doing something I love has been motivational. The same reason why I write this article, because I enjoy it. The moment that feeling goes or the drive isn’t there to attain a goal then it’s time to assess the situation and either change your approach and move forward or try something new.
P.S If you’ve enjoyed this article you can find Jon on Instagram: @theperceptioncoach or Facebook: The Perception Coach