Most of what we talk about at Just Hands Poker is poker strategy related. We obviously have some articles on importance of the mental game in poker like Jack's piece on what to focus on at the tables and something I wrote about how to zero in during hands you're not a part of - but most of our content will help with working on one's technical game. So when I've taken on new students that have found me through the site, many will be surprised that I recommend primarily working on mental game issues for at least our first few lessons. As Jared Tendler notes in The Mental Game of Poker, a good poker player needs a strong foundation in both their mental and technical games. Because there is significantly more technical and strategy related content out there compared to things designed to help one work on their mental game, combined with the fact that working on one's preflop 3-betting strategy is generally a more straightforward process than trying to eliminate a type of tilt, the mental game often gets severely neglected. Most players, pros and recreational alike, are quite unbalanced and have a much stronger technical game.
Like most poker players, this was true for me as well. I didn't even know about The Mental Game of Poker until about six months into my career playing professionally. It took another 9 months or so for my mental game to roughly catch up to my technical game. The first major breakthrough I had came from implementing a warmup before I played every session. At first, I had a warmup that took a little over an hour. This was really helpful when I had the luxury of that time consistently. But when traveling for poker or sometimes on just a normal day, it was impractical to do this full routine. Through experience and speaking with other professionals that had warmups, I eventually was able to find a 15 minute process that I knew I could make the time for whenever I played poker. This has stayed relatively constant for about two and a half years now and I credit to a lot of my success in poker.
First, I look at my list of affirmations. This list came from trying to be self-aware at table of when I was tilting or thinking any kind of irrational thought. I identified the root causes of what was causing me to think in a way that was not optimal for poker and my life more broadly speaking. I found short phrases that helped me squash those thoughts and feelings as soon as possible.
My list of affirmations:
(Note, I don't necessarily go through all of these every time, but sometimes actually saying them out loud makes a bigger impact that simply reading them)
1) Do not check phone regularly. Only on breaks and to write down hands. Stay sharp and focused! --- imagine you're commentating or observing the hand from afar!
2) Never talk strategy, even with regs
3) Keep VPIP on the low side first 30 minutes of each new table. Observe and develop reads before deviating too much from relatively tight, super aggressive play.
4) Don't be lazy, observe opponents physically. Focus on the fishiest/loosest player for an orbit+ before moving on to someone else
5) Are there enough fish? If not get off your ass and look for a better table
6) If you get bad table image with no history with anyone just move tables
7) No hero calls without reads/history!
8) Put head in arm every time villain has a big river decision or is tanking on an earlier street
9) Rec players that talk about their hand generally either lie or tell the truth about their hand, and if I should call or fold my hand. Figure it out soon so there's no doubt when I'm in a hand with them.
10) Don't ultra-thinly value bet or raise without specific reads. Can this villain really pay you off with a worse hand? How often does he show up with worse hands?
11) Size your c bets for 3 bet pots smaller- people play face-up so no need to bet anymore than 40% pot heads up at most.
12) Tighten up in the blinds and in early position! Suited connectors, suited aces, and small pocket pairs look pretty but sometimes you have to just fold them pre.
13) When an unknown check raises even if on a wet board, fold without TPTK+ or a high-equity draw.
14) Sometimes people weirdly flat jacks, queens, even aces, then overplay them on reraise when they have an overpair even on wet boards. Punish them for this!
15) Verbal actions are generally strong
16) When you feel yourself tilting, make your exact preflop range for the next hand, count exact stack sizes of people.
17) If someone bets or checks out of turn, assume it's an angle until proven otherwise. If it's an older player and I'm second to last to act, a check is strong and a raise is weak
Next, after looking at my affirmations I close my eyes a visualization succeeding at the poker table. By success, I don't mean monetary success, I'm thinking of decision-making success. I try to imagine myself having a short urge to play a hand sub-optimally after being down several buyins and then resisting the urge and playing the most profitable poker I'm capable of. I imagine myself calm and collected at the poker table, zeroed in the what my opponents are thinking and as unattached as possible, and as unattached as possible to the results of the individual session. After about five minutes or so of various visualizations, I move on the the final stage of my poker warmup: meditation.
My meditation is simple where I just try to be present and follow my breath. For those that are interested in more about what goes into a Vipassana meditation, you can read more here. And that's it!
I do this every time I go the casino and in my car when playing in a home or private game. Sometimes, for social reasons or time constraints, it's not possible to do this entire warmup away from the table. When this is the case, I do my best to look at the affirmations on my phone and think deeply about them, even if my level of focus is less than ideal, and I try to visualize success to the greatest degree I can while keeping my eyes open.
While this is the warmup I do directly before each session, I also find that if I'm going to study poker, it's much more helpful to do so before I play compared to after I play. My mind will be fresher and I'll be able to absorb and implement the material better than if I studied something after a session. It will help me get into the right mindset for playing so I'll be sharp the moment I sit down. On top of the formal active studying I often recommend to students (see the all-star range analysis within the leakfinder as an example), also listening to some of my favorite poker podcasts or talking hands with someone helps me get into the right mindset as well.
Over the years I've found this routine has worked quite well for me, but a mental warmup is not a one-size-fits-all package. You have to self-experiment and be honest about what works for you and be consistent in whatever routine you decide to choose.
If you have any questions when starting to come up with your own mental game routine, or on anything else, always feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org