The 5 Mental Aspects of a Winning Poker Mind

I have goals of improving my “hard” poker skills. “Hard” skills are the in-game strategies of poker: cbet bluffing, board recognition, hand reading, bet sizing, etc.

I also have goals of improving my “soft” poker skills. These are mental aspects like always being in control of my emotions, not forcing the action, avoiding tilt and displaying patience. “Soft” might sound unimportant, but these mental game aspects are anything but. These are incredibly important aspects of playing long-term winning poker. I use the word “soft” because they’re hard to quantify, but when these mental aspects are in place, you play much better than your non-mentally controlled opponents.

Listen to this podcast episode #301:

The Poker Mind

The Poker Mind is patient and persevering, open minded, always calculating, never emotional and constantly strives to always make the best play with the information available.  For most people, it takes years of focused, concentrated effort to develop a strong poker mind.

I’m the first to admit that my poker mind isn’t where I want it to be (not yet, at least). I still tilt, make illogical decisions, I get angry, I have to quit sessions to avoid spewing chips, I miss important details and sometimes I play with vengeance to win back my losses.

It’s always a work in progress for me, both on- and off-the-felt.

  • On-the-felt: I try to be present in the situation and aware of my mental state and I do things like meditating and taking breaks to keep me focused. I tag hands where I know I made a mental mistake so I can review them later.
  • Off-the-felt: I review those tagged hand to get a sense of why I was mentally off in the hand. Was it a prior hand tilting me? Was I distracted? Does this player piss me off and I don’t approach things like I should?

I think awareness of your mental game issues is the first step to improving your poker mind.

So with that, here are the 5 aspects of a healthy, strong poker mind.

Patient & Persevering

Patience Quote

A strong poker mind takes years of dedicated study and practice to develop:

  • Thousands of hours spent playing the game over hundreds of thousands of hands
  • Hours upon hours reviewing hands and judging the profitability of plays made
  • Loads of time spent discussing poker with other like-minded individuals, reading books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc.

Once you develop your poker mind, you can weather any storm and you know that in the long run you’re a winner, so small setbacks don’t affect you.  Sure, you would’ve preferred to not get sucked out on by T7o when it had AA. But it happens… and you’ve learned to accept the defeat. You’re thankful that this player chooses hands as weak as T7o, you make a player note and move on to the next hand.

You know that eventually, if you remain patient and persevere through this loss, those chips will make their way back to your stack and then some. I say “and then some” because if this fish is in your games, there are others as well. And the longer you remain patient and persevere through the downswings and occasional losses, the other fish will bite and you’ll catch them as well.


Wanna learn more poker strategy from me? I also write articles for Poker.com.


Open Minded

open mind quote

A winning poker mind isn’t set in its ways.  It never says, “That’s impossible,” or “That would never work.”  You must always be open to new ideas and willing to dedicate the time and effort into studying and experimenting with them.

There was a time when 3betting was only done by pocket A’s or K’s. Then, some unconventional and aggressive players came along and showed that you can make lots of money doing what others would never consider profitable.

Your task is to always be open to new ideas, to dissect them and run the math yourself to test the validity.  Don’t listen to others who tell you the “rules” of poker.  The only rules in poker are what hands beat what and the order of play around the table.  Other than that, you do what you want.  The only limits to what you can accomplish are those you set for yourself.

Always Calculating

Logic quote

A winning poker mind is dedicated to problem solving.  It uses necessary tools and years of experience to find plays that work in many different situations.  A simple question a player might ask is, “How often does my Cbet bluff have to work?”

  • Non-calculating, “feel player” answer: “Well, if he thinks you’re full of it, he’ll call.  If not, he’ll fold.”
  • The calculating player: “You’re bluffing 1/2 pot, so that needs to work 33% of the time to break-even. But, let’s dive deeper.  What’s your opponent’s range and how well does it interact with this board? Can you name a lot of hands from his range that can fold? If he calls, how will you approach the next street? If he raises, what does this mean for his range and what will you do?”

A winning poker mind dives deep into the situation, takes all available information into account, runs the math, and uses imagination and problem-solving skill to find how it can make a situation profitable.

You must look for errors in your opponent’s way of thinking and devise ways to exploit any weaknesses and tendencies.  In fact, you know how to exploit players, but you must constantly look for situations in which to use these exploits to make the most profitable plays possible.

Never Emotional

Anger quote

Is tilt an issue for you? It’s still an issue for me, but one that I’m always working on and I’m getting better at.

It creeps up occasionally, but a strong poker mind is able to see tilt coming, grab it by the throat and squeeze before it takes control. You must spend time off-the-felt to reflect on what sets you off and brings about tilt. Is it losing to a weaker player, maybe losing to a flush after flopping the nut straight, or getting your AA cracked? You must learn what sets you off and work to respond in more healthy ways than blowing up through anger and tilt.

Read Jared Tendler’s book The Mental Game of Poker for some great analysis into tilt and ways to avoid it.  Don’t sweat the small stuff and try to NOT be results oriented. Realize that the cards falling the other way is good for the game; there has to be some give and take, but your skill will be the deciding factor for you in the end.

I fill out the Tilt Questionnaire from The Mental Game of Poker:

Strives to Make the Best Plays… Always

Decision quote

A winning poker mind always considers the options and all the information available. Weak players do things by default like always cbetting, checking to the bettor, always calling with draws, always set mining with small pp’s preflop, etc.

The great thing about being an online player is that when it’s your turn to act, your options are always presented to you. Buttons popup for “Fold”, “Call” or “Raise”.  It’s your job to consider the merits of each play and choose the best one. If calling puts you in a bad spot on the turn, then the other options of raising or folding are available, and you have to go with one of those.

But, how do you do this? You strive to always make the best play by taking all information into account.

So much info available:

  • Player type and HUD stats
  • Notes on how they’ve played in the past
  • Positions of the players involved
  • Bet sizes, stack sizes and pot sizes
  • The range your opponent has and how it interacts with the board
  • What the future will look like

You must use this information to place your options along the EV Spectrum:

Example Hand:

You’re dealt A7o in the SB. A LAG player in MP opens full pot to 3.5bb’s. The Fishy BTN player calls and it’s your turn to act. 3 little buttons popup: Fold, Call and Raise.

At this point you must consider each of your options and place them on the EV Spectrum.

  • Fold: This puts $0 at risk, so it’s a neutral EV decision (right in the middle).
  • Call: You have an Ace but you have to put in 3bb’s to see flop OOP against 3 other players, two of which are very aggressive players (Villain 1 and Villain 3). Does that sound like a winning spot to put yourself in? OOP against 3 other players, 2 of them being loose-aggressive, in a 14bb pot holding a measly A7o? Nope, not at all so it’s a -EV play.
  • Raise: Raising here is a total bluff. You have an Ace-blocker, and that’s about the only thing you’ve got going for you. So far, you haven’t seen how the open-raiser nor the caller respond to 3bets (Villain 3 and Villain 5). Given that the pot is already 8.5bb’s, you’ll probably have to raise to 15bb+ to hit their pain threshold and get them to fold. If you get any callers, they’re almost assuredly calling with better hands than yours. And, your A7 isn’t even suited or connected, which decreases your hands chances of making money when called. Lastly, both players don’t really like folding to flop cbets, so it might take multiple barrels to get them to fold.

When placing these options on the EV Spectrum, folding is the best play. I would fold this hand and watch the action to see if I can’t learn from these opponents.

In order to always make the best play, weigh your options with all the information available, visualize them on the EV Spectrum, then make the most +EV play, even if it’s folding.


Take Action

Take action to plug poker leaks

Here’s my challenge to you for this episode:  Use the EV Spectrum in your next 5 sessions. Draw it on a piece of paper and every time it’s your turn to act, visualize your options along the spectrum. Take all available information into account and choose the most +EV play. Tag hands for review where you’re just not sure of the best play. And, if you’re ever unsure of what to do, folding is probably the best play.

Now it’s your turn to take action and do something positive for your poker game.


Bonus Poker Mind Q&A

Listen to the podcast as you read the poker mind questions below:

Question 1: Handling Suckout Tilt

Hi Sky,

Love your podcast, it’s been very helpful as I try to improve my game, thank you!

I have been struggling with a specific tilting situation. Mine is a variation of the suckout tilting reason, but specifically it’s when I’m going all in preflop with a premium hand, getting called by one other, seeing I have over 50% equity then losing. The tilt comes when I lose the 70:30 “flips” and this has happened several times in the last few days.

The thing I’m struggling with is that I’m quite maths based, and to keep losing 70:30 (and never get the reverse suck out) is tilting. So I started tracking all of my shoves and sure enough Ive lost 5 out of 6 flips and lost 4 out of 9 where I had more than 70% equity.

What advice do you have to avoid this maths based tilt? I have def done pushups (loved that one!) and figured in the long run I will be good – I’m getting in the right positions for the 70:30s, but to keep losing these is seriously frustrating.

Any words of wisdom gratefully received.

From: Mike Langford

My Answer:

It sounds like acceptance is your mental game/tilt issue. A few things:

1) Choose to be happy when you get it in with the best hand. You attitude is totally in your control. If you choose to only think about losing a 65/35 situation, you’ll get upset and tilt over it. But, if you focus on the fact that your opponent screwed up and handed you theoretical value, and that you got it in with the best hand, you’ll be more likely to keep the anger and rising emotions at bay and avoid tilt.

2) This is what you signed up for when you became a poker player. There’s some luck/chance involved with every hand you play. It’s an integral part of playing poker. Are you really going to let losing a 65/35 spot tilt you every time? If so, guess what? You’re going to be going on tilt 35% of the time when you’re in this spot through your poker career. Do you really want to let luck/chance cause you to tilt and lose more chips about 1 out of every 3 times?

3) Check out this Walking Wednesday episode called “You Signed Up For This”.

4) As far as math is concerned, you should expect to lose here 35% of the time. You’ve also lost 4/9 or 44%. That’s pretty darn close to 35%, and it’s also a small sample size. If you’re a math guy, you know you can’t put much stock in an occurrence over a tiny sample size of 9. Let’s use the poker mind and look on the bright side… at least you’ve won more than 50% of these spots.

5) You know what sets you off, so you can work to address fix it. In every play session, have the focus of “I will not get angry and tilt when they suckout on me because this just leads to further losses and the anger I experience does nothing positive for me”.  Set a tabata timer to go off every 5 minutes and when it does, ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?  Am I angry and about to tilt?  If so, why?”  Focusing on this and keeping it top of mind will help you to control it.

Question 2: Convince My Wife to Let Me Play/Study Poker

How can I make SPS.com better for you?

Not sure about this one. Unless you can convince my wife to let me play and study more. Maybe a comical podcast on that 🙂

Cheers,

Doug

My Answer:

Thank you so much for responding to this email and for all the kind words.

I like the comical nature of your wife question, and I’ll definitely hit it in the next Q&A. But, here are some practical ways to convince your wife to let you study/play more:

Make sure to always complete any honey-do’s she gives you so there’s no resentment there. You don’t want her to fire back at you with, “But you haven’t even cleaned the gutters yet.”

Deliver results. Work hard to study and work on your weaknesses and play with purpose to implement your new skills and earn $$$. Then, make the occasional withdrawal then take her to dinner with the money.

A last little tip is wake up 30-60 minutes before her, make the coffee so it’s ready when she wakes up, do your studying and then start preparing breakfast for her just before her alarm goes off.

Question 3: Handling Downswings

Frustratingly, I’m in the midst of a ~20BI downswing over just 16k hands and getting very close to my threshold of moving down to 25nl. I have the discipline to move down, there is no way I’m prepared to put my bankroll at risk, but it’s still disheartening. Have you got much experience of handling similar, sudden and fairly awful downswings? I’m going to need to find some time to review my tilt profile and see what I can do before it gets nasty.

Cheers,

James Roach

My Answer:

Downswing have happened to me plenty of times (maybe not as severely as this one for you) and I deal with them in a few ways.

  1. I don’t bemoan my luck. I don’t like to think this is just negative variance and it will work out. Instead, I treat it like I’m doing things wrong so I’ll review my database and still look for mistakes to fix. Maybe it’s all just bad luck and you’re losing with 2nd best hands every time. But, there are always mistakes made and things to work on, so I continue doing that.
  2. I’ll take breaks. I’ll take a few days off as necessary from study and play in order to get my mind off my results. This helps to re-energize myself to get back to the felt instead of forcing myself to play daily even though I feel like crap due to the downswing.
  3. I’ll move down in stakes and book wins. Even if you don’t have to move down, you’re more than skillful to make easy money at 25nl. So, play a few sessions there and try to book some wins. If you’re up 1/2 a buy-in after only 200 hands and want to quit to book the win, do it. Finally winning, even a little bit, after losing so long feels great and will propel you to study and play more tomorrow.

Listen to episode 303 where I played Mindset Moment #6 from Post-flop Online Poker called “Train the Skill of Tilt Control”. Quick recap:

  1. Recognize What Tilts You
  2. Plan for Tilt During Your Warm-up
  3. See Tilting Situations Before They Happen
  4. Post-tilt Evaluation

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