Happy New Year! Strive to ensure this year is the best yet!
I recently played a World Poker Tour event at Borgata in Atlantic City. Around halfway through day two, a kid who seemed to play reasonably well lost with 2-2 versus A-9 on A-9-2 for a significant pot. He was left with a 20 big blind stack. He continued to play a solid strategy and eventually got all-in with K-K versus A-Q to bust around an hour later. A little while later near the end of day two, I watched another player who seemed to play well lose a huge pot with 10-10 versus Ad-Jd on 10d-7c-4s-2d. He was also left with 20 big blinds and proceeded to go all-in with roughly 50% of hands until he eventually got lucky to double up when he was dominated.
It should be clear that the player who remained calm but busted had significantly more equity in the tournament than the player who lost his mind, even though he got lucky to survive. If you take two equally skilled players, meaning they know how to execute a fundamentally sound strategy when they are thinking clearly, their psychological fortitude will determine which player wins the most in the long run.
Some players who have little experience with no-limit hold’em think good players play their “A” game all the time. They assume that since the good players know the ideal way to play, they must play that way all the time. This is far from the truth. Knowing a strategy and executing it flawlessly are two drastically different things. Even the best players, who I play with on a regular basis in high buy-in tournaments and cash games, are not robots. I have witnessed players in the top 10 of the Global Poker Index have huge melt downs where they attempt bluffs that are almost certain to fail. I know that when I play after getting very little sleep, I miss numerous opportunities where I could steal the pot with a timely 3-bet or 4-bet. It is difficult to sense weakness when you are not paying attention. Simply put it is impossible to play your best poker all the time.
Especially in live poker, it is important to pay attention to everything your opponents do. Online, you can get away with relying on a heads up display to autopilot, but even then, if you aren’t focused, you will win less than if you were focusing. Many of the biggest names in poker make a point to only play a small number of events, not because the smaller events aren’t “worth their time”, but because they know they can only focus for so long before losing their intense focus. They know their limits and plan their schedule accordingly so they can play to the best of their ability every time they sit at the table. They skip almost all preliminary events but when they show up to the main events and high-rollers, they do amazingly well.
When you play poker, if you are frequently checking your phone, browsing the internet, talking with friends, watching TV, reading a book, or doing anything else besides focusing on your opponents and what you can do to exploit them, you are leaving money on the table. That being said, I recognize humans are not robots. Sometimes we simply need a break. One tip I learned from one of these world-class players who rarely plays but has amazing results over the last 25 years is to “take time off” when you are in first or second position after you have folded your hand, especially when a significant pot is not taking place. Get up and stretch. Walk around the table. Check your phone if you must. Give yourself a break from constant energy-draining focus. Knowing this break (reward) will come around each and every orbit is a nice motivator to help you maintain focus during the other eight hands of the orbit. Of course, you should not completely ignore the game because you especially want to develop reads on the players on your right, but giving yourself a mini-vacation every 15 minutes or so will help you remain fresh despite playing long hours.
If you want more information about numerous concepts that must be mastered if you want to break out of the small and middle stakes games and succeed at high level poker, I strongly suggest you check out Positive Poker, the book I co-authored with Dr. Patricia Cardner. We discuss self-control, goal setting, grit, meditation, nutrition, exercise, and many other topics. If you want to take your game to the next level, you can get the audiobook version of Positive Poker for free here. Let me know what you think in the comments section below or on twitter @JonathanLittle. Be sure to check back next week for another educational blog post. Thanks for reading!