A very NON-spiritual guide to the mental game of poker (PART1)

When it comes to mental game, many players’ first reaction is something like:

‘I don’t tilt, so I don’t need any mental coaching’.

Fifteen years ago not going on monkey tilt may have been good enough to separate you from your competition, but nowadays the bar of staying ahead of the field is much-much higher. Your average opponent knows more about the strategy of the game than a few years ago. The real difference is what percentage of the time players can put their best performance on the table. This is a real challenge, given that you often have to make close decisions at the end of a 10-12 hours session, sometimes day after day for weeks, often under huge money pressure.

Strong mental game covers every aspect of your life from truly enjoying any challenge (including downswings!) to staying creative under any circumstances, allocating your resources to study efficiently, networking, finding the right coach and study mates, optimizing relationships with your friends and family, quitting bad habits and building new, healthy ones, managing your focus, staying self aware, keeping your self-esteem constantly high, and a lot more…

The good news: becoming strong mentally doesn’t only help your poker career, but every other aspect of your life. In fact, looking back to my career as a poker player, my biggest gain clearly has been the new, super strong mindset I earned. I personally think there is no activity that trains you better for high-pressure moments than poker.

Before I share some useful, easy-to-apply tips, take a quick tour with me to learn some crucial functionalities of our brain!

MEET THE VON ECONOMO NEURONS

According to Daniel Goleman’s book (’Focus, the hidden driver of excellence’ – amazing read, highly recommended), Von Economo Neurons (VEN cells) are a special group of neurons with two main characteristics:

  • they are activated whenever you have any thought about yourself (Am I good enough? Is this guy exploiting me? I’m soul reading these guys! Is this my chance to win a major tournament? etc.)
  • whenever they are activated, the fear system of your brain (amygdala) also becomes active, so your focus inevitably goes down and your cognitive capacity will be reduced.

LEARN ABOUT THE LEFT AND RIGHT HEMISPHERES OF YOUR BRAIN

There is a huge difference between the two sides of your brain.

To put it simple, the left hemisphere does basic, ground-level activities like speaking, calculation, keeping track of time.

The right side however is responsible for organizing your knowledge into a whole, coherent picture, processing/filtering information based on your existing knowledge, coming up with creative ideas and keeping, nursing a consistent image of yourself.

Yuval Noah Hariri (in his fantastic book ’Homo Deus’) mentions quite a few experiments proving that the right side of our brain is easily capable of telling lies, forging the truth, modifying memories if those don’t fit the carefully groomed self image it built earlier.

So to sum it up:

  1. You have to be able to recognize when you start thinking about yourself and you have to drive your focus outside, on your opponents.
  2. If you want to change anything in your life, first you have to convince the right side of your brain that a new self image shall be applied. If you succeed with that, then the change will take much less effort as it will be supported by the forging system of your right hemisphere 🙂

Let me share my mental journey with you! I may write a longer post one day, now I’m just mentioning the milestones of my self development.

I became a professional in 2006 and worked hard on my game from the very beginnings (Before I started, I spent 3 months reading books, making notes, answering my questions without playing a single hand! Lol, now I see that as a clear sign of the fear of failure 🙂 ).

The first years were really easy, I had huge edge on the field and clearly ran good at the most important spots, so I barely had any year without a major score. I made the final table in the Sunday Million 3 times, I won 284k in LAPT Costa Rica, made huge sums in private games from Hungary to Macau. 2010 was especially great as I made over a million dollar in profit, winning two major live events (IPT Sanremo and WSOP 10k PLH Championship).

As I always heard from everyone around me that poker was not safe and I should look for other, more steady sources of income, I felt an urge to invest my winnings. I was young and naive, so I trusted some guys I shouldn’t ever have said hello to, they stole my money, I made some ridiculously bad investments, loaned sums to old friends, who scammed me for huge amounts, and the rest got locked up in FullTiltPoker for years. So in early 2011, I found myself being basically broke (without spending too much or losing any money playing poker).

It was a huge shock, I hated myself for the decisions I made, but I quickly decided to get back to the grind: find a backer, work harder than ever and the efforts would pay off.
I grinded and studied 10+ hours basically every day, 6 days a week and I booked decent (80k-130k) profit every year, made almost a million in small steps, but I didn’t manage to really break through again. Part of the reason was simply variance – it was time to realize how lucky I was earlier in the crucial spots – but I also felt I was forceless in the late stages, occasionally making big mistakes as well.

Around 2017 I had the chance to go to a sport psychologist, who put me into a semi-hypnotic state to recall my mindset of the past big victories, and compare them with the mindset I had in those days. The contrast between my past and current thinking was quite shocking:

Back in the days all my thoughts were around my opponents: what specific reads I had on them, what slight hunches I had about their motives, how could I cause the maximum pain for them, what kind of special moves I would plan to do against them (e.g. ’This guy checks back all his medium holdings, but cbets a lot, so he probably folds a lot to flop check-raises, therefore I should do 1-street moves attacking his total airs’. Or ’This guy is really float happy, so I will do double check-raises against him’). I kept thinking about potential creative lines, so when the opportunity arised, I was ready to execute.

In 2017 though my thoughts were almost exclusively around myself: ’Is this my chance to get back to where I was?’ ’Am i good enough to win this tourney?’ ’I bet I will get unlucky again!’ ’What is the equity of my current standing?’ ’What finishing place would I be okay with?’

Scroll back to what we learned about the Von Economo Neurons: whenever you have thoughts about yourself, it activates the fear center of your brain, ruining your focus. You either burn money in a spectacular way, or you switch to autopilot, giving up on opportunities to make creative moves.

This was a real eye-opener for me. I started paying attention to drive my focus from inside to outside. My performance improved, but it was still far from my best.

When I asked my friends what they thought my biggest weakness was, almost everyone replied it was my mental game still. For a few months I simply accepted that I was a player with weak mindset. That became my self-image, so the right hemisphere of my brain nursed it and sabotaged my efforts to change, accepted my failures too easily.

One particular issue I had was the fear of any series. Although I was one of the steadiest winners in mid stakes tournaments, I never had any success in WCOOP/ SCOOP/ FTOPS/ Powerfest events (I had two second place finishes in minor events over course of 12 years). In the first years it was simply caused by variance – even if you have decent edge, you need huge luck to get to the final table in colossal fields. But later on the burden kept growing, and as a result, many times I played worse in the series events than in normal tournaments. Also, I often gave up the series after a week, or I simply decided to skip the whole series to reduce variance.

2018 started really well, I joined bitB Staking, and by the time we arrived to the SCOOP, i was already up 130k in the year, but I knew I had to deal with my ’fear of series’ issue. So I turned to a professional mental coach, James Whittet. He helped me a lot in recognizing my harmful thoughs in time, so I was ready to form a strategy.

It was fairly simple: I created a checklist of goals for every day of the SCOOP. These goals were all in my control and I decided to evaluate my SCOOP performance solely by what degree I can fulfill these daily missions.

My checklist was the following:

PRESESSION:

  • morning excersises (20 minutes)
  • cold shower
  • some light jogging/big walk
  • quality/fun time before every session (1 hour with family)
  • making sure I had 0 expectation result-wise for the day
  • 15 minutes of meditation
  • rereading my biggest leaks before session

DURING THE SESSION:

  • no distraction: discord, skype, browsers, phone all off
  • number of tables < 12
  • posture: never look defeated
  • constant proactive control of my mood! How am I feeling? Do I want to spend the next hours with these feelings? Never feel defeated, enjoy the challenge!
  • utilize breaks: washing face/push ups rather than coffee
  • no podcast, only instrumental music/binaural beats
  • keep blood sugar level steady: healthy snacks

COOLDOWN:

  • do not run any serious sim/analysis, max a few key hands
  • leave your computer in 15 minutes after last table is busted!
  • do not touch your phone after that
  • do 15 minutes of yoga/stretching
  • read a non-poker paperback book for 20 minutes

GENERAL

  • rest well! Missing/late regging a few tourneys is not a tragedy
  • have 1-2 days off every week
  • by far the most likely outcome is that you lose over the series, don’t give a fuck about the results!
  • forgive and love yourself
  • the real SCOOP starts on Week2, when most of the regs are tilted already
  • don’t do any private coaching in TeamLuigi during the series

Luckily for my challenge the SCOOP started worse than ever. In the first weeks I barely cashed, every tournament literally lasted until my first all-in move, so I lost huge amounts every day. But this gave me the opportunity to really test myself!

I kept focusing on completing my daily missions. The first few days were tough, I did some complaining, but then something switched in my mind and I started to enjoy the challenge. I came up with a mantra for myself: „I’m going to deal with this shitstorm more professionally than anyone else could. I’m going to enjoy this challenge, stay creative, focus on trying to give pain to my opponents whenever I have the chance.”

The last days of the series went okay, so I ended up breaking even, which is almost gooey. I definitely consider my overall performance to be the biggest accomplishment of my whole career.

At the end of the series I looked into the mirror and genuinely smiled: I knew I was no longer weak mentally. Quite the contrary, that SCOOP experience completely changed the way I think about my mindset. I know I’m one of the strongest guys mentally with extreme amount of experience.

Since I have this new self image, the right hemisphere of my brain has been shifted: it has been curving reality to support my new perception, making it hundred times easier to deal with any challenge.

After SCOOP i basically didn’t have a losing day for months, I felt I really started to unlock my true potential. It was quite painful to quit my career at the peak, in such a promising position, but I decided so, because I felt CheckDecide is just too good an idea to postpone the execution. Since then I’ve been managing the project. Luckily, the mindset I earned in poker is extremely useful in the business world as well. We’ve been through extreme challenges and the project would not be so promising without the lessons I learned during my poker career.

Hopefully this story of mine makes it clear why it is important to get to the point where you actually enjoy the challenge. As long as you just fight against something it means that it is not part of your self image and it takes huge efforts to stay strong. It’s just a matter of time before you fail. However, if you can truly embrace a new idea and make it part of your self image, you will succeed without any real effort.

Another lesson of the story is the importance of self awareness. First you have to be able to realize your leak, then you have to be able to find the causes and figure out a strategy that suits you. Although that strategy can vary from one person to another, being aware of your thoughts must be an important element of all. You have to be able to recognize the first slight sign of a negative idea and consciously let it go. With James Whittet’s words: ’be aware of your thoughts and don’t go down the rabbit hole!’

You just have to be aware what is currently in your mind, that’s easy, isn’t it? Well, it is not. Many people live their entire life not being aware of their thoughts at all. But luckily, there is a perfect way to practice: meditation. It is basically about training your focus. The goal is to lay/sit calm for a few minutes without any thought sticking in your brain (basic level: focusing on your breath only). Obviously, as soon as you close your eyes, ideas, questions will try to flood your brain, but the goal is to realize when one is stuck there and release it consciously. The harder you find it to do, the more you need this exercise.

It is like any other muscle you train: the more you do it, the better you get at it. No wonder why top performers in any competitive industry use this technique nowadays.

Let’s cut the post here. I will come back soon with a second part covering habits, managing your focus and a special, disturbing idea about free will in general.

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Valdemar 'Luigi' Kwaysser

13 years as professional poker player 10 years experience as poker coach. Born Hungarian, living in Valencia, Spain. 36 yo, married, happy father of two. Founder of CheckDecide