Calm poker players win at poker. They’re the ones who avoid going nuts when things aren’t going their way. They’re the ones who make the rational, mathematically correct decisions, repeatedly.
Staying calm is a superpower of sorts, in real life, and at the poker table. Unfortunately, they don’t teach classes in serenity at the local high school or community college. You might get something out of a meditation, yoga, or tai chi class, but none of them are specifically about staying calm during a game of poker.
I’m probably not the world’s greatest expert on remaining calm during a game of poker, either.
But I’m trying.
Here are some tips from my own personal experience about how to be the calmest poker player at the table.
Start Eliminating Your Emotions from the Game
Everyone in the United States has, at this point, heard of Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared Vulcan from Star Trek. Even if you’re too young to remember him from the original series from the 1960s, you’ve seen him in the movies. The main thing people remember about Spock besides his pointy ears is that he’s a creature of logic, not emotion.
He is, in fact, one of many fictional characters who display that characteristic. The most famous from all of literature is probably Sherlock Holmes, in fact.
What do Mr. Spock and Sherlock Holmes have to do with eliminating your emotions during a poker game?
There’s a principle in the personal development literature called “act as if.” You’ll also hear it called “fake it til you make it.”
The idea is that it’s easier to act your way into a different way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting.
But to fake something, you need a reference point for how to act. I suggest spending some time watching some Star Trek episodes, paying careful attention to Spock’s attitudes and body language. Spend some time watching some of the better Sherlock Holmes adaptations, too—the Jeremy Brett episodes are the most authentic.
Then behave that way at the poker table.
This mean, by the way, eliminating the emotions that feel good as well as the ones that feel bad. The attitude you’re striving for is one of non-caring, of indifference.
When you get off on the emotions at the poker table—positive or negative—you have a fuzzier view of the facts and of what’s really going on. If you agree that the best poker strategy is the most rational poker strategy, you’ll see why this is important.
Also, you’ll find that you have some negative emotions at the poker table that you might really enjoy. You might get a thrill from someone getting paid back for a perceived wrong earlier in the game. You might enjoy beating an especially irritating player. Your ego might love taking down a big pot from someone who seems to be a better player.
Those kinds of emotions all bring about bad karma an bad dharma. You don’t need that kind of negative stuff in your life, man.
Stop Taking Yourself So Damn Seriously
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they often advise each other to remember “Rule 62.”
What’s rule 62, you ask?
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Like most people, you probably have multiple reasons for playing poker. Winning and/or earning money is one of them.
But surely having fun at the table is also one of them?
How can you have fun at the poker table if you take yourself so damn seriously?
You don’t have to be a rigid automaton, my previous pep talk about eliminating emotions notwithstanding. You can laugh, be silly, and take it easy even if you’ve just been dealt your 10th bad beat in a row.
In fact, if you keep getting bad beats, try to take comfort in this:
Only good players experience bad beats, by definition. A bad beat is when you got into a hand with the better cards, and your opponent improved to a better hand when he “shouldn’t have.” If you never get into hands with better cards than your opponents, you can’t get bad beats.
But if you’re getting your money into the center of the table when you’re a favorite, you’re going to experience more bad beats than the average player.
Learn to have a sense of humor about them.
I have a friend who owns a bar in Pennsylvania, and they play a lot of poker there. One of his bartenders put out a jar labeled “bad beat stories – $1.” Any time someone wants to tell the bartender a bad beat story, he has to put a dollar in the jar.
For that privilege, the bartender listens attentively. When the patron finishes his bad beat story, the bartender says, “Yep. That was a BAD beat!”
Think about that story next time you get a bad beat and try not to smile.
Learn to Enjoy PLAYING Poker—Not Just WINNING at Poker
If you’re only enjoying poker when you’re winning, you’re going to have a hard time staying calm. You need to learn how to enjoy the physical and mental aspects of just being at the table. You need to learn how to enjoy folding just as much as you enjoy betting and raising.
Poker for its own sake is a worthwhile endeavor. It’s a great way to socialize, it’s an interesting and entertaining way to pass the time, and if you’re lucky and smart, it’s profitable, too.
But no matter how smart or skilled you are, you’ll face big losing streaks a lot of the time. In fact, if you’re playing a marathon 12-hour session, you’re almost certain to have at least a 3-hour cold spell during that session.
If you play full-time every month, you can expect to have a losing month at least once every 6 months—maybe more. That doesn’t mean you’re playing badly. That’s just how variance works. Remind yourself of that.
Give yourself credit and pat yourself on the back for making good quality decisions, regardless of whether you won the pot or not.
Say This to Yourself Right Now, “Next Time I Go on Tilt, I Hope I Lose”
Why would you ever hope to lose, even if you’re on tilt?
Think about it this way.
Suppose you go on tilt and start throwing chips in the pot with bets and raises when you’re on tilt. And suppose you get lucky and start winning. That will happen some of the time.
What message is that going to send your subconscious brain?
The concept of confirmation bias suggests that your brain sees cause and effect relationships even when no such cause and effect relationship exists. If your brain associates going on tilt with having a winning session or even a short winning streak, you’re likelier to go on tilt again in the future—a sure way to create a long-term negative-expectation scenario.
You’re much better off losing money next time you go on tilt, so that you can form the appropriate cause and effect reasoning associations in your brain.
It’s better, of course, to never go on tilt at all. But the next best thing is if you do go on tilt, to lose. The worst case scenario is to go on tilt and win.
I’m sure that seems counter-intuitive. Most people hope to win regardless of whether they’re doing the right thing or not.
Remember that You’re Playing a Game, and Part of that Game Involves Hurting the Other Players
I’m a nice guy. I have a lot of friends who are nice guys, too. I know that I struggle with, and some of my friends also struggle with, the cutthroat attitude that’s part and parcel of being a good poker player. For example, I take honesty and integrity seriously. But deception is just part of being a good poker player. Since it’s part of the way that the game is played, I don’t have to feel guilty for engaging in that deception.
I once played in a poker game with a much younger, obviously naïve and not very bright man. He might have even been a Mormon, because he sure was well-mannered and clean-cut. I felt bad about taking his money. I mentioned it to one of my road buddies.
He disabused me of that notion immediately. You didn’t force that kid to come in here and put his money on the table, he said. You didn’t tell him it was okay to play this game without learning some of the most basic strategic principles behind it. You’re not telling him to call your bets with inferior hands, either.
In fact, you’re not responsible for his behavior in any way.
And even if you were somehow responsible for him losing his money tonight, if you weren’t here to do it, someone else at the table would. It might as well be you.
Let him and his parents worry about his mistakes.
My father-in-law used to think it was bad manners to check-raise. He’d get mad if you did this, in fact. And it’s hard not to take that kind of thing personally, especially if you don’t play much poker.
I suggest looking at it from a different perspective. Betting, raising, re-raising—these are all just game maneuvers. They’re the equivalent of buying a property in Monopoly, or putting a house or a hotel on one of your properties. You don’t feel guilty about charging rent during a game of Monopoly. You shouldn’t feel guilty about your maneuvers at the poker table, either.
When you jump over an opponent in checkers, and you capture their piece, you don’t feel guilty. You don’t get mad at your opponent when he captures your checkers, either. It’s just part of the game, and you accept it as such.
Learn to adopt the same attitude at the poker table.
Practice Makes Perfect
Every time you’re exposed to a situation, the less anxious it makes you. This constant exposure is why people who travel a lot on business might have had a fear of flying earlier in their careers, but are able to fly all the time without any fear now.
A bad beat has a lot of power over you the first time it happens. Losing a big pot after being drawn out on is crushing when you’re new to the game. But the longer you play, the more times you’ll face those situations, and the less power they’ll hold over you.
Public speaking is the #1 fear in the United States. People are terrified of having to speak in front of a group. When I was in college, I almost failed my communications class because I was so anxious about a speech that I got too drunk to attend class beforehand. I passed the class with a C after convincing the instructor to let me re-do the assignment.
I went on to student teach, and every time I stood in front of a classroom full of students, I grew a little more confident. After that, I went into sales. I was terrified to make my first sales call, but I followed the script and got through it. After making 80 cold calls a day for a week, I had no more anxiety about making sales pitches.
I went on to work in sales management and sales training. I gave presentations almost constantly. Now I not only don’t have any anxiety about public speaking, I love it. What I used to label “nervousness” or “anxiety” I’ve re-labeled as “excitement” and “energy.”
This will hold true for everything at the poker table, too. Exposure (practice) will eliminate some of the excitement and emotion from the game, especially if that’s an intention that you’ve set for yourself beforehand.
Avoiding tilt is one of the main goals of cultivating calmness at the poker table. Having better judgment is another goal of staying calm. Making the best and most rational decisions repeatedly will eventually lead to long-term profits, even if they seem to result in short-term heartbreaks now.
For these reasons, trying to gain some serenity at the poker table is a worthy goal. Sure, you can and should adopt a meditation practice. You should also be mindful of your attitude about the game, the decisions you make, and the other players at the table.
Eventually, more awareness will lead to more serenity, which will in turn, lead to more awareness, and so on. It becomes an upward spiral that feeds itself.
Good luck with your goal of being calm at the poker table.
It’s a worthy goal.