Athletes and sports stars talk about it. Musicians talk about it, and more recently, poker players are talking about it. What it is it? A phenomena known simply as “the zone”.
Have you ever had one of those sessions where you feel that you can't possibly do anything wrong? Your concentration is top notch and the correct decisions seem to flow effortlessly through your brain. Sometimes you can't even explain why you know a certain choice was the right one, but on a subconscious level it simply feels right. This article will cover how to get in the zone and stay there to play optimally.
It's as if the outside world no longer exists and you and the poker game have merged to become one individual being. Nothing else is relevant for that session, you feel completely submersed in game flow, hand-ranges and tactics.
But let's contrast that with a session where you feel frustrated. You face many difficult decisions and no matter how hard you try to reach a solution you feel lost. That awareness that you may have made a wrong decision gnaws at you and worries away at your consciousness.
To make things worse you are plagued with thoughts of the past and present. You think about that work assignment or family responsibility you did not complete. You wonder about your long term future as a poker player and whether you can really make money at this game.
You routinely lose track of the specific action during hands and don't even always realise the large amount of mistakes that are slipping into your game. You feel as if you are only using 20% of your brain to actually play poker, while the other 80% is trapped by relentless thoughts regarding external factors.
What is the Zone?
If you hadn't guessed it, that first example session is a situation where we can describe ourself as being “in the zone”. It's an elevated mental state of efficiency. Our brain concentrates only on necessary information and doesn't allow itself to be distracted.
Not only this, when we are playing in the zone our brain has access to a much wider range
of information. We can even draw on subconscious information we didn't realise we'd remembered. That's why we can sometimes feel very confident about a certain play we make even though we may struggle to rationalize it to others.
On the contrary, when we are outside the zone we may see an opposite effect taking place. We may even find that we can't properly access the information stored in our brain on a more conscious level.
For example, we may find that on a good day we know exactly which calling range we should have when facing a 3bet on the button. On a bad day, frustration and other accumulated emotion may affect the rational part of our brain and make it difficult to access this information.
Perhaps we hold a hand like 9Ts facing a 3bet. On a good day (especially one in the zone) this is the world's easiest call. On a bad day (perhaps after running bad) we might find that exact same call a lot harder. Perhaps we start to try and rationalise along the lines of “Well I always lose anyway so what's the point, I'll just fold this time”.
Finding the Zone
If you already understand how to reach the zone consistently, then congratulations. Most of us however will fall into one of the two following categories.
1. I can reach the zone but it seems to happen randomly and for unpredictable reasons
2. I don't really get what this zone thing is. I don't think I've ever been in the zone.
For those in category 2 your objective should be to try and reach the zone and understand more deeply this phenomena. For those that fall into category 1, your objective should be to find ways of reaching the zone more consistently.
Recognizing the Zone
The interesting thing about being in the zone is that as soon as we recognize that we are in the zone, that can sometimes be enough to push us out of the zone. As a result it might only be after an event that we realise we were completely submersed and performing at an extremely high level.
There is an activity where many nearly always find the zone. Remember that this is not a concept unique to poker. In fact it had application in many other areas long before it was applied to poker. It's possible that the following is a unique experience, but I have a feeling that a large quantity of readers will relate to this.
The activity is driving a car. If you don't drive a car then sorry, try and think of a similar example. How do you feel when you drive a car? We are actually aware that driving is very dangerous. We know that at any moment we could be involved in a lethal accident. But do we generally drive along allowing these thoughts to permeate our consciousness?
For most drivers such thoughts rarely enter into their heads while actually driving. For most, driving involves a calm state of mental awareness. Many of the decisions we make even occur at a subconscious level below that of rational thought, yet they are consistently good decisions.
Some may experience the feeling of losing track of time. Our mind becomes absorbed with the activity and performs at a high level without worry or doubt. We are calmly focused, and quietly confident that nothing can stop us from reaching our destination. This is the zone.
But imagine a different day where there is torrential rain or heavy snowfall. How do we feel now? In the zone? Some of us might, but there is a much higher chance that driving will make us feel anxious. Perhaps visibility is low and we are now more consciously aware that a fatal accident could be looming.
We no longer feel relaxed and calmly confident. We feel on edge. There may well be a reason we feel like this – perhaps it's a defence mechanism, our brain's way of telling us that caution is mandatory, and that if we are not careful something terrible could happen. But here is the great irony; does our brain being in this heightened state of anxiety cause us to perform at a higher level or a worse level?
Reaching the Zone: Anxiety vs Boredom
A small amount of anxiety might help us from becoming complacent and does not always guarantee that we cannot reach the zone. If we experience slightly too much anxiety however, there is a huge chance that we are not going to be able to continue performing at our highest level. Anyone who finds activities such as public speaking difficult can likely relate to this. Perhaps we have practiced our speech 100 times, but once we stand in front of that audience, our anxiety causes us to fall apart.
The following diagram should help us to understand the relationship between anxiety and the zone. These are also linked to the level of challenge we face and our skill. Credit for the following image goes to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – this is an adaptation of an image which he used in his book “Adapted from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”
It's worth thinking about the above graph for a while and thinking about how it applies to your own personal experience at the poker table.
The green area represents the zone and the likelihood of us finding the zone. Remember that there are no guarantees that we will always find the zone, but what this should essentially teach us is that we fall into the zone for predictable reasons and we can help our chances of finding the zone by making sure all external factors are right.
Seeing as there are several different elements to this particular graph, let's focus on one at a time. For now just focus on the white areas either side of the green zone, which are labelled anxiety
. The zone will routinely be found between these two extremes.
So if we are bored or complacent we likely won't find the zone. However if we are overly anxious, we won't find the zone either.
Now notice that the y-axis is labelled “challenges” while the x-axis is labelled “skills”. This will help us to understand which conditions may cause us to feel overly anxious or overly bored. Understanding this will help us start on the right foot by setting up conditions which are most conducive to reaching the zone. Ok, let's think about how we can apply this directly to poker.
Poker Conditions Conducive to Zone Play
So let's imagine for a minute that the “challenge” we face (vertical axis) is really low. Perhaps we usually play 200nl, but decide to play a session of 10nl. However since we are a 200nl reg our skill level is very high. You can see on the graph above that this would put us clearly in the boredom section below the green zone area. If we wanted to play in the zone we might possibly have to find ways of making what we do more challenging. Perhaps we force ourself to list every single hand in our opponents range
or increase the amount of tables that we play.
On the other hand imagine a situation where our skill level is low because we are a newer player and we normally single table 2nl. We now decide to fire up 4 tables of 200nl. Since our skill level is nowhere near high enough to live up to the challenge we are setting for ourself, we are unlikely to find the zone.
In other words, in order for us to regulate our boredom and anxiety levels we need to pick a challenge which is appropriate for our skill level. We can change the difficulty of the challenge by
- playing different stakes
- playing different amounts of tables
- setting side-challenges for ourselves
Sometimes the difficulty of the challenge my also be changed by external factors which are outside our control such as
So while normally playing 6 tables of 50nl might be the perfect challenge for us and allows us to find the zone routinely, if we are tired on a particular day we might begin to find that the challenge we are facing is tougher than normal. We could also view this as our skill being lower which has exactly the same effect.
Either way, what we typically find a perfect challenge now becomes slightly too difficult for our skill level, and we start to experience anxiety. You've probably noticed this kind of thing when driving: a simple task like driving can start to become challenge if we are impaired as a result of tiredness or hunger.
While initially the premise of having the perfect challenge for ourselves in order to find the zone is simple, there are many variables that can alter either our skill level or the difficulty of the challenge. Even if most variables are the same it's not true to say that every 6-tabling 25nl session is the same. Some sessions are simply harder or easier than others, and we could fall out of the zone as a result of this.
While we are not always in control of whether we find the zone or not, by carefully tracking the variables that modify the difficulty of the challenge or our skill-level, we can increase the chances we find the zone more consistently. We will talk about this in the following article on how to get in the zone and utilize it to become a better player.