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Poker Mental Game & Planning

How to Play Your A-Game Every Time

5,657 Views on 19/8/19

Bringing your A-game to the table every time you sit is the holy grail for a poker player

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Bringing your A-game to the table every time you sit is the holy grail for a poker player. Once you start to reach your potential it’s crucial to do so. In fact, it has long been said that one of the biggest differences between the best mid-stakes players and regular high-stakes players is that the high-stakes players always come prepared to give their best.

If you are playing sub-par for your level on half of the days then you’re just holding yourself back. In fact, once you reach a certain level of competency you will know if you’re playing well or not. It is a true sign that you’re already a half decent player when you know this and stop tilting over bad luck or bad players and instead get angry with yourself for playing poorly.

Rather than just throwing out a list of good things to do, let’s start of with examining why we don’t perform well on any given day.

All in the Mind

A good performance always starts off with being properly prepared mentally. If you’re not in the zone then you already know that it’s not a good start. A proper warm up for your session is all about kickstarting your focus. If you’re not focussed then any time you are put under pressure you risk cracking and collapsing horribly. 

You can observe professional sportspeople who look from the outset that something is just not right. Often this is down to a poor warm up procedure. There are some disciplines where lower level players are not used to being watched on TV. Even if they warm up correctly they just can’t remain focussed and perform to their usual level. Jared Tendler writes extensively on this importance of warming up in his class book The Mental Game of Poker.

Self-doubt is another aspect of how you can underperform. When you feel nervous about performing your best you can sometimes start to imagine all the possible mistakes which just kills your confidence and leads to issues with focussing on your task. If you now don’t trust the skills you practice away from competition then all of your pre-game preparation will go out of the window when it's time  to show your best. Confidence is everything.

Next up is overthinking. You should be preparing your strategies away from the table and arriving at the table armed to the teeth. It’s no good thinking you’ve got yourself ready and then starting to overthink your plans. Worry about what mistakes you make after the session rather than trying to do it during play. This is just something else to distract you and detract from your potential performance. You only have so much mental capacity and must strive to save it all for thinking about the current hand. Overthinking causes nothing but nervousness.

One of the greatest challenges of poker is to not feel any emotion towards things that are out of your control. The obvious way this is done is when we run bad over a session or even a single hand. You must be able to let this negative go immediately. You might also make a bad bluff or hero call that goes wrong and fail to forget it. When this takes your focus away from the next important hand you’re now more likely to miss a crucial piece of information

Something else that humans struggle to do is to waste time thinking about the past or future when they should be focussed on the now. Remaining present at all times helps greatly. There is an appropriate time for analysis and preparation later on. When it is time to perform that’s all you should be focussed on.

Finally, you should never put yourself under too much pressure to secure a good result. You know already that this is never guaranteed in poker, but if you’re scared to make mistakes then you’re going to get gun shy and stray away from the best decisions. Many of the correct lines we should be taking are counter intuitive and seem risky. 

Don’t let yourself worry about the prospect of it going wrong because you feel under pressure already during your session. Pressure leads directly to self-doubt and all the associated issues.

Mandatory Concepts for Playing Your A-Game

Although you wouldn’t believe it looking around many card rooms, physical fitness is critical to playing your A-game. Healthy body, healthy mind so the saying goes. This goes hand-in-hand with a sensible sleep pattern and diet.

If any of these three are out of whack then you will be a lot more susceptible to brain fog. A dull mind in a mind sport means you shouldn’t even be showing up.

The internet is full of useful information on starting a proper physical fitness program. Many of them might not be perfect, but as a non-professional athlete it doesn’t really matter. Anything half sensible will get you 70% of the way there

The same goes for a balanced diet. Balanced is the key word here, just get enough of everything you need. The exact proportions are more important for when you’re an advanced trainer. This along with staying correctly hydrated will have you feeling in tip top shape soon enough.

Eight hours sleep is recommended for adults per night, but if you aren’t a great sleeper and require more then don’t hesitate to do it.

The last concept is not groundbreaking but is responsible for mental game problems.

Bankroll management!

Yes, it looks out of place in this article but a couple of decades after this information was out there for everybody people still aren’t taking notice like they should be. If you’re playing with scared money then you’re not going to be able to pull the trigger when you need to. You’re going to be worried about the possibility of having to move down in stakes. All the problems listed above can arrive if you do not have a big enough bankroll.

It doesn’t matter what stakes you are playing, if you’re not mentally and physically prepared you’re not going to bring your A-game.

Get all your issues sorted and arrive at your next session brimming with confidence that your A-game will be waiting for you.


Mark Patrickson

Mark Patrickson is a professional cash game player grinding stakes up to 100nl 6 Max NL Hold'em13 years experience of poker, across MTT SnG and cash, FL PL NL.Currently living in South East Asia and trying to make it back to mid-stakes befo ... Read More


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