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Poker Mental Game & Planning

Mindful Breathing | Mental Poker Strategy

15,172 Views on 30/9/15

Learn how mindful breathing can help your poker game. Breathing is essential for focus and control, add these simple techniques to your mental poker strategy.

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mindful breathing

What if I told you that you can increase your win rate, the amount of time you spend playing your A-game and your overall well-being by simply altering the way you're breathing? Sounds too good to be true, and in the world in which everyone's constantly trying to sell you something we learn not to trust such claims. Fortunately, this is PokerVIP strategy article, and not a commercial.

Breathing is perhaps the most efficient tool that you can use when it comes to improving your mental performance. You have to do it every 2-3 seconds anyway, it's always there with you and with a bit effort you can turn it from something that's automatic and mindless to something that can improve your performance and enrich your life.


ConfusionNo matter what your religion, philosophy, favorite mindset coach or therapist say about the power of now it's hard to argue that when it comes to performance there's no time like the present. At the same time, it's really hard to stop our mind from wandering around with all of those memories, goals, billboards, tv shows and websites constantly fighting for our undivided attention. Fortunately, nature equipped us with a metronome that can sometimes be out of tune but almost never stops working. Yes, you guessed it, I'm talking about breathing.

You can use breathing as your baseline, as a path that can lead you from the depths of your mind to the present tense. You don't have to learn any new special, mystical skills, you don't have to hold long palavers with ancient Chinese masters, you don't have to give away everything you own and become a monk. Just - breathe. It's that simple.

Wait a second chief! I'm breathing, but I don't feel any different, I think I'll just stop reading this article and watch some cat videos on YouTube

Ok, you got me, it's a bit more complex than that. You need to turn mindless, mechanical breathing into mindful and conscious one. Start by counting your breaths. Inhale - one, exhale - two etc. Focus on your breathing and continue to count. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. One, two, three, four. After a while, you'll most likely notice that all of that mental noise that's usually cluttering your mind starts to go away. You should be more focused, your mind should be clearer. It's also possible that this 'mental noise' that I mentioned before starts fighting back..

  • "I should probably check my email for the 7th time today"
  • "I'm kinda hungry, I should order something"
  • "This counting business doesn't work at all"

It's totally fine. Modern world conditions us to seek stimuli, novelty and instant gratification and our mindful breathing attempt doesn't provide either of those. Don't try to force anything but be persistent. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. You'll notice the difference after a while.

Stepping Stones

Ok chief, it kinda worked I was a bit more focused and that 'mental noise' got way more quiet then usual, should I count my breaths for the rest of my life? That's your idea of efficiency?

Well of course not but like Tommy Angelo once said "One mindful breath is infinitely better than none". You can treat your mind like a muscle, it can be affected by the things you subject it to. That quick mindful breathing exercise that we just did is to your mind what heavy deadlifting is to your back and hamstrings and quads and arms and shoulders and... you should probably start deadlifting too but we'll talk about this another time. 

You don't have to count every single breath, but the more you do it the better and just like with strength training it will affect your mind even after you finish the 'exercise'. Also, just like with strength training the more disciplined and consistent you are about it the more you'll get out of it.

This is all well and good but what about poker?

I'm glad you asked! Mental clarity is essential when it comes to playing your A-game. Furthermore, mindful breathing will positively affect your mental endurance and help you decrease the amount of time you're spending in your B and C-game. You'll be less prone to tilt and when it does happen you'll have a powerful tool at your disposal to deal with it. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. While there are some physical aspects to it poker is largely a mental game and the condition of your mind will directly affect your results.

Here's a quick and easy guide to mindful breathing:

  • Bring attention to your breathing. This can and will come naturally to you with practice, but in the beginning you can help yourself by counting: one on inhale and two on exhale etc.
  • Imagine that your body is a vessel that fills up when you breath in and when you breath out it empties out. This will help you concentrate on the act of breathing even more.
  • If a thought or a feeling comes don't try to suppress or fight it. Just acknowledge its existence and continue focusing on your breathing.
  • If you notice that your attention is drifting away and you lose focus don't beat yourself up about it. Again try to bring your attention back to the act of breathing.
  • Voila! Follow those simple rules and you'll become a mindful breathing master in no time.

Heart Rate Variance

 Heart Rate

So even after I assured you that ancient masters and mystical skills aren't required to introduce some mindfulness into your life you're still not buying into all that living-in-the-present, metaphysical talk. Fair enough, there are some very practical reasons to introduce some mindful breathing into your life.

Your brain is designed to shut down under pressure and there are good reasons for it. When one of your ancestors saw a sabertooth tiger in Germany circa 300k years ago, he wasn't supposed to admire his glorious teeth. He was supposed to turn around and run like the wind - you don't need high level of thinking to do that, in fact high-level thinking can negatively affect your reaction time (which might be the difference between life and death).
Take NoteWhile the surprise rendezvous with a tiger is a rare occurrence these days many different things that we have to deal with on a daily basis can elicit the same type of fight or flight response. Difficult exam, deadline at work or villain's 5bet when you're 250bb deep can be almost as effective as that before mentioned tiger. That binary mode that your mind sets you up with in life-threatening situations is reasonably effective when you're chased by a very large cat, but it's not that great when you're faced with a giant over-bet while holding the third nuts!

While the world moved on and is vastly different from the one our ancestors lived in our brains haven't changed that much. We still have the same basic operating system. It's almost like reality is this amazing store updated daily with the plethora of new apps, but we're still running on Windows 95 and there's no update in sight. Fortunately, we can still optimize our operating system and that's where breathing comes into play.

This is your brain (heart) on drugs (poker):

Sporadic heart rate

In a stressful situation, your heart rate raises dramatically and becomes, irregular. That first spike can be caused by third 3bet in a row from the same player ("OMG this guy again, what to do what to do!?"). Then you look at the table in the top right corner of the screen and realize that even though you're on the turn you have no idea what happened on the previous street (second spike). 

Finally you're facing big decision on the river ("Man should I bluff catch here? Some draws got there but I have top pair and villain was very aggressive so far"). Sounds familiar? After you reach certain level of stress your body can't really function in the way that's required to play good poker. Worst case scenario your higher brain function can get severely limited and you effectively lobotomize yourself. As you can probably imagine that's no bueno especially when you're trying to decide if you should 5-bet bluff or not.

This is what mindful breathing can do for your heart:

Mindful Breathing's Effect

You can actually control your heart rate in a stressful situation with the way you're breathing. While your average heart rate might still be high you can reduce the variance and stop your brain from lobotomizing itself. All you need to do is breath at a steady rate, two to four seconds for the inhale and the same amount of time for the exhale.

You don't have to breath deep just keep the steady rhythm. Try this the next time you start slipping into your B-game or when you're faced with big decision on the river. You'll be amazed at the result. Regular breathing is also an effective strategy in case of panic attack so if your body ever decides to go Tony Soprano on you, you got that scenario covered.

Practice Makes Perfect

By now you're probably convinced that mindful breathing is a good idea, but you might be unsure how to go about it. Here are some things that you can do to increase the frequency of mindful breaths in your life:

  • Remind yourself about it: Stick a note with "Breath Mindfully!" written on it to your monitor. Print that message and hang it above your grind station. Change your desktop wallpaper/table theme and use that as a reminder etc.
  • Substitute redundant activities/small bad habits with mindful breathing: checking your email for the 5th time today? Do some mindful breathing instead. Feeling the urge to open facebook or YouTube again? You know what to do.
  • Waiting in traffic? In line at the post office? Maybe you're re-installing operating system or importing hands to your PokerTracker/Holdem Manager database? Every time you have to wait for something like that use the downtime to do some mindful breathing. It might be especially important while driving. Instead of thinking about doing what Le Chiffre did to Bond in Casino Royale to the guy that cut you off in traffic do some mindful breathing instead.
  • Include mindful breathing in your morning/evening routine.
  • Do some mindful breathing during your warm-up/cool down before/after poker session.

With some experience, you'll find more and more opportunities to focus on your breathing. I'm sure that both your mind and your win rate will thank you for it. In the game of small edges, it's really important to constantly stay on top of your game and mindful breathing is one of the most powerful tools for the job.

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Matt VIP

Matt is predominantly a mental game and planning expert, with a terrific knowledge of science, meditation, practical methods of improvement and of course, a good level of poker skill! Look out for his strategy articles and follow him for hi ... Read More


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