Stories are powerful. They are everywhere and we live for them. The narratives that we choose to engage with, serve us both as a source of entertainment and a set of directions to follow. Poker is great at highlighting that. Every reasonably experienced enthusiast of playing card for fun and profit knows how incredibly complicated coming up with objectively 'optimal' lines is, even in a silly little game called Texas Holdem.
In light of that, trying to figure out objective solutions for other, potentially more complicated aspects of life seems like nothing more than a pipe dream. A poker player knows that getting better and better at making educated guesses is the best thing we can really hope for. Stories - particularly the ones we tell ourselves - can have a profound effect on our ability to make those guesses. Henry Ford once said that:
Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right”.
Getting good at poker is not just about your betting patterns, it's also about cultivating a proper attitude towards the game through thoughts and beliefs that you choose to reinforce. In this article, we're going to explore the importance of a proper approach to self-talk in poker.
Poker - A Game Full of Stories
Poker might seem like a game tailor-made for analytically inclined, objective math-wizards but in reality, the game is full of different stories, These stories serve many different functions, such as explaining the intricacies of the game in a way that's digestible by mere mortals. They can also help us cope with the harsh reality of variance.
Let's consider a few basic examples. The value/bluff bet dichotomy is one of the first abstract poker concepts that an aspiring poker shark has to learn on his way to developing a winning poker strategy. However, if said aspiring shark ends up being persistent enough, at some point he or she will also learn that this is a somewhat arbitrary way of approaching betting in poker, as the only objective factor that determines if a certain play is good or not is its expected value.
We use this value/bluff dichotomy because - while it's not exactly a perfect, one to one representation of reality - it helps us grasp a fairly complicated concept by presenting it in a way most people can visualize and understand. Human beings aren't programmed to think in terms of expected value (which is actually a great shame but that's a matter for an entirely different discussion), but we are pretty good at visualizing things on a scale between two extremes. Hot/cold, good/bad, order/chaos, value/bluff etc.
The existence of downswing is also a kind of a story. While it's true that variance is one of the reasons why any given poker graph tends to ebb and flow, we are quick to describe this process using yet another dichotomy of a downswing and an upswing. This in and of itself isn't perhaps very harmful, because just like in the previous example, it helps us visualize a complicated concept and understand the game better.
That being said, it also adds an element of 'justice' to a process that's devoid of it. Many poker players seem to suggest that we're entitled to equal treatment by the 'poker gods' and that every downswing is subsequently followed by an equally impactful upswing.
Self-Talk In Poker
Now that we've established that poker - like any other human endeavor - is chock-full of subjectivity, let's discuss how to navigate the vast sea of it to our advantage. As subjective beings, we're bound to add some of our own beliefs and stories to the pile that's already out there. We do this through a process called self-talk.
Self-talk is pretty self-explanatory, it's the idea that we use language not only to communicate with others but also to understand ourselves and the world around us. We use it to create and reinforce ideas. Language is the most powerful framework human beings created, so powerful in fact, that it has the ability to affect the world around us. Before you put your trigger finger on the "call" button ready to call this idea a bluff, let's quickly clarify something. Self-talk isn't magic or a mystical power akin to what was described in a famous book called "The Secret". You can't form reality to suit your preferences with your mere thoughts, but you can give it a small indirect nudge and that's still pretty awesome.
You don't even need to believe in anything mystical, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a well-researched and well-publicized phenomenon in modern psychology. If you tell yourself that you're on the path to becoming the best poker player in the world, no matter what, come hell or high water, you might not ever get there but you'll be that much more likely to persist through tough time, and that in and of itself might be enough to put you way ahead of most of the competition.
Focus On Forming Core Beliefs
Telling someone to just 'think positive' when he or she is 80k hands deep into a soul-crushing downswing might sound like a cruel joke but it's actually a very good suggestion, albeit an overly simplistic one. 'Think positive', isn't exactly very descriptive and it's tough to switch to that mode of thinking in the middle of a disaster. Instead, we should focus on forming strong, positive core beliefs about poker and have them at the ready when crisis strikes.
For example, how many successful poker players who believe that poker is rigged do you know? I'd venture a guess that if there are any of them out there, they constitute a tiny percentage of the winning player population. Why is that? Because poker requires dedication and discipline. You'd be foolish to invest hundreds of hours of your time into something that you believe is beyond your control, and therefore, with one simple core belief about the state of poker, you deny yourself a chance of ever becoming good at it.
What are some of the core beliefs about poker that you might want to reinforce through self-talk? Let's start with a view opposite of that presented in the example above. If you want to increase the chance that you'll stick around long enough to achieve success in poker you have to believe that it is, in fact, a game of skill. Furthermore, you have to believe that you can actually become good at it. When it comes to downswings, it's best to realize that the only thing that's within our control is our win rate. We can't control how variance is going to treat you, but if you do everything in your power to become a 5-10bb/100 crushers, you'll be successful no matter how dreadful your EV adjusted line looks like.
Everyone is different, we all have slightly different personalities and depending on your specific traits, preferences and life situation you might want to include a few more specific beliefs. You can, for example, try to reinforce the idea that you can become successful at poker despite having a full-time job. Or you can even establish a belief that money doesn't really matter to you and all you want to get out of poker is some good fun with your friends during your weekly home game. Again, it all depends on your specific situation but if you're at least a bit competitive the core beliefs about poker being a game of skill, that you can become good at through increasing your win rate is a great place to start.
Now that we've established our core beliefs, let's talk about how to reinforce them. Given that self-talk is the subject of this article, the solution is very simple. You have to talk to yourself. It might sound weird but it really isn't. We all do that on a daily basis - it's just a matter of taking control and ownership of the process. Now, the stereotype of a crazy person mumbling to themselves was formed for a reason, but fortunately for you, talking out loud is not necessary for self-talk to take effect.
You don't even have to start with elaborate mantras that you're going to repeat to yourself regularly. Guiding your beliefs might be as simple as paying attention to what you say to yourself when you encounter some form of adversity at a poker table. For example, if your first reaction to a bad beat is a curse word followed by something like: "Of course he got the ace on the river! It's rigged-stars after all", you're doing yourself a giant disservice. Again, you don't have to swap if for something grandiose that will sound weird to you.
Self-Talk As a Way To Improve Gameplay
Lastly, let's talk about one other aspect of self-talk in poker, which is self-talk in the literal sense of the word. Believe it or not but verbally going through your thought processes in the middle of the hand can actually boost your win rate. This is one of the reasons why sweat sessions are so popular among poker players. Even if your game is observed by someone who's below your skill level and he or she can't really coach you through your decisions, the mere fact that you're forced to justify your plays to them will likely work wonders for your game, during that particular session.
This effect is even more pronounced for non-native English speakers who choose to use the English language to talk to themselves during their poker sessions. There are studies out there, suggesting that it might be easier for us to grasp analytical concepts using a non-native language because it isn't as emotionally charged. In any case, next time you're playing poker try to explain every decision you make. There's a high chance it will both make your average play significantly better and help you maintain your focus throughout the whole session.
Whether it's through forming beneficial beliefs about poker or by boosting your win rate and focus during a session, self-talk can be a great tool in every poker player's arsenal. Poker is a game of really tiny edges and we shouldn't shy away from employing some of the slightly more esoteric ways of improving our game.