An Important Update to The Mental Game of Poker: The Mental Hand History

An Important Update to The Mental Game of Poker: The Mental Hand History

An Important Update to The Mental Game of Poker

I am proud that most of the material in my first book, The Mental Game of Poker, holds up six years after it was published. However, there is one thing I would change.

I should have made a bigger deal of the Mental Hand History, my primary tool for helping players find the underlying cause of their tilt, fear, motivation or confidence problems. I chose the name because I wanted to encourage players to approach mental game improvement in the same structured and logical way they were already doing when solving technical mistakes. Today, clients regularly send me their Mental Hand History to review, just as they send a poker hand history to their technical coach.

Solve Your Problem for Real

Solve Your Problem for Real

There is a massive difference between resolving a mental game problem and how players typically deal with them. Most commonly they’ll try to block out and control their emotions by, for example, quitting, taking deep breaths, dropping down in stakes and using advice such as, “just don’t let it bother you.” These and other similar strategies can prevent you from tilting, make you less risk-averse or give you more confidence, but the problem hasn’t gone away. You’ve just temporarily pushed it to the background so it appears gone. But like a weed that grows back when you don’t pull it out by the roots, it will come back. Sometimes even bigger.

Control is not a solution, it’s a step towards resolution. But many players believe that control is their only way of dealing with mental game issues and it causes them to:

  • Go through big ups and downs in their game
  • Have major blow ups where they go on massive tilt, become paralyzed with fear or become completely demotivated
  • Waste energy that would be better used for making better decision making

Resolution means that you’ve solved the problem and it goes away. The excessive emotions you feel when you are on a downswing, make a mistake, or face aggressive opponents are a symptom of a deeper flaw in your approach to the game. The emotion is not the problem. The real problems are the deeper flaws like, an illusion of control, flaws in your view of the learning process and wishing. When you master the correction to that deeper flaw you automatically react better to a downswing, mistake or tough opponent—even under the most difficult situations. You’re not constantly fighting against your emotions or trying to control them, because they aren’t there. That’s what resolution provides. An end to your problem. Not a permanent job tending to them.

Steps of the Mental Hand History

Come up with a correction to that flawed logic

The Mental Hand History is a series of steps that you can take to get at the root cause of your problem, and come up with a solution to it. It’s important that you treat it like a tool for identifying new information rather than a quiz to put down what you already know and think is right. If you had the right answer already, you likely wouldn’t need to do it. Assume there’s more to learn and push yourself to think deeper than you normally would.

Here are the steps along with some additional instructions. But they might make more sense after seeing some examples below.

Step 1. Define the problem or mistake in as much detail as you can.

This includes the thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, changes to your play, and actions connected with the problem.Be sure to take the time to givean accurate description because the quality of your answers in the following steps are determined by what you write here.

Step 2. Explain why it makes logical sense that you would have this problem or why you would think, feel, or act that way.

The goal of this step is to understand why you have this problem. What’s the reason? Nothing in the mental game happens randomly, so there is a predictable reason that you have this problem. Push yourself to think a bit deeper and explain why.

Step 3. Explain why the logic in step 2 is flawed.

Here is where we get to the real cause of your problem. As a novice in solving mental game problems this step may be challenging. But don’t get discouraged if it gets hard. By going through these steps you’ll come up with better answers than if you stuck to your old way of problem solving. Do the best you can and consult The Mental Game of Poker if you need help. One additional tip, your emotions are never the flaw, they’re a symptom of it. You job is to figure out why you’re experiencing them and that’s where you’ll find the flaw.

Step 4. Come up with a correction to that flawed logic.

The correction needs to focus on the flawed logic and not standard answers that you already know. For example, for tilt after a bad beat, don’t use “Bad beats happen, don’t let them bother you.” The reality is that they bother you and denying that prevents you from understanding the reason they do.

Step 5. Explain why that correction is correct.

This step is a bonus, but it gets to the theory behind the correction and that can make it stick better in your mind.

Here are two examples, but also be sure to watch the video. I analyze Mental Hand Histories that were submitted by players for my feedback.

Define the problem or mistake in as much detail as you can

Step 1. Define the problem or mistake in as much detail as you can.

I lose confidence on a downswing and start to think I’m terrible and that I’m never going to make good money from the game. I don’t play as much and have trouble staying focused when studying.

Step 2. Explain why it makes logical sense that you would have this problem or why you would think, feel, or act that way.

I can’t see how I can win if I’m losing this badly and what’s the point of studying if I’m just going to lose?

Step 3. Explain why the logic in step 2 is flawed.

I’m being too results-oriented and not analyzing my game or how I’m playing. I might be playing well and just not getting rewarded for it. Also, by assuming I’m never going to win, I’m basically predicting the future, which I obviously can’t do.

Step 4. Come up with a correction to that flawed logic.

If I work hard, I’ll have a chance. There are no guarantees in poker, which means I also can’t assume that I’m going to make it when I’m running well. No matter how I’m doing I need to be more accurate at evaluating my game and make good game selection and bankroll management decisions.

Step 5. Explain why that correction is correct.

Short-term results aren’t the best way to define my skill, or my chances of succeeding. Only a psychic can predict the future.

Resolving Dilemmas in Poker

Explain why it makes logical sense that you would have this problem

Step 1. Define the problem or mistake in as much detail as you can. I get angry when really weak players win pots from me. They’re so bad, how is it possible that they always get so lucky!?!

Step 2. Explain why it makes logical sense that you would have this problem or why you would think, feel, or act that way. I work hard on my game and it isn’t fair that someone who doesn’t can beat me.

Step 3. Explain why the logic in step 2 is flawed. It’s impossible to play perfect poker, and sometimes weak players are the toughest to play against because they can be unpredictable. Plus, if I’m playing well I’m not going to get lucky vs. them, because I’ll almost always be ahead.

Step 4. Come up with a correction to that flawed logic.Losing is part of poker. I can only control how I play, so I need to concentrate on making better decisions and really understanding how they think and play.

Solve One Poker Problem at a Time 

Explain why that correction is correct

Step 5. Explain why that correction is correct.

It gets me thinking about the things I can control and not the things I can’t.

Keep in mind, when you have more than one problem, it’s important to complete a Mental Hand History for each one. After you’ve broken down each problem the key to resolving them is repetition. You need a lot of repetition to master the correction and here are some ideas how to do it:

  • Write out a short statement or phrase from your answers in steps 4 or 5 that will easily remind you of the correct logic. Make sure to review it regularly and before you play, so it’s stronger in your mind. Then at the first sign of trouble, whether the problem has popped up at the tables or away from them, repeats this statement in your mind to reduce your emotions and get you thinking in the right way. This strategy blocks out negative emotion while playing, and gives you the needed reps to eventually stop the emotion from even appearing.
  • At least once a week, reread your current Mental Hand Histories and possibly revise them. If you don’t come up with anything significantly new, at least you get reps that count towards resolution.
  • After sessions where you had to work hard to block out negative emotion, or when it overwhelms you, get your thoughts or emotions out by writing. If you don’t, the emotions will carry over day to day and make it harder for you to control your emotions and play poker well. Afterward, review what you wrote and if the problem has already been worked on, reread an existing Mental Hand History to further instill an understanding of the cause and correction. Or, if the problem seems different, write out a new Mental Hand History and get to the bottom of it.

Rooting Out Problems in Your Poker Game

The more you go through these steps the more you’ll change how you think about solving mental game problems. Over time, you’ll notice more nuances and it will get easier to complete all the steps.

The Mental Hand History is an effective way to solve the root cause of your mental game problems and I suggest you work with it for a month to see what it can do for your game. Worst case, it’ll help you warm down tough sessions and allow you to go on with your life without the poker grind still on your mind.

Jared Tendler, MS, LMHC is licensed therapist specializing in sport psychology and is the leading authority on the mental game in poker. Throughout his nearly 10 years coaching poker players he has worked with over 500 players hailing from over 45 countries, including many of the top players in the world. He is also the author of two best-selling books on the subject, The Mental Game of Poker 1 and Poker 2.