Explanation of Mental Game

Working on mental game is the process where a player attempts to gain a strong mental disposition, hence rendering himself less affected by tilt, distraction, tiredness, lack of motivation and other mindset issues. Dealing with such issues is referred to as “working on C-game”.

More than simply look to deal with tilt, a player working on his mental game also looks to increase the quality of his A-game. Playing one’s absolute best game of poker can be described using such terms as “finding the zone” or “experiencing flow”. Through manipulation of external variables players look to utilize knowledge of psychology in constructing the perfect mental state for playing poker.

Example of Mental Game used in a sentence -> Players with a weak mental game go on tilt more often.

How to Use Mental Game as Part of Your Poker Strategy 

Although not immediately obvious without a background in psychology, our A-game and C-game need to be worked on separately (and often at different times). Working on our C-game is most effective when our mental state is being actively taxed (perhaps through running bad at the tables). Attempting to deal with tilt problems when running good is a little bit like learning to swim without the use of water. 

Solving C-Game Issues

Although certain tilt problems may seem similar on the outset, the underlying cause can differ widely from individual to individual. As such, an important first step is defining the problem as accurately as possible. Working through the following list may be helpful -

- How would we best define the problem? There are different types of tilt. While many produce anger as a side effect, not all do. For example, sometimes we play our C-game because we are feeling tired or unmotivated. Perhaps we are scared of losing money and play while affected by fear. In scenarios where anger is the key by-product of our mental game issue, we still need to troubleshoot the issue further. What is it that causes the negative emotion? Does it occur when we run bad or after some other scenario? It is losing to specific types of player that causes the problem? Is it losing in specific ways? Do we instead get angry when we feel we have made strategic errors? Which type of strategic errors? The potential questions go on. We need to establish which questions are the most relevant for ourselves and answer them.
- Which specific thoughts and feelings are generated by the issue? Which type of emotions do we experience? We should be as specific as possible. Are there any examples of complete thought processes that occur in our mind? For example (after a bad beat against a recreational opponent “If I can’t even beat the fish, what’s the point of playing poker?”. Or perhaps after a prolonged period of losses “Do I actually even have any proof that the site in question is not rigged? Perhaps I’ll never win again”.

- Which strategic effects does it have on our game? Once the issue has been identified it’s then necessary to analyse the effect that the C-game issue has on our strategic outlook. For example, perhaps a player might have a tendency to loosen up significantly preflop when running bad. Perhaps the opposite occurs – a player plays an increasingly tight range of holdings the more bad beats he experiences. Which should determine the effect our tilt problem has on the way we make decisions at the table: again, the more specific we can be, the better.

- Why is our thought process not logical? It is recommended to create logical statements that address both the mental game issue itself and the subsequent effect it has on ourstrategy. “It’s a good thing that the recreational playesr suck out, that’s what keeps them coming back. If variance didn’t exist, the games would dry up since only experts would be playing”. “I have my default preflop strategies for a reason. Loosening up is going to make my winrate worse, not better”.

- Which physical adjustments can be made? It’s worth keeping in mind that there are two types of issue. Mindset issues (that occur within the brain) and external issues (mindset problems caused by external factors). For example, if our problems are caused by not getting enough sleep, our goal should likely not be to try and reprogram our brain so that it functions better on less sleep. This type of mindset issue can be solved with an actionable physical solution i.e. create an improved sleep schedule to ensure optimum brain functionality.

Being aware of the mental game issues before they occur and having an accurate understanding of their strategic impact on our game can allow us to pre-empt the effects they might have. For example, if we like to call down rivers wider when running bad, we can mentally brace ourselves to resist that negative strategic adjustment. “Ok, I’m running bad and I know that it makes me want to call down rivers wider – I’ll make sure that if it’s even close, I’m going to make the laydown”. 

Warmup and Cooldown Exercises – Incorporating the above approach into warmup and cooldown exercises can be useful. A warmup exercise is a short exercise down in preparation for a session, while a cooldown session is a type of short review made after a session. 

At the beginning of the session we could consider reviewing our known mental weaknesses and make a plan for how we’ll respond if things start going against us. We’ll have a significantly better chance of dealing with tilt this way as opposed to waiting for it to make an unexpected appearance out of the blue.

As part of a cooldown exercise we can consider creating a mental game log that we spend a few minutes filling in at the end of each session. We could consider using the following headers as part of our log -

Date and Time:
Length of Session:
Session Difficulty:
(A number between 1 & 10 where 1 is a very easy session and 10 is a very tough session)
Mental game Score: (A score between 1 & 10 where 10 is a perfect mindset and 1 is heavy tilt)
General Comments: (Comments on how the session went down + an analysis of any C-game issues that occurred)

Improving A-Game

Analysing our A-game is similar to analysing C-game but in reverse. Rather than analysing what went wrong and attempting to exclude it, we run analysis on what went right and attempt to make it a constant feature in our schedule.

It can help to think about the last time we played our best game of poker. What did it feel like? Was it more of an excitement, a relaxation, or a focused energy? Did time appear to speed down or slow up? Answers may differ: reaching the zone is subtly different for everyone. Some elements are often constant however: a feeling of total absorption in the activity being performed along with loss of sensory perception regarding time.

The next time we have such a session it makes sense to think about any external variables that helped contribute to us reaching the zone and make a plan to explore their impact on our mental state in the future. Here are a few pointers.

Number of Tables / Limits: It’s generally believed that experiencing flow conditions (reaching the zone) is most likely when the level of challenge is at a perfect. In other words, if the challenge is too simple (too few tables, or too low stakes) or the challenge is too tough (too many tables, too high stakes) our likelihood of reaching the zone is capped. On a day where we experience the zone it’s good to make a quick note of how many tables we were playing along with their respective stakes. If we find ourselves reaching the zone it might indicate that the setup we are using is close to optimum. 

Time/Day: It might turn out that we play poker better at different times of the day and different days of the week depending on what our schedule is like. Some poker players play better in the morning, others better in the evening. Our goal is to figure out what works for us and maximise the chance of reaching our A-game by playing towards our strengths.

Sleep/Diet: For most humans there is an optimum amount of sleep where peak performance is most likely to be achieved. It’s not necessary a case of the more sleep the better. Periodically sleeping for too long has been linked to poorer health on average and decreased energy levels. Too little sleep can result in decreased concentration levels which is very damaging for a poker player’s winrate.

Environment: We want to make sure that our environment is distraction free. A simple tweak such as disabling notifications from emails and social media can do a lot to help a poker player stay in the zone. We also want to clear up as much mental space as possible. If our consciousness is nagging us regarding an overdue work project, we’ll find it difficult to give our full attention to what is happening at the tables. 

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Our goal should be to consider every possible variable that may be impactful on reaching the zone as frequently as possible. Once we have identified the relevant variables we want to do all we can to tweak/fine-tune them to maximize our chance of bring our A-game to the table. Reaching the zone is not something that just happens, it’s something we can generate direct control over when we have a good understanding of the relevant variables involved.

When keeping our mental game log (mentioned as part of the C-game cooldown exercise) we can expand it to track variables associated with our A-game.

As a final pointer, it’s useful to remember that a great mindset is something that is developed through hard work over a period of time. We should not be disheartened of temporary relapses. There is no quick fix or remedy for a perfect mental game, it’s something we earn through repeated hard work.

See Also 

A-game, C-game, Tilt, Levelling, Variance

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