I have lost more money by failing to control my emotions than any technical fault in my game. I am not alone. I once asked 50 professional poker players whether emotions or technical failings had lost them the most money over their lifetime and the answer was unanimous: it was a loss of emotions.
The answer to the question led to a logical answer. If I could remove all emotion from my poker game then I would stop losing money. Unfortunately, you are more likely to become telepathic. And, studies show that wouldn’t be a wise move.
The key lies with improving your ability to harness the power of your emotions. There is great power to be gained if you can tame the beast. In the best selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why is Can Matter More Than IQ the author Daniel Goleman highlights a study that shows intelligent quotient (IQ) is responsible for 20% of a persons success in life, begging the question, what makes up the other 80%?
Goleman believes Emotional Intelligence (EI) makes up a significant chunk of that remaining number, and cites numerous studies showing that people with higher EI scores will be more successful than peers with high IQ scores.
Emotions drive us into action, and at the same time they can make us act irrationally. The key to becoming a great poker player is not to eliminate emotions, but to learn to find the right balance between emotional thinking and logical thinking.
So, how do we do that?
EMOTIONS AND MEMORY
One of the primary reasons we shouldn’t try to switch off our emotions at the poker tables concerns memory. You wouldn’t be a very good poker player if you suddenly lost your memory. You would have to try and relearn the game hand after hand.
Your memories are vital in poker and it’s emotion that allows us to learn from them and apply what we learn in our game. Our brain isn’t only a fact collecting machine, it also collects thoughts and feelings, and this allows us to learn from our feelings, and make different choices in the future.
The brain doesn’t collect facts. It collects thoughts and feelings, and this allows us to learn from our experiences. It’s what makes us human.
As Yuval Noah Harari explains in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
Understanding this information creates a Catch-22. You have to be very careful because often logic is needed to make a decision in poker, and a memory of a certain situation, and the feelings associated with it, may cloud your judgment if you are an inexperienced player. And this is where K.Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 rule of mastery comes into play, because the more hands of poker you play, the more aligned with the emotional experience of given situations you will become.
However, understanding this information does allow you to interpret the emotional state of your opponent, and therefore, making a sound prediction regarding future actions. Recognising anger and frustration in an opponent, for example, is valuable because you can now act in a way that provokes those emotions (in a sporting way of course).
“Anyone can become angry —that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way —this is not easy.” Aristotle.
Emotions use of memories also allows us to make very quick decisions. We call this gut instinct. It’s a critical skill to learn in poker, particularly as the future of the game seems to be leaning towards limiting the time taking to make a decision. A good rule of thumb is to make the rational decision when you have limited information available to you, and to go with your gut if your decision is very complex.
As previously explained, becoming overly emotional can cloud judgment. Our grey matter has a finite capability to handle the incoming information, and we have a nasty habit of flooding it with stuff when in a highly emotional state, hence the clouds, thunderstorms, and occasional bolt of lightning.
A good example of this is when you see a weaker player releasing their hand to early, when under pressure, and clearly agitated. Most of the time this is down to a flood of informations that triggers the emotion of fear. You start to worry about being eliminated from the competition, and that’s why you are too eager to send your hand into the muck without clearly thinking through your situation.
Clear thinking works when the thinking brain (the neo-cortex) has good strong neural pathways between the emotional brain (limbic system or lizard brain). The link enables the development of emotional self awareness.
“In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels” Daniel Goleman.
Sometimes, information overload can result in some of the information bypassing the neocortex completely, and the lizard brain flicks a tongue out, captures them, and then acts suddenly without having a chinwag with its buddy the neocortex.
“Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” Daniel Goleman.
And then, we react to our present emotional states based on our memories of similar past emotional states.
HOW AN IMPROVED EI HELPS?
Increasing EI is mainly about heightening self-awareness, and understanding the emotional state of others. Improving skills in this area allows you to grow accustomed to your emotions, enabling you to recognise them and name them. You don’t have to be the victim. You don’t have to be controlled by your emotions. Studies show that people who can name their feelings are less likely to be prone to bursts of anger, particularly useful in a game of poker.
Increasing empathy is a tremendous skill in poker and one you will rarely see discussed in textbooks or online training courses. Understanding how another person feels, or putting yourself in their shoes, allows you to make more advanced and accurate decisions at the table.
When you learn to feel what another person feels you can pick up on non-verbal signs such as body language and facial expressions, and use this to your advantage. It also allows you to increase awareness of your posture and to adjust accordingly dependant on the level of EI your opponent is showing.
Learning to improve your levels of empathy also allows you to be ore persuasive, charming, and manipulative. The latter can be used to manufacture non verbal postures to give your opponent the wrong scent. You have to recognise that this play will only work against a player with a high EI.
“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” - Daniel Goleman.
Increasing your levels of EI will not only improve your poker game. Stress is a major halth risk and one brought on my out of contol emotions. If the body is stressed it places the heart under tremendous pressure and weakens your immune system. Using EI skills will help mitigate stress by reducing anxiety and anger levels.
So how do you improve EI levels?
There are countless ways of improving EI and here are a few tips that work for me.
Loving What is
Byron Katie is an amazing woman who can teach you so much about raising your levels of self awareness and therefore your EI.
“It’s not the problem that causes our suffering, it’s our thinking about the problem.” Katie explains in her book Loving What is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life.
When your neocortex and limbic system is being bombarded with information and you are about to explode like a volcano, it’s time to earn to hold a little internal dialogue and ask the four questions.
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
By asking the four questions you reduce the emotional noise, and bring some logical calm into your mind. Inner dialogues are crucial for self-awareness and self-management, which in turn are crucial for advancement of EI.
I have just finished writing my first book. It was a diary of my life in 2015. Part of the process involved editing and so I had to read the book several times, making adjustments along the way.
During this process it struck me how lonely and disconnected I had become. I would never have understood these true feelings and raised this self-awareness high enough for me to do the work, had I not gone through this process.
It was the first time I had witnessed the power of journaling first hand, after years of reading about its power without truly understanding it.
Most of our actions are hardwired into autonomy. We don’t think; we act. Our GPS has been programmed since birth. It’s going to take a long time to reprogram it. Be patient. Show yourself loving-kindness, and a little nudge in the right direction.
For this, I use reminders everywhere. I have an elastic band on my wrist and I snap it if I am unhappy with the dialogue I use. When I played a lot of poker I had a hand written note that I used to remind myself to think before making a decision and to remember to fold. Today, I have reminders on my phone that go off every hour to remind me to check in with myself and be mindful of the present moment.
All of these reminders are designed to stop me from time traveling and to drag me away from the past and future, to focus on the present moment and self-awareness.
There are so many books out there that can help you improve your self awareness. Here are a few:
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
- Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
- The Here and Now Habit by Hugh Byrne
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
A daily meditation practise will not only improve your poker game, but every area of your life. Over time, your ability to launch straight into a higher state of anger will diminish. You find you have more patience and empathy for others. You put others needs before your own. You are happier, lighter, and more amenable. I practise Transcendental Meditation (TM) twice per day, for 20-minutes each session, but there are countless ways you can approach meditation through Google searches.
One of the best ways of increasing EI is to become more open. To do this you need to learn to be comfortable with showing your vulnerability and learning to be friends with shame. Learning to open up isn’t easy. If it doesn’t come naturally to you then start by anonymously posting your thoughts and feelings on a forum that interests you. When I was going through sobriety I would use a forum called Hello Sunday Morning, and as I wrote about my feelings my words were met with empathy. Another way of opening up is to write in a journal.
To learn more about vulnerability and shame read books like The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, or watch her many Ted Talk especially this one on The Power of Vulnerability.
Focus on Others
For most of my life I was a very self absorbed young man. Even today, I have my Walter Mitty moments. Behaviour like this can affect someone with a high EI in a very negative way, and that’s not good news. If you wan to develop your EI then it’s good form to surround yourself with people who already have high levels of EI.
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.” Daniel Goleman.
It’s More Than a Game
You will have noticed by now that increasing your levels of EI doesn’t only result in a better poker game - it results in a better standard of living. The people you spend your time with changes, your relationahsips become more meaningful, and you become happier. These traits will give you the edge when facing a poker player with equal technical ability but a decreased level of EI damaging these three critical areas.
And if 2,188 words of explanation is too much for you then how about I leave you with a summation of EI by the great Greek philosopher Socrates.