Many of my one-on-one clients work incredibly stressful jobs (think doctors, lawyers, project managers, software engineers and the like). That stress often bleeds into their poker time. The irony is that many accomplished people take up poker as a fun hobby. Yet, it can have a way of adding even more stress to their lives. 

Because of this, I want to share some ideas about how you can manage stress at work and at the poker tables. 

Before we get into that, let’s talk briefly about what stress is:

Stress is a state of emotional strain or tension typically resulting of either adverse or very demanding circumstances. It makes sense that many jobs (and poker itself) have stress baked into them. 

Stress usually comes in one of four forms: 

  1. Pressure (to perform or conform)
  2. Conflict (should I do X, or should I do Y?)
  3. Frustration (when the pursuit of some goal is blocked or thwarted)
  4. Change (any alteration in your life that requires readjustment)

It’s essential to note that stress is mostly subjective. Some people thrive on pressure and love change, while others can’t stand too much change. 

The FOUR Influencing Factors of Stress

Quite a variety of factors can determine whether someone finds something stressful or not. But the following four factors influence a person’s perceptions of stress:

  1. Familiarity (Things are more stressful when they are new to us)
  2. Controllability (W feel less stress when we can exert at least some control over our circumstances)
  3. Predictability (Most people prefer predictable stress over surprise packages)
  4. Imminence (Stress usually increases as an event gets closer in time)

We must understand the major forms of stress and the factors that underlie whether we interpret something as stressful. Then we can better construct ways to lessen the effects of stress - both at work and at the tables. 

It’s crucial to recognise that the most significant issue brought on by too much stress is impaired task performance. Stress can take its toll on our ability to perform effectively on the task at hand. 

An interesting study done by psychological researcher Dr Roy Baumeister with his colleagues looked at the role of pressure on professional athletes. Using several decades’ worth of data, the researchers found the following – 

  • When a championship series (like Baseball’s World Series) goes to the final, decisive game, the home team is under substantial pressure
  • Their data showed that there is no hometown advantage in the penultimate game. Athletes are likelier to choke at home, giving the away team a distinct advantage
  • Whenever immense pressure to succeed exists, the probability of choking increases dramatically

12 Ways to Reduce Stress in Poker and Work

Reduce Stress in Poker

So, what can you do with this information? Having an awareness of what specific things stress you out is critical. Understanding when your stress levels have gotten too high is crucial. You must look for ways to reduce stress (in all areas of your life). 

Regularly practising stress management techniques and strategies will reduce stress, making your life more enjoyable. 

Here are a few tips that you can start implementing immediately to reduce your stress:

  1. Start your day off right by taking a few minutes to plan. What are the three most essential things you want to accomplish? Don’t try to do too much - that can quickly lead to getting overwhelmed and a whole host of other problems (procrastination, anyone?)
  2. Monitor your stress levels. Take note of the particular situations that you find stressful. Be as specific in the details as you can.
    1. When and where did the stressful event happen? 
    2. Who was involved? 
    3. How did you feel? 
    4. Did your jaw tighten? 
    5. Did your breathing become more shallow?
    6. Where do you hold tension when you feel stressed? 
  3. Take frequent breaks and ensure you have a precise stop work time. If feasible, set a specific time when you do not accept work calls or respond to work emails. Try to make work time, work time, and poker time, poker time.
  4. Use your time away from work (or the tables) to rest and recover. It’s crucial to recharge regularly - especially if you work a stressful job. Make sure your fundamentals are on point. That includes maintaining a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and moderate exercise. 
  5. Practice relaxation techniques. Yoga, meditation, and exercise are all effective relaxation strategies. I have several short relaxation videos on my YouTube channel that can help you with this. Also, get into nature as often as possible. Even a potted plant on your desk can reduce stress and increase productivity.
  6. Don’t try to control the “un-controllables.” Most events are categorised in one of three ways:
    1. It is under my control - Great - do something about it! 
    2. I have some influence over this event, Excellent! Do what you can to exert this influence. 
    3. I have no control or influence. In this case, it is crucial to let go and accept that you are powerless.
  7. Don’t let bad beats get to you. Bad beats are outside of your control. But if you overthink them, poker is going to be more stressful. Do this enough, and poker will cease to be a fun activity. 

enjoyable aspects of the game

  1. Look for the enjoyable aspects of the game (or work). Look for ways that you can learn from the negative things that happen to you. Viewing setbacks as a challenge rather than a catastrophe is one way to reframe things.
  2. Avoid perfectionism. Accomplished people often suffer from perfectionism. You usually want to make everything as "perfect" as possible when you're intelligent and capable. But this thinking often adds to stress levels by increasing self-imposed pressure. Sometimes, good enough is good enough. 
  3. Don’t procrastinate. Procrastination and perfectionism tend to co-exist. We tend to put it off if we don't have the time or bandwidth to do something perfectly. Sadly, putting something off (which we do to feel better in the moment) usually makes us feel worse. 

    As the due date approaches (imminence), stress and pressure increase, resulting in an inferior performance. Ironically, many intelligent people use procrastination as a way of self-handicapping. They have a built-in excuse when their work is subpar - and that’s “I didn’t have enough time!” 
  4. Get support. If you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, the best thing you can do is get help. Find a mentor or a coach who can help create a reasonable plan and strategies to achieve your goals while managing stress. 
  5. Reward yourself. Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back when you do something well. 

Poker can be a rewarding and fun hobby for many people who have high-stress jobs. But if you fail to manage your stress at either end, it suddenly becomes much less fun. And even worse, it ceases to be financially rewarding.

Reducing stress takes a little effort and practice, but the results are well worth it. 

Follow these stress tips daily, and soon you’ll find yourself feeling less and less stressed!

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker, Peak Poker Performance and co-author of Purposeful Practice for Poker. She podcasts at Poker on The Mind with her co-host Gareth James. You can find her at where she teaches poker players the most effective psychological strategies for optimal poker performance.