Keeping your cool

Keeping your cool

Poker is a game of skill and judgment. It is about knowing your cards and knowing your chances. But it is also a mind game, whether you are sitting at a live table, eyeballing the opposition, or sitting in your pajamas playing online. To play at your best, you need to stay cool and calm and not let your emotions get the better of you.

Losing your head will affect your performance in any game or sport; just ask the England cricketers who are being sledged (verbally abused) by the Australians this winter. This supposedly friendly banter is designed with one purpose only - to put off the batsman or bowler and make him start thinking of his reply instead of the next ball.

The same is true in poker; as soon as your mind goes elsewhere because you’re focusing on your opponent or on your last losing hand instead of focusing on your current cards, you’ve lost an important edge.

Poker is not an easy game, and it requires a lot of concentration, especially if you have to work out your chances based on just two cards as you do in Texas Hold ‘Em. Recalling and applying the eight-tier system devised by David Sklansky or the mathematics of the Chen Formula requires your mind to be free and focused, not angry and confrontational.

Sklansky Texas Hold'em starting hand strategies

Of course, keeping your cool isn’t always easy as Kevin Hart proved in his recent ice bath challenge against Usain Bolt. The master of cool, calm focus, Bolt slipped easily into the water. Hart, on the other hand, was clearly all up in his head and could barely stick in a toe.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that poker is only a game, even at the highest level, and however skillful you are, you will always be at the mercy of the gods and Lady Luck. You need to learn to laugh off ill fortune and not take it personally if someone else keeps getting all the decent hands. On another day, it will be your turn, so instead of letting jealousy cloud your judgment, watch how good it feels and picture yourself winning in the next game. You’ll be amazed at the power of positive thinking.

Famous poker professional Mike Caro takes this one step further, reciting his mantra “I am a lucky player, a powerful winning force surrounds me.” It may sound crazy, but it’s surely better than telling yourself that you are the unluckiest guy on Earth and that the cards all hate you.

If you do start to feel the pressure, step away from the game and take a break for a few moments. Get a drink or a snack or take a walk and think about something else. Trying to push through when your thoughts have gone south is never a good strategy, and will only lead to more mistakes that make you feel even worse.

Keep calm

When you have cooled down and cleared your mind, you can think calmly about what you may have done wrong and consider what you can learn from the experience instead of just bemoaning your rotten luck. With a level head and a cool, calm mind, you can then return to the game and treat the next hand as the fresh start that it is. After all, your luck could change at any time, and the last thing you want is to be too frustrated to notice!

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