Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poem If, holds many psychological lessons for poker players. It covers calmness, balance, perspective and so much more, each of which will affect your game at some point, and each of which must be mastered if you are to succeed in overcoming your internal demons. ‘If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you,’ he writes, underlining the need for a calm head whatever happens. photo by Rudyard Kipling // CC0 1.0
The game of life
The poem, If, may be about life, but then so, in many ways, is poker. It is more than just a card game, and the best players rely on much more than just card skills. At its best, poker is a mind game, where understanding your opponents is as crucial as understanding the strength of your hand. Sitting across the table from other players, you can read their body language, watch their faces and really get into their heads, to gain that all-important edge. As you get better at this, you can start to manipulate the way they think to your advantage, chipping away at their confidence until they fold a hand that may well have beaten you.
For all you can achieve working with your opponents’ psyche, the most important element of the poker mind game is your own mental strength. As Kipling puts it, you have to: ‘meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same’. That is to say, you have to learn to play each hand on its merits, and not worry about your last hand or your game so far this session. There is no such thing as a run of good luck or bad luck, unless you decide in your head that there is.
If you play each hand as it comes, without thinking about the previous hand, then you will play with a clear head and sharp skills. But as soon as you start to think the cards are against you and you are on a run of bad luck, you will start to think negatively and your decision making will reflect this. There are many poker player mantras you can recite to focus your mind, and it is well worth reciting one of these between hands to clear your head.
Molly’s Game – a case study
photo by GabboT // CC BY-SA 2.0
To see a great example of how your state of mind affects your poker playing, get hold of a copy of the 2017 true life movie, Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom. Bloom was a famous figure in the United States known for her high stakes, celebrity filled poker games. From high rolling business tycoons to Hollywood A-listers like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Molly’s game attracted some of the biggest names to the table.
To give her games an air of credibility, Molly also invited a pro-player called Harlan Eustice to join the table. Harlan was known as a careful, conservative and successful player, who provided a steady contrast to the more flamboyant stars. At least he did, until the night he lost his head completely.
Beaten by the river card on a hand he fully expected to win, Harlan lost his cool and started chasing the game. Gone were the considered, sensible decisions, and in their place came a desperate need to regain his winning form. As word spread, players who had been beaten by Harlan in the past were queuing up to get a slice of his looser, far less effective play. By the end of the night he was down $1.2m and had learned a valuable, and expensive lesson in poker playing.
Playing online makes it easier to avoid the immediate influence of other players. This has driven a huge rise in poker sites and online casinos, each trying to out-do each other with new games and poker variations. PokerStars Casino, for example, offers 21 different poker games, including one with a $2m jackpot, which would require nerves of steel if you were facing off live with other players.
However, when there is just you, it is still important to stay focused and play each hand fresh on its own merits. With online games often flowing much faster than real life games, you can easily get swept along on a wave of good or bad cards. If you don’t stay mindful, this can quickly take you out of the ‘now’ and careering off on a course you are not in control of. Keeping your discipline will give you all the advantages of being away from the other players, while avoiding all the disadvantages.
It’s just a game
Perhaps Kipling’s best advice for poker players comes in the third verse. ‘If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,’ he writes. ‘And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss…’. It’s a gentle reminder that poker, like life, is just a game, and should never be taken too seriously. When the game goes against you, don’t let it get in your head. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again.