If you are a serious player that multitables internet-poker for a living (or part-time income) you will have a first-hand appreciation for what a large mental undertaking it is in comparison to most other jobs. To play a multitabling session requires massive amounts of constant processing of information and decision-making without pause over an extended period of time. Therefore, the quality of your mental state when playing will have a huge impact on your effectiveness at the tables and ultimately your results.
You will be playing your best when you are in mental state of operation known as flow. You have probably experienced this state before in your life in doing other things such as playing competitive sports or games, studying and solving problems etc. Here are the key components of this state:
- A clearly defined awareness of a single goal: to make the best possible decisions that yield the highest expectation
- A high degree of concentration, energized focus and full involvement
- A loss of self-consciousness, transcendence of ego boundaries, complete absorption in the activity of playing poker to the point of suspension of awareness of all irrelevant external stimuli
- An altered or distorted subjective sense of time, which usually seems to pass faster
- A sense of personal control over the game and your outcome
- Intrinsic motivation: operating in the flow state causes a great sense of exhilaration, satisfaction and powerful feeling of competence so that the activity that induces the state (playing poker) feels rewarding in itself because of the fun you're having, ie. not just rewarding because of the money you might win.
To maximise your effectiveness, you should aim to try and spend the majority of your playing time in this state. In this article I will discuss a few steps you might try to take to ensure this.
Pre-emptively reduce external flow-breaking distractions:
- Turn off phone/msn/aim/skype/ventrilo/irc/etc
- Let housemates/family know in advance you don't want to be distracted or disturbed
- Clear your desk and immediate surrounding area of clutter
- Try to have a suitably spacious desk and suitable enough chair so that they don't cause any discomfort for sitting at 1-2 hours at a time
- If there is distracting background noise in your area drown it out with noise-cancelling headphones, a loud air filter/fan, music, or a white noise generator (an inexpensive one would be setting a radio to a frequency there isn't any broadcast at)
- Don't listen to music with lyrics, a definite beat, a catchy melody, or one of your favorite pieces. Research on productivity with music versus without music is inconclusive. If you think you need music, perhaps to help block out external background noise, choose some with no lyrics and with relatively monotonous melodies.
- Don't play when tired, sleepy, hungry or thirsty, or have any other distractions that cause discomfort. Keep water within easy reach and if you need to go, don't hold it and keep playing just go.
Build a strong interest. It's going to be very hard to force yourself into a fully immersed state when playing if you don't want to play. If you don't love aspects of the game like challenge and competition, and are doing it for the sole reason to grind out the money, it's going to be very hard and may even be good reason to consider a career change. Instead of doing the same thing over and over like 12-tabling full ring according to a set simple tight abc poker algorithm, do things sometimes to mix up the grinding routine, maybe dabble in other forms of the game every once in a while and always make sure you are feeling a sufficient level of challenge in what you're doing. You will be able to induce the flow state most effectively when you feel like the games you're in aren't so easy to beat for a rate you want to beat them at that you can just do it without any effort.
Master your tools. Make sure you are completely comfortable and familiarised with the functions of your mouse and keyboard as well as the poker site(s) you're playing on and any scripts you might be using to hotkey various actions to make them more convenient (such as the BetPot script). When you want to put in a raise of X you shouldn't ever need to spend any time having to consciously think about the mechanics of how you're going to do that, which buttons you're going to need to press or where you're going to need to click - all your thought needs be concentrated only on the game itself.
Build your mental stamina. It's often important to be able to maintain focus for long periods of time, especially when you're playing longer sessions against opposition that get tired and start playing sloppy after a while. You can make a lot of money against people who aren't playing their best. In order to be able to maintain flow over longer periods of time, and thus effectively play longer sessions, you have to build up your mental stamina a little at a time. Some things you can do to help include eating healthier and geting into a routine of regular exercise - when you do this you will generally feel much more energetic. Try to play as little as 5 minutes longer per session every day than you did the day before. Just as athletes build physical stamina by pushing past the point of exhaustion, you can build mental stamina by pushing past the point of frustration. Continuing to concentrate when your brain is tired is the key to stretching your attention span and building mental endurance. Also try to keep your brain oxygenated over long sessions. When you are sitting still for long periods of time, blood tends to pool in your lower body and legs because of gravity. While playing shift position in your seat every so often. Don't sit there frozen in one position. The move will help keep the blood circulating, sending more oxygen to your brain and helping you remain alert. Sit out at your tables every 40-80 minutes just as you feel your concentration begin to dip or need to go, and take the time to walk around a bit and maybe take some deep breaths of fresh air. When you walk around your calves will serve as pumps for your blood that has been pooling lower in your body and get it flowing more evenly throughout the body, which again, carries more oxygen to the brain making you more alert.
Perhaps the greatest inhibitor of flow in poker is the various stressful emotions attached with winning and losing lots of money. It's easy to become tilted and angered by bad beats, coolers, being outplayed or berated by players at the table and lose sight of your primary goal, and it's just as easy to get into a comfort zone after winning a certain amount that you want to sit on and defend, which can make you play more timid. In my next article I will discuss the importance of having a good tough robust mindset in competition using concepts from sports psychology and how you can mentally condition yourself to avoid this great pitfall.
Thanks for reading.