How to Control Your Emotions During Poker Games

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Today I’m going to talk about something that is critical for long term poker success and often discussed, but mostly misunderstood.

The biggest thing in your way of becoming a non-stop poker champion is one of the very things that make you human: emotion.

We’ve all heard about “being on tilt” and how getting upset will mess up your game, but it goes a lot deeper than that. The truth is that absolutely any emotion, good or bad, will affect your game in a negative way.

This isn’t the easiest thing to hear, particularly because the allure of poker is largely for the good feelings the game gives you.

First of all, there’s the endorphin boost that continuously drags gambling addicts back to the game after unforgivable losses. You get that rush of the river card tipping over to give you the perfect hand. You get the soaring pride from going all-in on a pair of 3’s and watching the entire table fold. When someone mentions they had a flush for that hand, you feel even better.

Even if you take the risky gambling highs out of the picture, there’s the solid and well-deserved happiness of going home with the full pot after playing the game so fantastically.

However, these emotions can get you into trouble as well. Here’s why:

1. The More You Feel, the Less You See

When you take all parlor tricks of bluffing and stealing blinds out, the key skills of poker are observation and calculation. You need to keep track of your cards, your probabilities of winning, what’s in the pot, who is raising, who is checking, facial expressions, player bet histories, etc.

Thoughts and feelings like “Man this is my lucky day!” or “My new iPad is going to rock when I win this,” will distract you from the situation at hand. When you think about it, any thoughts at all will be clutter in your head. Obviously negative thoughts and emotions will do the same thing, with the added bonus of making you feel bad.

Even worse, once your mind is set on a certain thought process or emotion-filled belief, your subconscious tends to produce evidence to validate it and filter out contradictory events and details. So if you feel like it’s your lucky day and someone else with four Kings is betting in a very confident manner, you simply won’t see what’s going on, even if all the other people at the table can.

2. There are Always People Who Can Read You

I don’t care if you are the poker face champion of the decade. There will always be people who can tell when you’re a little too excited over a hand.

Being able to shield your emotions is critical for poker, but it’s much, much better to not have the emotion to hide in the first place.

The attitude of “If I win, it’s ok; and if I lose, it’s ok,” will make you very hard to read by even seasoned professionals. If this sounds a little risky to you, know that thinking and feeling this way will not make you careless and cavalier with your betting decisions. On the contrary, it will open a world of easy choices to you in how you play your game.

3. You are the Scariest Man at the Table if You Don’t Care

As we’ve talked about on this blog, your projected image is a powerful part of your poker ability. We all know that when someone is particularly striking at the table, it affects our game and often throws us off course.

One example of this phenomenon is the “Wild Card.” The Wild Card is the guy whose bets seem to have no connection to his actual hand. He may fold on a flush or go all in on a Jack-High. This makes everyone at the table particularly uncomfortable and interferes with their strategy.

However, a much bigger threat to the table is the “Seasoned Pro.” This is someone who doesn’t wear a Poker Stars jacket to the table, but just gives off the eerie feeling that he could be sponsored by them if he wanted to be.

The way this vibe is given off is by not taking the game’s outcome so seriously. The Seasoned Pro may actually take poker very seriously, but winning or losing his tournament buy-in will just be a drop in the bucket either way. From this attitude, people assume he’s either already very rich, or is just so good that he knows he will take home the gold no matter what.

The good thing is that you can project this attitude even if you’ve never won a tournament in your life. It’s all about limiting the effect each hand has on your emotional wellbeing.

How to Let Go of the Emotions

There are a number of practices and courses out there on emotional control. Meditation is a great ongoing exercise and deep breathing will often calm a lot of people down. The problem is that you can’t meditate during a game and if you start taking enormous slow breaths every time you get an important hand, you’ll signal to the table something’s up and defeat the whole purpose.

A popular course called the Sedona Method teaches a practice called “releasing” where you let go of emotions as they come. Here is one of the beginning exercises:

  • Welcome the feeling. Whether it’s sadness, frustration, or joy and pride, let it come into your awareness and take note of the body sensations.

  • Ask yourself: “Could I let this go?” If you can specify the emotion, such as anger, excitement, disappointment, etc., it’s even better. (“Could I let this nervousness go?” etc.)

  • Ask yourself: “Would I let this go?” (“Would I let this nervousness go?”)
  • Ask yourself: “When?”

  • Repeat as needed.

For Steps 2 and 3, you would usually say “Yes,” and to Step 3, say “Now,” but it’s fine to answer “No” and “Another time,” if that’s how you’re feeling. It’s always better to accept the feeling for the moment rather than resist it.

A couple things will happen as you adopt the habit of letting go of emotions while playing poker. For one thing, you’ll find you make better decisions on your betting. You won’t call ridiculously high raises and then kick yourself for it later. You’ll be much more relaxed both when you win and when you lose.

However, another thing that will happen is you will either become, or appear to become, a lot luckier with your hands. Since adopting this practice in my playing, it became a lot more common for someone point at me after a win and say, “Hey, how come HE gets all the good hands? This isn’t fair!” Whether it’s true luck or the illusion of luck is up for you to decide, but you’ll be very impressed with what happens.

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