A Grind-free Zone?

A Grind-free Zone?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Alex 'Pickleman' Rousso on the psychology of poker.

As Jared Tendler’s The Mental Game of Poker 2 hits the shelves, Alex Rousso argues that the psychology of the game might be the only edge we have left in the modern game. If only it wasn’t all such hard work…

The feeling lately is that poker has hit the wall. This is the wall I was talking about in my 2009 Pickleman article “Running to Stand Still”. For years, ever more fish poured into the player pool, and the water was sweetened by extra money from corporate sponsors eager for the land grab. But some time after Black Friday the prospective sponsorship money dried up, the flow of fishy money into the game evened out, and the pros by and large reached the technical limits of their abilities to exploit them.

That is not to say that there isn’t some tactical “progress” in the game. Strategical fashions come and go, and those who don’t keep up with them will lose out. But this progress is relative – more like running to stand still. Unless there is a new influx of fish or corporate money into the game, it’s safe to say that the poker ecology is in equilibrium, presumably as the live game was some time in the late nineties before the internet boom began.

Under these circumstances, getting an edge – becoming a bigger shark in the same pool – is hard work. With players putting in so much effort to increase their technical skill, those who work harder and are more successful in improving their mental game will likely be the bigger winners. Poker is, especially in the long term, the kind of game where mental strength and emotional equanimity are big factors for success.

Little wonder that Jared Tendler and Barry Carter’s first work in this area The Mental Game of Poker (TGMP) was such a hit. To be sure, it was a very well written and structured book, but the new angle it brought to players’ understanding of the mental game was refreshing. Players – especially pros – were crying out for something valuable in this area.

So its sequel, The Mental Game of Poker 2 (TMGP2), is justifiably much anticipated. In this volume, Tendler continues the theme of the “inch-worm” from the first work, which identifies players as having an A-game, a B-game and a C-game. The frequency distribution of these games is like a bell curve, and Tendler would have us work to advance our A-game, as if stretching the bell curve forward, then drag up our C-game behind, just like the movement of an inch-worm.

Tendler worried in the first book that players concentrated too much on improving their technical A-game, making ever more abstract theoretical advancements without improving their basic ability to grind out a decent result on a bad day. He’s right, of course, and this is typical of the easy-money, shoot-for-the-stars attitude of most poker players. This first book became the seminal work on the subject of tilt, but also expounded some learning models for poker, while considering other areas such as fear, motivation and confidence.

The second book acts as a companion to the first, although it is definitely a standalone work. It aims to improve our A-game by tackling the mental game issues which stop us from playing our best poker. It first considers the fabled “Zone” that is so beloved of (especially American) sports players.

The Zone is a pretty abstract concept. It started being mentioned in sports psychology about 15 years ago, and neurologists are still not entirely clear what it is. The best way I can conceptualise it is as follows. Imagine you’re driving on a motorway at night, there hasn’t been another car for ages, and you are lost in thought. After a while you suddenly wake from your reverie and cannot remember any of your mundane physical actions while you were thinking. “Jesus, how the hell was I driving the car?” you ask yourself.

The Zone is a kind of consciousness qualified by being lost in a process of “flow”. The body and the mind just do their thing: actions get done, time either slows down or is barely perceived by the thinker. In fact, it’s possible that there is little conscious thinking going on at all when in the Zone.

You may well have noticed such a thing while playing your best poker. Every opponent action is noted, stack sizes are always taken into account, and the ability to think to as many levels as is necessary to make the right move just seems to come naturally.

I’d say the primary aim of TMGP2 is to get players into the Zone more often and get them to stay there for longer (in fact, the section on the Zone takes up almost a third of the book). There are other areas covered: the Adult Learning Model (for improving one’s weaknesses) from TMGP is tweaked slightly to give the Zone Learning Model (for improving one’s strengths), plus there are sections on decision making, focus, goals, self-discipline and grinding.

An improvement on the first work is that there are now worksheets and checklists you can download from Tendler’s website which accompany the book. This is where you start the hard work of improving your mental game.

As with the first work, reading the book is only the beginning. Where that may only take a few days, it will take months of analysis, rehearsal, testing and feeding back into your regime to improve your mental game. While this may be daunting, you certainly have the comfort of knowing that the workout you’re being given is tried and tested, and the book is structured well. Everything you read is explained effortlessly and with commendable simplicity.

There is, however, a certain irony in what’s asked of you. Tendler and Carter’s works leave little doubt that in order to achieve mental prowess in the game – in order to maximise your time playing in the Zone, playing your A-game, improving your ability to focus, grind, make decisions and so on – you’re going to have to put a hell of a lot of work in. Unfortunately many people are attracted to poker precisely for the opposite reasons. Poker was supposed to be easy money; poker once expressly wasn’t the daily grind, but now that word has become the shibboleth for the professional player. Tendler and Carter aren’t wrong about this: in order to be the best – at this, or any other game or sport – you really have to put in the spadework. I just wonder how many players have the stamina for that level of effort.

Taken together, these two volumes constitute by far and away the best and most extensive work on the mental game in poker. As I imply above, in the modern game, where technical nous in poker is so high, the mental game might just be the most important edge you can have.

For those at the top of the game, those running to stand still, playing professionally at any stakes, TGMP2 is essential reading and will be lapped up.

I fear that for less serious players both volumes of TMGP might end up being poker’s equivalent of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – a volume that everyone has on their shelves, but no-one has read. The difference is that plenty of poker players will read TMGP, but I doubt many more than 10% of its readers will take themselves to task by enacting its principles. It’s just too much like hard work.

With that in mind, I have a challenge for Tendler. For your next work, come up with poker’s equivalent of the “Eat Yourself Thin!” diet: a book on the mental game which is for lazy-ass poker players and degenerates (players like me); a book with simple, maybe minute-long exercises and memorable tasks which will, to coin another phrase, improve 80% of one’s game for 20% of the effort. Now that would sell more than Super System.

Tags: Strategy, psychology, Alex Rousso, Pickleman, Jared Tendler, The Mental Game of Poker