It’s The Process

It’s The Process

Monday, 19 May 2014

Nick Wealthall on what poker players can learn from Liverpool FC.

I admit I’m distracted as I write this.

Liverpool are top of the league with 5 games to go.

I’ve been a Liverpool fan since I was about 6 years old; obsessed by the colour red. So obsessed, in fact, I painted my bedroom door all red (the first few strokes were not parentally authorized, but after that they had no choice but to go the whole hog). I was also obsessed with the team that won everything; I was as artificial a fan as you could be.

But, 30 years of irrational passion and obsession later and I’m sucked in, damn it!

I’ve banged on and on in this column about controlling your emotions at the poker table, but I can’t do it with football. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. My sister routinely asks ‘Is the vein going?’ when we’re watching the same game in different places, describing the alien-like pulsating line that appears across my temple when the game is on a knife edge. Earlier this season, a neighbor popped round to ‘Check everything was alright’ (code for ‘Have you stabbed anyone?’), because of me screaming, shouting and generally losing my shit!

By the time you read it the season will be done, and Man City will probably have claimed the latest trophy for the Sheikh’s cabinet. Regardless of this, Liverpool have massively over achieved this year, and one of the reasons for their success can also be applied to success in poker.

As I was listening to Liverpool player after Liverpool player describe their attitude to each game, I realized they were describing exactly how you should play poker.

(I know, it’s odd that a professional player would start talking about three-betting ranges in the middle of the post-match interview. Okay, they weren’t. It’s a bit of a jump, but stick with it.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the players came up with this themselves. Arsene Wenger is famous for saying you have to drill players in the same thing five days a week just so they get it, and given that we’re talking about footballers here, he’s probably describing lacing up their boots.

It goes something like this. ‘We/I’m enjoying my football… We’re not worried about anyone else… We’re already thinking about the next game… Only the next game.’

Now some of this is football cliché/media training, but some of it is a mental framing designed specifically to get maximum performance.
In fact, the Liverpool players have been coached for over a year now by one of the best sports psychologists in the world, Dr. Steve Peters. He’s coached Olympians, top level professional sportsmen and, the ultimate challenge in sports, Ronnie O’Sullivan (a.k.a. that loon with a stick) to victory.

Here’s what Dr Peters understands, what every Liverpool player has been parroting (in so many words), and what you should apply to poker. Everything is about process and execution; what you can control, and the enjoyment of putting it all into action. Results are irrelevant, because you can’t control them.

The Liverpool players have been conditioned to enjoy the process, and view every game as an end in itself. There is no bigger picture, no title race, no worrying about what other teams do. There is only the here and now, and executing the process as best you can.

Now of course, there are a lot of reasons for Liverpool’s success this year (and if you want another poker parallel then yes, they’ve ‘run good’ in a lot of ways). However, it becomes very hard to have success in anything without this idea being wired into your DNA.

Last month, I wrote about how momentum in poker is a myth – a construct of your own brain trying to make sense of the random patterns it sees playing out in front of you. Just as much as you should move away from ideas like ‘form’ and ‘how you’re running’, you should be moving towards focusing on each decision, treating each one on its merits, and never worrying about the whole. If you’re on a downswing and thinking about it, or chasing the game and trying to force it, poker will punish you! The opposite is also true; if you’re on an upswing and think you can’t lose a pot… well, she’ll slap you around for that too.

Remember, you can’t control the result. If there’s anything you should be obsessing about, it’s divorcing result from process! A few years ago, Phil Ivey won a tournament in Monte Carlo, and took flak for not looking happy when presented with the million euro comedy massive cheque. When asked why later, he told an interviewer, ‘All I could think about was how badly I played.’ That, my friend, is a man who has devoted his life to divorcing process from results – only his decisions matter to him, because he can’t control how the board runs out.

(That is also a man with a huge character flaw. I mean seriously, who doesn’t laugh at a massive comedy cheque?! The correct response to winning a million in the form of a comedy cheque is to laugh, celebrate, then take it to your room and literally ‘do it’. That’s right, I said ‘do’ a cheque… right in the zeroes.)

None of this is easy to do, by the way, and if you struggle with it it’s not your fault – but you can condition the right way of thinking quickly if you focus on it. After all, it’s natural for us to try and explain results, to look for patterns and to put things in a bigger context. Just as it’s natural for a Liverpool player to feel nervous before a big game, or look for other teams’ results and try to work out if they can still win it all. Or just as it’s natural to feel like the world is against you – or poker hates you – after you lose three sessions on the bounce. The point is, how you feel about it doesn’t change a thing. Your feelings are for you, not the cards, and certainly not your future decisions. As Dr. Peters would tell you: only the process and execution can affect anything in the future, so spend your energy on that.

Sadly, none of this means very much when Liverpool play, because if I don’t wear the same scarf I’ve worn for years (in my lounge), talk to my sister before kick off, and shout and scream at the players during the game through my TV, then how are they supposed to win???

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists, psychology