Winning the meta-game with yourself

Why do you sometimes make plays you know are bad? Why do you sometimes fail to make a play you know is correct? What is it that causes you sometimes to play your A-plus game, making all the right moves and running the table; while other times you play "good," but pretty much ABC poker; and still other times you just shoot yourself in the foot?

Understanding the answers to these questions can be just as important as analyzing how to play certain hands. And the key to answering these questions lies in your mind… that complicated jumble of thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and computations that sometimes works so smoothly and slightly malfunctions.

Improving your mental function and clarity of mind when you play can help you:
(1) See a nonstandard play that is better than the standard play.
(2) Execute a play that you know is right.
(3) Make the correct read for those big decisions in which there is no a clear-cut (deduced through logic) correct play.

Before I give you the magic recipe for improving your poker mind, I'll discuss each of these three points.

During one of the preliminary events at last year's World Series Of Poker, I was the big stack at my table with about $250,000, while the next biggest stack (NBS) had about $200,000. Everyone else at our table was around $100,000 or less. I raised in middle position with Ah-Kh, and only NBS called from the small blind. He was a fairly straightforward player. The flop came down 8h-6h-3c, giving me the nut flush draw and two overcards. NBS checked. The pot was about $20,000. The automatic play is to continuation bet. This is not really a bad thing to do, but I feel that checking here is better.

First of all, I think that NBS often has a small to medium pocket pair when he calls me from the small blind. He could have flopped a set (or overpair), and betting out here would more or less commit me to playing a big pot if he check-raised… after all I'm not folding my hand! Second, I disguise my hand by checking… if a heart rolls off, he will be less likely to believe I have a flush. Third, he could easily have hands like A-Q, A-J, A-10, K-Q, or K-J, all of which I have in bad shape. If an ace, king, queen of hearts, or jack of hearts falls on the turn or river, he could make top pair and lose a big pot to me. Basically, when I bet and he folds, he will be folding mostly hands that I have dominated; so I don't mind giving free cards to him.

Meanwhile, when I bet and he calls or raises, I will usually be at best 50/50 to win, and will have committed to playing a big pot. Not my favorite scenario when I have a comfortable, big stack. It's true that by betting strong on the flop, I might get him to fold a small pair. Still, I think that this equity is outweighed by the other considerations -- the pot control when you are beat, the extra bets you get when he hits a losing top pair, and the deception value when you do hit your flush, and he has a hand he wants to play, like 9-9 or something.

Anyway, in the hand I checked, a black ace came on the turn, and NBS called big bets on the turn and river with A-10 offsuit. I raked in a big pot that I would not have won had I taken the automatic play of betting the flop. I should emphasize that my play was very situation and player dependent. By the way, I went on to the final table in this event and took third place.

For many hands, you might be able to figure out the optimal play, but the real trick is execution. For example, there are many times in a tournament when you have a perfect opportunity to steal or resteal the pot.

Let's say a weak-loose player limps in, several straightforward players limp behind. The action is to you, and you have not played many pots lately. Before you even look at your cards, you think, "Wow, this is a perfect time to steal the pot. Everybody is weak and they will give me credit for a big hand. Plus the stack sizes don't allow them to fool around calling big raises." Then you look down at your cards and see 9-3 offsuit. When you are really "on," this does not deter you so you raise and take it down. But when you are feeling tired or weak, you tell yourself you'll wait for a better spot and pass up this perfect opportunity to chip up without much risk.

Finally, there are those really key hands in which there is no correct answer. The decision is so close that your intuition, guided by keen observation and intellect, must decide your play. Often this is when your opponent has put you all-in and you just cannot decide based on betting patterns and hand ranges. When you are really "on," your intuition tells whether or not he is bluffing.

What is the magic formula for improving your mental function so that you can more clearly see all of your available plays, correctly execute those plays, and have the laser-sharp read to call your opponents' bluffs and fold when you are beat?

Being physically healthy is the key. Better physical health leads to better mental health, which leads to better decisions. Eating well, getting enough sleep and getting exercise every morning before the tournament are crucial for me. During the WSOP last year, I rarely went out partying when there was an event the next day. Most days I tried to get seven to eight hours of sleep, had a good breakfast in the morning, and then either went to the gym to exercise or the pool to swim laps. In particular, regular exercise is the single most important factor in my success.

More and more studies are finding a strong link between regular exercise and higher mental function. People who exercise have faster reaction times, better computational speed, more accurate responses, improved memory and better awareness of their surroundings. What a perfect recipe for better poker! Regular exercise has also been shown to prevent some of the mental decline associated with old age, and reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

As a bonus, rigorous exercise also makes you feel better. A 2004 study by Georgia Tech found that strenuous exercise causes the body to release anandamide, which is a naturally-produced cannabinoid (similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana) neurotransmitter that is believed to increase feelings of well being and pleasure. The prefix "ananda" comes from the Sanskrit word for "bliss" or "delight." This is the origin of what is commonly known as "runner's high."

Personally, I am almost always in a much better mood and functioning at a higher level after I've gone to the gym or swam laps in the pool. In fact, true story: I was sitting in front of my computer this morning trying to write this article and getting nowhere. So I went down to the pool, swam a mile (35-40 minutes) and came back and pumped out the article rather quickly.

So try living a little bit healthier every day, and find the time to exercise before you play poker. You will find yourself in a better mood and making better decisions in poker and in life.

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