Great new post from Alex Assassinato Fitzgerald

One of the most striking things about tennis professionals is how they talk to themselves. I don’t mean the grunting and shrieking they do when they hit the ball. When they botch a shot, they will scream out loud about what they did wrong. Their heads will roll from side to side as they mutter.

Andre Agassi offered this justification for the behavior in his autobiography: “The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis, you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.”

Tennis professionals scream at themselves when 10,000,000+ people are watching. Think of that. They look like they escaped from an asylum, but they don’t care. There is real money on the line. Goals they’ve worked toward for a lifetime hang in the balance.

That got me thinking: I’m on an island. When I’m in my office, there is no one judging me or coaching me. I could have invested thousands of hours studying the game, but there is no one holding me accountable. I can easily brush off new concepts for antiquated patterns of play I’ve woefully adopted for years. I can make bad bets and just forget them right after my opponent smacks them away. I’m on my own when it comes to earning my livelihood. There are no Nike contracts for people like me.

A review of 32 separate studies published in the journal “Perspectives on Physiological Science” found ample evidence that instructional self-talk reaps huge dividends. Researchers discovered talking your way through an unfamiliar task allowed you to pay more attention where and when it counted. Your new idea wasn’t as easily lost to muscle memory, the traditions of the group, or your own mind’s background noise.

When I started doing training videos, I had never really described my thought process on a hand. Actually, in discussions with superior poker players, I found I often had no justification for what I did. I just knew that it had worked for a couple of years, and when I did rattle off what I was thinking, it seemed to make some sense.

The payday was what really fueled me, not becoming the best player I could be. I wanted to grind all day long. Who cares about watching training videos or reading through a hand analysis? I needed to get paid. I thought I was already taking care of myself without all that nerd-speak.

As the years wore on, the buzz wore off. Droves of more educated players caught up to me and then passed me. Real downswings kept coming up, each one bewildering me in their growing size. I felt my edge slip away. Smashing around wasn’t making people fold anymore.

Doing live training videos helped me be more patient. During a downswing, it becomes difficult to resolve your reality with what is actually going on. The process of reviewing a session served to break down my phony perceptions and undeserved sense of entitlement.

To record my session and watch it later left me accountable to myself. If I wanted to get paid for the video, I’d have to double check that it was solid, and that meant facing my play.

You learn the most about yourself when you drop the act. I wanted to be seen as good because I didn’t feel it in myself. Eventually, I realized the best players had self-respect because they earned it within themselves. They chastised themselves when they checked back the best hand on the river instead of breathing a sigh of relief that they won the pot. They pursued understanding in difficult situations because they prided themselves on becoming more complete players.

When you’re just playing poker for fun or to beat up on other people, it’s easy to get in the ebb and flow. Gambling in tournaments is fun for me. I enjoy running up stacks and seeing what I can do with them. It sounds ridiculous to say the money is secondary, but I don’t think about it as much as I should. Playing a lot of tables recklessly allows me to enjoy myself, but it doesn’t do much for my bottom line.

In a recent article on PocketFives, I shared that I had a long downswing this year, to the tune of six-figures. Of course, before I got out of that rut, I wanted to get angry about it. Sadly, I knew that would do nothing for me. Instead, I’d have to demand more of myself in some way.

I felt myself being tired in the office, so I began recording my sessions with Camtasia. I’d like to tell you I did this when I was down $100K, but it took more than that to wake me up. When I finally leaned back one evening and watched a session of mine, I saw horrible plays I was making. I was up in my head and being emotional. I wasn’t myself.

Recording further sessions allowed me to be accountable. Marking hands for review allowed me to pinpoint and analyze where I was throwing off a tournament.

I also wanted to take notes on specific hands so when I watched them later, I could analyze my methodology. Instead of trying to write something while PokerStars kept auto-centering tables, I began talking into my microphone.

Playing fewer tables, focusing more, recording my play, and talking out more difficult hands built my confidence up. If I could watch myself play and justify every action, I knew the results would come.

It became addicting. I was talking through many decisions I once thought were basic. If I just saw A-5 suited, for example, I wasn’t opening automatically. When I made myself say out loud, “Opening because stacks X and Y will do this, and this player won’t 3bet me, but will call and let me see a flop,” I found my opening game become more robust.

Sometimes, I’d try to justify opening a decent hand and found that everybody was coming after me and I didn’t have a defense. Other times, I’d see that I was a fool for not opening any two cards earlier. I’d talk out loud, “In this tournament, open anything from the hijack.” In other tournaments, I’d go, “Open up your value range, but forget bluffing.”

Actively thinking and analyzing myself verbally allowed me to coach myself. I took the same approach when I would continuation bet: “I am betting for (value or bluff) because these (worse or better) hands are (calling or folding).” Then, I would list out the hands I desired to pick up value from or fold out.

More times than you could imagine, I would start talking to myself and stop halfway through because what I was about to do made no sense. I couldn’t list one hand off that I was folding out when I was bluffing, or I wasn’t getting value from anything when I bet.

I expanded. I started listing out their Fold to Continuation Bet percentages along with their Fold to Turn Continuation Bet percentages: “I’m not getting value from anything, but his Fold to Continuation Bet is very honest at 65% and I want to cash in my equity now. It will be very hard versus him to get to showdown when my hand is so vulnerable.”

Sometimes, I’d want to continuation bet, but his Fold to Continuation Bet was very low at 27%. However, on the turn, he became honest at 70%. I’d note to myself on the flop, “I am betting here to set up a double-barrel because I will be able to rep these cards on the turn…”

If I just continuation bet and found he always called on the flop and never folded on the turn, I’d make a note that I’d forgotten to check both statistics.Recording my error helped me wise up to it. If I watched a recording and had 10+ “made this error” announcements, I knew it was time to get hard on myself.

In addition, I’d make myself announce the sample size of the statistics I was analyzing. If I said, “I’m going to 4bet bluff because his 3bet is 30% from this position,” my play sounded justifiable. If I said, “I’m going to 4bet because he has 3bet three times out of ten from this position,” it sounds more dubious. How do I know he didn’t just pick up some decent value hands in a great position? “I’m going to 4bet here because his 3bet is 22% in every position, and three out of ten here.”

Just keeping adding more things you could possibly notice. Soon, it almost seems like an open book.

There were other times I’d want to continuation bet, but found the guy was never folding to traditional bets on the flop or turn. I’d then come to a decision to just check and give up or try something more creative. Either way, I wasn’t needlessly continuation betting my chips away when there was clear evidence it wasn’t going to work.

The feeling of exacting all of your chip investments is incredible. I didn’t care to go back to mass multi-tabling. I was having way more fun setting up plays and focusing during my deep runs.

When I’d watch myself play and found there was one area that wasn’t going so well, I’d find a statistic or training video that could help me out. I’d mark every hand where I tried to apply the new concepts I learned and talk it out in my recording. Watching the replay later and analyzing the hand history with Flopzilla gave me a theoretical and mathematical context for my self-analysis. I also got to see how it worked in-game, live table flow and all.

The best players I know have learned more in two years than I did in seven. Their system of learning was similar to this: They would gather knowledge through a private coach or training video. They would make a goal for themselves that they wished to pursue that session or week. They would focus on the new area by marking those specific hands for review. They’d then evaluate their attempts and realign their strategies appropriately.

Actively analyzing through self-administered verbal guidance works well to steady a player and make them focus more. I’ve taught this strategy to many of my students and, so far, none of them has come back with a complaint. It’s fun to shoot from the hip, but for pinpoint accuracy, I find a more labored approach helps. Good luck to all of you.

Alex Assassinato Fitzgerald has amassed $3,000,000+ in tournament earnings alone. Alex is an instructor at PocketFives Training and can be reached for private lessons atAssassinatocoaching@gmail.com. You can also reach him on Twitter @TheAssassinato and on Facebook at Facebook.com/Assassinato. He currently resides in his suburban home in Costa Rica with his fiancé and poodle.

 

 

Healthy Poker Book Introduction: Early Draft for Comments

 

Healthy Poker Book introduction and outline

By Paul Gibbons

DRAFT: For circulation and feedback.  Not to be published without author’s consent.  All rights reserved.

‘Healthy Poker’ seems an oxymoronic concept. Not only is Poker associated in the minds of many with ne’er-do-well gamblers and degenerates, but the conditions under which it is commonly played and the lifestyle associated with the professional player make it hard to maintain, never mind improve, health.

Nevertheless, Healthy Poker is a book whose time has come.   Tiger Woods ushered in new standards for athleticism in golf that almost all professionals must now rise to.  Flexibility, stamina and strength training are now part of the ante to compete at the highest level in that game.  Professional athletes sometimes work extensively with sport psychologists, to overcome the ‘yips’ or ‘chokes’.  Increasingly this is the case with Poker pros.  Who would have predicted ten years ago that a Vegas catering (AllAmericanDave.com) firm would be delivering over 50 healthy meals to the $25,000 Players Championship at the WSOP in 2012?

Tomorrow’s winning players will not just have great skills, but they will have levels of professionalism, training, and mental stamina and toughness that are only infrequently seen today.

The Unhealthy Poker Context

The game of Poker has been transformed by the media: television, social networking and the internet.  In 1991, the WSOP Main Event had 191 entrants and a record-breaking $1m in the prize pool.  2012 saw our first $1m buy-in event!  By 2006, the number of entrants had grown to 8,773 and first place alone had a $12m prize.  This exponential growth was not from the ranks of crusty, old, long-term gamblers, but from 20-somethings who might otherwise be working on Wall Street, or pursuing PhDs in Math or Finance, and from the ranks of Professional Bridge, Chess and Backgammon players who had been competing in ‘mental sports’ for decades, and from the 60 million US recreational players who took their chance to compete at the highest level for life-changing money, and from overseas where Poker (a very American game) captured the imagination of young people with intensely quick minds and a fearlessness (recklessness) that would change the way the game was played.

High-stakes cash game players can play when they are optimally ready.  If tired, they can take a break for an hour or a day.  They can ‘grind’ in a normal Circadian rhythm, play when they are fresh, eat well, take time off for the gym, do some yoga, or get a massage; if ‘tilted’ by life or a downswing in cards, they can stop.

A tournament player, by contrast, will, if successful, finish her twelve-hour day after midnight.  Perhaps overstimulated by caffeine and ‘pumped’ from having made it through another day, sleep may not arrive until 3AM.  That leaves nine hours to exercise, meditate, prepare mentally, eat well and sleep.  Something usually has to give: usually all of the above.

Furthermore, during the player’s day, she[1] will sit in a cramped space, on a cheap chair with no back support.  The human body was not designed to sit and certainly not to sit badly.  The gentle curves of a healthy spine become temporarily exaggerated, the hamstrings shorten, the erector spinae of the back have to work especially hard and long and become like steel cables.  Furthermore, sitting still can mean much shallower breathing using only one third of the lungs, and diminishing their long-term vitality.  Increased muscular tension increases fatigue and makes emotion control much more difficult.

On breaks (between fifteen and thirty minutes usually), the most urgent biological need is usually to relieve some of the pressure from too much coffee, or too many bottles of water.  Grabbing and guzzling a burger, sandwich or other fast food replaces a well-chosen, healthily consumed meal.  This mismanagement of blood sugar, blood fats, and calories creates problems at the table, and problems for later life.

In addition to the dearth of good information, even those with that information find that there are other temptations.  Poker is, by-and-large, played in fun places.  To be young and well-off in a fun place creates the temptation to stay out late and ‘party’. (And why not!?) One would think that well-known pros would avoid this (after all, there are millions at stake), but this author has met several top-ten pros staggering casino floors beer-in-hand looking the worse for wear at 3AM.

However, the game is changing.  It is rare to see a big-name professional intoxicated at the table these days (with some exceptions).  Some pros understand the mind-body link and practice it.  Phil Ivey is often seen munching on an apple (rather than potato chips, or pizza).  Negreanu is a health ‘nit’.  Esfandiari adopts a modified lotus (or so it seems) under the table.  Galfond and other top pros meditate. (Rumor has it.)  Lisandro (as do others now) has special healthy meals prepared and brought to the table.

Part of this countervailing force, the trend toward healthy-mind/ healthy-body in Poker is a result of the flood of younger, well-educated players who might otherwise be working on Wall Street or running businesses are by-and-large much healthier than the Boomer-plus older players.  For this group, running, going to the gym, doing yoga, hiking and biking are habits well-established by their early twenties.  As with senior executives, or driven business people this group’s problem is balancing the hours, travel schedule, availability of good food, and poker lifestyle with healthy practices.

You Are Win What you Eat: Poker Nutrition

Even the diet-conscious pro has to find resources and the world of nutrition is filled with garbage: garbage food, futile fads, useless supplements, and garbage writing (sometimes based on garbage science).  Who should one trust on caffeine (health-giving, or health challenging), supplements, anti-oxidants, organic food, fats (animal and other), and carbs (high-GI or not)?

In addition, the halls of the WSOP are full of sellers hawking ‘mindset’ products.  This summer you could buy special cognitive enhancing amino acids, caffeine strips, and even oxygen.   If you know the right people, it is easy to come by Adderall and Ritalin.  Some players swear by B12, some by Taurine.  I’ve been offered anti-oxidant (Blueberries) at the table because ‘they help you think more clearly by stopping oxidation of neurotransmitters’.

Some of these work, and some of them don’t.  Some are dangerous and some are harmless.  Some are based on BS science.   A considerable portion of Healthy Poker is therefore devoted to nutrition, fitness and their effect on cognitive performance.

However, if you are looking for the quick-fix, you will not find it here.  Our approach will be rigorously science-based.  It is a fact that people make money selling the above preparations, and a sad fact that people with financial incentives are sometimes parsimonious with the truth.

Health Motivation: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

Healthy practices have, of course, value in their own right irrespective of what they may contribute to your bottom line.   People who exercise and eat well have developed healthy habits and actually enjoy exercise and a healthy meal.  The main problem for people intrinsically motivated[2] is finding the time and incorporating their healthy practices into their tournament or cash game schedule.

For the rest of us, perhaps most of us, we need some extrinsic motivation.  We psychologists further distinguish motivation into two categories: distal and proximal (far away and nearby).

Distal motivations are far in the future.   Living long, injury and illness free, avoiding the American obesity pandemic and looking good are distal motivations for leading a healthy lifestyle.  However, the body and mind can be mistreated for years and the consequences not felt for a very long time.  It is axiomatic in the ‘behavioral change’ world, that distal stimuli provide far less motivation than proximal ones.  One favorite expression of mine is ‘we don’t change when we see the light, we change when we feel the heat’!  Younger players, for the most part, are unlikely to be worried about type-II diabetes or heart disease.

More pressing to the younger player is succeeding at the table: the millions of dollars available annually to the top echelon of pros is a substantial carrot.  This is a proximal motivation!  Many of today’s best pros recognize that exercise and eating right are not a trade-off, or something to be sacrificed in the name of success, but rather that exercise and eating right are critical to at-table performance.  Some don’t know what to do (because of lack of, or garbage information); some know what to, but fall short (I fall into this category).

Mindset

Mindset is a hot topic: in physical sports and mental sports such as Poker, Bridge and Chess. Our definition of mindset is as follows:  ‘the state of mind that allows maximal performance’.

As with all sports, there are skills to be learned: bet-sizing, hand reading, opponent reading, hand selection, etc.  In addition, there is the capacity to deploy those skills maximally:  Tommy Angelo calls this your ‘A-game’. Self-doubt, lack of focus, erratic emotions, and tiredness, can compromise the A-game of even the best player.  In a game where skills improve dramatically year-on-year, getting and maintaining a winner’s mindset is essential to success.  It is no use having a world-beating A-game, if you can only deploy it erratically.

There are several dozen books on ‘poker mindset’, some good, but few pay sufficient attention to recent findings in neuroscience, exercise physiology and nutrition science that suggest a strong link between a healthy body and a healthy mind.  The Healthy Poker book is intended to address that imbalance, and to review the best writing on mindset currently available from the point of view of a professional psychologist.

Life and Poker; Poker and Life

There is more to performing optimally at the table than what you put in your body.  A much less talked about area, is the relationship between life-success and poker-success.  It is obvious that causality runs in the direction from poker-success to life success: after all, succeeding at life without succeeding at one’s job, or earning enough, is hard to envision.  But the causal arrow also points in the other direction: life-success or impairment can support poker-success or impairment.  To further complicate matters Poker success can (perversely) create problems and stress that were not previously there. ‘Mo’ money, mo’ problems’ as the song goes.  In my case, having a huge influx of cash at a young age did me no good at all.  I burned through it, destroying my body and mind, and developing champagne and caviar tastes which I could not sustain during my life’s downswings. (More below.)

Imagine a life dogged by tax and financial problems.  Let us face it; we play poker to make money.  If we have squandered, or mismanaged, or not kept up with tax payments, financial success can be short-lived, or altogether destroyed.

Perhaps difficult relationships with a partner, or addiction or other mental health issues, or existential dis-ease (‘am I doing the right thing’), or lack of depth in areas such as friendships, hobbies, culture, travel, spirituality, family, or whatever else might be said to constitute the ‘good life’ dog the otherwise successful pro?

Do not such issues and lack of fulfillment distract from the ability to focus, maintain emotional balance, and maintain vitality?  The ‘presence’ of someone at the poker table whose life is deeply fulfilling and well-run is better, we propose, than someone who has chaos awaiting them when they get home.

Information Gap and Practice Gap

There are resources available on all these issues.  Poker forums have posts (largely by amateurs, few by professionals) on good practice.  There are many books on mindset, but fewer on nutrition, fitness, life-fulfillment, and tax and financial management.  Furthermore, many of these areas have tomes of tripe written about them. Diet and exercise fads, quick-fix financial solutions, and self-help claptrap are everywhere to be found.

This is the information gap.

The practice gap is the gap between having the information and deploying in.  This involves inventing patterns and habits that fit into the player’s life, and then embodying these as habits, and having strategies to correct relapse.

The problem our book aims to solve is two-fold.

First, how do we concisely sift through the poor, unprofessional, un-researched, fad-like writing to get at something resembling truth?  The second, perhaps more important question, is how do we make the best of this ‘Healthy Poker’ knowledge specifically relevant and applicable to the unique lifestyle and needs of the Poker community, pros and amateurs?

The Healthy Poker business (www.healthypoker.com) is designed to advance the best of these ideas and offer coaching, support and resources in all these areas.  Our book, Healthy Poker, aims to summarize all of this in an efficient format.

The book is organized as follows:

Note for reviewers:  Although I’ve put some thought into each of the topics, until research is completed, I don’t know whether this is exhaustive, or whether some should be combined.  I’m not sure whether this is too ambitious for a first book and whether two smaller volumes might be easier to complete.  Comments on this are especially welcome!

 

Chapter Author/ co-authors??? ETC
Introduction:  Why this book?

 

   
Introduction to the mind: New findings in Neuroscience and mental performance

 

-        Systematic cognitive errors: decision making, behavioral economics and poker

-        Limbic vs. cortex: emotions and regulation of cognition

-        Dorsolateral Pre-frontal and impulse control

-        (Would meditation fit best in here?)

-        Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators

-        Affirmations and positive thinking

 

 

 

Paul

 

5 – 10 days

What does it take to be Professional?

-        How does being a Professional help your ‘neuroscience’ to make the link? (How does what is below get you what is above…)

-        Purpose

-        Vision

-        Practice

-        Mindset

-        Motivation

 

Designing YOUR approach to professionalism – what it looks like for you, and how it fits with your life

 

 

Paul (excerpts from Dusty?)

 

5 days

Poker and Life, Life and Poker: How to life-coach yourself

-         Is Poker good for you/ bad for you?

-         Purpose/ fulfillment

-         poker and career/ life planning

-         goals

-        Balance

-        Relationships

-        Knowing when to quit

 

 

Paul/ Jen D?

 

5 days

Better Poker through Chemistry?  Supplements and stimulants

-         poker and smart drugs

-         poker and caffeine/ stimulants

-         poker and vitamins and other supplements

 

 

Paul/ Jen M?

 

5 days

Nutrition and mental performance

-        ‘brain foods’

-        Insulin as a hormone and neurotransmitter

-        ‘anti-oxidants’

-        ‘diets’

-        ‘obesity’

-        Diet away from the table

-        Eating for performance at the table

 

 

Paul

 

5 – 10 days

Exercise and mental performance

-        Exercise and cognition

-        Exercise in life

-        Exercise during ‘performance’ (tournaments)

 

 

 

Paul/ Kevin

 

5 days

Sleep and mental performance

 

(this could be a sub-section of chapter 2: neuroscience)

 

 

 

Paul

 

2 days

Meditation, yoga and mental performance

 

Meditation research

Types of meditation

How to start meditating

 

Yoga and the mind – embodied cognition

 

 

 

Paul

 

5 days

Poker and Money

-         squandering the big win (personal)

-         Bankroll Management

-         Kelley/ risk of ruin/ guidelines

-         ‘tips’

-         Tax planning and management

-         Financial planning and management

 

 

 

 

Paul/ Ann?

 

5 – 10 days

Mental Health, Relationships, and Addictions

- depression

- add

- substances

 

Stories – Matusow?  Merson?  Me?

 

 

 

 

 

Paul

 

5 days

Conclusion

 

 

  2 days

 

The Author

While the notion ‘Healthy Poker’ may be oxymoronic, it is somewhat ironic that I find myself passionate enough about the subject to write about it. They say that therapists sometimes are as attracted to healing their own demons as those of their clients.  This is partly the case here.  Although spectacularly well-qualified in these areas, I make some spectacularly bad choices.  I don’t write this as someone who has perfected the art of living optimally, but rather as someone who wrestles day in and day out with how to do so in spite of knowing what to do.

My whole life story can be told as a battle between various psychological demons and great talent.  At 12 I won the Manhattan Math Team Championships several years younger than the other competitors.  I raced through High School in two years, and finished that at 15, not just a Math and Science nerd, but fluent in French and German, an accomplished Pianist and Clarinetist, and a State Champion Debater. In University, several Professors commented on what was then prodigious talent, the sort that could generate Nobel-quality breakthroughs in my chosen field (which was then Neurochemistry.)  Alas, I also discovered drugs, nightclubs, alcohol, smoking and women.  My ‘playboy’ lifestyle required Wall Street level income so off I went, and after a meteoric rise, earning nearly seven figures and buying my first Jaguar at 25, this combination of vast income and destructive habits brought me to my knees. The only restrictions on my partying were how much I could physically take, and how long my employers would tolerate it.  Since my constitution was extraordinary, the latter proved the breaking point: I got fired and the word spread (he will make you a mountain of money, but is impossible to manage).   I found myself unemployed and unemployable, and very depressed as the image of myself as a charming, fun, prodigy with lots to offer the world conflicted with the bitter reality of sleeping on couches and comforting myself with the substances that I could afford.  I was more or less a bum for six years.

I got sober at 32 (20 years ago), but the personal demons continued to chase me.  Anger issues, immaturity, depression, and ADD all pursued me as I pursued a new career as a management consultant.  I was successful enough, even famous in some circles, but never really a good corporate soldier, so I founded my own firm in 2001.

Again the success was rapid and substantial.  I had a compelling vision for a different kind of consulting firm, one that was a world-leader in many cutting-edge personal growth, leadership and organizational change technologies, and one that was an example of a happy marriage between people, planet and profit.  Much of the success was due to an extremely fortunate selection of business partners, and this firm grew at 150% a year for 6 years.  I sold it in 2009 and it prospers and wins awards to this day.

I began to take Poker seriously that year, securing some excellent coaches who took me from donkey to competent in very short order.  However, I suffered from tilt control and self-induced health issues (mostly to do with sleep) and as fast as I would make money in tournaments, I would spew it in cash games at 3AM.  (I remember an extraordinary night, where I won the ‘109-squared’ and finished 3rd in the 11R on PokerStars for something like $13K in wins.    At 4AM, I decided to play some 7-card stud – a game I am completely clueless at.  Soon winning (and bored) at 2-4, I moved up to 5-10, then final 30-60 where I dumped $6k at 6AM.  I got no sleep, playing a game I had never played, at a stake I could not afford, burning through the biggest win of my career!  I didn’t even play 30-60 Hold’em, a game I was becoming good at!)

Even today, after years of ‘personal development’, a decade of doing yoga three times a week, dabbling in meditation, multiple degrees in the Human Sciences, reading all there is to read on nutrition and exercise, I find myself periodically depressed, overweight, frequently exhausted, and off-again-on-again with smoking.  The ADD that was often harnessed into great creativity is worse than ever and leads to some terrible choices.  These bad choices play out in bad choices in Poker – usually game selection (time of day), and some choice of plays that might only be described as self-destructive from time to time.

I do one thing correctly, and this (priceless) insight I bring to all my coaching and writing.  If you wrestle with life-style and related issues, the thing that makes the biggest difference between the winners and losers is getting back on the horse.  Only 15% of people who join a gym in January attend regularly in February.  Only 7% of people who suffer a near-fatal MI (heart attack) make the life-style changes that will help prevent another.  The thing that I get consistently right, with regards to health and lifestyle issues, is to keep trying.  Some choices (such as sobriety and abstinence from drugs) stick with me, some come and go (like yoga and meditation).  I know that I am much better (and more profitable at the tables) as a result of the continued engagement with what it means to be healthy.  The question, for someone with my psychology, is sometimes not how good it can be, but how much worse it could be!

With all the issues that dog me, I’ve been enormously successful.  Many degrees, moderate fame as an academic for a time, successful consultant, rich investment banker, and a legacy (the company I founded) that may endure for decades are among my successes.  I began to pursue Poker about half-time in 2011, and since then, I have $350K in live cashes and a roughly similar amount online.  Unsatisfied with that, my ambition is to have a million dollar year and to have a breakthrough in healthy practices.  My studies and experience tell me that these two events will not be unrelated!

I hope you enjoy this book.  Live well! (And good luck at the tables.)

Paul Gibbons has advanced degrees in Neuroscience, Psychology, Philosophy and Economics.  Before becoming a Poker player and writer, he founded, grew and sold a leadership consulting firm in London, was a Strategy consultant for PwC, and was a derivatives trader at several blue-chip investment banks.  When not playing the circuit, he lives in Fort Collins, writes, teaches and raises his two sons.



[1] It is customary in formal writing to alternate ‘he’ and ‘she’, so I will.  Given the rise of prominence of female players in recent years, just using ‘he’ would be linguistically incorrect and descriptively inaccurate.

[2] There is more on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation later chapters, but for now intrinsic motivation can be thought of as doing something because we like it, and extrinsic motivation can be thought of as doing something because of the goodies it provides or the pain it avoids.

POKER AS A CAREER CHOICE: SHOULD I PLAY POKER PROFESSIONALLY? (PART 1)

 What started as pure recreation in 2004, and became a substantial focus in 2009, is now my chief source of income and where most of my productive time is spent.  To some extent, I chose this, and to some extent circumstances pushed me into it.  As the Buddhists say ‘and now this’.  Here I am, what should I do.
Despite the fact that I am 51 and have achieved a great deal in other spheres, have several college degrees, have had several different white (starched white) collar careers, there is an old nagging question: is this what I ought to be doing with my life?
My credentials for writing this?  One of the things I’ve done with my life is to earn a degree in Organizational Psychology, and one aspect of that field is ‘career choice’.  Another thing is to qualify and earn my living as a career/ life coach for some of the highest paid people in the world.  And I play Poker professionally now – so my comments come from ‘inside’ the profession (so to speak).
The reasons I ask this question of myself, and you should ask it of yourself are two-fold.
If you don’t think you ‘ought’ to be doing this, then there will be limits to your happiness.  You may achieve a lot, but if the voice in your head (sometimes called the ‘itty bitty shitty committee’) feels you ought to be doing something else, the ‘bracelet’ moment will be quickly followed by more existential malaise.  This is not theory.  I returned from a massive series where I’d won two tournaments and narrowly missed ‘player of the series’.  I’ve been somewhat depressed since and this ‘ought I to be doing this’ is part of that depression.  (In a later article series, I’m going to discuss poker, addiction and mental health.)
If you don’t think you ought to be doing it, you will not devote yourself passionately, whole-heartedly to being the best you can be.  You may be talented, but you will not spend the countless hours away from the tables improving.  You may not take ancillary factors seriously enough: diet, sleep, exercise.  You may distract yourself with other, more ‘legit’ pursuits.
So we, I, need to settle this question.  You need to settle this question.
Let us first deal with ‘ought’.  In ethics, ‘ought’ has some moral force.  In Freudian psychology, ‘ought’ is the superego (parental and societal influences) talking.  Always, the ‘ought’ in poker comes out against it.  It doesn’t count as a legit occupation in the eyes of society – despite the fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that poker is precisely the same set of intellectual activities as trading on Wall Street.  Few parents, and especially not mine, find tears of pride when they discuss ‘my son the poker player’. (I cannot even imagine ‘my daughter the poker player’.  Que?)
However passionately we may feel about the game, those are substantial psychic forces – greater in some individuals than in others – will act as a counterweight to our passion: a ‘but’ that will always be there.  That can be hard to live with.  In this century, in the West, we are unlikely to get invited to the snootiest of country clubs.
It is ok to care about this (negative) influence; it is ok to not care about it.  What is less ok from a psychological point of view is to pretend not to care (who gives a s^&t) when actually part of you does.  Intellectual honesty is required, and in my case, with my parentage, and the cultural influences in my life, the ‘my son the poker bum’ will be hard to avoid.  It is one of the realities I have to live with.
When you do decide ‘I can live with this’, it is wise to be aware that it may limit opportunities elsewhere.  The nice boy or girl you now want to marry, may decide as tying the knot comes closer, that the ‘oughts’ in his/ her life are too strongly against marrying a poker player. That is the kind of ‘run bad’ it takes a while to get over.  (In a later article, I will write about Poker and relationships.)
Samurai warriors used to visualize their fear out in front of them, at their sword tip, so they could ‘look it in the eye’.  That is what, if you are serious, you need to do with the ‘oughts’ in your Pokerlife.  They are always there – the choice is how to accept them fully, and deal with them honestly and squarely.
In part 2, I will look at a model of career values, and provide you with a ‘values questionnaire’ to help you decide whether poker aligns with your values.
In part 3, I will look at a three-part career model (from career counseling), which asks whether the three key career choice factors are there:  passion, skills/ aptitude, and lifestyle fit.
Paul Gibbons has been an investment banker, a consultant, a top executive coach, and a successful serial entrepreneur.  In 2011, he founded Healthy Poker LLC.  He has $500k in live and online cashes during the last eighteen months. He has degrees in Biochemistry, Philosophy and Psychology.

Self-forgiveness/ Buddhism and huge losses

Alex Torelli commented on an older two plus  two post from a player who had lost hundreds of thousands and been unable to recover psychologically.  I quickly fired off this post – crediting Alex with drawing all this to my attention.

Having ‘had it all’ and trashed my life more than a few times over, I have some experience doing so (and recovering it seems).

I can say as a professional psychologist and philosopher – and a poker player – and once a Wall Street trader…

Self-forgiveness is the hardest thing to come by. Self destructive impulses (see if you can guess) cost me a career where $1m per year was easy to come by (Wall Street). This was in the 80s. Few Poker players come close to this sort of income on a regular basis. By 23, I had ‘made it’, by 27 I was washed up. Depression set in. It took years to recover.

Poker or no Poker this matters for the rest of your life. Until you are ‘complete’ with this – and by that I mean the Buddhist ‘so it is’ (without emotion, regret, remorse, self-pity)…. it just is…

You don’t want to go through life thinking ‘i could been a contender’ – the fact is this outcome was inevitable – it was just a question of when…

As i say to people ‘there may be a ‘you’ in a parallel Universe with your talents AND sound bankroll management – but it isn’t you – and you did the best you could with what you know’… To think ‘i knew better’ is BS – you did the best the real you (not a fantasy you) could do.

And, without self-forgiveness, if you start down the road again, you may well end up here again.

There is a mindset I think I’ve learned, and that I try to inculcate in my young son. People **** up. You will **** up – fail, let people down, miss opportunities, **** up the ones you get. In relationships, in career, in hobbies, in finance – you WILL spew.

Failure is inevitable. Suffering is inevitable. Given those facts of life, now what do we do?
(that is straight Buddhism – read ‘when things fall apart by Pema Chodron’)
great book – many answers in there…

Winning the Metagame with Yourself, by Michael Binger

Healthy Poker really enjoyed this topical piece from Michael Binger first published in Bluff.

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.

Bluffed by Assassinato

Great article by Alex Fitgerald (Assassinato) from our friends at www.pokerheadrush.com

Before Chip Reese passed away he said something that’s always stuck with me. In his Poker Superstars interview he discussed how it’s very easy for people to be  professional when things are going well, but how you only understood who a player really is when things start going bad. As a teenager I liked the message. Nothing up until your first downswing counted for anything. Any idiot can catch cards.

How many names have you seen disappear after a monstrous year? Poker feels very manageable when things are going well. You’re often more open to critique. You take decisions as they come. When things start going bad is the time when people start taking constructive criticism wrongly, start changing how they play, and eventually even how they live. Downswings are the Masters course for a professional poker player. Get out with your sanity, and even your game a little tougher, and you will have earned an A. Crumble, move up to win back your losses, and bust yourself and you will have gotten an F.

The most important thing to realize when you’re losing is how foolish the concept of a downswing actually is. If you’re placing profitable bets, you’re going to be a winner. End of story. To stay in another mood when you’re losing means you’re that same guy who bets on black because it’s “due” after it’s come six reds. Your losing six sessions in a row has nothing to do with the odds on the seventh. If you’re profitable in the game you’re profitable today. The odds do not change against you just because you’re losing. If your play changes that means you’re changing your bets and mentality due to random numbers. Our goal as a professional gambler is to be educated about this natural impulse and be beyond it.

You’ve seen a graph of Google’s stock price progression right? It’s pretty, huh? If you’re only looking at 1/50th

of the graph however you might see a down trend. You might even see a few in a row. Just looking at those graphs we might be cautious, but looking at the graph representation of the long term we know our investment is safe. When you’re fuming about running bad it means you’re looking at one part of the graph, which could mean nothing. It’s natural given how the brain is designed to internalize random data, but it’s not going to help us play poker. We’re not having faith our own life’s graph will show profitable progression. If you’re making correct bets then your progression will always be up, and you can stop worrying about the small trends. You’re never going to be a content professional gambler if you cannot stop.

It’s normal to feel dragged down by variance, but we have to shed it. You’re keeping a running tab of your results, no one else is. The downswing is only existing in your mind because you are giving credit to one recent trend. The past is the past, and your profit is slated to go up if you’re betting correctly. The previous results were made when you were less educated, and you’ve learned from the mistakes now. No amount of feeling guilty, stupid, or angry will get our money back, so let’s just skip it and pretend we never had it. Let’s instead be proud of the lessons we’ve gained and what we’ve learned from them. If you’re still struggling to deal with variance mentally its always helped me to think about it in this way: If we were flipping coins with someone who paid us $55.00 when it came heads and we paid $50.00  for a tails, we would love our lives.  We would never be frustrated, even when the coin came a string of tails. Never. This person is so generous to be playing this game with us, shouldn’t they know they’re a loser?

We should be in a good mood when it comes a string of tails, because its all just part of the hustle. It’s just getting our customer all worked up. If they never won they would never come back. We’d be all chess nerds not making a cent. I have to appreciate the times that I’m losing as part of the process. Without my money going out once in a while no money would ever come in.

These lessons are hard to internalize because it goes contrary to what we’ve been taught as a kid. In school if you do not have results you are a failure. In the normal world if your job is not paying you currently you are a failure. Some people will even treat you as a failure when things go wrong, or will talk about it behind your back. All of this needs to be ignored however if we’re ever to master ourselves.

Sometimes your paranoia can have other roots than just recent failures and the world’s perception. Oftentimes when you’re running bad you will worry there’s something you’re missing. It happens to even the world’s best players. While sometimes you’re playing your absolute best game and getting unlucky your subconscious is usually trying to tell you something. If you’re just lost in the grind and not paying attention to yourself you have no chance of ever catching your leak. How sad, when one of your biggest downswings could have led to to one of your greatest breakthroughs, but you instead just decided to lose the money.

In order to play well again we will need to feel confident in our game again and quiet our subconscious. Time away from the game can really help us see things in a new perspective. You should take a few days off every week, and a week or more off every few months. Your time off is for your first, but it is also an investment in the business of you as a poker player. Do not waste your investment. Try to get as refreshed as possible in the time you have. Stay as far away from the poker talk and computer as you possibly can.  Go to a beach, go to a mountain, go play basketball, just don’t stew around the house thinking about how you’re running.

When your work area looks a little less like a prison cell come back. Go back to the hands and situations that were bugging you. Spend a day just studying, bouncing the hands off your friends, watching videos, and reviewing your hand histories. Be honest with yourself, it’s possible your losses are a sign of a much bigger problem. It happens to everyone.

Hopefully, this work will plug up our leaks in both our technical and mental game. The next thing we need to do is get hyped up to play again. If you’re not having fun anymore what is the point? One thing that helps me is watching poker on TV, preferably something with my friends in it. It reminds me of what I’m aiming for and gets me excited about the game like I’m a fan again. Another more zealous thing I do is write down 10 things that used to be problems of mine four years ago, and then I write my 10 biggest problems today. I also spend time with my family and remind myself who I’m playing for.

The whole process humbles me, helping me temper my expectations, but gets me fired up to play. That’s the mental state I want to be in, always. Finding my equilibrium is the most important part to getting me back on track. After this point, when we’re refreshed, more educated, and hyped up, it’s about finding our swing again.

To find our rhythm again wouldn’t it make sense to go over the basics? Do you think a home run hitter who has taken time off during a slump turns the pitching machine to 95 MPH his first day back? Hell no, his batting coach lobs him  a few easy ones first. He needs to feel his arms retrieve their old muscle memory, before his mind starts talking too much.

That being said many players are afraid to move down. Don’t be. One of the most professional things you can do as a professional gambler is move down. You go back to smaller games with all the knowledge you’ve acquired you’re very likely to crush. You also get to prove to yourself there is a backup plan should you ever fail in the big game again. Going back to fundamentals and booking wins can do wonders for our mental state.

In conclusion, the article above explains the basics on how to get an already sound player back on track. A lot more could go into a player losing, such as basic leaks and life management problems, but those will have to wait for another article. This basic mental wash has been enough for me for years to constantly come back winning, and its my belief it can work for many of you too.

Good luck.

Author Bio

I’m the luckiest person who ever lived. I admit I haven’t always felt that way, but I believe it now. After working as a commercial fisherman, security guard, Persian carpet salesmen, Arby’s shift manager, video game reviewer, and freelance writer – all before the age of 20 – I found something that paid “worth a damn.” I’ve played, or thought about poker, pretty much every day since I was 15. I’ve made millions; I’ve lost millions. I’ve lived in Seoul, Malta, Seattle, and San Jose, Costa Rica.  I cashed in four continents before my 21st birthday. I was on television in four continents before I was 22. I’ve backed hordes of players and I’ve been backed. I’ve smoked the smoke, drank the drink, and done the deeds. I’ve final tabled almost every major tournament online at least once. I’ve had my articles published and had articles published about me worldwide. I’ve met many great people and more than a few not-so-great. I’ve produced training videos on Pokerpwnage and now Pocketfives Training. I have stayed busy.

I’m currently enjoying a fairly relaxed life with my girlfriend in the mountains of Costa Rica, where I love playing poker more than ever before. PokerHeadRush.com is a new project of mine, constructed in partnership with my life coach – and friend – Jack Welch. The goal is to create poker content I want to see. I don’t want to focus on the huge success stories and convince kids to drop out of school because it’s oh-so-easy to make a living playing cards. I want to examine how the lessons acquired through an entrepreneurial pursuit in professional gambling can improve your life and overall happiness… by helping you focus on everything but the money