It was early in my introduction to poker that I started drawing comparisons between the game and life in general. It’s likely a result of my Arts education that I try to find parallels and lateral applications in everything we encounter. But the idea that poker skills and experiences have practical application in the rest of our life is something I thought about for a long time.
All these vapoury, half-developed ideas came together for me when I came across an article by Amy Morin on Lifehack.org. She wrote a piece called “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” and I quickly realized that each of the 13 points has a profound parallel in poker. You can read the article and substitute “mentally strong people” for “good poker players” and it remains very accurate.
These are her “13 Things,” which I have provided new explanations for that apply to a good poker player.
1 – They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry For Themselves
This is something a strong poker player has to learn as they ride the rollercoaster of variance. There will be times where a month or more can go by with consistent bad luck which will make a novice start to feel miserable and lose confidence. A great poker player acknowledges that poor results are due to uncontrollable variables and they are able to accept them, even realize that bad runs are necessary for the game. This leads to a player learning to focus on making consistently good decisions, not on the results the cards brought.
2 – They Don’t Give Away Their Power
Here, the article is referring to retaining control in how we respond to external circumstances. The mentally strong don’t accept that they can be made sad by someone else (or happy for that matter). They decide within themselves, regardless of what is happening on the exterior, how they feel. This relates to the previous point because all poker players have heard the adage “don’t be results oriented.” No matter what their opponent does or what cards fall on the table, the strong player learns to respond only to what they control: their choices. They retain the power that determines how they feel rather than giving it to an opponent or the cards.
3 – They Don’t Shy Away From Change
Adaptability and flexibility are essential in profitable poker. Players must always evaluate their opponents and situation and alter their choices accordingly. Often new players will get upset that their opponent didn’t play the way they expected them to. Veteran players are aware of the changes – the non-standard play their opponents are capable of – and modify their strategy to stay ahead. Poker also evolves over time as the players push the game forward. Daniel Negreanu didn’t win Play of the Year in 2004 and then again in 2013 by playing the same way for nine years. Great players are eager to adapt and are always looking for ways to make adjustments to maintain their competitive edge.
4 – They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
Again, this relates to focusing on your own decisions, not what is happening externally. A strong poker player understands the limits of what they can control. You can’t control how your opponent plays. You can’t control what cards are dealt. You can only control how you respond to those things and that is where your energy must go.
5 – They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
Trying to keep everyone happy is simply not possible. This is not to say that you have permission to be antagonistic, but poker players cannot allow themselves to be made uncomfortable when someone else is unhappy with them. Every poker player has had an opponent jump into a tirade after losing a hand. If they let it bother them, it affects their decisions and the opponent has gained an edge. In fact, many pros will try to use this against other players by mocking their play or insulting them with the hope that their opponent will be made uncomfortable and make mistakes. I don’t think this is very good for the game, but it is out there, and a strong player learns not to let it bother them.
6 – They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks
Poker players’ decisions are rooted in the idea of expected valued (EV). With every decision, the expected gain is weighed against the required risk, and the most profitable option is determined the correct one. This means that players may risk their chips knowing that they currently have the worst hand, but the pot is so large compared to how little required to call, that it’s worth it for the few times out of 100 that they win the pot. Great poker players have overcome being risk-averse and happily make the decision that is supported by probability to be rewarding in the long run.
7 – They Don’t Dwell on the Past
The past is useful for the lessons gained from the experience. But dwelling on what could have been or how it should have been will only hurt the hand you are playing now. Strong poker players learn to stay in the present and make the best possible decisions right now, not dependent on recent successes or failures.
8 – They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
A strong poker player is continually learning and improving their game. Once a session is over they spend time reviewing the hands they played and the mistakes that were made. It doesn’t matter if a bad play got lucky and resulted in profit, or a good play got unlucky and resulted in loss, the best players are looking for mistakes in their decisions (leaks) where there is room for improvement. This is not to say a mistake is never made twice, because it will happen. But the review, study, and self-analysis that is a part of every great poker player’s game will ensure they don’t get stuck in a pattern of costly mistakes.
9 – They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success
There are two ways one player can be more successful than another. The first is that they are a less-skilled player that is on a streak of good luck, in which case you want the weaker player to have all the chips; they’re easier to take them from. The other is that they are more-skilled and are justifiably successful, in which case their techniques should be observed, their strategy admired, and skills are made stronger by playing against them. Neither way is conducive to resentment.
10 – They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure
This is a mindset learned early in poker. A strong player is always playing the long game. This is why bankroll management is so important. Whether a poker player prefers tournaments or cash games, they will never play any more than a certain percentage of their total bankroll at once so that they can afford to lose many times in a row before getting their big win. Great players know that expecting to have a winning session every time is not sustainable. Losing is part of the expectations in poker.
11 – They Don’t Fear Alone Time
Poker players spend a lot of time in their heads. Online players sit at home, thinking their way through tough situations. But even live players generally don’t spend much time socializing while at the table; they may even have headphones in, hoodie up, and sunglasses on to withdraw into their mind and concentrate on their decisions. Yet away from the table they are often exceptionally friendly and extroverted. It’s the ability to be comfortable in either situation that is such an asset.
12 – They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything
Poker is a game where success is self-made. The only one responsible for your results is yourself, and so players get busy putting in the leg work to be successful. New players will sometimes curse the universe for streaks of bad luck, but strong players understand that the good and bad are to be expected and it will all balance out with enough volume.
13 – They Don’t Expect Immediate Results
As already mentioned, poker players are thinking of the long game. Poker is not for people who want short-term gratification. It’s a game of patience and endurance. Even the process of learning the game is not one with immediate results. It’s commonly said that poker takes moments to learn and a lifetime to master. Nothing happens immediately and great players have their eyes on the long-term results.
Players who master these mental aspects of their poker game are learning invaluable skills that have real-world applicability. It is often said that poker is not a card game; it is a game of decisions played with cards. Learning how to make strong decisions has clear relevance to all areas of life.