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Stay Stacked: Understanding Motivation

Stay Stacked

I found an excellent website recently called The 99 Percent where I read an article about motivation in the workplace. It said "What really gets creative [people] fired up is, well, ourselves. That is, intrinsic motivation. If we can imagine an achievement, see ourselves progressing toward that goal, and understand that we are gaining new skills and knowledge, we will be driven to do great work."

That's exactly how we all started out in poker. So what happens when a poker player falls into the mindset "I am the unluckiest player in the world" after having aces cracked by kings for the third time on the same day? Motivation can decrease in the same way it would for anyone who had a boss at work who wouldn’t allow them to do the great projects that they knew they were capable of. The person is being prevented from succeeding in spots that they believe they should be.

With poker players living on the giant roller coaster of success and failure, a streak of bad beats or poor results is a major factor that decreases motivation much more often than in the average person. That is, if we're not aware of how to maintain control of it.

Harvard Business School released a study of 238 people from seven companies where each day the participants had to fill in daily journals in which they ranked their work day, emotions, motivation, etc. At the end of the research, the 12,000 entries provided concrete evidence that "People have their best days and do their best work when they are allowed to make progress."

OK, so being on the wrong end of two-outers is not something we can control. However we do have control over many more internal factors affecting our motivation than you may be aware of. The Harvard study went on with recommendations for workplaces such as setting clear and meaningful goals for employees and to respond to successes and failures by drawing on the experience as a learning opportunity, not just a moment to praise or reprimand (or in a poker player's case, a win or a loss). This is exactly what all poker players should be doing for themselves.

A book that has become quite popular in the poker industry is The Mental Game of Poker by Jared Tendler with UK PokerNews' former editor Barry Carter.

Team PokerStars Pro Lex Veldhuis claimed in a recent PokerNews Podcast that The Mental Game of Poker was "the best poker book ever written, and it's not even close." Tendler’s book includes an entire chapter dedicated to motivation, so naturally I turned to him for some help in writing this article.


When discussing goals, Tendler says, "If you find yourself unmotivated make sure your goals are solid. Ideally, you want to have stable motivation. That means you're steadily and methodically working towards your goals. This also means, you'll avoid burnout and not playing enough by succumbing to laziness and procrastination."

Have you actually set short-term goals for yourself? Are they realistic? Sometimes we have goals that are so focused on the end result that we overwhelm ourselves rather than break the long-term goal into shorter, progressive ones.

Tendler also explained, "Burnout is a major problem in poker because players often don't realize how stressful playing poker can be. The mind is just like the body, if you work it too hard, eventually it will burnout, and you'll lack the mental energy to make good decisions."

Take a look at what it is you want and what it is you need to get there. What can you achieve this week, rather than this year? I have a fetish about checklists. Sometimes I add things on there that are simple, just so I can get the satisfaction of literally ticking them off when I’ve accomplished them. I like to see it as a form of positive reinforcement, which in turn makes me feel like I’m progressing and keeps my motivation lifted.

Fear and Tilt

"Poker players often don't realize that fear, tilt, and confidence problems all cause motivational issues. For example, if you haven't figured out how to solve your tilt problem, not playing poker is a great strategy. The problem is that players avoid tilt for so long, they forget that tilt, not motivation, was the original cause of their lack of play. They think they're lazy or unmotivated, but really they have a tilt problem that hasn't been solved," Tendler said.

How about the lessons you should be learning? Earlier this year, I wrote an article about why I no longer use the term FML, which closely relates to motivation. In the article I referred to a concept described by Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now. Tolle says that unease, anxiety, tension, stress and worry are caused by fear of the future. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by focusing on the past.

So what about the present? Every poker player faces regular bad beats. So when they happen, you need to remind yourself that it's already in the past. See what happened, learn from it, but then let the emotion go. Don't go into the beat with resentment, focusing on how awful the other player was or how bad you run and allow yourself to tilt.

Does that actually change anything for you? Yes it does, but in a negative way. It decreases your motivation and blocks you from seeing the valuable lessons being handed to you in each and every situation, and progressing from them, all while ticking off those short-term goals.

There are many other factors that affect motivation and you can read more about them in Jared's book The Mental Game of Poker. If you would like a free copy of this book, leave a comment below about your own personal experience with any of the above factors and how they have helped maintain your motivation. We’ll select one winner next week.

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*Lead image courtesy of Accredited Online Colleges

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    Imagine that you are a painter and you are in front of a blank canvas.
    The first thing that you have to respond to you is... What do I want to create? Nobody can respond this question for you. You must define the painting precisely in your mind... VISION
    Then, you will notice that you have nothing... This means that you have to know always where you are in relation to the end result you want to create... CURRENT REALITY
    During your creation there is a source of power that motivates you to close the gap between your Current Reality and your Vision... THERE IS TENSION
    When the gap between your Current Reality and your Vision is big, then, the Tension is high.
    When the Tension is high you are in a structural conflict: 1) reduce your Vision or 2) move toward the resolution of the conflict... work hard to create what you want to create

    As an artist you are more motivated to resolve the conflict through the second option, even if it takes years. But as a poker player you will notice that the realities of the game continuously impulse you to think that it is so difficult (almost impossible) to achieve what do you really want to achieve. Swings comes and goes, Tension is higher and higher, and you finally desists and choose the path number one.

    Be the artist of your poker career and never desists in creating what you really want to create, your career is a work of art.

  • flintsword flintsword

    Tilt is enhanced by a lack of understanding of the math behind the game. The classic so-called "bad beat" when your aces get cracked tilts some players ... but not good players who have learned to either deal with the tilt produced or understand that the bad beat is part of the game. An old poker player once told me that the best way to shrug off getting your aces cracked was to understand that when you WIN with AA ... you only really get to keep some 80%+ of the winnings. The rest of the money is "LENT" to you until it is time to give it back. I find that this understanding has eliminated completely negative feelings that interfere with good play.

    Goals have to real and attainable. I have a real life example. In 2009 I qualified via FullTilt into the WPT Cyprus 2009 where I scored 50%. My short term goal was to qualify and play my best. This year I qualified via PartyPoker for the WPT Paris 2011 and my goal was to do better than 50%, a realistic goal. I came in 25th out of 312, cashed for !6,600 euros, and had (literally) the time of my life. Coming back home I said "I have to do this again" and managed to qualify for the WPT in Prague 2011, where my goal is to do better than 25th ... a final table would be outstanding.

    Notice the absence of "I am going to win it" or "Gunning for first place" because the reality is that poker is a game of progress towards a situation, not the instantaneous win so your goals should reflect the progressive environment of the game by being progressive in structure.

    Setting goals for qualifying into tournaments also eliminate stress because you do not have the "fear of loss", a powerful type of tilt that infects the play of most poker players. If you get a WPT seat of $15,000 (entry fee, hotel, & $1300 spending money) for forty dollars ... you are never losing as much as the guy that buys in for $10,000.

    Good goals in a playing environment free of distracting worries allows motivation to flourish ... and guess what ... the results follow.



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