The Poker Shrink, Vol. 51: Implosion
Last week I wrote about rehearsal and suggested that rehearsing particularly difficult decisions at the table would make those decisions easier, with less chance of a player giving off any physical tells. I heard from one of my old psychology professors, who suggested I cover "the other side" of this phenomenon. He referred me to a therapeutic technique known as implosion.
Implosion is a process in which clients imagine and relive certain aversive scenes or anxiety-producing situations. The therapy consists of having many different exposures to the same negative stimulus but in a safe or less-anxious environment. The theory behind implosion is that the negative stimulus will eventually lose its ability to make the client anxious.
This is similar to what I suggested in the rehearsal article, when we simply play a lot of low-limit online hands to produce many examples of situations that produce our anxiety. We all know it can be hard to push all in with top-pair/top-kicker, but less so for a dollar than for a thousand. But there is another way to use implosion theory to desensitize yourself to difficult poker decisions. You don't have to "imagine" the anxiety producing situation; you can actually reproduce them.
Let us suppose that your problem is firing the third bullet on the river after you have made the post-flop continuation bet and fired out another bet on the turn. Implosion theory would suggest that you need to do this enough times that facing such a situation will produce zero anxiety. This reminded me of a learning technique I was shown over a decade ago, and it was about poker.
My first poker teacher was a tight low-limit cash-game player, who grew up with stud and draw games. He later taught himself texas hold'em
at some of the earliest online poker sites. I am not sure we could even call those early games "sites," because they were 100% text-based, but I digress. John, my teacher, was having a lot of problems with firing that third bullet and he explained that he had a similar problem learning to fearlessly make the continuation bet when the flop missed him (the first bullet). Once he had that mastered, he had to overcome the fear of throwing away chips by making another bet on the turn with no hand (the second bullet) and eventually he had to face the anxiety of the third bullet on the river, when he had made absolutely no hand and all the cards were out. Here was John's solution and a perfect example of implosion desensitization.
John was playing low-limit stakes online poker and he would commit to firing all three bullets every single time the situation arose. Never mind any reads he had on the other players or on a particular hand. He was going to make all three bets every chance he got until he was so desensitized that he would not show any anxiety or concern or any physical tells as he made those bets.
Yes, his win rate suffered, but as he said, "I was paying for my lessons," and he was playing very low stakes. By constantly committing to the three bets, John no longer hand to make those three decisions; the bets were coming out every single time. It didn't take long for his concerns about the three-bullet move to completely disappear; then it was just a matter of moving up in limits and taking his new fearless play to the live games.
Whether you want to see this kind of practice as rehearsing or implosion is not as important as whether you can commit to following through until you have truly gotten past the anxiety. Poker is about leaving your emotions at the door and playing your "A" game without fear. It takes practice to leave the emotions behind, because none of us can — or should — completely control our emotions.
Unless we are seated at the green felt.