Ahead of the seven-figure buy-in The Big One for One Drop tournament at the World Series of Poker, mental game coach Jared Tendler is back to talk about the pressure of an event of this magnitude, and how we can all deal with pressure when we are at the tables.
On Sunday, 48 players will sit down for the biggest poker game in history, the $1 million buy-in One Drop tournament. This is an unprecedented tournament, and no matter how good the players are, they will experience pressure like never before. It’s fair to say that how they handle the pressure will be a major key to success in this tournament.
Pressure is relative. We each have a limit to how much pressure we can handle before our performance suffers and what creates pressure for some players doesn’t create it in others. For you, pressure might be caused by playing at a higher limit for the first time, a big final table where you’re on the cusp of your biggest score, or even just having a good player sweat you. No matter what the cause, when extreme pressure strikes, you’re not able to think clearly, and consequently you make mistakes or worse, you choke.
I’m sure choking during the Main Event has gone on for a long time, but last year was my first opportunity to see it up close. I was a bit shocked by how frequently players were choking as the final table neared. Their minds were overwhelmed by the pressure of being on the biggest stage in poker and I saw a lot of unnecessary risks being taken.
Choking is a phenomenon that happens throughout all walks of life; especially in sports. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Open golf championship put the best golfers in the world through the toughest test in golf. With the margin for error razor thin at the U.S. Open, it has become notorious for producing dramatic collapses. This year was no different, and even claimed the likes of Tiger Woods.
Tiger entered the third round tied for the lead and crumbled on the weekend to finish tied for 21st place. But the most dramatic example came on the 16th hole during Sunday’s final round. Jim Furyk, a former U.S. Open champion, snap-hooked a drive that looked like it came from a weekend duffer. Only Furyk was leading the tournament! He bogeyed that hole and then badly hooked his approach shot to the 18th green and finished two shots back.
If choking happens to the best golfers in the world, including two former U.S. Open champions, it’ll happen to some of the top poker players in the world at The Big One for One Drop.
Fuel to Perform
Sure, pressure can cause your game to crumble, but it’s not inherently a bad thing. In fact, many players are able to thrive under pressure because they use it as fuel to perform in “the zone.” In pressure situations it’s common to feel anxious, nervous, excited, amped, or jacked up. However you describe it, having that emotion (and some adrenaline) pumping through your body primes your senses to pick up on details of the action you normally can’t see. It’s these extra details that allow you to perform in the zone — the peak mental state where your reads are spot on, your focus is sharp, and the game feels easy. All of this happens, in part, thanks to pressure.
Ironically, one of the quickest ways to improve how you handle pressure is to remind yourself, in the moment, that pressure can actually help you. Believing pressure is negative adds more pressure.
Aside from that quick tip, here are some other ways to excel under pressure:
- Know Your Weaknesses. When pressure rises beyond the point that you can handle, it exposes underlying weaknesses in your technical poker skill or your mental game. Knowing your weaknesses ahead of time allows you to make better adjustments and avoid choking. It can be hard to know when the pressure has started to get to you, but a simple way is by evaluating your play. When the pressure is high if you clearly see that you’re playing solidly, it proves you’re in control of your game. On the other hand, if you’ve spotted a small mistakes (tactically or mentally), it means the pressure is starting to affect your game.
- Don’t Force It. Once you’ve recognized the pressure is getting to you, don't try and force yourself to get back to your A-game immediately. Too often players expect to be able to just jump right back into their A-game and play much worse. Instead, first make absolutely sure that your C-game doesn't show up. Take a few deep breaths to stabilize and focus your mind on playing solidly. Then, once your mind has recovered, start gradually pushing yourself back to your A-game. Or it may happen naturally.
- Focus on Your Goals. In sports, you’ll often hear players say they, “dug deep” to pull out a tough win. A good example of this came during the last two minutes of game four of the NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade said to LeBron James and Chris Bosh, “It hurts to be a champion. It’s not going to feel good, but the pain will feel a lot better if you get this win.” When you’re under pressure goals become the backbone for you to fight through and play as well as you can. In the moments where you mind is shaken and it’s easy to give in to the pressure, dig deep and remind yourself what you’re fighting for.
- Prepare Your Strategy. Every time I fly in an airplane I review the safety information card before we take off. I’ve flown enough to know the information on that card well, but I also know what happens to the mind in an emergency. Taking just a couple minutes, prepares me to act decisively and adapt quickly in a chaotic life or death situation. In a sense, your poker life is on the line, so review your strategy before a big final table, jump in stakes, or spot where there is likely to be intense pressure. That way, when the pressure rises, you’ll be more likely to use pressure to fuel you to play your absolute best, rather than have it get the best of you.
Jared Tendler, MS is a mental game coach and author of, "The Mental Game of Poker." A free audiobook version of his book is currently being offered by Amazon. Go to Jared’s website to find out how to get a free copy.
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