Back in 2005, Poker Hall of Famer Doyle Brunson published an article in which he discussed some "mind games" that work for him, and some that don't.
In the article, Brunson tells the story of a man named Keith who seemed to achieve great poker results by pumping himself up with confident, positive thinking before he sat down to a game. But after a while, that wasn't enough for him, so he decided to amp up the level of mental self-trickery.
"Then he decided that he'd play even better if he could convince himself he was losing a little in the beginning of a session," writes Brunson. "That way, he figured, he'd have to be even more dedicated to win his way back to even. Even that mental trick seemed to work for him — for a while."
The story continues.
"One day, he tried his biggest psychological gambit ever," writes Brunson. "He spent hours making himself believe that he was an enormous $100,000 behind in a $300-limit game. Clearly he had bought into his own fantasy, because when he won the first pot and was ahead $2,000, in his mind he was still $98,000 loser and he still appeared desperate. That's when he crumbled like sod squeezed through your fingers during a drought. In less than two days, he unloaded his bankroll. All gone."
Brunson concludes the story of poor Keith as follows:
"Personally, I stick to the simple stuff and leave elaborate mental experiments to the more adventurous — like Keith. Poker players should have faith in their own abilities. That helps. And that's as far as I take it."
It takes no great reserve of personal courage to declare myself in agreement with Doyle Brunson on what it takes to play good poker — but I am. I agree that an attitude of self-confidence is much more conducive to one's best play than a pessimistic "I'm destined to lose" mindset.
I think Keith's mind games went astray in two specific ways.
The first crucial line that Keith crossed was trying to believe in something that was objectively not true, and that he knew was not true.
As I've discussed in previous articles several times, we humans have a pretty amazing capacity for self-deception. I've even once advocated a mild form of self-deception here before, specifically when bluffing, where I've suggested you might say to yourself things that you would be saying to yourself if you actually had the nuts.
The purpose of doing this is to make your body language more naturally project confidence than would be the case if you were deliberately trying to feign it. That is, the real purpose is to deceive an opponent, not to deceive yourself. It's more "method acting" than true self-deception.
Keith's trick was not of that nature. His attempted self-deception was not in the service of deceiving an opponent.
It's hard to genuinely convince yourself of something you know not to be true. I've known many people who set their clocks five or ten or 15 minutes fast, to counteract their tendency to be chronically late. It doesn't work, because you can't forget that you set the clock ahead. All that happens is you end up making a mental adjustment for the difference that you know exists between the time shown and the actual time.
Ah, you might argue, but Keith apparently was successful at deceiving himself into believing that he was way behind. No, I don't think he was. But that leads into my second point about what he did wrong.
The unstated assumption behind his attempted self-deception was that he would play differently if he could convince himself he was playing to get back to even. This is terribly misguided.
The first thing wrong with that is that your rigorous habit should be to play every hand optimally, whether you're ahead, behind, or right where you started the session. Of course, there are some metagame aspects to being ahead or behind, such as what your table image is. But those are secondary factors to consider applying only after you know what the right play would be in their absence. It should not be true that you generally play differently when you're losing than when you're winning.
The second thing wrong with Keith's mind game is the failure to recognize that, to the extent that he and others play differently when they're trying to make a comeback, it's almost always the case that they play worse, not better. It tends to be flailing, desperate play that relies not on patience and skill, but on getting much luckier than the statistics say you can reasonably expect, and on bluffing more often than you can realistically expect to succeed.
That's what is really perverse about Keith's mental trick. It's not that he really convinced himself that he was deep in the hole, but that he talked himself out of playing his A-game, and into playing his B-, C-, or D-game.
Imagine if he had done the opposite — psyched himself into believing, on some level, that he was already $100,000 ahead in the game. How would he play then? Naturally, he would play with supreme confidence, with no fear of losing the paltry fraction of his immense bankroll now represented by the chips in front of him.
But assuming that you're playing within standard bankroll recommendations, that should always be your attitude. These chips are merely tools for acquiring more chips. They have no other value. If you lose them after having made good decisions, no matter — there's plenty more where they came from.
This doesn't mean, of course, that you play recklessly. But it does mean that you play fearlessly, which is not at all the same thing. It means that you evaluate every decision on the basis of what action has the highest expected value, full stop. In this frame of mind, there is no room for worrying, "But I might lose!"
Now, I have some doubt about how deeply a person can convince himself of being $100,000 ahead when it isn't actually true. But to the extent that it can be done, the resulting perspective on the game should be at worst neutral, and at best somewhat beneficial.
Personally, though, I think it's almost always a mistake to try to convince yourself of any "fact" that is contrary to reality.
If you want to experiment with an intentionally induced frame of mind, let me steer you away from Keith, and towards poker player and author Charlie Shoten. He has long recommended this mantra for poker players: "I am calm, confident, and clear, and I wait for my best choice to appear after considering all of my choices and the consequences of each. When my best choice appears, I act."
Now that's a mind game we should all be playing, every session, every hand.
(If you're curious to read Brunson's article "A State of Mind," you can find it on Mike Caro's website here.)
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.