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Psychological Habits of Successful Poker Players: Emotional Control

Phil Hellmuth

Phil Hellmuth is well known for his epic meltdowns at the table when things don’t go his way. Enterprising fans of the game have gone so far as to produce compilation videos of his most impressive blow-ups. To be sure, Hellmuth is one of the most successful tournament players alive today. But should you emulate his antics at the table?

The answer to that question is absolutely not! My interviews with top tournament pros revealed a near unanimous opinion that it is not possible to make it in poker without a large degree of emotional control. Consider this quote from one of my interviewees:

Emotional control is very important. You have to be able to take the beats without going on tilt. You have to be strong and know that in the long run, whoever makes the best decisions is going to win. You can’t let the effects of one hand destroy you. You have to be tough!

If you want to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of poker, you simply must work on your temperament. Being calm, cool, and collected, no matter what happens, is the name of the game. I remember a hand from the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event that illustrates this idea perfectly.

An early position player raised with pocket tens. Shaun Deeb was sitting in the small blind with {A-Diamonds}{A-Clubs} and, naturally, he reraised. Max Heinzelmann was sitting behind him in the big blind with {A-Spades}{6-Diamonds}. He decided that Deeb was just making a play, so he four-bet it. The early position player folded and Deeb — who really wanted action with his hand — sized his five-bet in such a way as to induce action.

Deeb got his wish when Heinzelmann shoved. Deeb snap-called, then the board ran out to bring two sixes, rewarding Heinzelmann with trips and the huge pot!

Deeb was crippled and was out shortly thereafter. But what was interesting was his reaction. He didn’t even flinch! I did notice him taking a few deep breaths, but outside of that he offered not a hint that he was in any way upset.

Psychological Habits of Successful Poker Players: Emotional Control 101
Shaun Deeb (left) kept cool after hand with Max Heinzelman (right)

Deeb understands full well that he wants people to make moves against him with weak hands, just as Heinzelmann had done. That’s what we all want. But he also understands that sometimes those weak hands are going to suck out. When that happens, the key is to maintain control over your emotions so that you can continue playing an optimal game.

So the big question is how does one increase emotional control? I believe that the answer is multifaceted.

First, to know and understand the mathematics of the game helps a lot. There are very few situations where your hand is a 100% lock if there are still cards to come. Also, even the worst hands in poker will win a certain percentage of the time. Knowing the math can help you to maintain logic in difficult situations.

Second, you must practice calming yourself down. It’s only natural to get angry when bad things happen, and all but impossible to be devoid of all emotion — if you’re human, that is. The trick is to learn to control your emotions. You can work on deep breathing, practice mindfulness, and incorporate meditation into your training regime. You must practice these techniques away from the table often enough that they become automatic.

Third, take notes on all upsetting hands and enlist the help of a coach or mentor who can help you review them. Dissect those hands to get a full picture of what specifically put you on tilt. Knowledge is power and increasing your level of self-awareness can be immensely helpful. Just knowing what sets you off makes it easier to recognize and manage potentially tilting situations before they get out of control.

Increasing emotional control is one of the best things you can do to increase the probability of making it as a poker player. Fully commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to improve in this area and it will pay dividends many times over.

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker with Jonathan Little, available in paperback, audio, and e-book formats via D&B Poker as well as through the PokerNews Book Section. Follow her on Twitter @DrTriciaCardner.

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