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Six Ways Poker Players Can Avoid Burning Out

Alexander Fitzgerald

It's true. Poker gives you the freedom to work when you want. As long as what you want to do is to work all day every day.

I went pro in 2006. On my first international poker trips I used calling cards and pay phones. George W. Bush was still in office. MySpace was still a thing. My, how times have changed.

I would estimate that of all the pros I met back then, and there were hundreds of them, less than 1% of them are still working. Naturally, some won a big tournament, retired, and went onto something else. Sadly, many didn't do this, and I think many of those players wished they were still in the game.

Why did they wash out? Generally speaking, it had nothing to do with talent. Many of these young men and women were supremely talented and extremely intelligent. What hurt them wasn't their commitment, either.

No, what knocked most of them out of the game was too much commitment. What happened is these poor guys and girls overworked themselves. Once a couple years passed by, they felt fried. They would take breaks, but it wouldn't work.

The ones who survived? They all seemed to follow a certain formula. What follows are six practices I've noticed commonly appearing as part of that formula helping them to stay in the game. I hope sharing them with you today will help you not to burn out as well.

1. Develop Outside Interests

Most of the highly successful players I've met have lives outside of the game. They love sky diving, reading paperbacks in the park, paintball, road trips, whatever. They have interests "outside of the office." And almost all of their hobbies do not involve a screen.

You've probably heard of the "10,000 hour rule," Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is what it takes for anyone to master a craft. In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang looked further into the research behind this idea and came up with some surprising findings.

Almost all elite performers, for example, work in four-to-six hour bursts. They're extremely focused, so it's difficult for them to go beyond that. They might do some light work after that initial burst, but their deliberate practice is concentrated primarily in those hours. Those working eight-or-more hour work days were hard to find. Additionally, almost all elite performers slept nine hours a day. Many would sleep eight hours at night and be partial to naps.

Finally, the most interesting finding was that elite performers all had interests outside of their field. There was a strong correlation. Those performers who couldn't answer questions about what their outside interests were performed poorly as time went on, regardless of whether they were scientists, cellists, or tennis professionals.

If you think about it, it's extremely difficult for any of us to find the time to practice mediation. However, if you're throwing a football around at a park, you're not thinking about anything else once that ball is in the air. You're able to free your mind from what is bothering you.

2. Avoid Overwork

The great thing about poker is you can do it into your 80s. It's the ultimate ultramarathon. But you have to pace yourself. If you pay attention to no other section of this article, pay attention to this next sentence: Overwork will kill you in poker.

That doesn't mean you can't work hard. It just means you need to work smarter.

Truth be told, the 10,000 hour rule is bullshit most of the time. You have probably met many people in your life who have been doing their job for more than 10,000 hours, and they're still terrible at it.

You would work the whole body, respect that the biceps are secondary muscles, and develop your entire frame.

Learn how to get more out of the hours you devote to poker.... It's not the hours you put in, it's what you put in the hours.

Many people just beat the same drum every time they play as opposed to intelligently focusing on what needs to be improved. Focus on the muscle that needs to be bolstered. It's not the hours you put in, it's what you put in the hours.

Have you ever seen someone who works an office job 12 hours a day? What happens to their back? The poor guy has his spine curve while he develops tech neck. He's in excruciating pain all the time and it artificially makes his belly look larger.

He likely doesn't have a choice in the matter, but you hopefully you do.

Learn from this guy's example. Balance things out. Short burst your sessions. Pace yourself. Save the long sessions for Sundays.

3. Observe Diet and Exercise Basics

You don't have to become ultra-athlete like Rich Roll, but you do have to pay attention to your body.

In the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. Jon Ratey discusses the research that shows how exercise positively changes the brain. He found some of the best test scores in the country are found in small school districts where kids are made to work out each morning.

"At every level, from the microcellular to the psychological, exercise not only wards off the ill effects of chronic stress, it can also reverse them," says Ratey.

"Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to its preshriveled state. The mechanisms by which exercise changes how we think and feel are so much more effective than donuts, medicines, and wine. When you say you feel less stressed out after you go for a swim, or even a fast walk, you are."

Most of the elite performers I have met in poker are very aware of their body. They control their diet in the same ways, being aware of the processed food, sugar, and grains they put into their system. They meditate, go for runs, hike, play sports, or lift weights. This allows them to keep their mind young, so they can keep a good attitude about poker.

4. Develop a Study Routine

When you're doing the same thing day in and day out, it's easy to go a little crazy. That's why guys doing menial jobs on construction sites always need to have a radio on. Otherwise they go bananas. If you do the same thing in poker for years at a time, it only stands to reason that you will go nuts. Especially when you're playing online poker, you'll just be staring at a screen feeling that you're doing rudimentary data entry.

What enthralled you when you began playing poker was how it was a puzzle. You felt if you could solve the puzzle you could make some serious money. It's still a puzzle and there is still serious money to be made, our minds just have to remain open enough to keep seeing them and keep being motivated to solve them.

What hurts is that many of us get the initial strategies down in poker, then we stop finding large discoveries. This tricks us into thinking we know everything about poker, because it's only the finer details we can improve upon once we have the initial schematic down. This dispirits us, because we feel like we're just showing up to work to see if we win our flips.

However, any outstanding poker player will tell you, "if you handle the small things, it will turn into the big thing."

Commit yourself to studying widely before you play. It can just be 30 minutes. You can put videos and audiobooks at 2x speed and rewind to relisten to interesting parts, if you find your attention wavering.

When you're done with your half-hour of study, give yourself a task in your next poker session to execute based on the materials you absorbed. It doesn't matter if the specific strategy doesn't even come up. The very process of injecting new ideas will make the sessions feel fresher. Jogging yourself awake will help you deliberately practice and actively improve.

5. Party Days

It's important to play this game for fun once in a while. I don't mean go throw a party at $5.00/$10.00. I'm saying try some new concepts at lower-stakes games where people still take things seriously.

If you normally play $300 live tournaments, go online and play some $10 events some time. Play 10 of them, and pretend you just bought yourself a round of golf. Pretend the money is gone and resolve to have fun by trying some new concepts. Don't beat yourself up for a change. And don't get so worked up over what others might say about how you're playing.

Three-bet a little more. Try some bluffs. Try some thin value bets. Try to check-raise a top pair for value. Have fun!

I get so tired of this crap in poker. Everybody is always talking, and not playing. It's all about who is doing what, who is making what money, who is really a terrible poker player, who is just lucky, who is good, who is not good. For the love of God, we're playing cards, not building houses for the homeless. It's not that serious. Why are you not allowed to have fun when you play?

What you need is a "party day"! Find a game where people are taking things seriously and start pumping up the stakes. Three-bet a little more. Try some bluffs. Try some thin value bets. Try to check-raise a top pair for value. Have fun!

Whenever I'm talking to a guy or gal who has a case of nerves at the poker table, I always ask them, "How do you play Monopoly with your family?" "Oh, balls to the wall," they often say. "Why?" "Because... it's just a game," they'll reply, realizing I've caught them.

"Exactly," I say. "This is just a game. These are just people. None of them is curing cancer. They can't take your family or your home away from you. You pay the buy-in, you do whatever you want, and you have fun. If anyone gives you a hard time just say, 'I like the action. Can we play cards?' and give them a big smile."

That always gets them weirded out. Online, just turn the chat off and the music up. Pretend it's a video game.

6. Have Fun... and Never Be Bored

If you ever worked a blue-collar job, you know that sitting in an air-conditioned room playing cards is not hard work.

Guys who keep their real job have an opportunity in poker, because they know sitting there playing a game is something enjoyable. It's easier when you have that perspective, whether you've been in intense meetings all week or cleaning septic tanks.

Poker players live in an existence without gravity, which is why they should volunteer themselves somewhere. It doesn't have to be a soup kitchen. They can just clean their mother's garage some random Thursday and Friday. Then, come the weekend, they'll be dying to play cards.

Sometimes we get so obsessed with poker, we forget it's a game. It's a fun game, too.

If any of us wanted to get into boxing right now, we'd be screwed. We wouldn't have a shot in hell. Those guys have been training their whole lives for that sport. They only get a few years before their prime is over.

In poker, however, the game never ends. As I say, you can play into your 80s. If you can put your chips in the middle, you have a shot. You always have a shot as long as you're firing. If you have a $100, you can satellite into a $1,000 event. If you play a $1,000 event, you can make six figures in a matter of days. It's all possible.

Real life can get mundane. Staring down a guy trying to figure out if he's bluffing is not mundane. That's the real salary in this game. Never being bored. Appreciating that leads you to not burning out.

Alexander Fitzgerald is a professional poker player who lives in Queens, New York. After turning pro in 2006 at age 18, Alex has since made appearances at WPT and EPT final tables while also winning WCOOP and SCOOP tournaments. He is the author of the bestselling book Exploitative Play In Live Poker.

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  • Many poker players trying to play full-time end up burning out. Here are six ways to avoid that fate.

  • Alex Fitzgerald shares six ways poker players can stay in the game long-term and avoid burning out.

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