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Playing poker is one of the most enjoyable activities that millions of people worldwide take part in. According to a World Poker Tour report, last year saw 100 million people play poker online, with 60 million of those coming from the United States. In total, around 6% of the Earth’s population have said they’ve played poker at some point in their lives; that’s an eye-watering 420 million global citizens who’ve shuffled up to a virtual or real-life poker table at some point in their lives.
How many of that number have experienced fear or anxiety when playing poker? A rising number of players experience some anxiety or fear at the felt, whether it is during an online session or at a poker table in a casino or larger venue. We’ll break down what fears and anxieties are in poker and how you can insert coping mechanisms and corrective behaviours into your game preparation to make your time at the felt more enjoyable than ever.
Poker is a game of strategy, skill, and psychology, but it can also be a source of anxiety and fear for many players. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, feeling anxious or nervous while playing can be overwhelming and even debilitating. But why would a poker player feel nervous or anxious while playing? Some of the reasons include:
If you have never lost money playing poker, then I suggest you sign up for the WSOP because you just might be the best player on the planet. Everyone loses money at some point during their playing career. Playing poker IS going to set you back money unless you only play freerolls, or win free tickets into online tournaments. Setting aside those events, you’re staking money to make money, so dealing with losses instantly is something you have to deal with.
Making the wrong decisions in poker is another concern that virtually every poker player will consider at some stage, simply because poker is a game of mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, whether it is the wrong call at a pivotal moment of a poker tournament or failing to press that edge in a lucrative cash game session.
Many poker players will experience the fear of playing someone better than them. Unless you’re Justin Bonomo on a heater – perhaps even including him – it is a thought that has crossed the mind of everyone who ever riffled chips and we’ll break down how to conquer this fear in the next section.
Let’s look at each of those worries in order and try to understand each one in a better way. Problems are made smaller by comprehending them in more detail:
Worrying about money is something that affects many poker players at different stages of their lives, but a good way of mitigating the poker anxiety is to presume that you will lose money to begin with.
Poker is a long game, and especially in tournaments, you can experience variance that really tests you mentally. Focus on improving your game and the results will come, but to prevent yourself worrying about losses, set yourself limits. How much money would you be unconcerned about losing? The limit of that amount is the limit you should ever bet. If you play tournaments, you want to have between 20-30 buy-ins at a level you feel comfortable. If you play cash, employ a ‘stop loss’ policy on yourself to prevent yourself ever losing more than a designated amount.
Making the wrong decisions is another problem that is better flipped around and put out there as something which will certainly happen. Everyone makes mistakes in every poker game they play, including the very best. Phil Ivey once won a major poker tournament for seven figures and when interviewed afterwards, expressed his disappointment with how he played. Let your attitude be the same – focus only on how you play. You’ll make mistakes, but learning from them is the only way to improve as a poker player.
Finally, you’ll play others who are better than you most times you sit down at the poker table. But the key thing to remember is that in any poker hand, if you focus, play your best and possibly get a little luck, you can win. No-one wins a poker hand until it is played out, no matter how much better than any other player they are at the start of the hand.
One of the best ways to improve your overall mindset in modern times is to practice mindfulness. This might involve connected practices such as meditation or yoga, but being at peace is the main thing. The overriding benefits of mindfulness are a sense of calm and a newfound ability to deal with the vagaries of life. Poker is a microcosm of life in so many ways, so adopt a mindfulness mindset and practice regularly to keep yourself in control of your emotions.
Dealing with the varying fortunes of poker in a positive manner has a ‘knock-on’ effect with your ability to process rational thoughts. Think back to when you were unhappy or distracted the last time you were playing poker. Most likely you’ll be able to identify the exact effect it had on your game, and I’m guessing it was probably a negative one. It’s a consequence of not being fully focused, and letting your emotions get the best of you.
The saying goes that either you win or you learn. Instead of seeing a loss as a negative, see it as an opportunity to learn, and therefore a victory that you just had to pay a little for. If you can frame each decision you make at the poker table in a positive way, win or lose, then you’ll become a better player.
Where do the fears and anxieties you experience during a poker game come from? It may be an uncomfortable question to ask yourself, but being as honest as you can about what you’re afraid of can reduce it in size and make it sound irrational. Whatever the source of your anxiety, ask yourself what you can do to solve the issue, and whether you need any further support from those around you or a professional.
If any of us broke a limb, we wouldn’t hesitate to call a medical professional or ask someone we know for assistance immediately. On a lesser degree of urgency, It should be similar with your poker anxiety. Get them out in the open as soon as you can and go to someone who you can trust whose help always comes unconditionally.
There are a number of other ways you can naturally reduce your capacity for fear and anxiety, and many are simple to implement in your daily life as well as your poker journey.
Taking a step back from poker often allows not only your emotions to get in check, but your brain to reset. Poker is an extremely mentally demanding game and if that takes a toll on you, this can often manifest into fear and anxiety at the felt when you play. If you’re playing long online sessions but not feeling positive about how you approach them, take a day off and clear your schedule.
Remember – it’s all about being able to bring your A-Game. At the live felt, no matter how well or badly you’re playing, make time to step away from the poker table. This might mean missing a hand or going for breaks that aren’t scheduled. This sucks, but money saved is money earned, and if you manage to keep yourself feeling positive and in a good mindset, you’ll win more.
We’ve all stood in front of the mirror and told ourselves that we are a good person/look like Chris Evans/and are about to crush that meeting. Whether any of that is true or not – and sadly for you, I’m not in the running for the latest Avengers movie – it applies to poker too. You will have aspects of your poker game that are really impressive. It could be that you’re fully focused and going to play your best if you’re just starting out, but later on, maybe you’re crushing your three-bet wins pre-flop. Affirming your abilities makes you more likely to repeat them and stave off any worries you might have about being able to put them into practice.
It’s easy to say that seeking professional help is a last resort. But the truth is that professionals can help you at any stage. All you need to do is pick the right moment for someone who is qualified to help to get in touch with them. Don’t be afraid of picking up the phone or searching up the details of a professional who can get in touch with you. Getting properly researched help with any serious condition is something that should be done as soon as possible and always the right choice.
Finally, a word on imposter syndrome, which may be rarer in poker, but it still something to watch out for. Success in poker often feels amazing at the time, but hidden layers of guilt at taking others money can sneak up on winning players. For this reason, they can become anxious about playing, or even enter tournaments or cash games above their bankroll level in a bid to lose winnings they don’t feel entitled to. This is less about fear and way more about poker anxiety but is still something to watch out for along the way, especially if you win a big tournament or crush at cash for several sessions more than you’re used to doing.
In conclusion, there are a number of ways that we can stave off fear and anxiety as poker players. Taking breaks when needed, using positive affirmations, and seeking help whenever it is needed can be extremely beneficial. It’s important that you commit the time to training yourself to be able to handle the stress and anxiety of certain situations in poker. Whether it’s mindfulness, taking a break, or combating fear and anxiety with a number of our strategies above, put concrete plans in place to do so. Your poker game, and more importantly, your mental health, will benefit because of it.
Jackpot! You’ve flopped a winning hand! This article has surely added some extra chips to your stack. Tune in for more valuable insights and pro-level strategies!
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