Rewiring Your Brain for Poker
Last year I put all of the mental game coaching methods I had successfully used for years into a book called Poker Therapy. This mental game work is all about how to restructure the way your brain works so that it can survive in poker. My aim today is to give you a taster of the techniques recommended in the book, so that you can start working on your mental game – one of the most neglected elements of an essential poker diet.
The Alien World Problem
The Alien World Problem is the idea that poker is not a realm that we humans are designed to thrive in. Think about it. All of our survival mechanisms and ingrained mental programming for making sense of the world around us were developed by us or our ancestors here on earth where the primary goals were obtaining food, shelter and protecting ourselves and our families. For this reason, we are very good at interpreting and reacting to challenges that involve: the level of luck present in real life on earth; normal amounts of success and failure that are usually proportionate to the time and effort we invest; and things frequently being what they appear to be.
Poker, on the other hand is a world of extremely high levels of luck; disproportionate effort to short-term reward mechanics; and constant surprises. The volatility difference between poker and the real world is what I call the Alien World Problem. Because all of the mental mechanisms you developed as a child were built by reacting to circumstances in the real world, your poker programming is faulty. This is why we end up missing thin value bets having just been shown the nuts in a previous hand or move up in stakes to chase our losses.
The alien landscape of poker is to blame, and we need to learn how to adapt our minds and rewire their malfunctioning processes so that we can better adapt to playing cards. Five-year-old you did not play cards for money and so that person did not develop the required mechanisms for being protected against the volatility. Similarly, your cave man ancestors hunted and cooked on open fires to survive. They did not need to ever fold the second nut flush and rarely had to tolerate a run of twenty things going wrong in a row.
Every time your brain maladapts to a poker stimulus due to being wired in the wrong way for the game, it misfires. When a mind misfires, it initiates a bad interpretation process. In other words, it sees the world in in inaccurate way that causes the wrong response to be selected by the brain. Take the example of folding on the river in a spot you know you should call. Some players fold here due to being uncomfortable with the size of the pot. The mind should be running an interpretation process that goes:
‘Okay I need to first work out how much equity I need to make this call profitable and then determine whether my hand can win often enough based on what I think Villain’s range is like.’
But instead it tends to say something like:
Big bet = big chance of losing big pot. Losing resources = bad. Inject fear emotion, adrenaline, and anxiety.
This instinctive interpretation obviously happens fully in the subconscious mind; it is not chosen. This process usually leads to the fold button being pressed. It is a type of survival misfire, namely – flight mode – because the mind is running a similar script as it would if you considered betting all of your bank balance on roulette or buying 10,000 lottery tickets. The real-life training is getting in the way of good poker thinking.
For every misfire then, there is:
- A trigger – in this case, facing the big river bet in this case.
- A faulty interpretation – in this case, big bet = resources threatened – I must save my resources.
- And a response that follows logically from the bad interpretation – in this case, folding.
Poker Therapy is all about uninstalling these faulty interpretation processes and installing the correct ones in their place. When it comes to retraining the way adult humans instinctively react to certain triggers, the challenge is a tricky one that takes a lot of time and repetition of the right medicine. So what is this magical cure?
The road map in poker therapy is centred around the idea that rewiring a subconscious mechanism has to be done in the heat of battle. Out of game logic has very little effect on the innate systems that cause the poker player to interpret the situation in the wrong way.
In order to rewire the brain in a way that penetrates through to the subconscious mind; much like when training a dog; the training must take place when the trigger associated with the misfire is present. There are four steps to uninstalling a bad interpretation and installing a good one.
- Recognition – Out of game the player must identify exactly what the trigger is which causes the misfire and list what feelings, thoughts, and sensations typically occur at the point of onset. In the specific example above, this would be where the player first faces that big bet.
- Interruption – This means disrupting the visual stimulus of looking at the screen and terminating any thoughts mid-sentence. I urge students here to look away from the screen and take a deep breath, letting their mind empty.
- Watch and Wait – Now it’s time to do nothing. The last thing we want to try do is install a good thought process over the top of a terrible one while the toxic emotions like fear or anger are still coursing through the system. Time banks are precious but if we can spare 5-10 seconds just to reset, we create a mental and physical state more conducive to accepting a new, more positive interpretation of the situation on the screen. When you feel like a bit of normality has been restored move to the next step.
- Install – Now it is time to run the correct interpretation of the poker situation, engaging that logical brain. The more successful the previous two steps were, the higher the chance of the subconscious mind accepting the new more rational way of seeing the spot.
This rewiring process does not fix things overnight but, through continuous repetition, it is possible to retrain the mind to interpret the situation correctly and conquer the Alien World Problem.
It is worth taking a note of all of the different misfires that have a big effect on your game and writing up a map for each where you list the trigger, faulty interpretation, and unwanted response.
For full coverage of lots of the different misfires present in your mental game and how to fix them, you can purchase Poker Therapy by Pete Clarke now.