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The Mental Game of Poker

by Jon Sofen

If the outcome of every poker game was determined by the cards we are dealt, there wouldn’t be much to this game. Learning how to play poker is easy. You are dealt 2 face down cards (Texas hold’em) and attempt to make the best possible poker hand with the cards you’re dealt and the community cards turned face-up. However, playing winning poker requires far more than understanding the basic rules of the game.

First off, you need to understand the basic math of poker (pot odds). It’s difficult to make smart decisions at the poker table without knowing whether or not your play is mathematically correct. After you learn the math of poker, you need to understand the mental aspect of poker and how to use it to your advantage.

To get your opponent’s chips, you need to trick them

The first part of the poker mental game is using your mind to confuse your opponents. The goal of poker is to extract as many chips from your opponents as possible. In order to do that, you must use your mind a bit to confuse them. If you have a big hand, you should try and convince them you have a weak hand. If your hand is weak, you should try and convince them you have a monster.

Successfully playing the mind game will pay off. The best poker players are able to read their opponents based on physical tells (offline) and betting patterns and habits. Paying attention to how your opponents play is key. Unless you have a good idea what your opponents have, you will never know how much to bet or when to bet. For example, if you have the nuts, your goal will be to get your opponent to put as many chips in the pot as possible – hopefully, all of his chips.

If you don’t have any idea what your opponent is holding, it’s hard to get paid off with the nuts or to know when to bluff. Use your mind to throw off other players. Make them think you have something you don’t. That’s how you make money playing poker.

Having mental discipline is the #1 key to being a successful poker player

Reading your opponents correctly, having a large bankroll, and understanding pot odds is useless if you’re a mental train wreck. You need to be disciplined. You need to be emotionally stable or your poker game will falter. Poker is a game of ups and downs. No matter how skilled you are, there are going to be sessions where you lose. There will be days where you play your absolute best against inferior opponents and still lose. That’s poker. Sometimes the cards will be dealt in a way that completely screws you over.

Days like this really suck. They’re irritating and frustrating. But, you know what? Days like this are all part of the game. The mentally weak players allow these days to affect how they play. A talented poker player can go from best player at the table to weakest player at the table if he melts down after a couple of bad beats.

Unfortunately, it took me nearly two years before I realized that I was never going to be a winning poker player until I learned how to accept defeat. It was when I accepted the fact that it’s impossible to win every session that I became a solid poker player. My mindset has completely changed. I no longer worry about the outcome of individual hands or sessions. Short-term results are meaningless because anyone can get lucky once or twice and anyone can lose due to bad luck every now and again. So I focus on playing my best each time out because I know if I do that, I’ll have long-term success. And that’s far more important than a couple of nice wins.

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