Not everyone can handle the unique pressures of high-stakes poker, and the stress of the game can lead to poor performances and sub-optimal decision-making. That being said, there are methods of dealing with pressure in poker that will help you elevate your performance and conquer the high-stakes games – as long as you’ve got the head for it.
Mental PreparationEmbracing Variance and Bankroll ManagementDeveloping a Strong Mental GameControlling EmotionsBuilding ConfidenceAdapting to the Competitive EnvironmentTime ManagementSeeking SupportLearning from Mistakes
Before you start any poker game, you should be mentally prepared for what’s about to happen. Poker is a game that requires intense concentration and focus, so if your mind isn’t in the right place, you’re going to find yourself making a lot of mistakes, which at the high stakes can end up costing you significantly.
Many of the best high-stakes players use warm-up routines to get themselves into the proper mindset before they start playing. These routines allow you to eliminate all distractions from your personal life and fully focus on the game you’re about to join.
One of the most commonly used techniques is visualization. High-stakes poker has a lot of high-stress situations, and many people do not make effective decisions when under such stress. By mentally rehearsing scenarios you’re going to face while you play, you are able to better able to prepare your mind when they happen in reality. The less stress impacts your decision-making, the better your decisions will be, which will provide a significant boost to your win rate.
Another way to reduce the impact of stress and anxiety on your game is through mindfulness and meditation. This can be used as part of a warm-up routine, or it can be used while you’re at the table. Taking a few moments to clear your mind can help you reset after losing a hand or making a poor decision. Not addressing your emotions at the table can lead to tilt, which, at high stakes, is a death knell to your bankroll.
If you’re someone who suffers from tilting at the table, one of the best ways to counteract its effects is by engaging in positive self-talk. Poker players are quick to beat themselves up after losing a hand or making a mistake, and it can quickly spiral into a diatribe of self-hate which will cut your confidence and have a significant impact on your game. However, by engaging in positive self-talk, such as “I recognize my mistake and will use it to improve,” or “I played that hand to the best of my ability regardless of the result,” you can keep your confidence high, which will allow you to perform better at the tables.
Embracing Variance and Bankroll Management
For a lot of players, their confidence comes from knowing that they have a secure bankroll behind them that allows them to play in high-stakes games. Downswings are inevitable, especially at the highest stakes, so it’s vital that you practice bankroll management to absorb those downswings when they occur. If you’re not practicing bankroll management, or are underrolled for your game, you’ll find it nigh on impossible to make the correct decisions at the table.
Poker is a game that’s all about the long term. Any player can win an individual hand or even an individual session, but in the long term, the best players will consistently win. Sometimes, that long term is really long term, and you need to be prepared for that. It’s said that at some point in their career, every poker player will lose more than they thought possible for longer than they ever thought possible. Do you have the bankroll to handle a downswing like that?
You should be financially secure enough to walk into the game, lose several buy-ins, and not have it affect you. Sure, you’re going to be a bit annoyed that you lost, but you shouldn’t be scrambling behind the couch looking for loose change to make ends meet after it. If you’re focused on short-term results, you’re going to make sub-optimal decisions to “protect” what you have in front of you, when sometimes the highest-EV play is also the highest-variance play.
As edges are often so thin at the high stakes, you need to make sure you’re taking every edge you can get, which means embracing the variance of the game. A 51/49 flip in your favor will let you print money in the long term, but if you’re not mentally prepared for some hellacious swings, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of it for very long!
Developing a Strong Mental Game
This is why it’s so important to develop a strong mental game. Arguably the biggest edge to be found at the highest stakes is handling the pressure and the variance better than your opponents; everyone there knows what ranges they should be opening and how often they should be c-betting, but if you tilt less than your opponent, you’re going to be making much more in the long run.
Another aspect of having a strong mental game is the ability to remain focused for extended periods of time. The poker table is full of information, you’re constantly picking up data points on how your opponents play, how aggressive they are, what hands they play from different positions, etc., etc. But, if you’re too busy scrolling through Twitter because you got bored waiting for a good hand, all of those data points are going to be lost on you. The players who are able to stay focused and keep their concentration up will use all of those data points to their advantage and will end up crushing the game in the long run.
Arguably the biggest part of having a strong mental game is being self-aware at the table. Knowing the difference between a mistake that you’ve made and a bit of bad luck will help you improve as a player, and will give you a clearer indication of what to work on away from the tables. You should also be constantly aware of your mental state at the table, and be able to recognize when you’re on tilt or acting emotionally. Once you’ve recognized that you’re in a heightened emotional state, you need to have the self-control to remove yourself from the situation until you’re mentally fit to play again.
Not many players have the discipline to remove themselves when they get tilted; they don’t want to miss a hand in case this is the hand that gets them even, and they can’t bring themselves to miss any opportunity. While it’s true that any time you spend at the table is an opportunity loss, sometimes it’s necessary to adequately control your emotions. Playing while angry, annoyed, or frustrated will cloud your judgment, particularly if those emotions are targeted towards a single player.
We’ve all seen a player get bad beat by the same guy two or three times in a row, and suddenly they’re in every pot they play. They’re desperate to get revenge against the person they think “wronged” them, and inevitably lose the rest of their stack to them over the course of the night. Don’t think that this just happens at your local $1/$2 table – the high-stakes players are humans just like you and me, and everyone is susceptible to tilt.
If your goal is to consistently play at the highest stakes, you need to find ways to control your emotions, ideally while you’re at the table. Being able to reset your emotions between hands is an incredibly important skill that very few master, but it depends on you continuously being mindful of your emotional state, and taking steps to improve it if it starts to deteriorate.
Deep breathing exercises have been shown to relax people in stressful situations, so if you find yourself getting stressed after losing a hand, close your eyes and take ten deep breaths. By removing yourself from the situation and focusing on your breathing, you allow yourself to mentally reset and prepare yourself for the next hand.
Poker is entirely a mental game, so if you have negative emotions clouding your judgment, you’ll find it hard to make optimal decisions. Even if you know what the correct decision should be, it’s easy to let your emotional thinking override your decision out of anger, frustration, or even fear. By staying emotionally stable, you’re better able to access the logical part of your brain, which will allow you to think through your decision and come to the correct conclusion.
While keeping your emotions in check is important at the poker table, one emotion that can allow you to increase your performance is confidence. Confidence is incredibly important when you play poker. Poker is a game of incomplete information, so you can never be certain that your decision will be correct; however, having confidence in your knowledge of the game and what you should do in certain situations will help you make the right decisions more often than not.
Players who are low on confidence will constantly second-guess themselves, thinking that their decision must be wrong because they’ve been burned so many times before. This is counter-intuitive, and players who are technically competent but low on confidence will consistently make the wrong decision due to their lack of certainty.
Being able to generate confidence before you sit down and play is a key skill that many poker players have, as it puts them in the best possible mindset when starting a game. For some people, generating confidence is difficult, but there are several ways you can give yourself the confidence you need to back your decisions while you play. Remembering past successes is one of the most common ways people generate confidence; by remembering a time that you played well or dominated a table, you can put yourself back into the mindset you had at the time.
Another way that people gain confidence is through thorough preparation before a game. Do you remember how good it felt in school to walk into a test knowing that you knew the subject inside out; that no matter what it would throw at you, you had the answer? Well, by studying hard and gaining a solid understanding of the game, you can bring that same test-ready confidence with you to the poker table.
Throwing back to our section on pre-game warm-ups, one thing you can add to your routine is visualizing successful outcomes. By imagining yourself winning, you can trick your mind into thinking that you have already won, and thus give you the confidence to perform well when you sit down to play.
Adapting to the Competitive Environment
One of the biggest changes you’ll notice when you sit down at a high-stakes table is the number of competitive players around you. At your local $1/$2 table, more than half the table is likely just there for fun, and don’t really care about the result either way. However, at higher stakes, many of the players who sit down are there to win. They’re constantly looking for edges over each other by studying how they act and how they play – and you need to do the same.
You can’t sit back and let the money come to you like you can at low stakes, you need to go out and actively earn it. So, when you sit down, don’t immediately pull out your phone and start mindlessly scrolling, study the table and see how your opponents are playing. While the players are better at high stakes, they’re not perfect, and you should be able to find mistakes in their game that you can exploit. So, when you find players making these mistakes, punish them by changing your strategy – don’t let them get away with it.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you know how your opponent will play because you’ve seen them play a couple of hands in a strange way; you should be constantly updating your mental log of how your opponents play each time you sit down. Maybe the first time you play with someone they were in a heightened emotional state and ended up punting 5 buy-ins. You’ve now got them logged as a maniac, so when they sit down again, you assume they’re going to blast off as usual. However, this time, they’re in a more balanced emotional state, and they’re playing competently.
If you don’t adjust your read of that player, you’re going to be making huge mistakes that will significantly cost you in the long run. Always keep an open mind at the poker table, as you never know when someone will surprise you.
While it’s exciting to find a high-stakes game where you have a positive win rate, you should resist the temptation to play it all day every day. Playing such an intense schedule will quickly lead to you burning out, reducing your interest in the game, and potentially leading to sub-optimal decisions. That’s why it’s important to balance your time at the tables with time spent away from the game.
You should actively look to balance playing time and studying time to ensure that you’re consistently improving your game and staying ahead of the curve. If you spend all your time playing and zero time studying, you may find your edge in the game slowly diminishes over time. We also recommend engaging in self-reflection away from the tables; analyze your performance in these games and honestly reflect on whether or not there’s anything you could be doing better. By having these frank discussions with yourself about your performance, you can find areas to improve that may have been harder to spot.
Most importantly, you should ensure you have plenty of time away from poker. While it’s a great game that many of us love, it’s essential to live a balanced life if you want to perform at your best. So, always make sure you schedule at least one day of non-poker-related activities during your week. By removing yourself from the game entirely, you’ll find that when you return, you’ll be more engaged in what you’re doing and will find it easier to stay focused and present while you’re playing.
Many people believe that their best chance of making it in the poker world is by being a lone wolf; after all, who would trust a poker player, right? But history shows that the best players in the world consistently surround themselves with other top players; Doyle Brunson and Puggy Pearson; Ivey, Negreanu, and Cunningham, the SHRB crew, the list goes on!
By surrounding yourself with a supportive network of other high-stakes players, you’re giving yourself one of the biggest advantages that’s possible to have. Having this network allows you to share experiences with one another about an environment that very few people can truly relate to. Finding people who can fully relate to what you’re going through is rare in life, so when you find them, they’re a valuable resource.
You can also gain valuable insights by talking to other players who play at a similar level to you. By discussing a hand with a fellow high-stakes pro, you can open your mind to a whole new way of looking at the game that you would never have thought of if you were on your own. Everyone sees the world differently, and to limit yourself to only one world-view is going to hinder your ability to fully understand this complex game.
If you’re struggling to find a group of high-stakes players to use as a support network, another viable solution is to speak to a sports psychologist. These people are trained to get inside the minds of high-performance athletes, and while poker isn’t exactly a high-performance game, the mental struggles of high-stakes players aren’t too dissimilar to those of elite athletes. By speaking to a sports psychologist, they’ll be able to give you insights into the best way to stay mentally sharp before, during, and after your session to give you an edge on your opponents.
Learning from Mistakes
One of the most important things you should be doing when playing high-stakes poker is learning from your mistakes. Your opponents in these games are going to be sharp and will pick up on mistakes that you’re regularly making. If you don’t seek to actively improve these mistakes, you’re leaving a weakness in your game that will be repeatedly exploited by your opponents.
For some players, acknowledging mistakes can be difficult, as it forces them to come to terms with the fact that they’re not perfect at the game and still need to improve. Let’s give everyone reading this a little reality check – just because you’re playing high-stakes poker, it doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the game! You should be consistently improving your games away from the tables and learning from your mistakes on the table.
Mistakes, despite what the majority of the population thinks, are not a bad thing. Sure, they’re not optimal, but we’re human, and we’re always going to make mistakes. However, mistakes give you an opportunity to learn, so you should never hide away from making a mistake. Embrace them. Understand how they’ve happened, why they’ve happened, and the steps you can take to make sure they don’t happen again.
By possessing a growth mindset, you’re able to take perceived negatives and turn them into positives. The only way to eradicate a mistake is to fully understand how it happened. If you bury your head in the sand and pretend that you only lose because of variance, you’ll never improve, and you’ll never become the player you could be.
How you’re able to deal with the pressures of high-stakes poker will have a significant impact on your long-term win rate. There are plenty of competent players who couldn’t cut it at high stakes because they couldn’t handle the pressure, but we want to make sure you’re not one of them. Staying in control of your emotions, embracing the variance, and developing a strong mental game are just some of the skills required to make it at this level, and with the help of the advice and techniques in this article, we hope that you can master those skills.
Remember, dealing with pressure in poker is a continual process that requires constant practice, self-awareness, and a commitment to personal growth. You can’t flick a switch and suddenly expect to deal with the pressures of the game. However, with the help we’ve provided, you have the resources necessary to grow those skills and excel at high-stakes poker.