These hardwired responses in the the most primitive parts of our brains have obvious evolutionary advantages – they help ensure our genes’ successful proliferation. These days though, we are rarely facing a life-or-death situation. Most of our concerns are (fortunately) far more trivial, but our emotional responses still act like we’re living in a predator-strewn wilderness where each misstep could be our last.
In poker, emotions are generally a hindrance, and it’s not without good reason the term “poker face” has become the annoying cliché it has. Even the most basic player knows the golden rule of emotional control: “keep your shit together, make your opponent lose theirs”. Our emotions are beacons of what we’re feeling in a given moment, and the villains across the felt have their signal receivers primed and ready, just waiting to intercept an enemy message.
When we’re in a heightened emotional state, our critical thinking processes can falter, if not entirely shut down. That time someone cut you off in traffic and you chased after them just to flip them off, or when you’re three weeks into the best relationship ever and decide to get tattoos of each other. Rarely do the results of emotionally charged decisions turn out well. And in poker, think of the last time when you were in a really big hand, right on the edge (or well beyond) of your financial comfort zone and the adrenaline is pumping. You’re hyper-aware of your lunatic heartbeat and that your mouth is full of sand, but the one thing you need right now – your brain – is either dead silent or a cacophony of meaningless fuzz. The clock gets called on you, or you just give up and make a random decision to get the horrible situation over.
I call this brain state the “white noise” – when all the usual mental calculations that you’d normally breeze through now seem impossible and you can’t hold a solid train of thought. (Note: not to be confused with White MagicTM, no matter the similarities). This white noise is a result of the classic flight-or-fight mode – great for immediate predator-avoiding decisions, terrible for analytical poker.
How you personally counter this may vary, however these five things have helped me get my brain a little less prone to the dreaded white noise:
1. Repeat exposure to similarly stressful situations (i.e. more poker), because the more time you spend out of your comfort zone, the wider your comfort zone grows. Obv.
2. Another obvious one, but practice the necessary thought patterns you struggle with. Rehearse common mid-game calculations (or whatever it is you struggle with) over and over. Calculate pot sizes/equities in imaginary hands while you’re brushing your teeth/in a taxi/at the gym.
3. Look out for non-poker instances where you get the white noise and examine what its emotional triggers were. Perhaps when a member of law enforcement pulled you over (fear), your partner’s incessant snoring wakes you up before a big day (desperation) or you’re thinking of something impressive to say to a crush (excitement). Even better, try to do some poker-like mental arithmetic at the same time (gl with that).
4. Meditation, sleep and exercise. If you’re chronically tired, you’re already at an emotional disadvantage. Similarly, physical exercise (and meditation, which is mental exercise) help regulate your endocrine system, which in turn regulates your adrenaline and other brain chemicals that disrupt good poker thinking.
5. Accepting that you’ll always have some white noise situations, no matter what you do. The last thing you need to add to the noise is extra worry about the noise itself.
This last point is critical in terms of developing a healthy relationship with your emotions. No matter how much progress you believe you’re making with emotional control, there will always be instances where you lapse from your ideal behaviour. It’s the speed with which you notice this lapse, and your commitment to correcting it, that are the metrics you should be measuring your success by. The goal is not to eradicate our emotions, but to have them serve us in the best way possible.