Mental balance in poker

With this post I'd like to talk about the topic of mental balance, something more and more top players are starting to think more specifically about these days -- and to take more seriously, too, as important to their games.

Recently we had the new run of "German High Roller" shot in Velden. It's a very popular poker show and is now in its 10th season, and the most recent group of players who appeared included Tobias Reinkemeier, Philipp Gruissem, and several other top German pros.

The show made me think about first talking to guys like Reinkemeier and Gruissem several years ago. They were very mathematical in their thinking and worked especially hard at analyzing the game and improving as players. But whenever I'd bring up a topic like "energy" or "flow" -- that is to say, something the relevance of which couldn't be precisely measured and accounted for -- they would always just smile and kind of dismiss those ideas.

Now, however, I'm seeing the same guys reading books about creating positive mental energy, discussing subjects like having the right mindset and finding ways to deal with variance, and pursuing other similar methods of improving their games.

Gruissem is doing yoga, for example. Martin Finger is another player who these days is playing sports a lot and talks about how important that has been to keeping himself mentally balanced at the tables. Others are doing meditation and finding other ways to work on achieving that needed mental balance at the tables.


I definitely believe it is important to try to get into what I think of as the right "flow," meaning you are able to exist in a kind of harmony with the world around you.

Take a common situation when you find yourself all in and at risk of elimination from a tournament with, say, [A][Q] and your opponent has [A][6]. You sit there and you just know a six is coming and you're going to be eliminated. You can't think of anything else!

Well, obviously you don't have any control over whether a six actually does come or not, but you are certainly existing in a way that might be thought of as being "against the flow," and regardless of how the hand turns out it's always going to be better for you if you can learn how not to be that way.

There are real, tangible benefits in poker to being able to play with mental balance. It could happen once or twice in the course of a session where an opponent might fold to your bets or play differently against you simply because you exude a kind of calm or self-confidence in your appearance. Your opponent will think "Oh this guy, he's so calm, he's so relaxed... he must have a good hand," and toss away his hand when he might otherwise have called.

The easiest way to control your expressions and actions is actually to be calm and in possession of mental balance, and opponents will notice this and often play accordingly.

Think of the opposite case, that is, the player who whines a lot and complains about getting unlucky and who is clearly existing in a way that goes against this "flow" to which I'm referring. What often happens with such players is their opponents don't fear them or even respect them, and when they show such mental weakness -- or lack of balance -- their opponents hardly feel sorry for them. Rather, they jump on them right away and try to take advantage!

I remember playing a cash game once long ago and having someone make a call against me that seemed strange. I asked the player afterwards why he made the call, and he just shrugged and said "Because I feel like you are unlucky right now."

He'd picked up on something, I'm convinced. Something about the way I wasn't in the "flow" and thus wasn't as balanced as I should be. It's hard to pinpoint these things or measure them exactly, but I think they help remind us that there are still many things about the world we don't understand or can't perfectly measure. But they still affect us.

I'm glad to see these top pros who used to dismiss the importance of creating a positive mental state now take it seriously. And I don't think it's a coincidence at all that these players who now believe in the importance of a having a very good mental balance are continuing to be successful at the table. Because after all, being able to achieve mental balance really is a crucial aspect of being a successful player.

Michael Keiner is a member of Team PokerStars Pro

Michael Keiner
@PokerStars in PokerStars news