Fear at the Poker Table – Jared Tendler
In my previous articles I’ve covered the major mental games issues that may be affecting your game, most notably tilt. In this article I’m going to explore the largely overlooked issue of fear. With all the attention tilt gets, poker players generally suck at recognizing the signs of fear. The fear I’m talking about here, doesn’t mean that you have an actual fear of playing poker, it’s more about fear around the game that need addressing such as in your decision making, before a session, or in moving up in stakes.
The Nature of Fear:
Just as frustration is the small piece of anger which eventually develops into tilt or rage, fear is brought about by a single unit that accumulates: a question. Another way to see a question such as: “what does he have?” or “what’s the right play?” is that there are unknowns, that there is some uncertainty. Players will have varying levels of anxiety around these questions that can be built up into bigger fears, but and when you strip them down to the basic layer they’re just questions; each one is legitimate and needs an answer.
These questions can be big or small. Indeed, the larger questions such as “will I ever become a pro?” can weigh on the smallest questions such as “should I be raising here?” In this scenario a “small” question suddenly becomes a breaking point for the larger question which subsequently increases the pressure on the situation and produces fear.
If this is the case then the way to become fearless is not to imagine being fearless, it’s to answer these unanswered questions. The antidote to fear is certainty and certainty happens when you have an answer. You may still be nervous, but the bigger anxiety and fear that really harms your game won’t be there. Obviously some questions such as “will I ever be a pro?” you can’t know yet, so for these types of questions you need to solve the reason why you would ask that question in the first place. For most players a major part of why people ask these types of questions is because they want predictability. However, the nature of poker doesn’t allow for predictability and so by seeking predictability you’re essentially asking to take the risk out of the game, something which would ultimately make the game unprofitable.
Symptoms of Fear:
When your mind goes blank in a big pot and you can’t think clearly and you’re not angry, that’s the pressure getting to you.
Obsessively thinking about past mistakes as you’re playing is another symptom. This is often characterized by second guessing your decisions which in turn makes you fearful of pushing your game and moving up.
Overthinking a situation is a major symptom of fear. This happens when you start to think about too many factors at once and put too much pressure on a situation. In these instances your mind is constantly racing looking for answers, but can’t find them. So, for example, in a spot where you’ve been raised all-in on the river for a large sum of money you begin ask things like: how much is this money worth in real life? Will the other player’s criticize me for making a bad move? Is this player just bullying me? Not to mention running through all the details of the hand: prior action, your history with them, etc.
What was once a straightforward decision has now become a pressure cooker of swirling questions.
Fear of Failure
There are many specific types of fear that I talk about in my book, but Fear of failure is by far the most common issue a player can harbor. This fear may stem from a previous failure in another aspect of their life that hasn’t been properly resolved. In other poker literature, fear of failure generally asserts that you can’t fail if you’re continually learning, which to me seems like a cop out. If you’re learning then it can reduce the risk of failure, but fear of failure is more complex than that. Fear of failure exists because you try to control too much. So if a player believes they can control the outcome of the short term, then their definitions of success are far too high, especially in poker. This desire to over control their results in poker ultimately fails and so the player ends up fearing their decision making, because they assume that was the cause of why they failed, rather than realizing they never had that much control in the first place.
To solve the issue of fear you need to follow a similar Inject the Logic process that I outlined for tilt, only this time by injecting answers when worry, anxiety, or fear shows up. Essentially you need to resolve the underlying issue of fear by identifying the question(s) in your game and then answering them. Or if they are unanswerable questions, figure out why you even want to know it right now. The answers to these questions become the logic statements you need to inject in order to eliminate that uncertainty and subsequent anxiety that evolves from an unanswered question.
This may seem overly simplistic to reduce fear to a question, but if you are certain of the right play or certain you’ll make it as a pro, there is no reason to have fear.
Jared Tendler is a mental game coach and author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2. He also has a podcast exclusive to the mental game, where he has interviewed lots of PokerStars Pros including Chris Moneymaker, Vanessa Selbst, Jason Mercier, ElkY and Eugene Katchlov. You can learn more here.