How do you master the Mind Game of Poker? . May 2006

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How do you master the Mind Game of Poker? by Michelle Burghardt, CHT, CSH and Odds and Stats Help Make Odds and Ends Meet by Howard Schwartz--Gambler's Book Shop

How do you master the Mind Game of Poker?

By Michele Burghardt, CHT, CSH

Everyone knows that Hold’em is a combination of skill, instinct, and luck.  How you rank those three is up to you.  The real key to playing good poker consistently is keeping your head in the game.  But how do you do it?

If one bad beat sends you into a tailspin, what are your chances of making it to the final table?  Tilt, lack of concentration, and confidence are the top three psychological reasons players bust out before they get into the money.  If your hands start shaking and you can’t catch your breath, it’s pretty much a tell that you’re easy pickins’. 

Successful players learn how to control their emotions so they have more control over the outcome of the game.  The brain is an intense mechanism.  It can work for you or against you.  The good news is that you can retrain your brain to respond differently in different situations.

Even though the subconscious part of your brain controls your automatic body functions like breathing, blinking, etc. you can learn to override basic responses.  A simple example; you get kicked in the shin so hard it brings tears to your eyes, but you don’t want anyone to know it hurt – so you just keep walking like nothing unusual happened.  If you let your natural responses take over you’d be jumping around holding your leg screaming like a maniac.  You don’t need total control over your body at all times because you would have to consciously tell yourself to blink and breathe all day long.  You wouldn’t have time to do anything else.    But how great would it be if you could stay relaxed and focused at will?  Your brain can be programmed to do just that.

There are certain NLP and hypnotherapy techniques that help you eliminate subconscious tells, keep you focused when you’re getting tired,  let you move on quickly from a bad beat, and keep the panic down when you’re short stacked.  Professional athletes have been using techniques like these for years.  This is how they stay focused with 50,000 screaming fans, media everywhere, and totally hot cheerleaders shaking their pompoms.  It’s all a matter of training.

Hypnosis has been around forever.  NLP (neurolinguistic programming) is more recent and works extremely well in concert with hypnosis.  It focuses on how you use language to change outcomes.  Hypnosis goes in and out of fad from time to time, but, there is nothing out there more effective in helping you maintain composure in high stress situations. 

NLP is a great tool to use when you want to change how you process information using language.  The brain doesn’t recognize the negative.  So when you  mentally say to yourself “Don’t tilt today – no matter what” and your brain doesn’t recognize the negative word, Don’t, what have you actually told yourself to do?  “Tilt today – no matter what.”  Duhhhh – not a good thing. 

The crazy thing is, you can tilt when you win a big hand too.  Personally, I react physically the same way to a major win as I do to a major loss.  My body goes into that heart pumping, dry mouth thing even when I win.  I’m ok with that as long as I can get my head back in the game instantly and no one notices.  That’s the key.   I’m fortunate that my palms never sweat, because when I shake someone’s hand and it’s fishy, I know they were feeling under the gun and I file that information away for later use.  If your palms do sweat and that’s something you don’t want to worry about, simply do a knuckle bang instead.  Some things just aren’t worth the effort when you have more important things to focus on.

How does it work? 

There are several great techniques used to work with poker players.  To keep things simple, let’s discuss in generalities.  Through hypnosis you can establish an anchor, something like a switch.  Let’s use light (of any type – natural sunlight, fluorescent lights, spot lights, even a lighter).  You basically install a switch inside your brain so that when you need to regain focus and energy, you will automatically notice the light in the room and bring back the same feelings of energy and focus you had at the start of the tourney.  Using an anchor is automatic and designed to go unnoticed.  You don’t want to do anything obvious to your opponents.  They won’t notice you looking around the room where they could possibly notice you rubbing your fingers together.  For one player I used the anchor of wiggling their toes because feet typically are always under the table.

Visualization is also used as a major tool.  When you visualize something your brain can’t distinguish between truth and fiction.  It assumes you can do whatever you visualize and directs your body to respond accordingly. Want to see this in action?  Stand up and swing your arms around to the left – go as far as you can.  Notice how far you were able to turn.  Now close your eyes.  Visualize yourself going around twice as far as you really did.  Do this visualization three times.  Now open your eyes and try it again.  You’ll notice your arms automatically went further around then before.

A more advanced use of visualization involves mentally following someone you think has mastered the mind game.  As you follow them through the tournament, you notice how they respond to different situations.  You can then, through hypnosis, begin to mimic their behaviors and attitudes.  Not only can you do what they do, you can also see and feel what they see and feel; totally calm and relaxed.  This is the short version of the technique, but you get the idea.  You find someone already successful and use visualization to take one their attitudes and beliefs. 

Another important facet to poker hypnotherapy is confidence and desire.  Simply put, do you really think you’re good enough, deserving enough, and do you want it bad enough? 

Self-confidence is a problem for most of us away from the poker table.  Why would we think it wouldn’t affect our level of play?  What you talk about and think is what your brain directs your body to do.  If you think and talk confidently, your brain will direct your body to act confidently.  Remember, your brain controls your body.  So whatever your brain thinks, your body will respond.  Typically, when you’re in a tournament, it doesn’t take long to determine if you’re in the zone or not.  When you use poker hypnotherapy, you can create the zone before you sit down at the table.  You brain generates totally different responses for a confident person vs. someone feeling weak and vulnerable. 

Is poker hypnosis the end all - be all?  No, of course not.  You still have to know how to play.  It doesn’t make you a better strategist.  It doesn’t increase your skill.  It can however make it easier to absorb what you learn.  It will also allow you to play your best game possible. 

With prize pools increasing and the player field expanding, poker hypnosis can give you an edge over the competition.  If 90% of golf is mental, why do we think poker is any different?

Michele Burghardt, CHT, CSH, is a certified Sports Hypnotherapist specializing in poker for Texas Hold’em players.  To learn more about poker hypnotherapy visit or call 314.837.4193.     

Odds and Stats Help Make Odds and Ends Meet

Book reviews by Howard Schwartz (Manager of the Gambler's Book Shop in Las Vegas)

Depending on how deadly resolute you are and your level of play, odds on making various poker hands can be as serious as life or death. A new book by a writer named Catalin Barboianu titled Texas Hold 'Em Odds (143 pages, paperbound $29) is directed to those who are fascinated with gambling probability; who already the plays the game or who are programmers who want to create odds generating software.

This arrived at Gambler’s Book Shop along with a fine beginner's book by Byron Jacobs, Beginner's Guide to Limit Hold'em (272 pages, paperbound, $19.95).

Meanwhile, a very timely annual for horseplayers from titled Maiden Stats (750 pages, paperbound, $99.95)  is also available, just in time for some of the biggest race meets of the year.

Let's look at each work and its value to a gambler:

Barboianu, (whose credentials I am unaware of, since the book offers no biographical or background information about the author), presents information in three major sections: “Own Hand Probabilities,” the chance of getting every hand with either three or four cards on the table; to “Opponents' Hands Probabilities” three four or five cards on the table and “Immediate Odds” including preflop odds; flop odds; turn odds and other odds. Barboianu  explains "the probability formulas and results corresponding to each specific card formation to be achieved are presented in double form; algorithm and table of values." The author adds that the guide is focused on so called "longshot" odds (probabilities of events that are chronologically preceded by others, calculated by using information of that moment before the first event).

Packed with tables, charts and formulas, Texas Hold'em Odds is perfect for those looking for a mathematical edge along while understanding the importance of position, bluffing and "playing the player." I just wish I knew who the author was and whether he plays.

Author Byron Jacobs, a regular columnist for Card Player magazine, also wrote How Good Is Your Limit Hold'em. Jacobs' newest work, Beginner's Guide to Hold'em, contains 11 major chapters, is well illustrated with sample hands and situations, and is geared to novices.  

The first four chapters are basic, describing the hand rankings and explaining how the game is played. Sections which follow concentrate on how hands can develop including focusing on outs, implied odds and pot odds. That’s followed by Pre-Flop Play, including small cards; pairs and non-pairs; playing from the blinds.

Jacobs gets rolling with specific strategies in pre-flop play with discussions on playing pairs, unpaired high cards and speculative hands. He moves to the importance of position; playing strong draw; slowplaying and river play.

Overall, a fine beginner's book, written clearly, with end-of-book exercises to fine tune what he's taught you in earlier chapters.

Horseplayers who realize Maiden Stats 2006's value only have to know the book has arrived, because they know how to use it immediately. The work focuses on more than two dozen types of statistics on nearly every foal born in 2004 which will race this year, with listings by Sire, Dam, Top Sibling and Yearly Sales information. It should help evaluating maiden, turf and off-track races. It is divided into two sections.

The first section is in alphabetical format; the second contains all unnamed 2-year-olds as of Feb. 2006, alphabetically indexed by dams.

You'll be able to spot which sires produce mudders; turf runners; the number of starters the sire has produced and the number of winners produced; plus the percentage of first time starter winners produced. (A sire with 15% or more first time starter winners is typically considered a strong candidate to win their first start.)

Note: The books mentioned here are available from Gambler's Book Shop, 630 South 11th Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101. Call l-800-522-1777 from 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday Pacific time to order, using only MasterCard, VISA or Discover card (no Amex accepted). You may order through the store web site at and view the store's 1,000 books, videos and computer software. You may also call or write and ask for the free 80-page catalog to be sent to you. The store, founded in 1964 by John and Edna Luckman, is located about two miles from Downtown Las Vegas, and the same distance from where the Strip begins, a block west of Maryland Parkway, just off Charleston Boulevard