High stakes poker is an often brutal game in which success or failure is determined by mindset. What are the skills and attributes required to flourish on the poker felt?
The foremost character trait that separates the poker winners from the pretenders is fearlessness. To win at poker you cannot be afraid to shove your chips into the middle. Any reluctance will be viewed as weakness and exploited by the field. Elite players are like sharks circling a school of fish. If they spot a weakling it is time to go in for the kill. Playing with fear will soon have you identified as scared-money and you can expect to be bluffed consistently by the better players. The pros will inflate pots to drag you out of the comfort zone, and then force you to call off your entire stack. Under this type of pressure, scared players will fold too often and watch their stack dwindle to nothing. The best players view poker chips are pieces of plastic and disregard the monetary value represented. Fortune favours the brave, and timid poker players do not make winning players.
The opposite to scared-money is too-much-gamble. Degenerates are drawn to all forms of gambling, poker included. A player with too-much-gamble cannot wait to get all his chips in the middle. His stack is an irritation while it sits idle on the sidelines, and he wants to jam it in. The line between scared-money and too-much-gamble is a fine one that needs to be calibrated to whatever the rest of the table is doing. In a loose game, a tighter approach will be called for, but if the table is tight then a more aggressive approach will reap the greatest dividends. The too-much-gamble player is great for the game. He gets more money into play and that rewards the entire table. He will be at the top of invite lists, and games can form around such a player. He will be shouted drinks and made to feel comfortable so his degeneracy can bloom.
When there are huge volumes of money flying around a poker table the greatest attribute a player can possess is a cool and level head. There will be moments of panic, despair, joy, and ecstasy. But while this is happening a cool head must remain. An emotional player will go on tilt when he feels aggrieved by lady luck and blast off money until his composure is regained. While on tilt, a player can expect to be targeted by the rest of the table. His bluffs will be called by extremely weak holdings, he will be consistently re-raised to be isolated, and this may add to his mentally compromised state. Many professionals will leave the poker room for a breath of fresh air following a bad beat. They will get their inner dialogue back on track and push out the negative thoughts before rejoining the fray. A 5 minute break can save a high stakes player thousands of dollars in money that might have otherwise been thrown away while on tilt.
Criticism of the latest generation of poker superstars centres on their table demeanour. Many pros are slow and take minutes to make routine decisions. This stalling has forced many high stakes games to introduce time limits to maintain the flow of action. Pros can also tend to be robotic at the table while their CPU crunches the high level math required to play like a computer. The most successful players are friendly and jovial at the table. They encourage the amateurs and make them feel at home. The biggest poker games in the world are private, invite only affairs. A silent robot who fails to interact and always wins will soon find himself removed from invite lists, thus costing him potentially huge sums. A devil-may-care attitude, combined with good social skills, and a gracious attitude to wins and losses are traits required to access the huge private games where the action is rich and juicy.
Great poker players are relentless. They never stop the pressure. They fight and scrap for every pot. They effectively use the power of position to put you in tough spots. You are the nut they are trying to crack, and they will just keep hammering away for as long as it takes. This relentlessness is especially effective in short-handed games where there is no place to hide. You beat the pro in a hand, and he comes straight back at you. There is no respite. He does not slacken off when he is winning, but just keeps hammering. A player lacking in this persistent relentless nature will climb to the top of the poker food chain.
Great poker players are patient. While pressure is an essential part of the game, there will be long periods when folding is the most profitable play. Think of a fisherman, hunched over his rod, waiting for a bite. He does not keep changing bait or needlessly casting to new spots. He has a strategy and he is just patiently waiting for it to pay dividends. Time can drag at the poker table. Hours of staring at mediocre starting hands can get tiresome and irritating, but to play the junk is to give money away, and great players do not just hand it over, you have to extract it via smarts and strategy.
For the uninitiated, poker is the game out of James Bond’s Casino Royale. Rich men in tuxedos sip cocktails while waiting to make a straight flush and win millions of dollars in a single hand. But real poker is a grind played by grinders. It is tough and demanding work that calls upon a specific set of skills. The game rewards hard work and an ability to solve complex problems in real time. It demands resilience and fortitude and is excellent training for many other of life’s disciplines and pursuits.
Jackson Byrne @ A Man’s Guide