Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t know if poker is a sport. If you can do it with a beer in your hand, I don’t know if it qualifies as a sport. That said, I always think of tournament poker as an endurance sport.
I was moderately successful in cash games. I massively multitabled 100 NL and 200 NL online and loved it. The downswings in low-stakes cash games are much less stressful than the ones in tournaments.
However, I always drifted back to tournaments because it played to my strengths. Tournament poker isn’t about who can play the best poker. It’s about who can play the best poker the longest.
I was never the most talented poker player (far from it), but I could focus longer than much of my competition. My longest session ever was 46 hours.
I once busted the WSOP Main Event and then won a $235 event at the Rio for $25,000+ 16 hours later.
My friends were impressed I could avoid tilt and win that event right after a Main Event bust. But honestly, I think anyone could be mentally tougher in tournament poker if they followed some simple steps. It’s just a matter of respecting the game as an endurance event and preparing for that.
These are the steps I follow to be mentally tougher in tournament poker.
1. Pretend the Tournament is Lost
People blow out of tournaments all the time because they care too much. But you have to look at it this way: Unless the first-place prize is in the millions, none of this really matters anyway.
Most of you reading this are from a first-world country. If you are from the United States or Canada or The United Kingdom, then you know even $400,000 is not enough to retire off of (if you want to have a family, a decent home, some travel, or all of those together).
Don’t get me wrong. Winning a tournament is still awesome. I still get giddy when I win$1,000 in a $10 tournament online because, hey, a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks. It does help around the house!
But it’s good to keep things in perspective. Most of us are going to be keeping our day jobs regardless of where we finish. Most of us are not going to the final table. Even if we do win a large sum, most of us should not be playing every $10K event.
What’s going to move the needle for us? Going for the win and having some fun on the way! We’re playing cards. This is supposed to be fun.
The way you keep it fun is by playing with money you can afford to lose and pretending you already lost it. They just gave you an extra run in the tournament, and that is pretty swell.
The money should just be a sweetener, to make the game more interesting. If one of these tournaments becomes the be-all-end-all of your life then you’re missing the point.
You don’t play poker for the money exclusively. You play to stare a man down and pick off his bluff. You play to get the sick value bet. You play to amass that stack and wield it with impunity.
“I used to think poker was a great way to make some money. It was when I started playing for the love of the game that I really began getting better.” – Phil Ivey.
2. Lift Weights
If I could go to your house and scream one piece of advice in your ear, it would be this one: lift weights.
When we think of weight lifters, we generally think of steroid-addled dorks flexing in the mirror. The truth is, weight lifting is just a great way to strengthen your muscles and increase bone density. That doesn’t sound like much but let me remind you: You are going to be sitting for 50+ hours straight if you’re going to win one of these big live events.
Have you ever sat on a plane for eight hours? How’d you feel after that? Pretty terrible, right? Yeah…multiply that by six. Then take a standardized test during all those hours. That’s what’s going on with your body deep in a WSOP event.
The fastest way to remove that fatigue is to go to the weight room. Many weight lifting exercises stretch out your muscles even without any weight added. Just doing squats in your hotel room without weights, for example, is a great exercise. But if you can add some weight to that squat it will stretch out your muscles even more. This will leave you feeling much more relaxed before you go to the tournament.
Once you get into this you will be amazed by how much pain you were ignoring before.
Many poker players, myself included, develop a condition called upper cross syndrome. It’s also referred to as “tech neck.” Upper cross syndrome, or UTS, is commonly characterized by the chest, shoulders, and neck muscles being deformed. It comes from leaning over a computer or felt table all day.
I developed UTS a couple of years ago, and it was excruciating. I couldn’t sit for hours at a time anymore.
That was when I committed myself to lift weights three times a week at the very least. I needed to strengthen my back and neck. I needed to work on my spinal alignment.
I wasn’t trying to bulk up. I just knew I couldn’t do my job with that kind of pain anymore. What I didn’t know about weight lifting is how much it relaxes you.
At home in New York, I’ll go to the gym and do mobility work (boring), full-body exercises, and circuit training. Just some generic stuff to feel better and stay in shape. But on the road…lifting heavy is heavenly. A deadlift feels so good on your back after you get off of a plane.
Before a tournament, it’s natural to have a ton of nervous energy. If you combine that with coffee and a heavy breakfast, then God help you.
If you go to the gym, however, and listen to something calming and lift heavier…you’ll be much more relaxed. If you listen to the Joe Rogan podcast you’ve probably heard of this before. Joe Rogan says he doesn’t care about anything after he lifts heavy.
That’s exactly what you need in poker tournaments. Everybody is going to be trying to get you off your game, but you need to keep your eye on the prize.
If you lifted before you the tournament, you’ll have a huge edge on the competition.
I had a really good player recently try to get me off my game in a WPT. He talked about how awkward I am (true). How ugly my face is. How stupidly I play. The works. He’d even try to get other players to say things about me.
I literally didn’t say a word to him. I played my game and was happy with my performance at the end of the day.
That kind of comments still sting, don’t get me wrong. When I was younger, I would easily fly off the handle over that kind of trash talk. But on that day, I had done some heavy sets, and I was content to chill.
Even more encouraging, there’s a great deal of evidence that exercise increases neural performance. Check out the book Spark if you want to learn more about that.
3. Drink a Ton of Water
Alright, guys. The next few tips aren’t going to be nearly as in-depth as that last one, but they still require discussion. This one sounds so stupid, but I can’t stress how important it is: Drink water.
Have you ever read the studies about what people do in standardized tests when they’re dehydrated? It’s awful. This is one of those simple stupid edges you can get that most of your competition isn’t getting. If you don’t drink enough water, get sparkling water. Put lemon slices in it. Get ice water.
I don’t care what you do, just drink the water. Soda, diet soda, coffee, tea, alcohol. All of this stuff dehydrates you, which isn’t a good idea before you play tournament poker, especially in a place that’s as dry as Las Vegas.r. I don’t care what you do, just drink the water.
4. Veggies and Lean Protein
Look, I’ve played poker for fun after eating poutine or something else awful. But it was never a good idea. If you want real focus, then you need to go to lean protein and vegetables.
Have you ever heard one bad thing about vegetables? Exactly. Load up on them. You’ll be amazed at how clearly you think afterward. Lean protein is great for hunger pangs too.
Cognitive performance is apparently enhanced by healthy fats as well. So, you’re looking for fish, chicken, nuts, avocados, good stuff like that.
White carbs can be a huge liability because they give you a glycemic spike and then a crash. Don’t worry about cutting out the pizza for a few days. There will be plenty of time for gorging after you win one of these things.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice…
Researchers have found a wall many people reach. It has to do with “decision fatigue.” You just end up making so many decisions during a day that you end up tired and unable to think.
President Obama and Steve Jobs used to talk about this. They wore close to the same thing every day so they didn’t have to think about what to wear. They were trying to save their decision-making energy for more important times.
The way you’re going to do this in No-Limit Hold’em is by training in your off-hours. You need to expose yourself to situations, quiz yourself, and then see what an expert says. That’s why hand quizzes are such a big deal.
You want to get good with why you open certain hands, why you 3 bet others, what you need theoretically to continuation bet, and why you double barrel. Get the basics down.
Save your mental energy for the really tough situations in poker. Because if you’re thinking intensely on every single hand trying to learn how to play at the table, then you’re going to be cooked mentally really quickly.
This also comes up for when you are jetlagged or sick. This doesn’t get discussed much, but you can’t leave a poker tournament even if you’re sick. If you satellited into a live tournament online and have vicious jet lag, they’re unlikely to unregister you and give you back your money. If you develop a migraine on day three you’re going to need to play through it.
You’re going to need to ruthlessly study most of your decisions before you sit down otherwise, you’ll never get past these times.
6. Sleep Well
Many poker players fall victim to drinking or using sleeping pills to sleep on the road.
But the best way to get sleep on the road is to show up to your hotel room as early as possible. Eat your meal there. Sometimes when you see your buddies for dinner you will all lose track of time, and then you’re all screwed.
Have the lights low. Read a paperback. Better yet, read a complex book you know you should read, but is likely to put you to sleep.
You can also listen to a podcast or audiobook. Don’t watch TV. Don’t read a Kindle. Don’t look at your cell phone. All that white light will keep you awake. Lay down. Call your loved ones. Dial it back a bit. Even if you don’t get an exact eight hours, this kind of rest will help you the next day.
7. Headphones Are Your Friend
I don’t need to tell you this, but some really obnoxious people like to play poker. Another great way to stay level headed is to just put something calming without lyrics on your headphones. Of course, in a perfect world, you’d listen to everyone at the table. But sometimes, there’s some guy who is really talking up a storm, and you just have to turn the chat off.
It’s pretty easy to ignore another player’s trash talk when you can’t even hear them. For additional fun, point at your headphones and mouth the words, “sorry, can’t hear.” Most of these guys want attention. When you deny it to them it drives them insane. Many card sharps also make their bones getting people off their game. Just ignore them.
8. Have a Healthy Life Away from the Game
If all you ever do is play poker then you’re going to burn out very quickly. On your days off, do something else in the foreign city. See the sights. Go to sports matches. Walk the town square. Read a book outside. Live a little. It’s actually an investment in yourself. If you decompress mentally then you’ll be able to play better the next day.
In conclusion, I hope these tips have been helpful to you and your game. Good luck to all of you.
About The Author
In addition to battling on the felt for over 13 years, having final tabled multiple prestigious events such as EPTs, WCOOPs, and FTOPs, Alexander "Assassinato" Fitzgerald has found massive success in teaching the game of poker to thousands of students. The American pro has become a prolific poker content producer, writing two best-selling books and sharing his views on effective exploitative plays and math-based techniques in numerous articles, videos, and webinars you can find on PokerCoaching.com