Painless Poker: 5 Top Tips to Improve Your Game by Eliminating Poker Pain

When looking to improve, most of us are mainly focused on the technical aspects of the game. How much to raise pre-flop, when to c-bet, the Expected Value of a semi-bluff, etc.

Whereas we should definitely study these aspects closely, there is another dimension to poker that is often underestimated and neglected. I’m talking about the mental side of poker.

Tommy Angelo’s latest book Painless Poker gives a great insight into how you can improve your mental game by eradicating the “pain” in poker. He explains how to stop experiencing “thought pain” and tilt, so that you can instead focus your mind entirely on what poker should be all about: coming up with the best possible decisions at the table.

Painless poker = A focused mind = Better decisions = More poker profit

A simple formula, but oh so hard to attain.

In this blog post I’ll give you some top tips on how to achieve painless poker and increase your profitability. But first, let’s take a look at what poker pain is and what kind of effects it has.

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Pain in Poker

Every poker player knows that you will experience pain in the game at some point. Sometimes a lot of pain.

Games come with emotions. Winning (joy) and losing (pain) is what games are all about. And this applies to poker in particular.

  • First of all, if you lose at poker, you lose money. And that makes it more painful than when you lose a friendly game of tennis or whatever.
  • Secondly – and this is a particular aspect of poker that can sometimes be hard to deal with – you can still lose in poker even when you’re playing the perfect game. The luck factor in poker entails that you can play perfectly and still lose. This can be really frustrating for a player and adds to the pain of a losing session as a result of bad luck.
  • Finally, the intensity of poker means that problems (and pain) come at you at a higher pace than you might be used to.

To quote what Tommy Angelo said on our Podcast about this:

“In the course of regular life, we have problems that arise and then maybe there’s some self-reflection and trying to figure out how to handle that better next time.

If you live a normal life, the amount of stuff that comes at you is at a relatively slow pace, the number of problems that you have. But at poker it’s hyper accelerated. You’re challenged over and over and over, 1,000s of times more often than normal people. And then, also, you’re left alone with your thoughts in between hands or in between sessions to try to untangle what happened or what went wrong mentally.”

A New Definition of Poker Pain

Poker pain is normally considered to be the spikes. The bad luck of losing to a 2-outer and then tilting off the rest of your stack.

But, like Tommy does in his book, it’s actually more helpful to define poker pain in a much broader sense.

Poker pain could then be defined as any type of unhappiness or discomfort whatsoever.

Apart from tilt, it could also be:

  • Impatience
  • Boredom
  • Any kind of discomfort

These things all prevent us from playing our A-game. If we put it like this, every player experiences pain in poker.

How We Struggle with Thought Pain in Poker and in Life

Thought pain – as opposed to physical pain – is a form of pain that we are less aware of, yet it causes us a tremendous amount of discomfort. In poker and in life.

If we know and realize what thought pain is – and what kind of destructive effect it has – we are better equipped to deal with it.

The following scenario is one that you’re probably all too familiar with:

You do something stupid, resulting in a loss of money, damage to something, physical pain, or whatever. You can’t change the situation and you’re going to have to accept it.

However, this is exactly what you do not do. Instead, you keep thinking to yourself: “How could I be so stupid? Why on earth did I do that? Why do I always have to be such an idiot?” Over and over again. Until you feel even more miserable.

The situation is bad enough as it is, but you make it even worse by continuously blaming yourself for what you did. This kind of thought pain gets you nowhere, but it can be incredibly difficult to ignore.

The same thing happens to us at the poker table. And I’m sure you know that feeling as well.

You make a silly call for a big chunk of your stack. Or some douchebag hits a 2-outer on you. Instead of letting it go and fully focusing on your game again, you are still thinking about it 10, 20, 30 hands down the line. You keep blaming yourself for making that dumb call. Or you are still upset about that tough bad beat.

This doesn’t change the situation and only makes things worse. Being unhappy and distracted doesn’t do your game much good and you’re bound to lose even more money when you’re in this state of mind.

The Effects of Poker Pain

Poker pain can have a disastrous effect on your game and your profit.

The spikes in poker pain are the most obvious ones. If you start tilting and steaming, that’s a good recipe for quickly losing a lot of money.

But also the less intense forms of poker pain have destructive effects. If you keep having negative thoughts about bad beats or incorrect decisions that you made earlier during your session, you will not play your best game. Far from it.

Your mind is focused on things it shouldn’t be focused on. Thinking negatively about things that are in the past and you can’t change anyway, only distracts your mind from what it should be doing: trying to make the best possible decisions at the poker table.

In short, poker pain has a considerable negative effect on both the quality of your game and your win rate. This kind of thought pain is something that you should strive to eliminate as best as you can.

It doesn’t get you anywhere and only causes unhappiness. In poker as well as in life.

The Road to Painless Poker

Painless poker is something that we should all strive for.

It improves the quality of our decisions at the table, it increases our profits, and it also increases our happiness and calmness.

But can we actually achieve such a state?

As Tommy said on the Podcast:

"Painless poker is attainable, but not sustainable. We’ve all experienced moments at the table when we’re content, and when we’re at peace. And then we experience moments at the table where we’re dissatisfied. And to me it’s just a matter of having more ‘at peace’ and less dissatisfaction.”

So this is the whole idea. Can we ever achieve a state where we are always 100% at peace at the table, playing our best game? Nope. But we can definitely improve our game and results by constantly trying to:

  • decrease poker pain
  • and increase the moments of being at peace and playing our A-game

Okay, so how do we do that?

Here are my 5 top tips to achieve painless poker:

1

Reduce Resistance

Resistance is a common factor of pain.

When reality is painful, we are inclined to resist it. We start wishing that things were different than they actually are.

When you get a bad beat and lose a big chunk of your stack, our natural response is often to resist it. Instead of letting it go, we keep tormenting ourselves by thinking: “How can I be so unlucky? Why does this always happen to me?”

The longer we resist reality, and the longer we keep thinking about it, the more our game suffers and the worse our decisions become.

Try to reduce your resistance to reality and accept the new situation. The quicker you can let this poker pain go, the happier you will be. Get it out of your system as quickly as possible, so you can focus on playing your best game again.

"The gap between accepting things the way they are and wishing them to be otherwise is the tenth of an inch of difference between heaven and hell.”

--- Phil Jackson, NBA coach

2

Increase Awareness

This is a vital step in dealing better with poker pain.

If you increase awareness, by realizing when you are falling victim to negative thought cycles, you can eliminate that poker pain much more easily.

In his book, Tommy compares this to “leveling”, something that poker players regularly do already.

At level 1, we are not even aware that we are thinking.

At level 2, we are aware of our thinking. We can step back and think to ourselves: “I am aware that I am constantly thinking about that horrible bad beat 20 minutes ago”.

If you take that bird’s eye view, it becomes much easier to get out of your negative thought cycles.

As soon as you realize that you are still thinking about that bad beat 20 minutes ago, you can step back and say to yourself: I notice I’m still thinking about that bad beat, but that’s not helping me. It happened and I can’t change a thing about it. I’m not going to think about it anymore and just focus on playing my best game.

Try to recognize these thought patterns and observe them with increased awareness.

Life Saver

As soon as you realize you’re constantly saying to yourself “Oh, I’m so unlucky. How can I be so unlucky all the time?”, take a step back, be aware of what you are doing, and step out of those negative thought cycles.

3

Avoid Distractions

Being distracted while playing poker is a common pitfall for a lot of players.

In live tournaments you see players listening to music with big headphones on, checking social media on their phone, watching YouTube videos, or even an entire movie.

They are doing other stuff than playing poker, because of 1 thing: boredom.

Apparently poker doesn’t interest them enough, so they feel they can do other things at the same time.

Let me tell you: this doesn’t help your game and results one bit. You think you can multitask and give sufficient attention to multiple things at the same time? Forget about it. Your game is going to suffer.

Yes, it’s not always easy to stay 100% focused on the game. You might get bad starters for a while and after being card dead for some time, boredom can easily kick in. But instead of doing other things like checking your social media or the latest news, use your time to observe the action around you.

What are other players doing? How many hands are they playing? Are they aggressive or passive? Is that one opponent starting to tilt after losing a few big pots?

This is what you should be doing. Observing other players and figuring out how they play, is what poker is all about. This information will help you in making much better decisions against your opponents in future hands.

Being bored is just another form of poker pain. You’re not 100% focused on the game and once you start doing other stuff out of boredom, your game suffers.

Avoid all distractions and put your phone on airplane mode, tell your family you’re playing poker and ask them not to disturb you, close your e-mail client when playing, etc.

And when you notice you’re getting bored, simply focus more on the action around you. Start taking (mental) notes on other players, observe what is happening. That gives you something to do (and it’s something that you should always be doing anyway). Once you notice you’re getting bored, pay more attention to the game and observe what’s going on at your table.

4

Play a bit Tighter from the Blinds

A great tip Tommy gives in his book is to trim off 5% of your VPIP from the blinds.

In other words: play 5% fewer hands from the blinds.

Even a simple tip like that can help you experience less poker pain and tilt, and therefore better performance and more money.

The 5% of hands from the blinds that you should consider folding, are the marginal hands. Hands where you feel a fold or call won’t make much difference in terms of Expected Value. These are exactly the hands that tend to get you into trouble when you play them out of position.

If you are playing those hands out of position, you will frequently face tough decisions where you’re unsure what to do. Getting into those situations repeatedly, increases unhappiness and uncertainty, and increases poker pain.

A simple thing like playing just that 5% tighter from the blinds, will make you more confident and relaxed, and it reduces the chance of experiencing some serious poker pain.

Quick tip to reduce poker pain: trim 5% off your VPIP from the blinds

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Read Tommy's Book Painless Poker

Painless Poker is one of the best poker books I’ve ever read.

It is not only very entertaining to read (it’s more of a poker novel than a non-fiction book), but it also gives some great insights on how to achieve painless poker.

The book centers around mindfulness and meditation, and how you can use it to improve your game.

This may or may not be your thing, but I can guarantee you that even if you are skeptical about using mindfulness and meditation to improve your poker game, you are bound to get something out of this excellent book.

I won’t go into these techniques in this post, as Tommy does that way better than I ever could. So my final tip is simply: read Tommy’s book on Painless Poker!

Do you have any good tips yourself for achieving painless poker? Share them in the comments below!

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