Learn How to Practice Emotional Control for Increased Profit

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Raise your hand if you need help learning how to control your emotions at the poker table. (WPT Photo / Joe Giron)

How to Practice Emotional Control

Anyone who has done any work at all on their mental game as a poker player has heard a lot about the concept of ‘emotional control’. Traditional logic says it’s important to manage your emotions, not let them get out of hand, react as rationally as possible and never let yourself get tilted.

Of course, this is all a whole lot harder than it sounds. We all have an imperfect degree of control over our emotions – if we didn’t, they wouldn’t really mean anything at all, since we’d just choose to be happy all the time. While we do control the perspectives and attitudes that direct our emotions – and thus, we do have the power to improve the quality of our emotions over time – there are many external factors outside poker that make it hard to maintain an even keel at the table 100% of the time.

In fact, part of the reason for this is that this reality exists in everyday life as well – life subjects us to countless situations on a constant basis that have either positive or negative effect on our emotions. Much of what we do in life is a consistent struggle for a more continuous flow of positive emotion into our lives, and a minimisation of negative emotion.

Modern society, especially, conditions us to react emotionally to almost everything we see or hear – think of how difficult it is to discuss politics, religion, art or even sports in today’s world without encountering someone with strong emotions to share. So what can we do to avoid falling into these same emotional traps at the poker table? How can we actively practice detaching ourselves from the game emotionally, instead of simply revisiting nuggets of advice we heard years ago that aren’t working anymore? Here are a few ideas.

Use ‘real life’ to your advantage

The first step to being in control of your emotions at the poker table is to become more in control of your emotions in everyday life. There’s often a very strong correlation between the people who experience the most tilt issues in poker, and those among us who find ourselves particularly stressed or suffering from anger issues in general.

Think about the situation where someone does something in the workplace that makes it more difficult for you to do your own job effectively, or when they cut you off on the road, or when your favorite sports team loses. Do you find that to be a particularly frustrating situation? These are all things you have no control over, so when they happen, it’s an opportunity to exercise as much control over your emotions as you can.

Whether it’s learning to take a step back from the situation and breathe more consciously, or simply just reminding yourself of your lack of control and the need to focus on responding appropriately, each of these occurrences is an opportunity for emotional growth that can help produce improvements in the way you handle poker frustrations. Actively encouraging yourself to respond in the ways you would like to respond at the poker table gets you closer to that goal.

Work on resolving your frustrations

If you’ve ever read any material by Jared Tendler, you’ll know that he heavily emphasizes the need to actively resolve the issues affecting you, rather than simply trying to put a band-aid on them by repeating mantras or berating yourself for every time you slip into an unhealthy mentality. You need to approach your emotions by trying to be your own therapist in a way – this requires stepping outside of yourself for a moment and trying to get an overall perspective on where your issues are coming from.

When you take a bad beat or make a mistake and it frustrates you to a great extent, ask yourself why it is you feel that way. Is it because you feel it’s unfair that you should have to deal with those bad beats, or that having the best hand or making a correct play means you should win the hand? Obviously, this is an unrealistic goal, since the simple mathematical reality of each situation means you should win sometimes and lose sometimes.

If you struggle with mistakes more than bad beats, ask yourself why these mistakes cause you so much angst. Is it because you think it’s realistic to develop a game where you never make any mistakes at all? Furthermore, do you think you know enough about your game to be able to correctly identify every mistake you make? The biggest mistakes in your game – which theoretically should be the ones that frustrate you the most – are almost always the ones you don’t see, the ones that occur in your blind spots.

Put yourself in low-consequence emotional situations

One technique I find useful is to replicate emotional control situations by giving yourself opportunities to practice without attaching any consequences to the effort. This allows you to focus on emotional control for its own sake – you’re not doing it with any long-term goal of making yourself better at poker.

One example of this, which might sound a little unusual at face value, is watching horror movies. If you’re like me and suffer from anxiety issues (a big factor in making emotional control more difficult), then you might find horror movies to be a particularly intense experience – they’re designed to draw you in emotionally and invite you to engage with the characters and situations, just like any other movie experience.

The difference with horror movies is they can put you in a headspace where you feel actively threatened and need to remind yourself of the ‘unreal’ nature of what you’re seeing – in many ways, your brain has to fight your emotions the same way it does when instinctive responses come up at the poker table. Reminding yourself to take a deep breath and stay in the present moment while watching a particularly scary movie might actually be a good way of cross-training.

I mentioned earlier the circumstance where your favorite sports team loses, and this is another one on the list of good opportunities to practice. Many people react to sports on an emotional basis – this is why we enjoy them. But as much as people might like to refer to their sports team using the word ‘we’, you as a fan or supporter don’t have any influence at all on the way the team plays.

Understanding that your sports team’s results are going to be the way they’re going to be regardless of your actions is an important way to practice acceptance and surrendering to your lack of control is a valuable step forward. No matter how loud you cheer or yell at the TV screen, you as an individual have no control at all.

Experiment and decide what works for you

Finally, it’s crucial to recognize that everyone is different, and everyone brings different emotional issues to the table as a result. What works for someone else and gives them a great degree of control over their emotions might not work for you. For example, one of the most effective things for me personally is yoga – there are one or two styles of yoga in particular that put me in an extremely well-balanced mindset before a session and give me much greater control over my emotions.

For you it might be lifting weights, or going for a walk, or spending time with your spouse – the more stable and positive your emotions going into a session, the more likely you’ll be in control of them throughout the session. The same goes for sleep, diet, overall health and their relationship to work and family life, and many other factors – managing the way you set yourself up to respond appropriately to challenges in these areas by establishing a process for developing emotional control is a highly beneficial practice.

With a consistent consideration of your own circumstances and challenges, you’ll be able to grow your control over your emotions in the long term. This greater degree of control will bring you closer to a high-level mental game, which in turn will bring you closer to a higher-EV playing style. The link between emotional control and control of decisions is very clear, and being mindful of your emotional challenges will put you in a position to make better decisions right away, and make more money as a result.