Living in Poker’s Competitive Paradigm
An often overlooked aspect of the mental game in today’s poker environment is the extent to which taking poker seriously and making an effort to improve your game requires a transformation in the way you look at the world.
Becoming a professional poker player in particular forces you to re-evaluate the way you approach life. In many cases, it can mean going from a lifestyle where your paycheck is only loosely related to your performance and nobody is attempting to steal it away from you, to a domain where literally every single other person who does the same job as you benefits each time you perform poorly.
It’s the ultimate competitive environment. Not even in another individual professional sport like golf or tennis do players have to deal with being part of an economic ecosystem that relies upon a predatory attitude towards exploiting one’s opponents in order to make a living.
So what does that mean for us as players? Even if you’re not a professional player, there are things you can do to ease the adjustment into a competitive paradigm. Here are a few tips.
Accepting defeat (and victory)
It’s crucial not to get too caught up in the idea of winning or losing. If you’re a tournament player, you’re going to lose more often than you win, and even if you’re a heads-up cash player you might only win 60% of your sessions.
If every defeat feels like confirmation that you suck, and every victory feels like you’re the world’s greatest, then your life will be a constant rollercoaster. Your self-esteem needs to be attached to things outside of your poker performance, because the competitive nature of poker will pose a constant threat to your equilibrium if it isn’t.
At the same time, it’s important to give yourself credit for your positive habits and reinforce them appropriately, so when you do find things that contribute to improved performances, you have the self-awareness to continue implementing them in a way that gives you a competitive edge in the long term.
Learning not to hold grudges
We’ve all been through the process of playing at a live table with someone we don’t like on a personal level. Sometimes it’s a guy (or girl) who was a jerk an hour earlier when you asked a question, sometimes it’s a guy who insists on critiquing everyone else’s play, and sometimes it’s a guy who just sucked out on you.
Whatever the circumstances, live or online, attempting to ‘win’ every time a situation crops up where you feel like you’re in a direct confrontation with an opponent is simply going to lead to mistakes, and most likely a lot of results-orientated thinking to go along with it.
Ultimately, there’s no reward for stacking that one person you don’t like – no more than there is for stacking your best friend. Focusing on battling with one specific player through a misguided desire to prove you’re better than they are is a mistake, for the simple reason that nobody is paying any attention to whether you’re better than that other guy anyway, so not even your own social metrics are actually going to give you the ‘victory’ you’re looking for. You’ll get more satisfaction from making the right plays and ignoring the behaviours around you that you don’t like.
Staying one step ahead
We all know poker is becoming more competitive as the years go by, and that increases the demands on those of us seeking to remain at a certain level within the game. At the stage we’re at now, if you’re not improving, you’re declining, because everyone else around you is improving at a fast rate.
This is the hard part of living in a competitive paradigm – you’re forced to keep improving. If you rest on your laurels for just a year or so, you might only be 70% of the player you were before. It might be difficult sometimes to stay one step ahead of other players – they might have more resources than you, a better coach, or a bigger bankroll – but if you’re not at least doing whatever you can, you’re falling behind.
If you’re a recreational player seeking to one day turn pro, consider this as part of your decision. The idea that you will be able to get to a certain point and then just print money for the next 40 years is a complete fantasy. If you’re not willing to put in hours upon hours of work to stay ahead of your competition for the duration of your poker career, you might be better off doing something else for a living.
Success vs happiness
Finally, it’s important to recognize that many people do not find the process of testing their limits and achieving their full potential to be particularly fulfilling. You may get to the top in poker and find out it’s not as much fun as you thought.
This should be part of your thinking throughout your poker journey – if poker isn’t making you happy, or at least putting you on the path towards ultimately being able to live the life you want, then why expend so much energy on it? If the effort you’re putting in to stay competitive isn’t bringing with it a reward, why bother?
Competition needs to be a means to an end. It can’t just be a way to conquer a specific insecurity or prove to everyone how smart you are. If you find that competing for a living means sacrificing your happiness, then you can always follow a different path. Poker will always be there if you change your mind.