Avoiding psychological traps in poker is a required component of a winning strategy. In our search for tactics we often overlook mental game to our peril. Dr. Tricia Cardner is on the podcast this week to help you steer clear of common mental game leaks that have ruined scores of players before you. Don’t be one of them. Listen close and take heed to the good doctor’s advice.

Featuring: Cardner, Shaw

Dr. Tricia Cardner. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast this week. It’s great to have you. I know it’s been a long time since you’ve been on the podcast, so if you could introduce yourself to our listeners who don’t already know who you are. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done, and what you’re doing right now in poker.

Dr. Tricia C: Wow, that’s such a wide open question, but first of all let me say I’m glad to be here. Always happy to talk to the Red Chip family, as it were.

I’m the author of Peak Poker Performance, and Positive Poker, which I did with Jonathan Little. I have a website, drtriciacardner.com. Peakpokermindset.com is my training institute, and I basically write all about psychology, teach people about psychology, do consulting around psychological issues, especially those that are related to peak performance, and I guess that’s just sort of the “in a nutshell” bio.

Great. Mindset and mental game in poker is always an important topic, and I feel like more and more people are taking it more seriously. It used to be people would focus on strategies and tactics, but every professional I’ve talked to has really worked hard to develop their mental game.

You, in your description of what you do, say that you teach poker players to be their own mindset coaches, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that approach to making people be self-sufficient with their mental game.

Well, that’s been my more recent focus. I’ve done a lot of coaching, obviously, but it’s not a very efficient process. On the one hand, working one-on-one with people, and two, I see that a lot of things come up over and over again.

I was in my former life a psychology professor, so I have a lot of experience in teaching people about psychology and how to use it. My goal really… and it’s evident with my books, but now I’m making courses as well, is to help people learn some basic strategies for the most common problems, and then they can implement those themselves. I just feel like it’s more efficient, and it fits more with my training, and the specific areas of psychology that I’m trained in.

One of the big kind of theorems is that our job as professional psychologists is to give psychology to the people, and by that it means we don’t hide the information. We don’t hog up the information, but rather we put it out there in a way that everyone can have access to.

I think that if you are going to elevate your game as you mentioned, of course you have to know the strategy and the tactics. But if you’re leaving off attention to your mindset, then you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot.

One of the things that I was really happy to see was when we collaborated on an infographic about a year or so ago on psychological traps in poker, and that’s the topic of the podcast this week, and we’re not going to go over all ten things that were on that list, but to start from that list, procrastination is a big one, and I know you’ve recently been working on some instructional material around that.

Everyone struggles with procrastination on some level, whether it’s in life or in their poker game, but as it specifically relates to poker, what do you see the big procrastination leak being, and how do people address that leak?

Dr. Tricia C: Okay, so you actually in the way you asked the question, you’re bringing out several important things that I want to make sure that we hit.

First of all, everybody procrastinates. When I say everybody, I mean pretty much everybody. Maybe there is that one special unicorn out there somewhere who never procrastinates, but in general, I’d say 99.9% percent of people procrastinate, with research showing about 20 to 25% of people can be considered chronic procrastinators, and that means it’s a real, consistent, deep problem.

For most of us, we just procrastinate here and there. There’s certain things we don’t like to do, and that’s kind of a hallmark of procrastination, is we’re putting off something that we know we really need to do, and it’s going to bite us in the behind if we don’t do it, and the most common reason we put it off would be, it’s actually multifaceted, but it could be something that we find aversive. So it’s a task that we don’t like, we don’t want to do it, and sometimes we find tasks aversive because they’re very overwhelming.

I think this kind of feeds into poker. So in poker, the things that people procrastinate specific to poker, if we put aside all the myriad of things we could procrastinate on, which would be like house chores and paying bills and stuff like that.

In poker, it tends to be study sessions, so maybe I purchase a poker study product like Hand Reading Lab is a great example that James “SplitSuit” Sweeney put out, because it’s very broad and encompassing, and it’s a lot of great information, but it’s pretty long, and so somebody might buy it and be all excited and then they look at it, and then they’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s 20 something videos, how am I going to do that? I don’t have time,” or “I mean to get around to it, but I don’t prioritize it, and then the next thing you know, a year has gone by since I bought the product, and I haven’t even used it.” That’s one aspect.

Another aspect, which your listeners might find surprising, is some people actually procrastinate on getting their volume in, or their sessions. I will have people say, “I wanted to play X amount of time, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t get around to it.” Or, “I knew this was my day to go to the casino, but then I found all these other things I needed to do,” quote-unquote “needed to do”, “And then I didn’t get there when I had anticipated.” So there’s that side of it as well.

Sure. I think the studying one I can certainly relate to that very strongly. Even particularly with ‘The Hand Reading Lab’. I think I got three-quarters of the way through that.

One of the things I’ve noticed a lot recently in poker media, poker strategy, is the popularity of YouTube channels, and kind of “edutainment” of very entertaining hand analysis, but like we talk about a lot on the podcast, if you’re not taking notes and absorbing this information and really doing the hard work of doing hand analysis yourself, you’re not really learning.

How do we tune our brains to really focus in on the rewards that come with studying, when we can’t have them immediately? Does gratification and delaying that come into play with procrastination?

Dr. Tricia C: I think it does come into play, and again, the way you’re asking the questions, you’re really setting it up for me to give you a lot of little tidbits, so I really appreciate that.

A couple of things that came to my mind, with just the example you gave about the YouTube. Okay, if people want to make sure that they’re learning, oftentimes we’re watching YouTube in a very passive sort of way, and like you said, it’s “edutainment”. But if you want to make sure that you really learn the information that was presented, the way to do it is to literally take a few notes like you said, but then when the YouTube video is over, put your notes away and see if you can actually summarize, or explain the concept that you just learned. That is one way to make sure that you actually know it.

What most of us have, is we have sort of… we think we’re fluent, but we’re not, so it’s a fluency illusion, and that means we watched it. We’re like, “Uh huh, uh huh, that makes sense. Oh yeah,” and we think, “I got it.” That’s because we have this illusion that we’re fluent in it, because we sort of know the terms, and we sort of understand it, but without doing the quiz and recall method that I just shared, where you put the notes away and then you try and summarize it, or you try to explain it to someone else, and you have to recall it, that’s how you really know what you know, or what you don’t know. So there’s that aspect of it.

I think another aspect to come to your question is that in order to make the most use of our studies and our reviewing and our materials and all that, we need to be really clear on why we’re doing this. So what is our goal? That helps to increase motivation, and when motivation is increased, then procrastination is decreased, if that makes sense.

Absolutely. And that gets us right into another item on the list here, of the traps, psychological traps in poker, which is lacking goals, because you have to have something that you’re working towards.

Tell me a little bit about your work with poker players, and how you work with them to set the most effective goals that both drive motivation to do some of the things that you’ve been procrastinating about, and also realistically achieve profit, or win rate. How do you structure the goals?

Dr. Tricia C: There’s something that I like to hang my hat on, and it’s called “the motivation equation”, and I’ll go over this briefly, but the motivation equation basically says if you want to understand how motivation works, and then this is going to go back to goals, you need to understand four components.

That’s expectancy times value, divided by impulsivity times delay. I’ll break down each of those. The idea is that we’re going to be more strongly motivated to go towards our goals when the numerator of this equation, which is expectancy times value. Expectancy is, “I have confidence. I believe that I can achieve the goal,” so the more confidence I have that I can achieve my goal, the higher my expectancy is, and that’s best.

The another side of it is value. So value is how important is this goal to me. If I’m just sort of, “Meh. I’d like to get my closet cleaned out, but you know. It’s not super important to me,” then that’d be low value, so probably not going to do it. So my goal would be to have my expectancy, and my value, to both be high.

Then the denominator is impulsivity times delay. So impulsivity is just what it sounds like. If I’m always off onto this or that, if I’m easily distractible, right? Then I’m high in impulsivity. That’s no bueno for goal setting or goal achievement.

Then the other side of it is delay. That means the farther out in the future the end point is, the less motivating it is.

So to put all this together, if we want to increase our numerator and decrease our denominator, what we need to do is we need to come up with mini-goals, or micro-goals, that bring our end task closer to us, so that reduces the delay. It also helps with impulsivity, if we break it down into really small things, because most of us can attend to something for five or ten minutes, but working on something for many hours, days, weeks or months, that’s a whole different ball of wax.

And then, also by making our goals a little bit more concrete and small like that, we’re dealing with the expectancy, because if it’s a small goal, I think, I can achieve that. I can do that. But I don’t know, could I sit down in one afternoon and do “The Hand Reading Lab”, to go back to that? I don’t know about that. But could I watch one video, and take notes, and quiz myself on it this afternoon? Yes. I could do that.

So you kind of see how they work together?

Yeah, absolutely, and the other thing that you’re mentioning there is, you’re setting goals for study, and I think a lot of players just assume that I’ll set a win rate goal, and strive toward that, but that’s the least important thing, right?

Dr. Tricia C: Well, the trouble with setting a win rate goal is, I’m going to the World Series this summer, and of course it’ll be my tenth World Series, so I’ve been around the block with that, but I can say, I want to win X amount of dollars at the World Series, well good luck to me, right? I don’t have control over that. All I have control over is my inputs. I can input how much I study, I can make sure that I have a great A.M. routine, and P.M. routine, so that I’m focused when I get to the tournament. I’ve eaten the right foods, I’ve slept well the night before, all that stuff. Those are the inputs that I have control over.

But I don’t have control over the outputs. But if I pay very close attention to those inputs, and I consistently just over and over and over again work on my inputs, eventually I’m going to get the outputs I want. But I’m not really putting the focus on the outcome right now, because if I don’t have control over it, just what good does it do me?

Great point. What are some kinds of examples of goals that you work with your students to establish?

Dr. Tricia C: It’s very dependent on the player, and a lot of the players that I work with are further along in the journey, so sometimes it’s almost an existential thing, and I think this is important for people to hear, even if they’re a little bit earlier in their career.

It’s the, “Why am I doing this?” And I know when you’re first attracted in, it might be, “Oh, I want to just make this money, and it would be so great, and maybe I wouldn’t have to work my day job anymore.” But I feel like you have to have something bigger than that.

Maybe your end goal is you want to have financial independence, so that you can volunteer, or start your own business, or something like that. There has to be something bigger and broader.

And so a lot of the people that I work with have had a very good amount of success in poker, and now they are trying to figure out … you get to that point where they’re like, “Huh. I made all the money, but I’m still not super happy, or super satisfied. What should I do now?” A lot of the work that I do now has to do with getting more of a solid life path, if you will. I think that’s important even for people who are just starting off, to be thinking about.

Fear of Failure

Sure, and to get down that path in the first place, you have to conquer some fears, and those are some other things that were mentioned on your infographic. Fear of failure, fear of success. Let’s take them one at a time. I think everyone can relate, obviously, to the fear of failure, both in their life and at the poker table. Making it big, all-in, bluff, and the river. We’ve all been there.

So what can we do as poker players, to mitigate that built-in fear of failing?

Dr. Tricia C: I think you have to understand where it comes from. Fear of failure tends to have to do a lot with fear of criticisms, fear of mistakes, and it has to come from self-judgment.

Yes, a lot of it initially, when we’re younger, it comes from outside of us a lot of times. So maybe our parents, our parental figures or whatever, are like, “What did you do that for? That was so stupid!” Whatever, and we internalize that, but now that we’re grownup folk, we are sort of being our own whipping boy or girl. It’s our own internal judgment that holds us back.

What I think you need to do, is you need to understand that as long as you have that very critical side to your personality, fear of failure is going to show up over and over and over again. You have to really learn something we call in my business, “Acceptance”. Understanding that we all make mistakes, that’s not what defines you as a person. That’s not where your value comes from.

It’s all that sort of stuff that’s wrapped up in fear of failure, and that’s the one thing that holds people back a tremendous amount, is they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to try things. “What if I try, what if I fail? It’ll be a disaster.” These are the kind of thoughts that pop into one’s head if one has a fear of failure. Most people do have at least a tinge of fear of failure, in my experience.

It seems like having talked to a lot of successful poker players, and also familiar with unsuccessful poker players as well, it’s about how you handle mistakes. The pros embrace these mistakes, and look at them as opportunities to learn, whereas amateurs, they can’t get ahead. They have a mistake, and they recoil, and they think they’ve done something wrong, and they’re in a negative space. I mean, how do you advise your clients and students how to deal with mistakes?

Dr. Tricia C: I mean, mistakes are baked into the game, so I think when you’re just starting out, maybe you don’t realize that as fully, but people who make a career out of this, and who are around for the long-haul, they understand. There’s no such thing as mistake-free poker. There can’t be, because there’s so much hidden information in poker, so if you don’t have access to all the information, how could you possibly play mistake-free poker? Right?

Right, it’s baked in.

Dr. Tricia C: So there’s a lot of just having an understanding, and an awareness of that aspect, but I think you also need to really look at and understand what are you saying to yourself in those moments? What a lot of people are doing, it’s instantaneous thoughts that pop into their head that could be, “You’re so stupid, you shouldn’t have done that, why did you do that?” It’s very critical, negative, just instantaneous popping into the head.

When those thoughts come in, most of the time we don’t even really notice them. They sort of drive the bus. Right? We don’t even notice it, but it’s there, and it’s dictating our behavior, and then if you really started to take the time to notice it, you might notice, “Wow, I talk to myself far worse than I would ever talk to a friend, or a neighbor, or even a stranger that I don’t know, but I talk to myself in this overwhelmingly negative way.” If you are doing that, why would you want to put yourself in a situation to, quote, “make mistakes”?

Fear of Success

Absolutely. Mindfulness is key, it sounds like.

So we can’t talk about fearing failure without the flipside of the coin, fearing success. This is one that a lot of people have trouble understanding. The knee-jerk reaction is, “How could you be afraid to final table the main event? World Series of Poker?” But there’s some subtle stuff going on with the fear of success, right?

Dr. Tricia C: Absolutely. I’ll tell you why people would fear making the final table. Okay, if I have a great amount of success, people are going to be looking at me a lot more closely and critically, right? “What if I do stupid things in front of the camera?” So that could be an issue.

But there’s also issues of, “When I achieve a certain level of success, even though that is a plus, there are potential minuses that come with it.” So the minuses could be, maybe I lose friends, because they’re jealous of me, or whatever the case may be. Or when we go outside of poker, think about it. When I graduate college, that’s a very good, positive thing, but it also means that I have to get a job, so I have to get out in the real world to get a job.

I had a friend who managed to drag out a, quote-unquote full-time college experience, for ten years, and that was only getting a bachelor’s degree. It wasn’t getting Master’s and Doctoral degrees and things like that. And it was a fear of that success. It’s like, “Okay, if I finish, then I have to move onto the next phase.”

So yeah, if I make the final table of the main event, then what would be next? That is kind of the underlying fear that pushes that fear of success. It sounds really weird, but when you look at it, it makes a lot of sense.

The mind is fascinating in the ways that it can support us, as well as undermine us. That’s just a few of the items on the infographic. Our listeners, if you want to check it out, it’s on redchippoker.com/traps, and if people want to learn more about mental game, I know you have a lot of stuff going on. A lot of resources. Where can people find more information about what you’re up to?

Dr. Tricia C: I have a Facebook group. It’s Poker Mindset Mastery Lab, and so you can join that. It’s a private Facebook group. You can come to my training site, which is peakpokermindset.com, or just more generally, you can come to my general site, which is drtriciacardner.com, and you can hit me up on Twitter too, which is @DrTriciaCardner.

Excellent. Well, Dr. Cardner, thank you so much for being on the podcast, and we wish you the best of luck at the World Series of Poker this year.

Dr. Tricia C: Thanks so much. I hope to see everybody there.