Poker is a game of edges. You find edges, you take advantage of edges, and in the longrun you win money. But the game of poker has changed a ton over the last 15 years, and it’s going to change a lot more over the next 15 years. It used to be that simply playing tight was enough to generate an edge because players were so spewy. But today…that’s nowhere near enough to have an edge in the game.

Now a days you have to be solid in all facets of your game to make solid money. You have to be able to 3bet well, handle 3bets well, barrel, hand read, and more to stand a chance. And the higher you move up the stakes, the better and better your opponents will be when it comes to those same elements. At some point, you have to ask yourself the question:

“Where is my edge coming from?”

If you are playing in a game with really tough opponents and very few recreational players, and all of those tough opponents are skilled, what are you doing that’s better than them? They know when and how to 3bet, they know when and how to balance, and they know when and how to apply pressure. If you all are playing a pretty similar ultra-solid strategy, what edge is left?

Simply put, your mental game is that edge. The ability to stay away from tilt. The ability to retain mental fortitude. The ability to stay disciplined. And the ability to keep studying poker away from the table are all huge edges that you have a lot of control over. These things may seem basic, but they are often times very overlooked.

If you take two players of equal skill and make them play HU, the player with the stronger mental game is going to win in the longrun. Every time.

While there are a number of mental stumbling blocks that keep us from playing optimal-mental poker (not strategic poker, but mental poker), here are some of the big ones:

Tilt

The obvious one is tilt. But tilt isn’t just “I got sucked out on and then spewed away 2 buy-ins right away.” There is slowburn tilt where you stay at your “less than A-game” for a long period of time. There is winner’s tilt when a big win either creates a dynamic where you leave a good game early or it creates fear of giving it back in future sessions. And there is totally irrational tilt like getting upset that a weak player is up 5 buy-ins due to a huge luckbox.

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The issue with tilt, is that regardless of its origin, it creates a decrease in your winrate. Even if it only decreases your edge for a couple hands, in a tough game that can be all the difference. If tilt decreases your edge at a larger magnitude (say, you decide to spew your stack the next hand), it can be almost impossible to have a winning session. If you are playing $2/$5 and normally win at $30/hr and decide to spew off $500 while on tilt, it’s going to take you almost 17 hours to recoup that loss at an average winrate. That’s brutal!

Discipline

This takes many forms in poker. It could be the discipline to study away from the table. The discipline to make that +EV bluff even though it’s a little scary. Or the discipline to walk away from a session when it’s the right time. Discipline is something that can learned and grown, but it takes a tremendous amount of work. If you constantly set goals for yourself and don’t hit them…chances are you need to improve this skill immediately.

Introspection

Poker is a game of you vs them, which means the most important person you need to understand is yourself. Being an introspective person means you know what makes you tick, what makes you tilt, and what you can do to correct the ship when it goes off-course. While playing you should constantly be having an internal conversation to gauge your tilt levels, honestly reflect on your edges in the game, etc. If you don’t do this already, it’s time to start.


At the end of the day, there are a bunch of mental facets that can create losses of various magnitudes. But it’s on you to become the strongest player, both strategically AND mentally, that you can become. If your strategic game is strong, but you still aren’t having the success you want…consider tuning up your mental game.

This is why Dr. Tricia Cardner and I decided to create “The Mental Advantage” series. There is already a ton of strategic information on the market (from books, to a la carte videos, to our own poker video membership), but not enough material dedicated to the mental game. And as players get stronger and stronger strategically and games get tougher and tougher; the mental game becomes that much more important for winning consistently.

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“The Mental Advantage” is a 6 video series (with ~5 hours of content) focused on fixing the most important mental elements of your game. Dr. Cardner shares her insights in psychology and I share my insights as a player and coach. Together we discuss how common pitfalls hurt poker players, but more importantly, we give advice and tips that you can implement today.

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Whether you get this series or not, do your game a favor and spend some time fine-tuning your mental game. Really understand your strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to fix your weaknesses while optimizing your strengths. This may seem very simple, but it takes time and effort to really see the effects. Trust me, being strong strategically is only a part of the battle. To truly win the war, you need both strategy and mental edges. So get to work and tune-up your poker brain to maximize your edge!

James "SplitSuit" Sweeney
James is one of the busiest poker coaches around. He wrote DFRP, c0-founded Red Chip Poker, has made 300+ videos and coached 500+ students. Learn more about James
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  • Simon
    Reply

    I have to disagree with you on this. Mental game cannot make a difference between winning and losing.

    If you go on tilt after losing a buyin due to a suckout it is not because you have a mental game problem. It is because of one of two reasons: 1) You do not understand the game enough to grasp how ordinary such an even is – this is a strategy problem; 2) You are under bankrolled to the point where losing 1 buyin in your game upsets you greatly – that is a not enough money problem.

    I’m not saying mental game is not important, but to claim that it will make a difference between winning and losing is a bit much. It can certainly add some fraction to your win rate if you are already a winning player. It will not turn a lower into a winner, ever.

    • James "SplitSuit" Sweeney
      Reply

      I never meant to insinuate that the mental game ALONE would take someone from a losing to winning player. But improvements in the mental game can greatly reduce loss in a losing player, and can make all the difference for a breakeven player.

      That being said, I disagree with the 2 points presented, but the second (bankroll management) point more heavily. A lack of BRM is usually indicative of a lack of discipline at its core.

    • mcgavel1
      Reply

      Decision-making lives in the mind. Strategy is a combination of decisions made after analyzing a situation. Your mind can be at many different levels of functioning power and objectivity based on how well you understand it and prepare it. Thus, the 2 points you made against the importance of knowing one’s own mind enough to improve it and prepare it correctly for long periods of concentrated activity are actually examples of the significance of this topic.

      When do you play your best poker?

      GL – have fun – never give up.

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