Before heading to the card room, you might want to make some preparations. That doesn’t mean making sure you have some cash or an ATM card if you are going to a casino to play. Many poker players have little rituals they perform before heading into battle. You probably do, too. It’s a good idea to do anything that you think will help you mentally, even if that involves superstition (such as wearing a lucky piece of clothing, or carrying a special coin or card protector).
One ritual I used to perform involved listening to inspiring music in the parking lot at Foxwoods, where I first learned to play poker. I would sit in the car and sing along with it at the top of my lungs, often while looking at myself in the rear view mirror. My favorite song for this purpose was Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” because it sounded like my (probably stereotypical) idea of Native-American music. It got me revved up and focused on the game. While I don’t do that any more, I still have other rituals. I often eat an ice cream cone before sitting down. When I’m in Vegas, I usually do a whole hair and makeup routine because I like to try to live up to the fanciness of some of the casinos on the Strip - it just seems appropriate to look my best when going out to play poker in Vegas. Sometimes, I think about a specific hand that has caused me trouble in the past. I have even resorted to writing over and over, “I will not play K-Q off suit in early position,” and studying the page, to avoid this trouble during an upcoming session.
I always try to do two specific things before I go to play: (1) get some exercise. I try to do at least a walk or a jog, something to loosen me up before I spend a long time sitting and thinking. I believe it is crucial to get the blood circulating, to get more oxygen to the brain, before playing. If your circumstances don’t allow for a walk, you can do jumping jacks in the parking lot (I’ve done that, too). At the Rio hotel in Vegas, there is actually an oxygen bar right next to the poker room, though I’ve never tried it. (2) Read a few pages of a poker book or article. I often see people doing this at the poker table. I don’t recommend that, but I do find that reading something before I go to the game gives me something to think about that helps focus my mind. I find Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells particularly helpful for this purpose. More than once during a game, I have picked up on one of the tells I’ve just read about in the book. Many poker books bear rereading, not once but several times.
Often, the times when you feel confident going in are the times you win. The reverse is true also: the times when I’ve felt doubt or insecurity before playing, I’ve booked a loss for the session. In his book, Poker Wisdom of a Champion, a collection of stories and advice, Doyle Brunson recommends that players observe themselves carefully before playing, to determine if they are in a winning state of mind. He recommends not playing if you are tired, if there’s something else you’d rather be doing, or if you don’t feel physically well. He also recommends against playing when you are angry at someone, if that anger interferes with your concentration, or if you’ve taken drugs, alcohol or medication that prevents you from doing your best thinking. The most important question on Doyle’s “checklist for deciding whether or not to play” is: “Do you feel you’re going to win? If NO,” he writes, “don’t play. Give credibility to your hidden feelings. Your subconscious mind might be analyzing things you’re not aware of.”
In a chapter entitled “Winning: It’s a State of Mind” in the same volume, Doyle writes of a young player on a winning streak who was at great pains to prepare mentally before sitting down at the table. Doyle secretly observed this player in the bathroom, talking himself into a state of complete confidence and determination to win. The player finally went too far, however. Convinced that he played better when he was stuck, the young man began pretending he was losing a few thousand before he went in to play. Then one day he convinced himself he was down $100,000. He believed it so much that he ended up losing his whole bankroll in an effort to get “unstuck.” Doyle dryly sums up the moral of the story: “The proper mental exercises can be great for your bankroll. Just be sure you’re lifting your spirits and not playing tricks on your mind.”
I had a strange feeling recently, on my way to play at the casino. Something was just not right. I wasn’t tired or upset, but as I counted my money in the car, I dropped a ten-dollar bill between the seat and the armrest. No matter what I did, I could not get that ten-dollar bill out. I scrabbled around for a bit, trying a pen, a key, moving the seat back and forth, all to no avail. For some reason this incident rattled me. I started to worry that it was a bad sign. I wish I’d heeded Doyle’s advice. Instead, I left the car, went in to the poker room, and proceeded to lose. The next day I used a pair of tweezers to retrieve the ten-dollar bill from the car, but it was not enough to make up for that loss. I’ve kept the ten since then, as a reminder to myself to play in a winning state of mind