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The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
About Ian Taylor
Matthew currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Diana, and two
sons, Joshua and Zachary. Matthew's other interests outside of poker include
composing on the piano and traveling.
Ian Taylor is a professional poker player and writer. His articles have
appeared in a number of websites and publications, mainly focusing on
poker psychology, variance, and emotional control. You can find Ian posting

on a regular basis in the Forum discussion group at Internet Texas Holdem.
Matthew and Ian would like to thank the following people:

First and foremost, Rebecca Churcher for continual support throughout the
Ian received a degree in economics from the University of Warwick in 1999,
time we have been writing the book and also for some valuable initial
completing a thesis on risk tolerance and gambling. He worked in the IT
sector for a number of years before embarking on a professional poker

John Baxter, Ammon Brown, Neil Dewhurst, Peter Field, Jane Griscti, Tony

Pillinger, Erik Rand, and Tyler Zutz for proofreading, editing, and providing
Ian lives in Essex, England, with his long-term girlfriend, Rebecca, and their
some valuable poker insights.
pet cat. When not playing poker or writing, Ian enjoys football, soccer, and

Rob Keller and Lisa Keller for checking the math and statistics.
About Matthew Hilger

Ed "Fasteddy" Nordling for conceptualizing the front cover, and Per Arne
Matthew Hilger's interest in professional poker is three-fold: playing,
Dahl for the cover design and artwork.

writing, and managing poker content websites. His first two books, Internet
Texas Hold'em
and Texas Hold'em Odds and Probabilities, became best-
Neil Myers and Julie Risinit for style and copy editing. Susan Myers for the
selling poker books around the world.
cover copy.

Matthew received his bachelor's degree in Finance from the University of
All the members of the Forum at, who contribute
Georgia in 1989. He completed a master's degree in Finance at Georgia
to making it the best poker community on the web.
State University in 1991 as well as a master's degree in International

Business from Thunderbird in 1996. Prior to embarking on a poker career,

Matthew worked in various accounting, finance, and consulting positions.

Matthew cashed eight times at the World Series of Poker between 2004 and

2006, including one final table and a 33rd place finish in the main event. He

also won the 2002 New Zealand Poker Championship.

The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success

Table of Contents
Chapter 4 - Bad Beats and Losing Big Pots
How to cope with losing a big pot or suffering a bad beat. 80

4.1. What Happens When You Lose a Big Pot?
Chapter 1 - Introduction
4.2. Reaction to Losing a Big Pot

4.3. Applying the Poker Mindset
Chapter 2 - The Poker Mindset
4.4. Bad Beats
Identifying the core mental attitudes a poker player
4.5. Chapter Review
needs to succeed.
2.1. Understand and Accept the Realities of Poker
2.2. Play for the Long Term
2.3. Emphasize Correct Decisions over Making Money
2.4. Desensitize Yourself to Money
2.5. Leave Your Ego at the Door
2.6. Remove All Emotion from Decisions
2.7. Dedicate Yourself to a Continuous Cycle of Analysis
and Improvement
2.8. Chapter Review

Chapter 3 - Overcoming Your Instincts
A discussion in how your instincts and life experience
may lead you astray in poker.
3.1. Actions and Reactions
3.2. Setting Goals
3.3. Is "Average" Acceptable?
3.4. Risk Aversion
3.5. Greed
3.6. Woolly Thinking
3.7. Chapter Review

10 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 1 – Introduction

Chapter 5 - Downswings

Chapter 8 - Into the Minds of Your Opponents

What downswings are, how to handle them, and what

Evaluating your opponents' tendencies, motives,

pitfalls to avoid.
and levels of thinking.
5.1. Running Badly
8.1. The Importance of Observation
5.2. The Reality of Downswings
8.2. Categorizing Your Opponents
5.3. Common Bad Responses to Downswings
8.3. Different Types of Players
5.4. Dealing with a Downswing
8.4. Getting into Your Opponents' Heads
5.5. Staying in Control
8.5. Levels of Thinking
5.6. Downswings and the Poker Mindset
8.6. Chapter Review
5.7. Improving Your Game

5.8. Downswings and Your Bankroll
Chapter 9 - Advanced Topics

5.9. Chapter Review
Miscellaneous topics concerning poker psychology.
Chapter 6 - Tilt

9.1. When to Quit
Identifying, managing, and avoiding different

9.2. What about Upswings?
types of tilt.
9.3. Tilt and Your Opponents' Mindset

9.4. When Sub-optimal Is Optimal
6.1. What Is Tilt?
9.5. Probability in Action
6.2. Why Do Players Go on Tilt?
9.6. Internet and Live Play
6.3. Different Types of Tilt
9.7. Professional Poker
6.4. Preparing for and Avoiding Tilt
9.8. Non-Profit Motives
6.5. Detecting Tilt
9.9. Chapter Review
6.6. Combating Tilt

6.7. Tilt in Tournaments
Chapter 10 - Poker and Life

6.8. Chapter Review
Integrating poker with the rest of your life.
Chapter 7 - Looking after Your Bankroll

10.1. The Missing Component of the Poker Mindset
Bankroll considerations with a psychological slant.
10.2. Life Beyond the Poker Table

10.3. Bankroll Separation
7.1. The Biggest Mistake in Poker
10.4. Emotional Separation
7.2. Determining Your Bankroll Requirements
10.5. What Can You Learn from Poker?
7.3. Why Do Players Go Wrong?
10.6. Chapter Review
7.4. Moving Up Limits

7.5. Moving Down Limits

7.6. Cashing-out Strategies

7.7. Chapter Review

12 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 1 - Introduction 13

Chapter 1
that. This book picks up from there and shows you how to maximize your
edge and prevent the self-destructive tendencies that many players have.

The mental, emotional, and psychological aspects of poker are under-

represented in poker literature but are extremely important. Every poker
player loses money they shouldn't, not through lack of knowledge or

understanding of the game but through poor attitude, weak mindsets, bad

reactions, and woolly thinking. Even people who are very calm and
controlled in their ordinary life can become emotional, illogical, or deluded
There are dozens of poker books on the market that are designed to teach the
at the poker table. Poker is a game in which you will face situations and be
technical aspects of the game. They discuss which hands to play, how to
driven down thought paths different from those you experience in everyday
play them, and when to fold them. These books explain pot odds, deception,
life. In fact, playing poker optimally may require you to make plays that go
value betting, semi-bluffing, and a million other things. Many do a very
completely against your instincts.
good job.

In this book we take a detailed look at the psychological side of poker. First,
However, most poker books pay only lip service to the more human
we outline the correct Poker Mindset with which to approach the game. The
elements of the game. Poker is a game played by people, not robots. People
Poker Mindset sets the foundation and is a recurring theme throughout this
have feelings, drives, and emotions that may cause them to act in
book. Then we deal with the specific issues of losing big pots, handling
unpredictable and illogical ways.
downswings, and going on tilt. Once these foundations have been laid, we

look at the importance of proper bankroll management, studying your
This book picks up where the others leave off. We will not be discussing
opponents, and some additional, advanced topics. In the final chapter, we
when to bet, raise, call, check, or fold, as important as these things are.
look at how poker affects the rest of your life and vice versa.
Instead, we will focus on other important questions such as:

What is the correct mental attitude for poker?
Who is this for?

How do you cope when you lose big pots or have a bad run? What is tilt
Players of all abilities should benefit from this book, whether you are a
and how can you avoid it?
complete beginner desperate to lose less money or a professional earning six
What other psychological factors might increase or decrease your
figures per year through poker.
chances of winning?

New players will gain knowledge and skills that most players have to learn
Poker authors like to market their book as the most important one you will
the hard way. We outline some of the harsh realities of poker and give
ever read. We are more modest. We suggest that this is the second most
advice on how to deal with them.
important poker book you will ever read. The most important will be the one

that teaches you correct technical play, because nothing can compensate for

12 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 1 - Introduction 13
Intermediate players will discover what may have been holding them back at
the poker table, maybe allowing them to progress from a losing or break-
even player into a winning one.

Advanced players will learn how to overcome some of the boundaries that
Poker Mindset
have been limiting their earn rate. At the top levels of poker, most players
have a solid grasp of the technical aspects of play. It is the players who are
best able to master the human element of the game that will prosper.

Chapter 2
You may notice a bias toward Hold'em over other forms of poker in the

examples in this book. The reason for this is that Hold'em is currently the

most popular form of poker and the game that most readers will readily
"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go
understand. However, the concepts in this book apply equally to Stud,
to war first and then seek to win."- Sun Tzu (from The Art of War)
Omaha, or any other variant of poker. We simply use Hold'em hand

examples to ensure that as many people as possible will understand the
Over time, successful poker players develop a repertoire of technical skills
points being made.
that they bring to the table. Such skills include reading hands, correct pre-

flop play, bluffing/semi-bluffing and value betting. These skills maximize
One last note: We may at times use masculine pronouns (such as he, him,
their chances of making the best decisions at the table. Similarly, successful
and his) when referring to players. This is purely for ease of reading and is
players also benefit from developing the correct mindset — a psychological
not intended to indicate any bias against female poker players. In fact, one
toolbox to complement their technical one.
of the great things about poker is that it is a sport in which men and women

can compete on equal terms, and in which both have the same potential to
This chapter will help you to achieve just that by describing such a toolbox.
It will outline the Poker Mindset: seven attitudes that every poker player

should try to master, regardless of their game, limits, or technical skill. They
Whether you are male or female, a beginner or an advanced player, young or
are realities you need to be aware of and attitudes you need to adopt in order
old, we hope that The Poker Mindset will help you to improve your play.
to succeed at poker over the long term.
Read on to discover a whole new way of looking at the game.

Just like technical skills, the Poker Mindset will help you make better
decisions at the table. This won't always be as obvious as, for example,

knowing when to fold to a raise on the turn, but it is designed to increase the
money you make in the long run. In fact, in some situations it could be
argued that defects in your Poker Mindset could lose you more money than

defects in your technical game. It is a foolish player indeed who considers
the psychology of the game unimportant.

12 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 1 - Introduction 13
In this chapter we examine the Poker Mindset in detail. The following

sections will introduce each aspect of the Poker Mindset one by one,
The key to understanding poker is to recognize the ways that it is like chess,
explaining why it is important and the pitfalls should you ignore it. They are
the ways that it is like blackjack, and the ways it is really like neither. Many
arranged in a logical order, starting with the most fundamental.
players fail to achieve success in poker because they fundamentally

misunderstand the game. What follows is what every aspiring poker player
2.1. Understand and Accept the
needs to know. We call them the Five Realities of Poker. Everything else
discussed in this book flows from these.
Realities of Poker

1. Poker is a game of both skill and luck.
What kind of game is poker exactly?

A popular debate among the poker community is whether poker is a game of
Some people compare poker to blackjack. Both are played in casinos for
skill or luck. Each hand dealt is effectively a new start, so logically it would
money and involve a mixture of luck and skill. Both benefit from a sound
seem that the way to win would be to try to win each hand. But the winner
theoretical knowledge of the game, and successful play involves making the
of the hand is effectively determined at random. In any given hand, the
optimal play as often as possible.
cards you receive are random, the cards your opponent receives are random,

and any community cards are also random. A skilled player cannot do
Yet poker is nothing like blackjack. To start with, in poker you play against
anything to increase his chance of winning the hand other than getting his
other players rather than the house, and your opponent plays by the same
opponents to fold.1

rules as you. Second, the strategic scope of poker is far larger. A person with
However, look deeper and you reveal the hidden skill element. Poker is not
a good memory could effectively become a perfect blackjack player with
about winning the most hands; it is about winning the most money. In fact,
comparatively little study, whereas there is no such thing as a perfect poker
the way the game is structured makes it a bad idea to try to win every hand.

Each hand has only one winner, so you are better off picking your spots and
playing only the hands where you think you have an edge. A player who
Some people compare poker to chess. Both involve deep strategy and
tries to win every hand will end up losing a lot of money in the process.
require careful analysis for success. Both require you to outwit your

opponent, taking both technical and human elements into account.
The net result of this is that the stronger players tend to win fewer hands but

more money.2 It is difficult to think of any other game in which the best
Yet poker is nothing like chess either. Chess is a game of perfect
players win the fewest games; this unique facet of poker often makes it look
information. Both players know the exact state of play at all times, and there
like a game of luck.
is little scope for deception or misrepresentation. Poker, on the other hand, is

a game of partial information, with each player trying to discern what his or

her opponents are holding. Chess also involves no luck, even in the short
But there is also a considerable element of skill. At various points in a hand,
term. The outcome is entirely dependent on which player makes the best
players are asked to make betting decisions. They must analyze the clues
moves. In poker nothing is guaranteed in the short term. The luck element
available to them (such as their own hands, the community cards, and their
dictates that even over a reasonable number of hands, you can play well and
lose, or indeed play badly and win.
Incidentally, this is the reason why bluffing is often over-rated by beginners.
2 In general this is true, but sometimes (usually in no-limit Hold'em) you will find successful
players who play quite loose.

12 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 1 - Introduction 13
opponents' betting), and then use their judgment to make the best betting

decision. Where there is judgment, there is room for error, and where there
To illustrate this, suppose you play for a week and have 100 flush draws. In
is room for error, there is naturally a skill element.
Hold'em, a flush draw on the flop is approximately 2 to 1 to get there by the

river, so you ought to hit about 33 flushes in those 100 hands. Suppose if
2. In the short term, luck is king.
you're running well that you'll hit 40, and if you're running badly, you'll only
hit 25. Now also consider that the same applies to your opponents' flush
Although poker is a game of both skill and luck, in the short term it can be
draws. The short-term luck of you and your opponents combined can make
very difficult to spot the skill element at all. To win a pot in poker you must
a huge difference to your week. If you run badly, you'll win 33-25=8 fewer
either have the best hand at showdown or force all your opponents to fold.
pots than you'd expect on average. If your opponents run well, they'll win
You can increase your chance of winning by forcing as many opponents to
40-33=7 more pots than you'd expect on average. All that adds up to a total
fold as possible before showdown, but once you get to the showdown, it is
of 15 pots less than you ought to win on average. Fifteen pots add up to a lot
purely about who has the cards, not who has the most skill. There will be
of money.
occasions when you can win pots by forcing all of your opponents to fold,

but obviously this is only possible when none of your opponents have a
And that's just talking about flush draws — simply one of the hundreds of
good hand. In short, the outcome of an individual hand in poker is largely
random variables you deal with at the table. How many of your pocket pairs
based on luck.
make sets? How many times does a hand like A-Q run into A-K? How often

do you flop two pair only to have your opponent flop a better hand? It does
As discussed in the previous section, the skill in poker is to lose less with
not matter how well you play; these types of statistics will affect every
your losing hands and to win more with your winning hands, but even this is
poker player in the short run, clouding the underlying skill element.
an imprecise science over the period of one hand. For example, let's say you

are playing no-limit Hold'em and go all in with a strong hand like A-K
3. In the long term, skill is king.
against a weak hand like 7-2. The odds of the A-K being the best hand on
the river are only about 2 to 1. While this is a sizable advantage, it by no
The good news for the winning player is that if you play long enough, luck
means guarantees winning. It is quite possible to make good decisions in a
will cease to be a factor. Mathematicians know this intuitively, but for those
hand and be punished for it, or, from another point of view, make bad
of us less mathematically inclined, imagine a coin being tossed. On any
decisions and be rewarded.
given coin toss, there is a 50% chance of heads and a 50% chance of tails. If

you toss a coin ten times, you would expect there to be about five tails and
Even over the slightly longer term, things don't always run smoothly for the
five heads. The probabilities for any given number of heads are as follows
skilled player. A good player can run badly for quite some time through a
(figures are approximate due to rounding).
combination of being dealt a run of poor cards, taking bad beats, or simply

being outdrawn at a higher-than-average frequency. Each individual hand
contains a large luck element. It is easy for these individual slices of luck to

aggregate into either a very good or a very bad run for a player, even over a

seemingly large number of hands.

12 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success

Chapter 1 - Introduction 13
Number of heads

4. Poker is a game of small edges.
A lot of money flows back and forth across a poker table. For example, a
$20-$40 limit Hold'em game might have an average pot of around $250.
With pots this size, you would expect the players who were winning to be
making a lot of money. After all, every pot they win will net them more than
most people make in a day!

However, poker does not quite work like that. While you may be winning
$250 at a time, the short-term luck in poker means that the money will be
0.1% l
going back and forth across the table, so even a good player will not win too
much more than his fair share. Once you take into account the rake, even the
As we would expect, five is the most likely number, and four and six are
best players are barely turning a profit when compared to the size of the
also quite likely, but the chance of a more extreme result is still significant.
average pot. For example, in limit Hold'em, a good player might make only
There is approximately a 17% chance of tossing seven or more heads.
one big bet per hour.4 It might appear that a winning $20-$40 player is

winning hundreds of dollars at a time, when in reality he is probably making
But what if we toss the coin 100 times? If we now calculate the chance of
only about $40 per hour. Put another way, a good limit player will take
getting 70 or more heads (the same proportion as before), we find it is now
several hours on average to eke out a net profit equal to the size of an
only 0.004% (or one 250th of one percent). The more times you repeat a
average pot.
random event, the less likely it is that you will get an extreme result.

All of this stems from the fact that winning poker players make money from
This mathematical theory, often called "the law of large numbers," has
their opponents' mistakes, which are generally small in nature. In poker, any
important consequences in poker. As you play more and more hands of
hand can win, and it is rare to be betting when you have the absolute nuts.
poker, the chances of you being extremely lucky or extremely unlucky
So even when opponents call bets that they
decrease. Play enough hands, and the luck factor is virtually eliminated,
leaving skill alone to determine results.

Unfortunately, it can take a very long time for the effects of luck to be
negated. We can say that after 100,000 hands a winning player will almost
certainly turn a profit, but even this isn't certain, especially if he is only a
very marginal winner. Almost certainly in these 100,000 hands, there will be
periods of a 100, 1,000, or maybe even 10,000 hands when the player loses
money, but these should be negated by similar periods when the player wins
3 Consequently, this is why top players prefer slower blind structures in tournaments. More luck
more than he would expect. The more hands you play, the less important
is involved in tournaments when the blinds increase quickly, because fewer hands will be
played before the blinds reach a critical level.
luck is as a factor.3
4 Online players tend to measure win rate as big bets per 100 hands. Many online players
consider a good win rate in limit cash games to be about two big bets per 100 hands (of course,
"good" is a relative term).

22 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 2 - The Poker Mindset 23
shouldn't, they still have a chance to win, especially if they know a little
A good player understands the Realities of Poker and accepts them, with the
about poker and are not likely to put money into the pot with horrendous
knowledge that it is the very nature of the game that helps him to be
odds. These little mistakes add up over time, allowing the better players to
win, but they will never win as much as it might seem they should given the

average size of the pot.
Or to put it another way, if you don't like the rules, don't play the game.

5. Poker is a game of high variance
2.2. Play for the Long Term
This is the effective conclusion of all the Realities of Poker outlined

previously. Poker is a game of luck and skill, but in the short term, luck is
king, so short-term results will be extremely erratic. Combine this with the
From the previous discussion, it should be easy to see that there is little point
fact that the good player's edge is very small, and the result is that winning
in playing poker with the expectation of making money in the short term. In
players will have almost as many losing sessions as winning ones! In fact, a
the short term, pretty much anything can happen; bad players can win and
winning player may have even more losing sessions than winning ones, if
good players can lose.
the player is prone to ending his session once he loses a certain amount.5

If you are looking to make money from poker, you need to play for the long
term and accept the short-term risks.1
Think about the $20-$40 limit player described earlier who makes an

average of $40 per hour. In a six-hour session, he could expect to make
The second attitude of the Poker Mindset is to play for the long term. But
around $240, which is about the same size as an average pot! It is not hard to
what exactly do we mean by "playing for the long term"? First of all, it is
see how the result of one or two pots can turn a winning session into a losing
important to note that we are not talking about playing differently. There is a
session or vice versa. A few consecutive losing sessions, and suddenly you
"correct" way to play every hand; the way that, on average, will win you the
are on a downswing6 while a string of winning sessions signals an upswing.
most money.8 Your aim should be to play every hand that way. In fact, you
It is only after you have played thousands and thousands of hands that you
need to be mentally playing for the long term because concentrating on
can look at the aggregate results from all these upswings and downswings
short-term results can leave you vulnerable to making plays that have a
and see the long-term trend.
lower expected value. If you are playing for the long term, you will not

really care about the results of one session, and especially not one hand.
One final note — look back to the title of this section: "Understand and
When you are playing for the long term, you are satisfied with making the
Accept the Realities of Poker."
plays that will make you a long-term winner regardless of your short-term

You need to understand the Five Realities of Poker, but more important you

need to accept them. For example, there is no point in understanding the
A player who puts too much emphasis on his short-term results will feel
huge short-term luck element in poker but then complaining that you just
ecstatic after a good winning session and depressed after a losing one. He
dropped 40 big bets in a session.
will also be prone to the following errors.
5 Setting "stop loss" limits for yourself is covered in chapter 9.
' Downswings are a key topic in this book. See chapter 5 for a complete discussion.
7 The long term is not a defined period of time in poker, and is defined broadly as "the time it
takes for luck to mostly even itself out." This can vary from game to game.
8 This is also known as the play with the highest expected value.

24 The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success
Chapter 2 - The Poker Mindset 25
Playing to get even
Players who focus on the short term will do anything possible to avoid a
A player more concerned with results than with playing well is far more
losing session. If they are stuck, they will be inclined to keep playing until
likely to go on tilt because he will be affected more when things go badly.
they are at least even. This attitude can have catastrophic results.
See chapter 6 for a more in-depth discussion on the types and triggers of tilt.

First, they may continue to play when tired or bored, resulting in them not
Getting mad at bad players
playing their best. Second, this attitude may cause them to go on tilt,9
especially if they slip even further into the red, making them doubly
A player concerned with short-term results will be very annoyed when he is
depressed. Of course, once they are on tilt, this is likely to cause them to
beaten by a bad play made by one of his opponents. He considers the results
lose even more, and they become more determined to get at least some of it
of his individual sessions important, and so any time he loses a pot he thinks
back. As you can see, the result is a rather dangerous and vicious circle.
he should have won, especially a large one, it hurts. This may cause him to

hold a grudge against the player who made the bad play and he might even
Protecting a win
begin to play hands he shouldn't when his nemesis is in the pot.
Alternatively, he may berate the weak player, which is always a bad idea, as
The reverse is also true. Short-term players love to record a winning session
the bad player may leave the table or at least start playing better. A player
and will tend to over-value them. A popular saying among casual gamblers
mad at losing a pot from an opponent's bad play is at risk of playing badly
is "Quit while you're ahead," which comes in part from the depressing
himself trying to recuperate the money he lost on the pot.
feeling of being ahead and then losing all your winnings again.

Making rash changes to his game
One of the worst possible scenarios for a short-term player is losing his
winnings, even if he loses it playing good poker. He will tend to quit while
By playing for the long term, you are acknowledging that you can lose
he is ahead, even if he is in a very good game and is playing well.
money in the short term through no fault of your own. On the other hand, a

player concerned with the short term will instinctively try to change things if
Alternatively, a short-term player might do something that could be even
results are not going his way While it is a good idea to continually review
worse. He might stay in the game but start to play very conservatively,
your play and make changes accordingly, it is a bad idea to make changes
turning down plays with positive expected value in order to make plays that
on the basis of short-term results. Note that this is a common error among
give him the lowest chance of losing a large amount of money.
intermediate players. When they are experiencing a run of poor results, they

will constantly tinker with their game in an attempt to improve their results,

not understanding (or not accepting) that their losses are mainly due to
short-term luck.

9 See chapters 6.