Tournament Poker Therapy, Part 3: Creating New Ways to Cope
Thus far in this series of articles, I’ve discussed the concept of psychic pain in tournament poker, and attempted to categorise a few types of them. I’ve mooted a few reasons why they might be stumbling blocks for certain people. “The Myth of Sisyphus”, for example, was the pain deriving from constantly losing a bankroll or a strong tournament position which had taken a great effort to build up. This type of pain might be particularly acute for someone who believes (in life in general) that no matter how hard they try, they fail to get ahead.
In the worst cases, these types of psychic pain can be self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s possible that certain players are actually attracted to poker because it allows them to show that “they never get any justice in this world”, or that “it’s always them who is unlucky”. That’s a cycle that we need to break.
In part 3, we will look at the tools to help understand and develop solutions to psychological problems and weaknesses in poker. If possible, we’ll get you asking questions about how these problems became problems in the first place. This might be less obvious than you think – you might be sitting there thinking “it’s obvious why getting Aces cracked is painful, it’s the same for everyone”, but is it the same for everyone? Does Ivey react the same way as you? Look around and see if you can come up with your own categories of poker pain as I did in part 2. You’ll see that psychic pain in poker is actually a very personal thing. This realisation is the first step on the road to tackling your own psychic pain in poker.
As discussed in part 1, the first stage in the process is to actually record your feelings when you are at the height of psychic pain. This may well be when you’ve busted from a tournament, but it might be after a brutal beat, or an opponent has criticised your play, and so on.
The second stage is to come back to what you’ve written/recorded some days later and to read it out loud/replay it to someone else. In proper therapy, this would be done with a trained therapist. If you don’t wish to go that far (!) you could consider doing the same thing in front of a friend you trust. It’s important either way to be comfortable revealing your feelings to this person. The job of the “therapist” in this scenario is to challenge you to explain how you feel in the cold light of day – that is, revisiting the feelings when the stimulus is not immediately there.
Once again, with a trained therapist, the process would be much more complex. The therapist would, by this stage, already have done a number of sessions probing into your past and generally getting to know what makes you tick. They would be starting to make connections between the psychic pain you were feeling now and certain aspects of your life in the past.
Remember that we’re trying to identify erroneous ways of coping with psychic pain that you may have developed as you were growing up. The theory in Cognitive Analytical Therapy (CAT) is that sometimes when the trauma of psychic pain is so great (for example when parents split up, or a family member dies, or when a child is separated from their family), the child learns to cope with the emotional trauma any way they can. This coping mechanism persists into adulthood because it is a safe bet – something the person knows they can rely on to deal with the pain. The problem is that in adult life the coping mechanism might create more trouble than it solves. Common examples include pushing people away who might be able to help (“I can cope on my own”) or blaming others rather than accepting responsibility (and finally learning to cope with the pain of being wrong, defeated, contrite, etc.)
So stage 3 is about analysing your feelings of psychic pain in poker and trying to identify whether there is any aspect of your development which might have made this type of psychic pain particularly problematic for you. Without a therapist, this is easier said than done. However, it’s definitely possible, and as with most things, the more you put into the exercise, the more you’ll get out of it. Certainly, the first two stages – recording your feelings and revisiting them and analysing them at a later date – are half the battle. I believe that repeating this process a few times will make one wiser and less likely to react so extremely. However, you will benefit most from this poker therapy if you complete the process. The final stage is to learn how to change your behaviour so that you do not instinctively revert to your old coping mechanisms when put in a position of great psychic pain.
Of course, that process of learning will depend on your own upbringing and your own flavour/s of psychic pain. But here are a few pointers as to how to go about the process.
First, start small. Be realistic about what you can change. If you’re a pathological tilt monkey there’s no point in giving yourself the goal of being as ice-cold as Ivey during a 5-bet bluff by the end of the month. The more realistic your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them. In this area, achieving your goals will give you a great sense of wellbeing, and will encourage and reinforce further change.
Second, focus on the learned procedures rather than the problems the procedures create. This old chestnut is actually the nub of most constructive change in therapy. There’s nothing more pitiful in poker than the guy who tells the same old bad beat stories again and again and again. The mantra here is that you need to be focussing on the process which is causing the pain (or which is making the experience as painful as it is) rather than the pain itself. Fix the process and you reduce the pain. Reduce the pain and you won’t need to tell the stories or howl at the moon.
Third, understand the procedure as a way of coping with the core pain. To repeat the earlier point: the thing you find really painful is often not so painful for others; there’s something about your way of coping which is contributing to the pain. Consider, for example, the player who is so scared of losing money that they take losses too seriously. If they push themselves to the limit, their way of coping might be altogether more dangerous than simply taking the small losses less seriously. We’ve all seen the tight guy who goes into spew-tilt mode when his losses drive him to distraction. He’ll often lose more money in that mode than people far less tight than him can ever lose. It’s actually his way of coping with his core pain which is the problem. To solve this you need to delve further into the relationship between your core pain and the coping procedure you use to deal with it.
Fourth, note that most bad coping mechanisms (McCormick categorises them as either Traps, Snags or Dilemmas in Change For The Better) tend to lead you right back to where you started – the state where you experienced the core pain. Many people’s reaction to this is simply to give up poker. Although this will remove the stimulus of this pain, it won’t solve the problem. Sticking to the task in hand, and learning to unravel and change these mechanisms will help – hopefully not just in poker, but in life in general. I would warn, however, that if you are losing money, you should invoke some kind of stop loss to make sure that you don’t tilt away too much of your bankroll! In my experience, much of poker’s pain is just as painful at low stakes as it is at high, so there’s no need to stick with losing unprecedented amounts just for the sake of the therapy.
Finally, I’d like to list a few of the techniques McCormick suggests for making the change. Some of these would have been alluded to in stage 1 – where the intention is to express your feelings as an attempt to get a handle on your core pain. As an ongoing process of understanding your behaviour and keeping tabs on your thinking and development, I think these methods can be very useful:
- Self-monitoring. Usually in the form of note-taking, this is an attempt to develop awareness of patterns you might be exhibiting. If you’re an online tournament player, it might be worth keeping a record of just how many times you bang the table, throw the mouse at the wall, or whatever it is you do when you are furious about busting out. Maybe it’s more or less of a problem than you thought. Obviously, the process can be much more complex, but the key here is to keep explicit records of your behaviour so you can form a less emotional view of it and come up with some ideas on how to change.
- Journal-keeping. One step further is to express feelings and diarise events in prose, or maybe the spoken word. I believe that simply allowing one’s feelings to be expressed in this way can be therapeutic. However, as time goes on, the journal may actually become a tool for understanding your coping mechanisms and how thus to change them.
- Imaging and visualisation. Possibly so “touchy-feely West Coast therapy” that the average uptight British person might run screaming for the hills. However, if you can bear the embarrassment, recreating moments of core pain – for example by acting them out, or visualising them in your head – can be an excellent way of changing behaviour. Imagine your problem was being overly critical of opponents as you bust from a tournament. You may benefit from recreating the situation in order specifically to practice being genial and letting go of the pain. Personally, I’m not a great believer in saying “nice hand” through gritted teeth – that seems to me just as hate-filled as calling the guy the biggest donk since Shrek 3D. Eventually, you’d want to be so Zen that even consoling yourself by pointing an ironic “nice hand” to the enemy would not be necessary. Perhaps some practice in the privacy of your own home, or therapy session, will help.
- Using problems and aims. You might benefit from simplifying the issue to a problem and an aim. You can then diarise your progress on a daily basis by using a chart. On the left of the chart put both your problem and your aim in a box. Immediately to the right of this box, record your progress on an arbitrary scale. Each day, you rate yourself on how well you’ve done to reach your aim for this problem. Your rating is just an arbitrary one, but it should look something like a graph, with ups and downs, depending on how you’ve rated your progress.
I’m positive that working on my psychological weaknesses in the game helps me in life in general. Poker is a fascinating microcosm of life at large. It caricatures the games we play in life – games of power, bullying, emotional discipline, criticism, observation, politics – and distils them. As a result, our reactions in the game can be quite extreme. As a tool for self-observation, therapy and change, this is invaluable.
This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.